This is a topic I have been thinking about for some time and feel very strongly about. There are no secrets in photography, no special way of seeing, of composing, special camera technique, darkroom or lightroom or photoshop secret to make you into the next new thing.
In the movie Sneakers staring Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, they are trying to decipher a code box and determine its use. Turns out the box is able to crack any and all cryptology codes. The box was from Setec Astronomy, which the stars determine is an anagram for No More Secrets
No more secrets. Having participated, taught, competed and practiced the martial arts for over 40 years, I have seen my fair share of so called “secret” techniques, too deadly to be revealed to the general public. But for a special price the so called Master will share it with you and you are now able to wield the secret technique and conquer all.
Some may remember the original Karate Kid where Ralph Macchio beats William Zabka in the final match with a jump kick that Mr. Miyagi has informed Ralph cannot be stopped. I can tell you from experience it can be stopped. I had a friend who attempted to use the technique in the ring and was laid out on the floor as a result of trying to use the technique. My friend was a higher rank than the other competitor, but it was to no avail. The secret technique never prevailed.
So by now I’m sure your asking what does this what to do with photography. Plenty. I recall my very first workshop in 1981 in the Owens Valley Photography Workshop, headed up by Bruce Barnbaum, Ray McSaveny, and John Sexton. During the course of the workshop it was reiterated to us that there are no secrets in photography and no one has all the answers and the sole holder of all photographic knowledge.
For one thing since it is an art, there are many of ways to create a photographic print or art, just as there is an almost endless array of photographic artists. Bruce shared a story of how Ray had made some deviations on how he developed film for very high contrast situations. Ray did not keep it to himself but shared it with others, one being Bruce.
Ray had made some very wonderful images in the Uniroyal Tire factory that pushed the limits of printable contrast. Bruce was visiting a cathedral and made an exposure and processed the negative using the information shared with him by Ray. Bruce said it was a step that allowed him to make his images from the Cathedrals in England and the slot canyons in the southwest.
And this same information was freely shared with all the participants at the workshops. No secrets. No certifications. No extra money paid. Just a sharing of information. And the encouragement to use it in our own work.
Certainly someone could say the workshops are a payment of sorts for information in order to get participants to pack the room. Perhaps in some cases. However in my experience there is more than just information being shared from the instructors. Their experience, the techniques on how to use the knowledge, the sharing of ideas amongst the group with its collective experience provides even more information than even the instructors can share
Where I have an issue is when the so called instructors hold the workshop to “certify” the participant as being able to teach a certain style, technique, method, or see a certain way for creating art. Certification is just another money making scam. Many of us arrive at a certain look or style for our work after years of study and experience. The certification folks want to get you to a certain stylistic look faster and you have to pass exams along the way to prove your skill before the certificate to teach the method is awarded. Or you can only teach certain facets of said style.
But what happens if say I arrive at the same method of teaching, the look of my work is similar to a certified style, am I now going to be set upon by this group who claims they own this certified aesthetic? That would be like Ansel Adams family saying we want money from all of you who have used the zone system. Or Edward Weston’s family saying we want money from anyone who used pyro to process their prints. Or any number of art movements or artists making claims for what they were known for.
I’m not saying to not attend a workshop or classes on learning how to get a certain look for your images. Certainly there are books and videos out there that help but hands on instruction can help you get a better handle on moving towards the feeling you are trying to share in your art. But certification in a certain style or system is not the way. You only line the pockets of the instructors. Artists arrive at a certain look without being certified to teach or create their work. It’s accomplished through study, hard work, instruction, and critique of your work.
So before heading off to learn some secret photography style or technique do some research and see what is really being offered and what is out there. The internet has opened the door to a world of art not seen before and artists who are willing to share their particular vision freely with others.
Oh and if you come across a secret karate technique that really stops all attackers regardless of size, age, and weapon they are carrying, please let me know. I’m still looking.