photographic knowledge

Monthly column by Thierry Maindrault

After sixty years of proximity and estrangement from photography, what I know very well is that I don’t know anything about it. This is perfect considering how many people of all ages I meet who know everything. You have surely noticed, like me, that each time you enter an exhibition or a gallery, the author, if he is present, feels obliged to explain to us in detail how he technically produced the work of the century or even millennium. This type of monologue becomes juicy when the gallery owner himself or the artistic mediator of the exhibition, both completely ignorant, present to you in detail the inventiveness of the cherub who gives us the alms of his know-how.

Photography, this set of fabulous techniques that trap light, can be learned. I will cut to the chase, there are only two ways to gain as much knowledge as possible to match our own ambitions. The first is to pass and throw into the hands of indisputable masters. I’m not talking about the big names (with Anglo-Saxon names) who flock to all kinds of seminars, who are very rarely excellent technicians and very often sad pedagogues. The second consists in being self-taught and in immersing oneself body and soul in the abundant literature which, for two centuries now (for chemical and physical techniques) and at least ten thousand years (for graphic and technical construction), offers us the keys to real works of art and the production of technically acceptable works. It is obvious that the two paths will intersect, rub shoulders, intertwine, sublimate to extract the useful and the essential for our imaginative development. It should be noted that for many real photographers, grateful exchanges between colleagues were almost inexhaustible sources, except for the few somewhat misanthropic loners.

What a wonderful tool photography is. Seemingly so simple; but, in reality, much more complicated than holding a brush, even if you make your own colors and supports.

So you will ask me, where does this current catastrophic poverty, both creative and technical, come from? This is the case with too many images (now every hamlet of a few inhabitants, produces one, or more, exhibitions at the town hall or at the town hall) which are offered to the sagacity of the public.

To reverse the priorities, I will start with the autodidacts. Because in this case, the problem is the simplest. It is said that young pretenders to knowledge no longer know how to read on leaving higher education, which I have been able to verify, and moreover they do not have time to read. The know-how is therefore up to the artificial intelligence of a camera and the screen of a smartphone to solve all the problems. After, you send a file by Internet to the laboratory, if possible the least expensive, the turn is played. No one will dare to tell you that the photos are terrible? For a long time one can no longer psychologically offend the authors of notorious incompetence.

On the teaching side, it’s a disaster. The number of professors is however important throughout the world with a number of schools, universities and other teaching offices which have been multiplied by ten in less than a quarter of a century. If there are schools, there are teachers whose technical skills are no longer checked (I assure you, it’s the same thing in a multitude of professions). Given the needs of all these profitable training companies, there are no longer the experts like there used to be. Not really my type; but, I will try to be indulgent with all these people to whom we entrust the mission of training our image elites. It is clear that even the best of promotions (the cream of photographers, those who leave school with a sponsored contract and a name covered in medals), with whom I have some exchanges, are dry on the fundamentals of the multitudes of techniques that govern photography. They are all equally arid as to the fundamental constancy of perception in the human being, who will wonder in front of one of their works.

Teachers long ago moved from questioning their own intrinsic personal skills to focusing on teaching ideas. We no longer learn the role of a diaphragm any more than that of a focal length, we no longer explain the manipulation of a grain of silver any more than the interaction of two pixels, we no longer record the cultural basis of perception no more than the comparative impact of a colorimetric wave. Why all these silly questions when the intelligence of the camera takes care of it on the condition of putting an exorbitant price on it. This does not prevent us from being overwhelmed by the disastrous images of these photographic “Roll Royces”.

Our educational teams are unable to provide a minimum of physics, art history or elementary morphology. So they propagate revealed truths about what creation should be, creative dogmas for their followers, smoky theories of the moment (as if creative theories make sense for a living, non-artificial intelligence). They insist with their fashions to please (too bad they change every two/three years in our current communication systems).

In principle, the content of the technique abdicates in favor of the form of the idea. An entire program ! The planet is changing its direction of rotation and no one has told us!

Nostalgia is not my forte and we must move forward resolutely. But, it was not badly our teachers with the precious knowledge who made us share it with this pedagogy of curiosity, which made some of us grateful enthusiasts.

Thierry MaindraultMay 27, 2022

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