Photography Ninjas and Masters of the Universe

When it comes to the photography community, I’ve never been one to follow what goes on and I really haven’t got a clue who’s who in the current photography world. I’ve been a landscape photographer for over 30 years but until recently, I’d only ever owned one photographer’s book, but I have bought lots of magzines over the years. I’ve kept the likes of Facebook at arms length and I found the Twitter 140 character thing really difficult due to my dyslexia, so suffice to say, I’ve pretty much lived in my own bubble. However, since launching the SLPOTY competition I’ve been thrown into the limelight somewhat and I’ve had to do a few interviews, which I have really enjoyed. The problem however, was my limited knowledge of who was who in the landscape photography world when questions were asked about certain “famous” photographers, so I thought I’d better brush up on the influencers of the current day.

What I discovered was some truly amazing photographers whose work is breathtaking and groundbreaking in equal measure. But I also discovered that there’s an awful lot of self proclaimed “experts” and “masters” around and it was the accolade of master that I found to be fairly common. In fact, when I started googling, I found master photographers and master printers by the bucket load (most of whom I’d never heard of). On social media the term was thrown about just as much with photographers who follow each bother referring to each other as the “master of woodland photography” and other such titles. Then I found an “academy” full of masters who will “put you on a path to becoming a master photographer”.  So…I thought I might applied to join. Not sure if I’d make the grade though as looking at their panel, some of them have 5 or 6 years experience (I’ve only got 30). Maybe I’m too old (at 50)? I’ve been a large format photographer for 20 years but that might not count because it’s film and too stuffy. But hey, my digital expertise runs to the very first digital cameras around 20 years ago. I’m a qualified photoshop instructor – wonder if that will count? I designed and developed an electronic photography trigger and I worked in scientific photography – wonder if that will count? Or maybe should I mention that I lectured in photography for around 20 years? God, I just wasn’t sure if I was good enough. But hang on I might just be lucky…because once you apply, you are invited to subscribe to pay a fee whilst your application is being reviewed by the masters. (Take my money now) Then there’s another chance…once you’re accepted into the training program, they let you pay an even bigger monthly fee. (Seriously, my credit card is twitching) But wait, I could fall at the last hurdle because your images are critiqued and reviewed by the “masters”! Damn – I’m not popular enough on social media so they’ll reject me!  In the end I thought I’d just not bother. (Note: I obviously won’t link to the “Academy” or name them but it won’t take a genius to figure it out)

The “academy” aside, the more I searched, the more it seemed that the accolade of “master photographer” is awarded to “photography besties” and a lot of followers on social media, But were there any authorities dishing out these awards? Well…if you’re “in” with Amateur Photographer or Outdoor Photographer magazine for example, you are a master photographer if you can shoot at one aperture, or shoot a squillion pictures of waves (aren’t those the same excercises you get taught in photography college?). Then I found a few angry exhanges and it struck me that most of the masters were digital photographers with no experience in anything else and many of the opinion that “old school” film shooters are just a bunch of elitist bastards living in the past. (I shoot film so that’s me then) But hang on, I shoot digital too, so there’s hope for me yet of becoming a master photographer. But is there truly mastery in using a digital camera I asked myself? Anyone can take a decent shot with a digital camera and if iyt’s only a decent shot, then you can slide the life out of it in Lightroom till that dull day has been bathed in light. Is that mastery? There are some amazing end results so perhaps there is – but what about instagram where everyones images look good? Then it clicked, the masters don’t tell anyone they’ve slid the life out of their best images. They just pretend it’s real and if anyone asks, they say that’s how they envisaged the final image! They’re masters alright – masters of deception!

If you’ve got this far without your blood pressure going through the roof, then well done – you’ve got a sense of humour. If you’re offended…well…. But being serious for a moment – the term “master photographer” is banded about far too often as psycophantic praise with little truth in the accolade. A real master photographer is someone like Ansel Adams who dedicated his life to photography and mastered everything he did. Not because he shot film (film haters take note), but because he delved deep into learning the characteristics of the materials and equipment of the day in order to experiment, learn, pioneer and share the techniques with the world. That’s the definition of a master photographer and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a true master again. Sure, a photographer can “master” a particular genre and produce fantastic images in software but it’s no different to composing a tune in Garageband (which anyone can do) then claiming to be a concert pianist.

The same thing goes for those “master printers”. Without doubt, there’s a degree of skill and vision involved in getting an image to a print ready stage, but does pressing print make you a master printer? There are employees behind the counter of every high street print shop doing this and much more and you don’t see them calling themselves master printers. But when a photographer does it….

I suspect the real master printers never claim to be so, because they often work behind the scenes doing this for a living not just the odd inkejt print. And if you want to go old school, you’ll find technicians working in colleges and universities working in darkrooms – who have probably forgot more about printing that most will ever learn. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a video of a real master at work – the brilliant Nathalie Loparelli. Enjoy.

1 thought on “Photography Ninjas and Masters of the Universe”

  1. While I agree with everything you’ve written, I believe a little perspective is in order. What you’ve written, as a film photographer about digital photographers and printers, could have just as easily been written by a painter or sculptor about film photographers and printers. I struggle with this myself because, like most people, I view the norm relative to my own experiences. While I started in photography about 34 years ago, I never did well. I didn’t have the resources (monetary or mentors), to get very far and languished. With the advent of digital cameras, I came into my own. I now view mirrorless cameras and most gadgets with contempt. Purity comes from within and mastering yourself the only true accomplishment.

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