Several years ago, we were enjoying a lively dinner in Oaxaca, Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivals, a small group of us together on a workshop, when the table across from us got up, all of them photographers, all of them hung heavily with gear. They fumbled with their stuff, excited to get out to make photographs in the falling dark and growing crowds, when I heard one woman say, quite adamantly, to another, “Now, remember, your F should be 5!”
My lens doesn’t even have a 5.
There may well have been a context for this advice that none of the rest of us heard, but it has since become a bit of a mantra to me.
Photographers are very keen on prescriptive advice, formulae, and recipes. At the beginning, as we learn, they might not even be that harmful. But they sure do stand in the way of getting to something better: understanding. Understanding tends to put us into a place where we can flex our creativity. Understanding helps us problem-solve and trouble shoot. It’s understanding that allows us to “know the rules then break them,” though I still contend there are no rules. Formulae and recipes have a nasty way of confining us, pushing our expression into a narrow template, encouraging homogeny and mediocrity. They can be helpful, for a time, but they must be transcended.
It’s why I die a little inside when a student asks, “what lens should I use?” I know what they mean. I know it’s meant well. But far, far more important to our work than using the “right” lens is the ability to choose, to play, to experiment, to fail, and to learn. My answer is meant gently, and with respect: you tell me. But consider striking the word “should” from your vocabulary.
Art is about possibility more than about propriety. It’s about creativity, not conformity. “Rules,” as my friend, colleague, and hero, Freeman Patterson has said, “do not give a damn about your creativity. It is not how we make our photographs that is important, but that we make them.” Indeed.
F/ the rules. It has always been, and will always be the ones that break the rules, ignore them, or deny them outright, and find a new way, an authentic way, of doing things, that will make interesting art, tell great stories, live amazing lives, and change the world. We do this, not for the sheer defiance of it, but in celebration of the human spirit that has always longed to exceed its bounds, to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” as King Lear’s Edgar so poignantly reminds us. We do it because rules, at least in art, have always been so heartbreakingly unable to express the best of what we are, and the fullness of the things we long to say.
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