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Beginner’s Innocence

A while ago, I heard some photographer complain along the lines that young/new photographers are ignorant and care so little about the art and history of photography. Perhaps it was just a “get off my lawn” statement, but I thought: that could apply to me*. When I first got into photography, I had no knowledge of either the technical aspects of photography or its history; the trailblazing giants of photography whose shoulders I supposedly stood on where unknown to me.

It’s not needed when “all you do is press a button”, right? ;) The camera works just fine without knowing even one thing about the history of photography. I simply wanted to have better documents and memories of the beautiful scenery in the mountains that I hiked. And I didn’t know that this was the beginning of a long journey.

I’m not certain whether the photos I make qualify as “art”, and while that is the matter for another article, a lot of the attempts to establish landscape & nature photography in particular as such do sound like “virtue signalling” (sometimes, justification) to me. I remain skeptical when photographers, in particular those whose subjects are similar to mine (“another rock, another tree“), discuss photography at length as an art form. Not because I wouldn’t respect their work and see the sheer beauty in it, or because I reject photography as an art form. But because I think that this sends the wrong message, in particular to beginners.

“We should practice with a real beginner’s innocence, devoid of ideas of good or bad, gain or loss.” (Shunryu Suzuki)**

In the past, I often felt intimidated and insecure when I read articles or listened to podcasts that discussed the art and history of photography, photography as an art form, and in which all those photographers one’s supposed to know are mentioned, all the coffee table photo books one is supposed to have, and whatnot. Am I supposed to know that? And am I incomplete if I don’t? What am I missing?

But I know today that, even in the absence of all knowledge of the art and history of photography, there were, and are, no parts missing from getting joy and fulfillment out of the practice of photography. That’s what I chose, and it should not be mistaken for ignorance. And don’t get me wrong: if other photographers feel like they benefit from studying the work of others, that’s wonderful.

“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road, doesn’t mean they’re lost.” (Dalai Lama XIV.)

I have another thought on this, though. In my beginnings, when I didn’t even think of myself as “a photographer”, I also had never heard of Eliot Porter‘s “Intimate Landscapes” — and yet, I somehow found myself drawn to what I used to call “small scenes” and “details” or “close-ups”, early on (portfolio: Intimate Landscapes 2007-2010). Had I known about Porter, would I have pursued my “small scenes” with the same joy and excitement, felt like I was discovering something original, by and for myself?

Instead, having never seen Porter’s work, it was something that simply came from within, from that beginner’s innocence. And I’m always hoping that I can hold on to it, even as I mature as a photographer.

*) I’m not deliberately ignorant, of course: when there’s a compelling story to read, about photography and photographers, like most recently, Paolo Pellegrin’s Photographic Quest for the Sublime, I enjoy the enriching glimpses of wisdom that shine through a master photographer’s experience. But the way I see it is that, to transcend photography and understand it like Pellegrin does, requires to practice it, more than anything else.

**) within this quote’s context, “practice” means meditation, but considering the quality of the experience of photography that I and many other photographers seek, like being in the moment and connecting with something, practicing photography can be a little bit like meditation — just in many shorter moments.

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15 thoughts on “Beginner’s Innocence”

  1. Cameras are becoming better and more forgiving, and post processing programs are also. Iphones have completely changed the game for amateur photographers, who now can take their own pictures and have them beautifully printed with a few clicks. It’s now possible to create beautiful, realistic landscapes and other types of images without even having to take a photograph. No one is getting off the lawn, photographers need to learn to share the lawn without so much judging and adapt, if they want to stay in business. No time to moan about what others know, or don’t know, just running faster and faster on that treadmill and still lagging behind.

  2. WRT Eliot Porter’s “Intimate Landscapes” and whether you’d follow that path had you known of him, I’m sure you would have as it’s in your ‘being.’ Eliot is just another traveler you met on your path.

    • We will never know! :) What I meant was more the feeling, though, and how happy it made me that I had found something that seemed to be “truly mine” — which is surely not just beginner’s innocence, but also beginner’s naivety… but it brought true joy and excitement about these subjects to me, early on.

  3. Great topic and always appreciate the approach with humility. I learned of Elliot Porter kinda late in the game, but somewhere along the line I began to suspect I should know of him. But then when I did get to know him, I saw he was just a guy who was attracted to similar small scenes as I was. While I do not wish to detract from any undeserved credit to him, it seems that period of time was when the accessibility of work was much smaller, and a much smaller group of individuals were getting known.

    I never really thing much about originality beyond just doing something original that *I* never did before. Mostly because the hubris involved in claiming originality never sat well with me. But I do see many “influencers”trying to do just that, which can be annoying when you do know so many things were done so long ago.

    Some earlier photos I still like, others not so much at all. I suppose it is all part of refining what you enjoy to photograph.

    • Very good point, Mark. Accessibility. It has multiplied both for accessibility to photography, as well as “visibility” of the work produced. I guess we will never find out how many other unknown photographers have pursued similar subjects… or would HAVE, if photography had been more accessible to people. :)

      I’m not concerned with originality anymore. I make photos of the things that I like and when the result makes me happy, I’ll show them. If anything, I try to have photos that SHOW something interesting, of the place, the environment, that sort of thing. Something that has a bit of a connection, rather than the often completely exchangeable, generic stock photo type of thing…

  4. I guess it’s a balancing act between maintaining a certain innocence and increasing your knowledge. Coming from a fine arts educational background, I have a different insecurity, one that centers around a lack of technical/tool knowledge. I don’t know much about photography history either but I remedy that bit by bit, very slowly and it enriches me. The bottom line is the pleasure one gets from making art, whether it’s photography or another form and whether one calls it art or not. There’s a big bonus, too, when we can share what we made with someone who gets pleasure from it. I’m glad you do that!

    • Thanks, Lynn. I think the lack of technical knowledge only needs to bother you when you find it to be a hindrance for creating the work you like. Of course there’s the great unknown of “could I do this smarter/better/faster/easier” but as long as I’m getting the results that I’m looking for, I don’t worry about this too much (I tried to remember and apply certain Photoshop techniques a dozen times and then decided that they’re just not for me;-) even though I know that there are many things that I don’t know. :)

      • Your statement about technical knowledge brought to mind a mental health observation that mental illness attains problematic status when it gets in the way of daily functioning.
        It surprised me that you decided some Photoshop techniques weren’t for you because I tend to think of you as someone who is very much at home with programs like that but maybe it comes down to the tradeoff between effort and results, too. :-)

  5. Very interesting thoughts, and as so often happens I have a mixed set of thoughts of my own on the topics. Like you, I started out with no knowledge of those who came before or who were currently practicing. I didn’t take any classes, I just liked making pictures. Over time, though, I started becoming attracted to more than my own photography and wanted to learn what others had done, and what and how they had seen. I found learning about them added an extra layer of enjoyment and maybe depth or richness to my own journey. The questions of where one would be if they were exposed sooner is a very interesting one that we just can’t answer. But I think it’s worth pondering. Perhaps we were better off not learning about them until later, until we’d begun to develop our own sense of selves. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. Perhaps we’d actually have been better off. Perhaps (and I suspect) it greatly depends on each of our own personalities with different answers for each of us. It’d be interesting to hear perspectives from those who did start out studying others before going very far down their own path. As for the whole topic of photography as art… that’s certainly an entire can of worms of its own, and I can’t claim to have very strong opinions one way or the other on it. :-)

  6. If someone in a remote, non-Western community was given a camera and taught how to use it, could they develop a strong body of work? Absolutely, yes! It is the height of arrogance and privilege to say that a photographer must be steeped in the history of photography, know about the major figures, the specific movements in the field, etc to be able to create meaningful work. While all of this can be and is valuable from a historical perspective, I also think that immersive study in other people’s work, including the prominent masters, has a tendency to promote conformity rather than personal expression. As you described above, you did not need to study Eliot Porter’s work to find intimate landscapes on your own, and the role of independent discovery made such photos feel like a more authentic expression. I find it mystifying when some photography teachers and prominent voices in this field say that you need to study photography to find your own vision. It is entirely possible to be entirely inspired by things other than other people’s photography, like nature itself. Thank you for this post, Alex!


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