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Mastering photography - part 3

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs)

Keywords: mastery, art, bgs

In this third part of "mastering the art of photography", I continue to explore what mastering this art form entails. We'll discuss "is it really art?" and the creativity required to get "artsy enough". I think this time of the year is a very good time to start handing out gifts, especially those that have to do with long term objectives, so why don't you give yourself the gift of a bit more time for the thing you love, that you are passionate about?
The objective of the series is to discover any of the processes and methods supporting the photographer who's interested in achieving consistently better results.
Several readers have been giving their feedback and thoughts in our Café on the first and second parts and I invite you to do so as well, after you have read these. Learning together is so much more enjoyable and it plays a big part of what our community is all about.

Mastery vs. art, or the "art" part of it all

Just because you might be mastering the technique does not mean you are producing art, of course. Art is not technique; rather it is the result of creativity. I believe that truly creative artists often are not very good at the mundane, ordinary tasks of daily life. It seems to me that our specialized brain regions are not often articulated at the same time, resulting in us being either well centered in the daily life with organized schedules, or that we are less focused on those timelines and pressures while being capable of being truly creative.
We can probably find highly creative, artistic individuals throughout human history that also exhibited an organized, factory-like workflow. Coming down to production quality and output, e.g. becoming successful, we probably must combine managing a workflow, to some certain degree, while allowing ourselves to be creative and artistic. With more training one can assume it might get easier to combine the two. As mentioned earlier, being a master at an art form does not mean one is successful, or vice versa.
I personally find myself most creative when I am losing myself to the now, ignoring daily demands, forgetting time. If I am bound to a lot of schedule minutiae I risk feeling under pressure, or at least "being on the surface of things" only, seldom capable of doing deeper, potentially more creative work.
Being focused while letting go of time and the related daily pressures seem to be musts, at least to me, to be able to enter my "creative zone". Entering the creative zone can be trained, just like one can train meditation, or typically any other skillset.
Giving us large-enough slices of uncoordinated, unmanaged time is probably needed to be able to grow our artistic selves, a prerequisite to learn beyond the pure aspects of managing technique and methodology.

Ballet dancer by Pascal Baetens

How long or short is the road?
It comes down to you; you are the key factor and you are more capable than you may think.
As seen by Pascal Baetens (pbaetens)
Just as anyone can learn to play the piano, everyone can learn the art form of photography. We have already discovered that we do not need to cover all art forms of photography, or all its disciplines to say that we are "mastering the art of photography". Just because I might be a master at playing and interpreting Johann Sebastian Bach does not mean I am a master at creating or even playing jazz like a Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk.
By allowing ourselves large enough time blocks for our own art, we can pursue it. If we are not capable of cutting away large enough slices, we probably will have an issue reaching beyond a certain level simply because we will stay on the level of technique and methodology, not getting into the creative space. We might get into the space by chance every now and then, but it will likely not be consistent enough to be joyful over time.

Talent might be slumbering

We are very capable, even if we might not take it for granted. Often we might consider someone else being excellent, whereas we see ourselves as less so. This often has to do with a lack of confidence or simply not giving us enough time. Becoming really good at something typically requires a lot of effort and focus plus the belief that it is possible to achieve it. If any one of these three components is lacking, we have an unsurmountable obstacle in reaching beyond a certain level and we might miss the obvious, that we indeed can do it, that we are indeed talented beyond what we thought of ourselves at first.

The elasticity of your brain

In the last decade or two, we have found out that our brains are way more flexible and adaptable than earlier known to man. We have come to learn that our brain cells are not only dying, withering as we are getting older, but that we can also recreate brain cells, grow them again, even at a higher age if the conditions are supportive.

With a healthy brain comes healthy creativity

When we treat our brain, and the rest of our body well, we are giving ourselves a better chance of becoming creative. By resting well, eating well and taking time out we can expect better results in the creativity department over time. To be creative while being under stress, not well nurtured and loading us with unhelpful chemical compounds is probably impossible.
Starting up our artistic self should start with doing a checkup, getting the inventory count, to know the status quo of our physical state. With a healthy physical state, we improve the chance of a healthy mental state, of a positive, creative state.
Just as we have come to understand that our brains are way more elastic than previously thought, we have come to understand that even our DNA, our genetics are more flexible and less written in stone than known earlier, such as in the science of how environmental factors and e.g. chemistry influence our DNA, known under the term "epigenetics".
It would be at least foolish to underestimate the importance of what we put into ourselves and how we live our lives, and how these affect our creative output. Ignoring the input, ignoring the environment and to expect creative output is simply foolish indeed.
It is said that Pablo Picasso painted best after a few bottles of red wine combined with the green liquid absynthe, the potential driving fuel not only for his genius, but for greats such as e.g. Degas, Gaugain and Manet. I remember hearing about a young Swedish programmer in my teens that was on drugs while programming some crazy, low-level computer code that was then acquired by a North American company changing their core graphics implementation in their worldwide distributed games, making them millions of Dollars in the process.
I am though not into experiments with known, or unknown poisons to enhance my creativity, except for coffee. If you want to experiment, that is up to you, but it's outside the scope of my current series of articles. Many chemicals are required to keep us up and running, such as menaquinone, or vitamin K2 and maybe neurosurgeon and author of the book “Epi-Paleo Rx”, Dr. Jack Kruse, is onto something when he is claiming that we need to reprogram ourselves to achieve optimal health.

Positive feedback and the repetition of joy

We touched upon the importance of getting critique on our work to improve our photography in part two. Another instrument that is vital on our journey is joy, the passion, something we discussed in that part as well. The repetition of joy is probably just as important, to have a continuity of positive events, of good feedback that makes us stay hungry to learn more. This joy can be that our photography is exhibited on a website or in a city-gallery, or it can be to have our work being mentioned in a blog or a in a magazine.

Praise yourself

To sustain on our path it is important to work towards these joyful moments and to repeat them. It is easier to repeat joyful moments if we take enough time for ourselves and also grant ourselves praise. As so often this has nothing to do with photography, but with self-management. To be capable of saying "I am pleased with myself today, because I have achieved this..." and then to sit back and feel good about it, is important. Too often I find myself running past something that I have achieved just to go for the next objective, forgetting to give myself enough time to just sit back and enjoy whatever it was I achieved.

Who says it is art?

Just as the question we raised earlier "who says you are mastering the art of photography?" we can think about the answer to "who says it is art?" I find myself sometimes wondering why something is called art when I cannot appreciate it as being artful in any sense I can come up with. I then think to myself, maybe it is enough that the artist says it is art to make it art. At least I understand that just because I cannot appreciate it in any way, does not mean it is not art. As mentioned above, art is related to creativity and if there is a creative process behind it, it likely is art.

Are certain roads towards mastery shorter than others?

Why should we ask this question to start with? I get a warning bell ringing here since I wonder if this is really passion-driven to start with. By raising the question, we probably are thinking about efficiency, how to reach something in the most efficient way, such as mastering A, B or Z within a limited period of time. If we are passion-driven, we do not need to ask this question to start with. If I am most passionate about photographing human faces, it is irrelevant to know that I can learn shooting beautiful “winterscapes” faster than that. It might be relevant though to know that the core elements I need to learn, the key aspects that will have most influence supporting me in my photography is the skill S or the methodology M. Identifying these key aspects might be worth a lot, helping you staying focused while learning better.
What also might be relevant is to know that I can repeat what I have learnt in one discipline in another and thereby shortening the other path; generic skills vs. special skills so to say.
What are the generic skills you can come up with that work equally well for both portrait, basketball and landscape photography?
What do you think is the key element in your discipline and what you would recommend an interested photographer to practice, if it would be the only thing that person should practice?
You are the key factor determining how long the path will be while you are on your road. We have touched upon the effort, focus and belief you invest in yourself, plus your health and over all mindset. Now you can factor in your environment, how you are influenced by having a family to take care of, studies to attend, working every day, an elderly person needing your help, or a grandson that needs to be driven to school. Often obligations can be turned into opportunities. Taking the children to school, or commuting to work might be a photographic opportunity, for example.
Financial means play for sure a role in your development as well. Having very few means can be a booster to "learn like crazy", simply because of hunger. Having financial means to hire a personal coach that supports you on your path is another way to shorten the path. Learning is an investment; you are investing time for sure and likely money as well.
Next week we will continue discussing which parts of mastering the art of photography you can control well for, the "controlled-spectrum", if "you are a factory" and for sure more.
What is the single most important thing you can do to carve out more time for the one thing you love, now in November?
Please join the others and me in the Café and share your thoughts on this and the previous articles in the series. Together it is more fun!

Part 4 - Control and Are you a factory?

if you don't want to give feedback or your thoughts on this topic in the Cafe, you might want to move on to part 4 of this series.
(7 Votes )

Originally written on October 30, 2017

Last updated on December 30, 2020


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on November 1, 2017

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

@James, great input, thanks. Feel free to comment on the Café thread on this as well, letting us keep all thoughts in one place :)

James Oppenheim (Commart) on October 31, 2017

Every art has two major components: technical facility and mastery of one or more parts of the literature or body of work in the field extant. Generally speaking -- and not speaking about the art business -- the end sought in development of a composing artist (whatever the medium) is "new idiom". Referred to as "unique voice" or vision or technique, it's generally easier to master methods and know one's field than it is to produce a unique contribution to it. In straight photography, the most notable were adventurous with both their subject interests and the technology employed; in today's blended and computer-enabled graphic and visual arts environment, all becomes illustration -- we're displaying something! -- and it may be more difficult to produce "breakthrough" in "prosumer" approaches because so many advances -- cgi, 3D -- may be rooted in the capabilities of expensive experimental technology and related investment. Does it matter as it may have for 19th Century chemistry and theatrical genius? I don't think so: the art-making experience has been democratized (everyone can do something) and then for guys and gals with cameras, there's always room for exploration, observation, and visualization in the making and editing of an exposure.