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Thread: Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

  1. #1

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    I have noticed in the year since I began to actively participate in the forum that folks usually tend to come down one one side or the other.

    Either they tend to discount a highly technical approach to large format photography in general, or they tend to discount a very simplistic approach.

    The very technical remind us there is much information to be considered before making an adequate photograph. Those who prefer a simpler approach tend to remind us that it is very possible to make wonderful photographs without, in effect, the many considerations the more technically-oriented folks might believe need to be looked at.

    Where does the truth lie?

    First, it seems to me, a technical versus a non-technical orientation may lie in the personality of the photographer. The highly technical person may appreciate and enjoy the technicality of his approach, to some extent, for it's own sake. He or she likes how technicality, in effect, makes the world a more understandable and stable place. Often, these folks remind us where those of us who are less technical may be missing important issues - or might even be wrong.

    Some would say that an overly-technical approach stems from learning in childhood that in order to be "good" we had to do everything "just right." That's speculation at best, I think. Although it describes me.

    The less technical person, or the person who likes things simpler (and who, nonetheless, makes wonderful photographs) also has a valid position. Michael A. Smith is a case in point.

    Not long ago when I was talking to him about attending one of his 2006 workshops he explained his philosophy and approach. He said, basically, "Why get so involved in technique that you lose sight of your end product and vision?"

    It was shortly after my conversation with Michael Smith that I realized again my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsiveness. Or more simply, perfectionism.

    I have since paid my deposit and plan to attend one of Michael Smith's May, 2006, workshops in Pennsylvania.

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Portland, OR

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    I believe St. Ansel put it best when he covered this topic. So I'll paraphrase.

    An artist should know enough about their materials and processes to know how to control them. Only in this way will they have the ability to create what they desire.

    Anything short of this is just stumbling around (sometimes for years) until something "pleasing" emerges.

    Ray Bidegain and I were talking about this very topic last night as he hauled my beautiful 7x17 Korona away for the "test drive". Both and I felt that people who don't understand their tools or processes may get lucky (in attracting customers or in creating something they like), but if they don't know what they're doing, they may not be as successful as an artist or working commercial photographer as they could.

    Case in point: Someone did a photo shoot with images that ended up on a billboard here in town. They used Ray's camera knowledge and studio space to snap a couple things. The results were photoshopped and put on display for all the world to see. The "photographer" was paid a premium rate for their work. They now think they've got this thing figured out and have stopped doing other money making work to pursue this new avenue of apparent opportunity. Alas, if they didn't have a close friend in the industry (billboard advertising in this case) they'd not stand a chance in getting further work. Their original works were demonstrably bad. But they think they've now got the tiger by the tail.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, anyone remember Avedon's 8x10 color spread in New Yorker Magazine several years back? The one with the model and the skeleton? Well, that person obviously had some knowledge of their tools, materials, and processes. The results were consistant, well thought out, and beautifully photographed.

    This is why I feel it's very important to understand what's going on. Otherwise it's just hit and miss.

    Just how technical an artist becomes depends upon how far the artist chooses to extend their art.

  3. #3
    Eric Biggerstaff
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Denver, Colorado

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    I don't think there is one "truth" to this question but I think you hit it when you said it is a matter of personality.

    For me, I want to have enough command over my tools to be confident in their use and then forget it and worry about making images. In other words, have my skills to the point where they are second nature which allows me to concentrate on the image.

    One of the fun characteristics of this forum is that it draws from both sides, most folks probably fall somewhere in the middle.

    Technical knowledge should compliment the vision of the artist. It is what allows a photographer to realize the end product, the image. However, all the technical knowledge in the world will not help you create great photographs if you don't have a vision you want to express.

    Some people really love the technical aspects of the art, the drive to make the "perfect" negative. This is great, and the process of photography has greatly benefited from the technical folks as they have helped expand our knowledge and understanding of photography. Our chosen art, is after all, very dependent on technology.

    However, technique as an end to itself is pretty hollow as there is nothing but "sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts" to semi quote Ansel Adams. A photographer has to bring emotion and some vision to the work they produce to have anything that is meaningful. Many people less technically inclined, have enough knowledge to create work that is meaningful to them, and in the end that ( IMHO) is all that really matters.

    If you are happy with the photographs you are creating, then that is really all that matters.

    Not sure if that helped, but thanks for the post.
    Eric Biggerstaff

  4. #4
    Abuser of God's Sunlight
    Join Date
    Aug 2004
    brooklyn, nyc

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    "I don't think there is one "truth" to this question but I think you hit it when you said it is a matter of personality."

    exactly. there are so manny Hippies vs. Geeks disagreements on these message boards, with little acknowledgement that both groups often end up in the same place.

    The geeks say "why do you waste all that time flying blind?" and the hippies say "why do you waste all that time doing tests?"

    What's a good use of time and what isn't probably depends on how your particular brain works. And how you enjoy spending your time.

    As Eric points out, a lot of us are somewhere in the middle. I'm a little bit hippie, a little bit geek. I tend to stuff my brain with theory and information when i get into something new, but when it comes time to actually doing some work, I rarely hav the patience to use the knowledge systematically. So I dive in, with vague hopes that what I learned will provide som kind of unconscious guidance. Works for me. Usually. Everyone's mileage likely to vary.

    I suspect at the extremes, either approach can hold you back. Geeks need to leave some room for the imagination to come through. Hippies need to learn how the tools work.

    I like Charlie Parker's advice: "learn everything you can about your horn, then learn everything you can about the music, and then forget all that shit and just play."

  5. #5

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    There is nothing wrong with either approach, however you need to keep your eyes open and think with either one. Although I probably would not bother with Rob's advice to measure the back, I think that his advice to stick with a single brand of film holder is easy to do and appeals to the simplistic approach from the standpoint of eliminating variables in your work.
    In some ways the simplistic approach can be more thoughtful, as you will probably agonize a bit more over changes you make. Simplistic does not mean sloppy or casual.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Sep 2004
    Vittorio Veneto; Italy

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    Robert, I think that photography is an art and therefore should be free of any restriction or academic approach. What can be technical good for a photographer can be absolutely not good for another. If you read the Weston daybooks you will find that his approach to photography was definitely not technical but he was anyway able to reach the best results out of the media. Trial and error was Weston approach to the media. The same can be said of Joseph Sudek that was forced for all almost all his life to use materials that were technically highly inferiors to the ones used in the Western World. He was anyway able to photograph Prague in a unrivalled way 8mind, with only one arm ....).

    Once I met in Vietnam for a pure coincidence Sebastiao Salgado (that I consider him one of the living masters of the small format) and when I asked him what was the developing/film he used to attain the astounding results and he answerd that he was using Tri-x but he did not know anything about the developer and/or the developing times .......

    I could on with the quotes but I prefer to stop here. .........

  7. #7

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    I doubt any LF user is non-technical. I think the difference is more rehtorical: some people want to be the vates and some people want to be the clericus.

    Michael A. Smith is a case in point. I like Michael. I like some of his work. But to claim that he's not technical isn't really correct. He's so technical that he purchased a lifetime supply of both the film and the paper he uses. He's tested those materials, knows them well, and prefers their consistency with his methods. He does things exactly one way, because that is the way he's found that meets his requirements. Which is fine. He chooses to present his methods in a manner that makes them seem intuitive and inspired rather than rigorously controlled, which is also fine. (It helps his persona that his method doesn't require measuring equipment in the darkroom, though.)

    Other people prefer measurement and machines. Their ways are equally valid, and they seek exactly the same thing: predictable results that meet their expectations of quality. They just present them in a way that makes sense when you have numbers and machines.

    I'm probably like most LFers, in that I don't develop film by inspection and don't own a densitometer. I do what works for me.

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Dec 2001
    San Joaquin Valley, California

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    IMHO First you've got to have some idea of what you want to accomplish, then you go out and learn what you think you'll need to know in order to accomplish what you think you want to accomplish, then you change your mind because you've just startled a skunk or the suns not coming from the right angle or the water level isn't high enough, or the water level is too high or the snow level isn't low enough, but since you've packed your 8x10 three miles and you're being eaten by mosquitos you set up and take a picture anyway, wishing you'd loaded a faster(or slower) film in your holders and that you had brought the lens you left at home, while wondering which of the two light meters you've brought along is accurate before giving up and guesstimating the exposure only to hike three miles back to the car, drive home and soup the film to discover either A) You mistakenly picked up an empty stack of holders this morning or B) You've got a pretty nice photograph.

    Repeat often, smile and have FUN!
    I steal time at 1/125th of a second, so I don't consider my photography to be Fine Art as much as it is petty larceny.
    I'm not OCD. I'm CDO which is alphabetically correct.

  9. #9
    Eric Biggerstaff
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Denver, Colorado

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?


    That sounds a lot like my last trip to the field! :-)
    Eric Biggerstaff

  10. #10

    Technical versus non-technical approaches - which?

    I am not a very good photographer often I just don't have the "eye" for it. However, I understand the technical aspects better than most.

    It seems to be that it is much less heart breaking to have the skills and lack the vision that to have the vision and not be able to realize it because of lack of skills.

    I thing that there are also two groups of large format people those that just want a bigger negative and those that also want the focus control allowed by tilts and shifts.

    I take a lot of mediocure photographs but I always try to use all the capibilities of the medium that are approprate. If I didn't I would get better pictures but I would forgo the quest for that "great" on.

    Someone once said that the only real failure was setting the bar too low.

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