Photography is Attitude, Not Hardware

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“Dead Wood” by D. Travis North

This morning, Jack Hollingsworth (@photojack on twitter) shared a quote I had never heard before form Ansel Adams:

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”

Adams has left an incredible impression on the photography field and he is quoted hundreds of times a day, I’m sure. So it’s not surprising that this one is new to me. However, this particular quote strikes a fire within me. Adam’s is one hundred percent correct…the most important component of a camera is the photographer. Strong words that could be construed as arrogance, patting himself on the back. But we photographers know the truth:  Photography is about attitude.  We know that we are the ones who create great photos, not our cameras. Unfortunately, many a laymen – those that don’t know an f-stop from a bus stop – would like to attribute your art to the hardware.

At this point, I could easily spin this article into a tutorial on how to deal with such ignorance. But we are not in all cases the victim here. Our actions speak louder than words, and we photographers will drool over nice equipment as well.  Though our reason is vastly different, our actions are misunderstood by the laymen.  As such, based on our misinterpreted love of equipment, our allegedly fancy cameras are often credited for the quality of our work. Doesn’t it make matters worse when we lust after higher end equipment? I am of course not trying to suggest that you shouldn’t long for improved camera gear. As a photographer, you know that a camera upgrade will not make for better photography. Chances are that your next upgrade is because you desire a specific feature, or you plan just outgrew your current camera. The desire to upgrade and add to your hardware set is only natural, but it is often misunderstood by the layman and we need to be sensitive to that fact. When prompted, we should certainly be doing our best to educate, without arrogance, for the sake of the art and for the sake of the community. But the issue goes beyond that.

The issue comes down to attitude – and it starts with you. Long ago, when cameras were expensive and extremely technical pieces of equipment, the line was much more defined. Those wanting to be photographers made great sacrifices to be a photographer. But as gear is now more affordable, we have an influx of those who call themselves photographers because of their gear. For shame. If you truly believe that your camera or the piece of glass between your eye and the subject makes for better photos, then I must say that you are not a photographer. If you cannot create fantastic photos with a piece of junk camera, you are not a photographer.  Photography is an art. That art has rules – rules that can, will and should be broken. But if you’re ready to break those rules, you better know that you are. You better know how and why you are breaking the rules. Dare I say that you should be as versatile within the boundaries of the rules as you are outside. As a photographer, you must have humility. You must be able to admit your weaknesses at least to yourself, if not to the public. As a photographer, equipment should not matter.

Which leads me to another point – a pet peeve of mine, in fact. There is snobbery abroad, even within the photography community, with respect to ones equipment. I’m not talking about the quest for the $20,000 USD Mamiya camera. I’m not even talking about the Nikon vs. Canon vs. Pentax vs. your second-cousin’s brother’s favorite brand debates. Such longing and such debates can at least be justified by deep roots in all things geek – we’re gadget heads at heart – and gear lust is ingrained within us. Alas, what I’m talking about are the so-called artistic cameras. I’m talking about the lomography cameras, the Holgas or even the vintage poloroid cameras of the world. The plastic lens bearing cameras or the cameras that leak light onto film. Poor quality exposures with oversaturated colors and poor dynamic ranges are not, in and of themselves, art. And just because you have and use such a camera, you are not necessarily an artist.

Art is comprised of two things: Vision and purpose. Your equipment and your medium may vary, but you cannot have art without vision and purpose. What much of the lomography world does not have is purpose. I was once told by a fan of the medium that a lomo camera makes “every snapshot a work of art”. It does not. True art can be achieved with a lomography camera. True art can also be achieved with your D-SLR, your iPhone or even your five-year-old 1.2 megapixel camera phone – I will not deny that. But without vision and purpose, such art cannot be created.  And what do vision and purpose combined also create?  Attitude.

With that, I will leave you with a story of personal experience. It’s a story about a day that I went to an art museum alone. I was wandering about a photography exhibit when I happened upon a particular piece that captivated me. A bench was set up in front of the piece, and so I sat down and stared. I must have been staring a while as a museum a volunteer approached me and asked me a question: “What do you suppose she was feeling when she took that shot?” I didn’t know.

“Well,” he said, “you must be taken by the piece. How does it make you feel?”

“Calm,” I admitted.

“Then you understand what she felt.”

We spoke at length about the photograph. As it turns out, the photographer – a local, now deceased – was the man’s wife. The piece we were speaking of happened to be the photographers last photograph, taken and developed just before she went on hospice after a lost battle with cancer. The photo was calming to the widower as well, a reminder that his wife had been prepared for her death. Even after their long lasting marriage and their many years together, he admitted that he never understood his wife’s photography until that day. The man is now a photographer himself. To this day, I wonder if the true intent behind that photograph was to once-and-for-all pass her love for photography onto her husband.  Personally, I suspect that may have been the case.  That demonstrates a lot of attitude.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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