Photographic Knowledge

Other essays in this series

Knowledge is necessary in order to excel in any endeavor. They say knowledge is power and I believe it is. In art, and more specifically in Fine Art Photography, knowledge gives you the power to bring your inspiration to life. It makes it possible to translate ideas into fine art prints. It enables you to share your vision with your audience through the medium of your choice.

2-Types of Knowledge
There are different types of knowledge, and this is what I want to expand upon in this essay. These different types of knowledge stem from the fact that photography, when approached as a fine art, is both an artistic and a technical medium.

3-Art and Technique
Photography is a medium that allows personal expression and that requires technical knowledge to be used well.

From this perspective, doing fine art photography well means giving equal importance to both the artistic and the technical aspects of photography.

Ideally, you want to split your efforts 50/50 between these two fundamental aspects.

However, because ours is not a perfect world, going, let's say, 60/40 in either direction is OK. But, creating images that are 90/10 or worse 100/0 in either direction is not going to work.

In other words, you do not want to create artistic images that are riddled with technical flaws. Similarly, you do not want to create technically perfect images that have no artitistic content. As Ansel Adams said, in regards to this last comment, "there is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept." In other words, sharpness is not enough to generate interest. One must have a well defined concept for their images to be successful.

Pablo Picasso put it differently, while still addressing the same aspect of art:

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot,
but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence,
transform a yellow spot into sun.

In other words, what matters most is the feelings that the painting, the image, generates in the mind of the audience, in the eyes of those who look at the work of art. It is not the paint on the canvas, or the ink on the paper that matters most. It is the emotions and the metaphorical content that this paint, this ink, conveys to the audience

To convey these emotions technique is important. No one can expect to excel without training or without constant practice. Yet, at the same time, inspiration, reflection and artistic desire are equally important. In other words, one must be both technically proficient and artistically inclined to create a photograph that is more than a sharp image, or to create an image where a yellow spot makes us believe that we are looking at the sun and not just at paint on canvas.

4-Timely and Timeless Knowledge
Photographic knowledge can also be divided in 2 categories: timely and timeless.

Timely knowledge is knowledge whose value is highest at a specific time. Technical books, tutorials and classes fall into this category for the most part. They focus on teaching you how to use a specific camera, or a specific piece of software. In regards to sofware, they often focus solely on a specific version of that software.

This knowledge must be acquired and used right away. Delay this 6 months to a year and this knowledge is outdated. In this age of fast-paced technical improvements and of constant breakthroughs in digital photography, the value of technical information frequently lasts even less than that.

This is not to say that such tutorials and classes are not useful. They are hugely useful and I own a fair share of them. I also produce and teach technical tutorials and seminars, such as my Printing Mastery Workshop on DVD, or my Printing Mastery Seminar. This is just to say that these tutorials and classes feature knowledge that must be acquired and implemented right away.

Timeless knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge whose "shelf life" so to speak, is much longer. It is knowledge that is not tied down to a specific time in history, or to a specific type of camera, software package or other technical equipment.

This is the type of knowledge featured in my Composition Mastery Workshop on DVD for example, or in my Composition Seminar, or again in my field workshops where we focus on studying light, composition, color and personal style. This knowledge will continue to be relevant years down the road because it is not dependent on using a specific camera or software. In fact, you can use any camera you want, with any software package you like, and this knowledge will work just as well for you.

If fact you don't even have to have a camera, or a computer to study composition, light, personal style or other types of timeless knowlege. It helps if you do, but it is not a requirement.

To prove this point let me mention that a lot of my knowledge about composition, light, style, color and so on was earned when I studied at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris in the late 70's and early 80's. Far from being outdated, this knowledge continues to serve me today. Why? Because it is timeless knowledge, knowledge not linked to a special time or equipment.

Instead, this knowledge is linked to a study of what is art and of what is important in order to create a fine art photograph. Light, color, composition and many other subjects will be there forever. They were the subjects that the old masters studied and used in their work, and they will be the subjects that future generations of artists will study and use in their work, regardless of what they decide to photograph :-)

Alain Briot
Vistancia, Arizona
September 2008

Essay and photographs Copyright © Alain Briot 2008
All rights reserved worldwide