Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two painters passionately debating the pros and cons of their paintbrushes?
Honestly, I bet it has happened sometime, somewhere in history. But why is this gear-talk so much more prevalent of a stereotype with photographers? Is the circle of people arguing natural vs. synthetic brushes just so small and esoteric that I am ignorant to it, or am I right that the cries of Nikon vs. Canon are that much louder?
Don’t get me wrong, I like to learn about camera technology — I feel it is important to my medium. There are cameras I wouldn’t mind owning, like a Mamiya C330, some lenses that I wouldn’t mind having for my DSLR. But that is hardly central to any conversation I want to have about the medium. You can hear the itch in the ravenous photographer’s voice when he asks: what was the focal length of the lens you used? What’s the widest aperture on that lens? Did you use Vibration Reduction? And on and on. If I am in critique, and one of these details is necessary to know because it reflects something conceptual or compositional about the outcome of an image, then I will ask. But I really don’t feel the need to discuss these points as conversation topics over drinks.
Yet it seems as a photographic artist, by extension, I am supposed to be inherently and primarily concerned about all these technical details. Case in point: some colleagues of mine recently witnessed me taking a quick photo of something whose destination was a Facebook page. They both laughed quite a bit when I used my iPhone to take the picture. I didn’t understand why. When I asked them to explain what was so funny, they said, “The photography teacher is using an iPhone.”
On one level, I can step back and see that as amusing, and I wasn’t offended in any way (nor did I have reason to be). But I also don’t assume the drawing teacher will be jotting down all class notes in silverpoint. Or that the painting teacher will use oil paint for grading slips. Nothing in the photograph required the larger sensor of my DSLR to render the aperture with a blurrier depth of field over what my iPhone provides, nor did I need the higher amount of megapixels of my DSLR to make a large print of the image. It’s simply a technology that allowed me to quickly upload a snapshot to a social media platform — that was the goal.
Thus comes in that very understandable confusion of photography as a technology vs. as an art medium. I would never allow my students to use a cell phone in my photography classes. The context of my class is to learn the tools available on a DSLR camera to make meaningful expressions. The context of an iPhone is primarily a technological tool (making art with an iPhone is not off the table but not really part of my discussion here).
So my mind drifts to the person who feels they need to pick up their DSLR over their phone to make this very simple shot for the web. Is the intent to make a piece of art, that will then happen to be showcased on the web? By all means then, go for it. But for our day-to-day shots, do we really need a $1000 lens to document what’s for breakfast? I can’t help but feel there is something inherently braggart and secretly insecure about doing this. Just because you have the technology/knowledge to do this task “better” than most of the general public, does it mean you have to use it every single time? Can we just let context inform our choices, not simply the gear we have access to?
Because context is why it seems funny for someone to pick up a paintbrush to write a note to their dean. Why are camera-based people held to different standards? When I say some of my students have better cameras than me, a lot of people laugh, but it’s true. My camera does exactly what I need it to for the type of art I make. I don’t need a full frame sensor and three different lenses. If I were a wedding photographer, that would probably be different.
So of course it boils down to that joke about the photographer who goes to a dinner party. He meets the host, who says, “I love your photographs, you must have an amazing camera.” Later at dinner, the host serves the meal, and after eating, the photographer says to the host, “I love your food, you must have an amazing oven.”
When was the last time you looked at a painting and all you wanted to discuss was whether they used a round sable brush?
Yet again, why I am hesitant to call myself a “photographer” sometimes. The fact that I use a camera doesn’t make me a gear-head, and I look forward to the day when that presumption fades.