During one stage of my life photography became, for me, distressing: I felt the obligation to become a legendary artist and to go down in history, to know how to find in each and every moment and situation a great photo. Something that had begun as a passion and enjoyment was turning into something terribly painful, to the degree that I began to dislike it because doing it had become a lacerating process. Every time I saw my photos I was tormented, I criticized them mercilessly and I was depressed when I saw the work of the great masters: I was light years away and that seemed depressing to me!
That’s when I thought: How can something I love make me suffer so much?
Years have passed since that time and I have had the opportunity to reflect on my own path and that of the students who have passed through my university chair of Advanced Photography. And then, something happened: I understood that photography is a march that can be in certain degrees of maturity or immaturity that affect not only the result but the whole photographic experience. With this text, written in a very personal tone, I would like to reflect a little on how we can understand maturity and its relationship to photography.
Photographic Learning And Maturity
What is maturity? It is a state and a process, a path and a destination point.
The maturation process has to do, in the first place, with getting resources to be able to express with the camera what we have to say about a certain topic.
In the first place, it is possible to identify the technical resources: To know the photographic grammar, to learn the formal subjects and all those elements that give structure and sense to a visual speech. From understanding what a centre of interest is, learning to compose with the golden dots or understanding contrast, to mention just a few ingredients, the process of photographic maturation begins by bringing together techniques and knowledge ranging from the compositional to the eminently technical. Never lose sight of the fact that photography is art, but it is also science. Sometimes our photographic results are not what we are looking for because we lack resources that can be technical (knowing how to use studio lighting, for example, or the different planes and angles of the camera).
Other resources are the intellectual-cultural ones, where it is no longer just a matter of using the camera but in a complex and interesting amalgam of our influences, reflections, proposals and creations.
These resources involve knowing and understanding the history of our photographic medium, its great figures, knowledge of art history, and of course there is the general culture and those elements that make us unique based on our personal history and experiences.
If we have technical resources, but not intellectual-cultural ones, we take pictures of the pile. If we have only intellectual-cultural resources, we can get to the frustration of knowing how to appreciate a great photograph, but not knowing how to do it. It is not difficult to understand that having only intellectual-cultural resources can orient us only to the academic or critical field, but not of creation. Personally I hope to achieve both.
Many beginning photographers think these are the fundamental resources. They believe that having this or that camera or lens or accessory are the magic wands to be great photographers. Nothing could be further from the truth and it’s a big trap.
In the digital age, the obsession with technological resources has grown enormously. The programmed obsolescence makes us obstinate by the last camera and we always have the idea that a newer, more expensive or higher category equipment will allow us, now yes, to take better photos.
However, this is a dangerous trap. I would even dare to call it a swamp or quicksand because once you enter it, it seems to swallow you up. First you need a better camera, then a new lens. Sometimes, if we already have our 50mm f/1.8 we don’t rest until we get to pay twenty times more for one f/1.2 just to discover that you keep taking the same photos. And believe me, I’ve been through that moment.
Technology Resources: The Story Of Ted And Edward
Many years ago, a little boy guitarist had a group he had formed with his brother Alex. Edward was much more than a talent: he was a true prodigy. So it didn’t come as a surprise that they soon gained space on the local circuit and ended up on a national tour of the United States as the opening act for Ted, a rocker notorious at the time.
Good Edward sounded like no one ever did. So, intrigued, Ted slipped away one day and, when he thought no one could see him, he took the young man’s guitar and began to play, to see what was happening and where that prodigious sound came from. When he formed a few chords and typed a few scales, he got the surprise of his life: Ted Nugent, with that guitar and those amplifiers sounded like Ted Nugent! Perhaps young Eddie Van Halen could have explained to him that, in the absence of economic resources, he learned to pull unique sounds from the guitar simply with his fingers. It wasn’t a team thing.
The same goes for many photographers today. I myself had a time of obsession with the team. I see it every day in the university classroom: people with the same equipment take diametrically different pictures.
Technological Resources Are Important
Certain jobs require specific tools. However, to think that Leonardo Da Vinci managed to paint the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper because he used this or that brush is nonsense.
I’m sorry to expand on this, but I think it’s important because of the huge number of photographers who remain in the obsession of the team.
Maturity, in technological terms, implies knowing how to use the right tools when necessary, counting on them and identifying the conditions and situations that demand a certain specific type of equipment. But also know that, when you have something to say, the instrument has to occupy a relevant place: the second or third place.
The Opposite Of Maturity
But let us return to our theme: photographic maturity or the misfortunes that attract immaturity. So, if the enemy to be defeated is immaturity, it is worth understanding a little more deeply.
Infantileism And Puerility
The antithesis of photographic maturity is infantilism or puerility. We have all suffered, and to some extent continue to suffer, our “childish photographic self”. This is someone dedicated to photography, but whose insecurity leads him to be extraordinarily susceptible. This puerility also manifests itself in exaggerated perfectionism and an extreme need for control. Of course! He who is insecure needs to control and sets goals that are far above his level, far from accepting what he really can.
Photographic immaturity leads us to be tremendously unstable artists, with lives full of ups and downs. In many cases it is easy for the pessimism of a self-criticism as excessive as it is unjust to paralyze us.
It is then that photography becomes a source of anguish, pain and nervousness. The immature photographer feels insecure about an important assignment: he is so afraid of failing that instead of applying himself to solving what is necessary, he is the victim of immeasurable suffering.
And this leads to a terrible vicious circle: because we are insecure we suffer when taking pictures, and nobody likes to suffer, so less and less pictures are taken. In addition, that extreme judgement makes a “critical self” stand on our shoulders always whispering in our ear: “Who do you want to deceive? Figure of the photograph you? Ha! Take a look at the photos of Bruce Davidson or Wiliam Eggleston: Do you dare to believe that a worm like you will someday reach those levels? And if that sounds incredibly cruel, it’s something that’s been with me at every photo shoot for years. And I’m falling short: the criticisms we really make of ourselves can become even cruder and crueler.
The Photographic Experience
A great source of wisdom has been my students. This year I celebrate two decades of sharing experiences in university classrooms. In these twenty years I have learned enormities from my students, and it is not demagogy. With the questions I’ve been asked, I can really write a book. And every time I’ve had the opportunity to say: “Look what a good question, I don’t know the answer. Let me investigate.” And I’ve always gone back to books, researched and researched until I found the answer and then shared it in class.
Photography is an experience, and this is said quickly, but it has many levels. It’s an experience because everyone has to live it. Yes, books are important, but only you have the camera in your hand and you have to make the decisions to get what you want. Photography is experiential: you can’t learn photography just by talking about it, you have to do it. It’s a little, or a lot, like love. As a teacher, I know perfectly well: nobody gives what they don’t have.
And this experience is a process. Perhaps one of the great problems of our time is haste. In one way or another we are part of a generation in which we want everything and we want it now. It is undoubtedly a very immature posture.
Virtues, Aptitudes, Attitudes, Inclinations And Appetites
I’m not a philosopher, but I’m fortunate enough to be married to one and, over time, you acquire a certain language and a way of thinking, at least by osmosis.
And that’s where it comes in knowing, and often intuiting, concepts such as aptitudes, attitudes, virtues, inclinations, appetites.
I don’t want to complicate myself with this because I’m not even a philosopher and surely you deserve a deeper explanation about these subjects than I can give you. I’m sorry, of course, if I write anything barbaric. But one thing I’ve learned is that there’s always a certain dose of aptitudes, I’m going to mis-call them talent. The problem of fitness is that it is a mere power, which involves the updating of an act. So attitudes become a bridge between power and act (see if it helps to have a philosopher at home?) is the attitude. Attitude is whether or not you want to use those skills.
Let us think again of an immature young man with many talents but who refuses, through negligence, to take advantage of them or to work to reach his full potential. He may have many aptitudes, but the attitude can become a motor or a dead end.
Then, with a little luck and a lot of will, aptitude becomes – thanks to attitude – an act. To take the camera and take some pictures. To learn by enrolling in a course or workshop, buy a book or watch a tutorial on YouTube. These acts, if we repeat them over and over again, become a habit. And habits build virtues.
The Virtuoso Photographer
A mature photographer is one who builds good operating habits, that is, he builds himself with good deeds. The photographer can grow in many virtues. I’ll share with you some of the ones I’ve identified:
Do you really think that attitude that told you about “I want everything and I want it now” is going to take you very far? Well, think about it because I tried it for years and all it produced was frustration. I am very far from what I dream of, but at the same time I recognize that it is a long road where you have to be patient. And the first one I need to be patient with is myself. Every day I have to accept that I am a photographer with potentialities and limitations. And that I am building a path that is done little by little. With luck, sometimes one has certain epiphanies, moments of extraordinary clarity, but which are frankly rare. To achieve this patience requires other virtues.
Fortress. A few years ago I learned that you have to be strong, resilient. One can have an enormous talent, but if he is weak, he will stop working, fighting and will bend at the first sign of contradiction. Sometimes I feel that, in order to succeed in the world of photography, it takes harder skin than talent. Some time ago I dreamed of publishing in a certain magazine. I put together a proposal and, seen from a distance, I must confess (without false modesty) that it was a solid, interesting and perfectly feasible proposal. However, the editor of the magazine replied that the publication was not interested.
When I received the answer I was not depressed. There are so many factors in the industry that affect someone’s decisions. And so few are related to the quality of work or talent. That the only thing this experience told me was that that publisher, at that time, was not interested in my project. Even if it was a good project. And I had the opportunity to recognize my own effort, the quality of what I had proposed. And to think that there would be another moment, another time, another opportunity, and to continue working.
Of course I haven’t stopped writing because that publisher rejected my proposal. And I don’t think it’s a “he misses it” thing either. It seems to me that it is a more assertive subject: what his refusal indicates to me is that he said no. And that’s it. And move on.
Laboriousness. I confess I should work more on my photography. Running a family, taking care of the thousand and one things that make up life today can become a great pretext for not working. I haven’t worked as hard as I should because, perhaps, I haven’t given photographic creation the priority I thought it had. However, there is one thing in which I have been very laborious: In writing. I never saw myself as a photo writer. At the age of 16 I wanted to be a writer and curiously at one point in my life my passion for writing and photography combined.
Photography intrigued me so much that the best tool to understand it more deeply was, for me, to write about it. I write practically every day. I write articles, papers, researches, my degree thesis, academic papers, speeches… And everything, in one way or another, is related to photography.
Early Day Start
Every day I wake up at 4:30am and when weekends arrive and I can rest at my leisure. Do you know what time I wake up? At 4:30am! Then I start writing this blog. I work like an ant. I never sought to reach more than 10 million hits. However, I know that it is not something fortuitous, but the fruit of hard work.
Generosity. It seems to me that greed is despicable, especially experiential and intellectual greed. Greed is not wanting to share. Among the artists is the daily bread: the “secret” that someone doesn’t want to tell you, the technique that the other hides… Witches! Photography is something immense, immeasurable. And each person has a cultural DNA that makes it impossible for two people to take the same picture. I can write to you each and every one of the things I’ve learned over the years and you’ll end up taking totally different pictures from mine because you’ll be interested in other subjects and you’ll decide to face them as you like. Why reserve things? It doesn’t make sense to me: quite the opposite. To share is to give to others what you have without keeping anything.
This virtue, for the photographer, has a lot to do with strength, and I think also with the acceptance of our own limitations and potentialities as well as those of others. I demand a lot from my students, because it’s my duty. If I know that someone can develop a lot, why should I make him settle for little? If he can grow, why should I leave him dwarf? However, it is necessary to know who is being demanded and to what extent.
This is important for any teacher and fundamental for oneself: Excessive demands can frustrate and even destroy. But a complacent, wild attitude means stagnating and staying small when one could go further. Personal tolerance and tolerance of others is a virtue of the photographer that makes you demand, but in a proportionate way. Here the just Aristotelian means is expressed, popularly, in the classic “neither so much that it burns the saint nor so much that it does not light him”.
Sacrifice. Without the spirit of sacrifice, nothing can be achieved. You have to sacrifice leisure, comfort. Of course, it is more comfortable to stay at home than to go to the desert to take pictures or, even worse, to the street. It’s hard to accept that it’s necessary to practice and work instead of having a good time. In prioritizing what one wants in life, there are certain areas that have to be sacrificed.
Do Not Sacrifice Others
What I do believe is that one should not sacrifice others. My family is my first priority, far above even photography. I’ve never put myself in the position of sacrificing my family for what I want. But if you and I believe that everything will be given to us without any effort or sacrifice, then we are in the puerile attitude of waiting for everything to happen to us “by our pretty face.”
Humility. What a difficult virtue! Humility isn’t pretending what you’re not. True humility, I believe, has to do with recognizing oneself as one is, with limitations and potentialities. But it is one thing to recognize one’s own talents and another to gloat over them, to despise the inferiority of others or to believe in what one is not. A superb photographer is one of life’s worst experiences.
What is monstrous is that which has grown up disorderly. I think the opposite is, one way or another, harmony. I think a little bit about what happens when you go to the gym: if you just do one exercise over and over again, you will only exercise a few muscles and the rest will be inactive. So the exercise routine should include arms, legs, chest, etc. In photographic life it’s the same. If someone only concentrates on theory he will lose the aspects of technique and practice. On the contrary, the photographer who only dedicates his time to the practice does not cultivate the mind is malforming.
And I don’t think in terms of balance either, because photographic life isn’t necessarily balanced. For example 25% practical, 25% technical, 25% theory, 25% visual culture. Rather, it has to do with what it is for each one of us, in each moment and in each area, to grow, to refine, to improve or simply to explore. So a mature photographer is one who gives every aspect of his photographic life the relevant space, what he needs and when he needs it.
Some Attitudes Of The Mature Photographer
Attitudes have to do with how you express your mood. It is a social motivation that is conformed to situations and the environment where there is a mixture between thinking, emotions and behavior. All this leads us to act in a specific way. I will review some of the attitudes that have a lot to do with photographic maturity.
Critical thinking. It is necessary to know how to ponder what one has in front. If it is a photographer, an image, a scene or a situation can be the same thing. Critical thinking involves analyzing things and not taking them for granted.
Reasonable conduct. This means to act in consequence and proportion. A reasonable behavior for a well-tanned and experienced photographer is to have confidence in the project presented to him. For a beginner, reasonable behavior is approaching a project with care, even with caution, because he knows he needs to be cautious. It is easy to understand these attitudes if one imagines an experienced photographer made a bundle of nerves by a project or a beginner photographer too confident when he has a complex project because that overconfidence could seriously cause him to err.
The willingness to ponder is a human characteristic. Criticism is a judgment and can be active or passive. In other words, one can make a criticism or receive it. In both cases, knowing how to give and how to receive criticism is a fundamental attitude for the photographer. For the beginner, it is important to avoid being defensive, to listen. We often don’t like the content of a critique, but it’s important to reflect and ask what’s true about it. Not everyone has the willingness to make constructive criticism, and that, too, must be understood. On the other hand, criticism places the issuer in a situation of power and the recipient in a passive role. But critique should not be seen as a victim/victim duality, but as an opportunity for learning and growth.
For those who receive criticism, there is an enormous opportunity to learn, perhaps something that they had simply not seen. All criticism involves reflection. The important thing in receiving them is to try to keep in proportion the emotions that may be aroused by someone pointing out mistakes. Knowing how to receive criticism is one of the most difficult samples of maturity. Maybe there’s only one more difficult one: knowing how to criticize.
Whoever makes a criticism needs to have a lot of clarity in the purpose it has when expressing its opinion. It is a very long subject, but it could be summed up in that mature critique expresses opportunities for growth, not pointing out faults to delight in them. It always implies a certain judgment, but it has to know how to do it because it has to be in proportion.
In photographic life it is important to have an inner world. Read, watch movies, but especially reflect and “look inside”, that is, observe ourselves. This attitude is very important to have the ability to observe our own career and our work. It is also important to combine a healthy self-critical attitude with an introspective attitude. It’s amazing how incredibly self-destructive we can become. Again, the introspective attitude should seek to help us grow.
Some Dispositions Of The Mature Photographer
To arrange means to prepare, to order. Although it can be understood as a rule (what the penal code provides) or an organization (how a table is arranged), it has more to do with the idea of being available, ready for something. In this sense, it seems to me that there are different very important dispositions in the photographic life.
To know how to say goodbye (detachment). It’s important to have the willingness to let go. Don’t stick to anything: neither to your own photographs, nor to your prestige… This is a big part of what Buddhists can talk to us about for a long time. Attachment can be an endless source of suffering. It is essential to understand that everything changes and that these changes, when they involve attachment, are a path to suffering. Accepting renunciation (detachment) can result in a much healthier approach.
I must confess that in my own way this has been one of the most difficult provisions and I still cannot fully overcome it. Every time I see my past photos it is very difficult for me to appreciate them because I always find errors in them, something I had to do… And it is a path that leads nowhere. Photography, by definition, lives in the past; it’s something we’ve already done. And the act of looking at them is present. So there is always a time lag but also a knowledge gap.
The simple fact of having taken that photo already made us grow and we will always see it from front to back, so that our photographic self of today is different from yesterday, but the photos always belong to yesterday. I hope that the day comes when I am mature enough to be able to apply this to myself and be able to see my photos without the process being painful. I’m not there yet.
Maturity Has Nothing To Do With Age
Accept errors. A disposition that implies a great humility and, even if you don’t believe it, a great generosity towards ourselves to accept our own mistakes. It goes very hand-in-hand with the above arrangement. This may be so difficult for many of us because we have an unreasonable self-imposed demand. It could be by perfectionist parents or who knows why. But it is fundamental to learn to accept our weakness, our human condition. To think that we will never make a mistake is so wrong that it is even ridiculous. Not accepting mistakes is even a little childish. Hence, to be a mature photographer is to recognize when we have made a mistake and to be ready (willing) to learn from the process.
From The Ways Of Doing To The Ways Of Being
Photographic learning leads us to many ways of doing things: of taking photos, of doing post-production. However, what no one tells us is that perhaps even more important than the ways of doing are the ways of being. Because you can take great pictures and be a jerk, or a pushover. And then the doing is affected. Doing grows little by little with the learning, attitudes and dispositions I have talked about. But photographic maturity has much more to do with ways of being. It’s about our essence, a state, a way forward through the world.
Maturity is a way of being that implies reflexivity, inner calm and a dose of wisdom. It is a matter of knowing how to accept reality as it is and to travel easily through the flow of life. It’s about knowing how to listen and having the necessary depth to dig deep.
Maturity is the heart of a way of being that can make us take control of our own photographic life. Maturity can generate the dispositions to clarify, accept and define one’s own vision. Yes, the influence of great photographers is fundamental, a great way to learn. However, in the long run, the mature photographer is independent, autonomous.
Think Of An Immature Child
Someone who is 28 or 30 years old and still depends in every way on his parents. It has nothing to do with what you can or know how to do. This dependence implies the impossibility of following one’s own path.
In photography we can have a destiny: independence, autonomy. All the great photographers have gone through stages of training, of learning, of growth, of a lot of work. However, at a crucial moment (decisive moment, as Master Cartier-Bresson would say), these great artists have followed their own path.
Photographic maturity implies that what we are passionate about does not generate suffering but joy, that feeling of joy or pleasure that can be very subtle -like a perfume- or very intense.
By Way Of Conclusion: Degrees Of Maturity, Degrees Of Immaturity
Finally, it seems to me that it is not a good idea to maintain a Manichean position in the face of maturity and immaturity. It’s not about something in black and white. Rather it is a matter of degrees in which one can be more mature or more immature.
Perhaps we photographers will never reach a point of total maturity because then, perhaps, we would cease to be human. What we can know and accept deeply is our permanent capacity to grow.