Photography and The Art of The Struggle

Photography and The Art of The Struggle

As good as it feels to already know, it’s the learning that is the most fun.

The other day, I was part of a panel discussing artificial intelligence and its potential future effects on the photography industry and other forms of arts. This article is not about A.I., so I will keep its mention particularly short. But the only reason I bring it up is because, during the discussion, one of the things that became clear to me is how much I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Sure, A.I. can get me “a” result quicker than traditional methods. The efficiency is undeniable. But, by replacing the sometimes arduous process of getting to your desired result, you can also deprive yourself of the fun and ownership that comes from discovering the process on your own.

I guess I’ve always enjoyed being a student. Maybe not being in school exactly. Life can be rough for the socially challenged. But I did love the act of learning. Even if the topic at hand was one I knew full well would be of no use to me beyond the wall of academia (I’m speaking to you, Calculus), I still enjoyed the process of sitting in a classroom and being presented with ideas I never knew existed. I enjoyed the feeling that my mind could start as an empty vessel and become more buoyant through hard work and study.

Learning photography was the ultimate equation. Anybody can enjoy looking at a great photograph. But it was when I began to ask the question of how those great images I was seeing were practically created that my mind became alive with possibilities. Exactly why did Annie Leibovitz’s portraits look like that? What must have been going on behind the scenes for Elliott Erwitt to capture such amazing moments? Just what was it Steven Meisel was doing with his imagery that inspired me, as a fashion-deficient man, to spend so much time thumbing through women’s Vogue?

From the moment I picked up a camera, I dove headfirst into the how. As my career progressed, I learned that it was equally important to understand the why. Pursuing both of these levels of knowledge simultaneously, I eventually became a better photographer. As I became a better photographer, rather than things becoming easier, the task at hand only became more difficult. Because as one’s skill set increases, so should their ambition. The wonderful thing about being an artist is that it is the one profession where your goal should be to never be the finished product. Regardless of where you are in your career, from beginner to experienced pro, there is always more you can learn. Your craft is always developing. And, in that consistency of progress, lies the beauty of being an artist.

Of course, it might not seem like it all the time. I can remember the early days of learning photography and making the same mistakes time and time again, deluding myself into thinking the blur in my images was the result of a defect with my camera rather than my own inability at the time to comprehend the ramifications of shutter speed. You don’t know what you don’t know. And multiple times over the course of the career, you will have convinced yourself that you absolutely positively know an aspect of your craft only to discover randomly one afternoon on set that you’ve had virtually no clue all along.

But these scrapes and bumps you incur along the way are the exact things you need in order to develop, not only your craft but your voice as an individual artist. Like mathematics, anybody can use a calculator to get to an end result, but it takes a true mathematician to be able to show their work. And because they understand the intricacies, it gives them the power to imagine new equations beyond what may already exist in the textbooks. Understanding how you got from A to Z is a vital part of becoming a better artist. Even if you don’t ever return to a couple of the letters along the way.

So, as you continue to work to improve your craft, don’t be in such a hurry to get to the end of the road. Over the long haul, photography is in the journey. Skipping the hard part would be skipping the best part.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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1 Comment

Great article Christopher and beautifully written. I love the paradox that comes from learning new photography skills, without fail the mastering of a new skill is invariably followed by the failure to implement an older skill that you momentarily "forgot" which you now recall while deleting your blown images. Photography requires us to be humble and have a sense of humour, two qualities that A.I. will never master.