High Ground: A Rant

In Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative by David21 Comments

This one might be more for me than for you, but I had to get it out and this is where I do that kind of thing. I’m hoping there’s someone out there that needs to hear it, someone for whom this will bring some creative freedom.

Remember being a kid and climbing to the top of whatever we could find, chanting, “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”? Maybe that was just a Canadian thing. As we got older those of us that weren’t by nature sociopaths realized all we were doing was isolating ourselves and the game was no fun when we were alone at the top.

It is very easy to strand ourselves on the high ground. In our search for significance – or our hopes that our images are significant – it’s very easy to find that high ground in any place but in our photographs themselves.

Nothing is like film, they say. “Digital” is ruining photography, they whisper. I only use prime lenses, they brag. I will never use anything but a Leica, and I never crop my images. I don’t “do Photoshop.” Real photographers only use manual mode.


It’s true. Film is beautiful. It’s unique as its own thing. And yes, digital technology gives way to certain temptations for artists and changes in the art itself. Prime lenses are beautiful. So are Leica cameras. And if you work better in manual mode, and don’t work on images in the darkroom, digital or analog, then great.

But when those things – and you can pick your favourite from a long list of potential badges of honour – become a substitute for the hard and humbling work of making compelling photographs – then you can keep your high ground. The rest of us will be slogging away in the dirt, trying to grow, to challenge ourselves, to hone our craft, and to make something that is alive, something that speaks for itself and that transcends questions about cameras and brands and which f*cking lens you used.

When your badge of honour is the brand of camera you use, the weird constraint you placed on yourself, or how hard you think you work to make your photographs, and it’s not the experience of the image itself, then it’s no wonder you feel a little bit alone up there. Because photography might be all about you, to you, but the rest of the world is looking for something more: for life, for truth, (or a break from the truth), for something real, vulnerable, sensual. They are looking for soul. For depth. For beauty and a distraction. They want the muse to unexpectedly push them up against the wall and kiss them hard.

“They are looking for soul. For depth. For beauty and a distraction. They want the muse to unexpectedly push them up against the wall and kiss them hard.”

And – listen – when the muse so seduces them, they aren’t for a moment asking themselves who made her dress, or how it was made and from what. And your bragging about such trivial things, trying to catch my attention with your not-so-subtle fake cough about film and lenses and whatever bullshit you think is important to you, over there in the corner – you’re just wrecking a beautiful moment. And if your muse is trying to get your attention, well, you’re probably going to miss that, too.

Photographers, I have this sneaky feeling some of us have forgotten something fundamental about the experience of art and wonder and the transcendence that’s possible with what we make: it’s not about us. It can be about something so much more. The muse, for her part, doesn’t give a shit about your gear or your pretense. She cares only for your vision and your willingness to give expression to it. And that’s the stuff that will become inspired and inspiring. Let her do her thing.

“Just be sure of this one thing: that you love the muse and what you create together more than the ever-changing tools you happen to use to create. “

And more to the point – for the rest of you, for those of us who just want to do our work and wonder if we’re missing something by not using the right gear, the right brand, the trendy processing, the old film camera, whatever: you aren’t. And if you are – if film or primes or pinhole cameras or some other precious thing suddenly becomes important to what you’re doing – you’ll know. And you’ll embrace it, struggle with it, use it for what they bring to your process, and you’ll make the same mix of awkward sketch images and beautiful master prints. And the success – or the failure of those – will not ultimately be credited to that gear, but to the dance between you and the muse that has always made the kind of art that opens eyes and hearts.

Just be sure of this one thing: that you love the muse and what you create together more than the ever-changing tools you happen to use to create. The tools matter, they are necessary, but they aren’t where we put our hearts. That beautiful, lofty, messy place is for the muse, and the dance, and the art alone.

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  1. I guess, my comment was equally related to this and your ‘You can’t zoom with your feet’ post.

  2. I mostly use primes because I find the process of getting to point of pressing the shutter faster that way – and most of the time more enjoyable too – and for my kind of making pictures, speed and timing are often a very important factor. I change perspective with my feet, and I change focal length by cropping.

    I agree with you, that most of those tight rules are often not very useful – unless, they bring a creative constraint, which matches the persona of the photographer very well.

    “Don’t crop” … as if every subject is presented the best with the native aspect ratio of the imaging device.

    Thanks for your blogs, David. I am glad to have come across it, and it’s great to read your perspective on the art of photography in these days of gear review flooding.

  3. David, thank you so much for this, it actually brought a tear to my eye. As a relative newcomer to the photography world I have often questioned the almost bullying speak of well-known photographers to encourage us to succumb to many of the things of which you speak, in particular their mantra of ‘if you are going to be pro then you must keep up with the latest gear’. Recently I have found my niche and my own mantra of ‘translate story and emotion first’ and the rest all falls far behind. I am back to enjoying photography again even with my ‘nearly obsolete’ 3 year old camera body.

  4. David, writing and photography aside (and I love your written words and photographs).Your piece on “High Ground” shouts that you are in Love My Brother! Congrats on all in life.

  5. Author

    Michael – I agree very much that the constraint makes the creative process what it is. I just don’t think that it’s a point of pride, nor something one artist should impose on another. We need to discover, or even impose, the best restraints we can on our own work, but those constraints aren’t the point. So to go back to your analogy about the 100 meters: I’m saying enjoy the journey, do it in the way that best suits you, but don’t for a moment think your way is the only way – bike, car, running, whatever. Cover the distance, do it with passion, but don’t tell others how to do it. Of course I don’t think it’s a great analogy. Art-making is not walking. And if it’s not art you’re after at all, if the photograph doesn’t matter and it’s just playing with toys, that’s fine too, but it’s not what I’m talking about. Thanks for the input and the contribution, Michael.

  6. David, I love and respect you – but this is a little like saying, “If you want to travel 100 metres, take a car!” Fact is, the challenge for some is in running it as fast as you can. My clumsy way of saying sometimes (always?) the constraint makes the art. I impose limitations because it makes me work a little harder and think a little more. I’m not after the destination, I’m after the journey. Not a slave to fashion, not a brand savant. I don’t brag about these things, but I do use them. I’m just someone looking to refine a totally unneccesary skill without the technology solving the problem for me. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

  7. David, I do love your rants. Keep it up! BTW, growing up in Spokane, we did the king of the mountain thing a lot, however, the dirty rascal part is new to me.

  8. You “hit the nail on the head,” David. The folks who think that way used to drive me crazy too, till I just started ignoring them! Look, if you just snap a shot, don’t do anything to it, why not just put the camera, which is a machine, really a mini computer, in the hands of a robot programed to adjust the settings and let it go at that.

    But, if you are, or aspire to be a “creative,” well then things get a bit more complicated! The idea of not using Photoshop, ACR, Lightroom, etc. being some kind of a merit badge it truly pedantic. It’s not like it’s “easy” to use these programs creatively and well. It takes years. One learns “little by little.”

    They talk about “getting it right in the camera.” Who tries to not get it right in the camera? But in the real world things happen. Here is an example in my own work, “vision is better,” is it not, so what constitutes vision? If you look at this image, I had the “vision,” I could see what I wanted, however, it’s a park in an urban environment, there were people everywhere, I couldn’t just ask them to leave, so I took the shot I visualized and took out the extra folks in post, vision achieved! (http://www.tomkostesphotography.com/index/G0000xiVH4tveI6A/I0000YcgZz__oW9g)

    I have heard pros, like Moose Peterson say, “it’s important to get it right in the camera,” but watch his videos on post processing and you will see he’s an expert at it and uses it to his advantage.

    Another thing I chuckle at, everyday I get emails from folks trying to sell me a course on their “workflow.” Now I don’t blame them, we all gotta’ make a living, but other than a very few basic first steps, my “workflow” remains flexible, I suit it to the image rather than trying to force the image to conform to it.

    Just saying…. 😉

  9. I think the important thing to take away from all this is to do what gives you pleasure and joy, recognizing that others may derive pleasure and joy from something else. If somebody has the money to completely geek out over gear, and they love that, love the process (as Mike Spivey said), then go for it! If somebody wants to play with software and really gets off on that, more power to them. I think what David is cautioning against is shaming others (for whatever reason) instead of focusing on your own creative process.

  10. Preaching to the choir. I will say, all those things you dissed are valid things to do/worship – if your enjoyment of photography is related, not to the final image, but to the process. If that’s what floats your boat, good for you. But not for me.

  11. That was an inspiration I needed. Thank you David. Always when I have lack of strength I read your words and they help very much.

  12. As always, well said David.

    I feel lucky in a way, as I spent 20 years as a military photographer. I didn’t always have the privilege of having or using the best equipment. Granted, we did have some good equipment, but we also had a lot of cheaper stuff. The military is good at going with the lowest bidder when it comes to purchasing equipment. Regardless of what we were given though, we were still expected to get the shots.

    I also learned in the military that a camera is nothing more than a tool. It was my responsibility to protect and care for my tools, but when using my gear every day of the week, things got broken. Rough handling by flight crews, angry police officers in foreign countries smashing cameras, and being a Navy Photographer, salt water spray was a particular problem.

    To this day, I don’t buy the latest, greatest or most expensive cameras or lenses. I buy good quality that will last ten or more years and stand up to some abuse. I expect the equipment to get scratches and dings. As long as it keeps producing good images though, it stays in my arsenal.

  13. Guilty as charged…sorta…I’m just learning to use my camera as I’ve always loved photography due to the stories they tell or evoke someone else to tell but it seems exactly as you say – I think it’s interesting to ask to sorta see if all the photographers whose work you admire all are using a cell phone often like some other photographers or zillion dollar setups just curiosity I suppose. Either way I sure do enjoy the images your photos evoke-I think I finally had “that moment” with a 91 year young man recently 😉 thanks I thought of your images.

  14. I’ve always wondered about the same thing — why some photographers seem to turn the craft into dogma.

    I hear the same things you wrote: why they’ll never shoot raw, why they’ll never crop, why they’ll never touch Photoshop, why they only shoot with primes, etc. Like a religion.

    It’s always confounded me. Sure, whatever floats your boat but these guys have an odd hobby of loudly proclaiming their preferences onto others.

    The problem with dogma is that it constrains. The beauty of art is possibility.

    I think you nailed it when you wrote that it’s not about them. These guys make it all about them. But what about the person looking at the photo?

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