The digital revolution has made photography more accessible than ever before. Good quality DSLRs can now be bought for just a few hundred dollars, and the built-in cameras of smartphones get better and better every year.
Not only that, but unlike with traditional film photography – where a solid technical understanding was required in order to achieve decent results with any kind of consistency – the sophisticated auto-modes and high-resolution LCDs of digital cameras have made repeated shooting of a sharply focused and correctly exposed image a total cinch for most users. This leads us to a logical question: when everyone is a photographer, what’s the point of a professional photographer?
In order to answer this, lets forget about photography for a second and instead ask the same question about food: when everyone can buy the same ingredients or ready-made meals in a store, what’s the point of a professional chef?
Logically, those who eat purely for sustenance, but derive no pleasure from food, are likely to answer that in fact there is no point. And indeed, how could anyone who is indifferent to the joys of the senses justify spending good money on something they don’t, or perhaps even can’t, appreciate?
Yet for anyone who values the sensory gratification that comes from savoring a well-planned and expertly prepared meal – with its contrasting and complimentary array of flavors, textures and aromas – the services of a talented chef are well worth paying for. We may all have access to the same utensils and ingredients as a Michelin-starred restaurant, but likely few of us would feel confident going against them in a blind-tasting challenge.
When it comes to photography though, people increasingly seem to have this all warped: “Oh, you’re a professional photographer? You must have an amazing camera!”
Yes, because the camera does all the work, obviously.
To continue the culinary analogy: the proof is in the eating, but many people are more interested in the calibre of pots, knives and chopping-boards used than in the actual food on their plate or how it got there.
Technological advances have indeed made the process of producing an acceptable photograph much easier. But mastery of photography never hinged on the purely technical. Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton are not considered photographic greats because they produced technically “acceptable” photographs. Instead they are all valued for their unique vision.
And it’s no different today: if photos by stars such as Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky are found in museums the world over and fetch absurd prices at auction, it is not because they “have an amazing camera!” These photographers, and their works, are highly regarded because they provide a fresh perspective on society. Because they draw attention to something the rest of us can’t see. Or perhaps we can see, it’s just that we’re unable to express these things visually in the same way they can. When we look at a photograph by Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank or Steve McCurry, we don’t see the world through their camera, but through their eyes.
As a potential purchaser of photographic services you should ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of the transaction? Sustenance? Or sensuous satisfaction? If you just want someone to take a few well-exposed snaps to jog your memory later down the line, then you might be better off buying a selfie-stick. Seriously.
If, on the other hand, you value artistry (the blending of the sweet and the tart, the subtle and the spicy) then choose your photographer wisely.
At one time, you hired a photographer because you lacked the necessary technical knowledge and abilities to do the job yourself. However, in the age of technical automation, paying for the services of a mere technician makes very little sense. Today, as ever, the true value of a photograph lies in the unique point of view that it can offer us. A different way of seeing – indeed experiencing – the world.
The days when a mere camera-monkey could make a living purely by dint of owning the right equipment and knowing which button to press are long gone. As photographers, it’s not enough to offer photos, we must offer a vision.