“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson
I have been asked a couple of times over the last couple of weeks the dreaded question that every photographer gets asked with great regularity: “I want to be a better photographer. What camera should I buy?” This question tends to provoke me into much deeper reflection that I don’t think my interrogators are looking for. I don’t say, “Get the Nikon” or “Get the Canon.” I ask them to reflect on what “being a better photographer entails.” However, this week that question provoked me into deeper reflection and led me to identify a common thread that unites all of my work: the struggle to release a creative vision.
At its root this is not a technology question. It is at root a search for human expression. However, we often seek technological crutches to replace the much harder work of meditation, communication, and practice required of any creative endeavor. I wonder how many pianists are asked, “I want to be a better musician. What piano should I buy?” For this is exactly the same question. One that I often hear is, “I want to be a better teacher. What technology should I use?” But these days I’m almost never asked, “I want to be a better writer. What kind of word processor/typewriter/pencil should I use?”
These questions are all the same. All are about technology and how it augments our abilities. With more mature technologies, like the piano or most writing tools, I think people instinctively recognize that the differentiator between a Steinway and a Bosendorfer can only be exploited by an expert. With less mature technologies like cameras, teaching technologies, and computers this question has, until recently, been more about limits than possibilities.
I used to have to sit down deliberately before some kind of box to write (and I’ve always written on a computer). Taking pictures involved complex chemical processes and carrying around heavy equipment. I can’t tell you how many times I missed capturing jaw-dropping images because I simply didn’t have a camera with me at the time. In addition to this, there were significant technical hurdles involved in creating this way. Typing commands on a command line to get to your word processor and a sometimes complex series of commands once you got there or the interactions between shutter speed, aperture, and film speed required a level of expertise that overwhelmed many. It is not surprising therefore that people have learned to think that technology is the differentiator between good output and bad output. Today, these kinds of concerns have largely vanished. The real differentiator has always been the capacity of our imaginations to create. In today’s technology environment, having technology get in the way of our humanity is no longer acceptable.
As a writer, photographer, teacher, former musician, and technologist dating back over 40 years, my life has been characterized by a struggle with technology. Actually, this is not entirely true. My struggle in all but the last of these things has always been with myself. However, I do struggle with technology in my efforts to get it to serve my creative impulses. I have had images ruined (or lost) due to technology failures. I have had moments of literary inspiration come and go because I didn’t have to hand a means to record them. And, of course, I long ago gave up trying to master an instrument (piano and trumpet) because I was unwilling to put in the long hours of monotonous practice in order to achieve the standards of performance I demanded of myself. And, as a teacher and technologist, I have always struggled against badly-designed technological systems in my efforts to reach my students and, furthermore, to give them the instruments of creation. However, at the end of the day, these struggles have paled in comparison with the struggle to teach effectively.
No technology, however, has ever intrinsically made me better at any of these tasks. That’s my job. The best of them become invisible and get out of the way of what I’m trying to create, whether it’s a book, a photograph or inquisitive minds. What technology has enabled me to do over the course of my career is to enhance the places where I can create and to capture the moment when it occurs (as I am doing right now at 430 am on an iPad using Google Docs). These technologies also make it increasingly easy to translate what’s going on in my head into something that I can share with others. Now, if I have an idea when I’m out walking, I can whip out my iPhone and dictate that idea onto Google Docs (my latest choice), come home, and copy that onto my WordPress blog and within a matter of hours, the idea that came to me as I was walking down a path can be shared with the world.
Technology should reduce friction between your imagination and the world. Creating is the hard part. It requires observation, meditation, and practice. Sometimes practice requires the mastering of a technology like a piano but the most important part of practice, which you can only get to once you’ve mastered your instrument, is learning to listen to the music in your head.
The brilliant thing about technology these days is that it is possible to have tools at hand that allows us to get past the technical quicker to concentrate on the task of imagination. The problem is that we often fail to see that that is the task in front of us. Hence the question: “What kind of camera should I get to make me a better photographer?” The answer is simple. Get the one that gives you the most flexibility and is one that you will have at hand when the moment or the inspiration strikes you.
For a large percentage of people that camera is the one attached to your phone. These days my most used camera is the one on my iPhone because it is always with me on my walk when I see the beautiful sunrise, cloud pattern, or interesting trees. This image was taken with my iPhone and processed using Snapseed in the phone as I was walking. Forty years ago, this would have required an SLR, the right film, and hours spent processing and printing in a darkroom. I did this in a matter of minutes and, furthermore, it was shared via social media to those who might be inspired by it in some way. This last step was impossible outside of a gallery in the 1980s.
As I said before, this blog was largely written on my iPad right after falling out of bed. This sentence is being written on my computer a couple of minutes later. It will be on my website and on social media within a matter of hours. I could just as easily have dictated these sentences into my phone as I walk the pathway beside the bayou pictured above.
Writing is hard. As someone who does a lot of it, I struggle at times with the creative impulse to translate thoughts into words on the page. Often the words come to me as I am walking (there is a clear biological connection between brain activity and exercise) and not when I’m sedentary in front of a large screen. I enjoy photographing the natural and built world. You never know when the light will change or you turn a corner and see the perfect composition. Having the technology necessary to capture that at hand is the key factor in whether I capture the image or not. Executing it comes as a result of years of practice and reflection, not as a result of whatever piece of technology I have in my hand. Preferably, that technology does get in the way of creation or, even worse, ruins what I’m trying to do through complexity.
Teaching, as I discuss in my latest book, is also a struggle to get past technology. Thriving during the pandemic and meeting my students where they can learn is much like trying to record the perfect turn of phrase or color of sky. However, it involves applying an array of tools to the problem because at the end of the day, everything else we’ve been talking about is communication. Teaching requires that I use all of the mechanisms at my disposal to reach my students in a mindful way.
Like photography, writing, and music, learning is a process of conversation. Sometimes the best tool to facilitate this conversation is sitting down across a table with your students and talking it out. Sometimes the best tool for conveying ideas is recording your thoughts and posting them where the students can access them when they are ready to learn. Sometimes the best strategy is to be able to sit around a virtual table and to play through a learning exercise. To effectively augment teaching requires an array of technologies but it’s as much of a mistake to rely on technology to replace the human in the classroom as it is to try to replace the human in the photography process. As with photography and writing the trick is to mindfully select the sets of tools that bridge the gap between inspiration and understanding.
So, how do I answer the question of what technology (teaching, computing, photography, etc.) should I use? The answer is the same in all cases: choose the technology that becomes invisible when you want to be human. It’s humans that teach and learn. It’s humans that recognize and capture the beauty of the world. It’s humans who connect ideas and tell stories about them. All technology imposes limits. At a fundamental level narrative is shaped by language, whether that language is one of brushstrokes or keystrokes.
So, let’s create, teach, laugh, connect, inspire, and learn and build technologies that help us to do those things (for that is itself a creative process called design). Pick a camera that you will have with you when the moment happens. Pick a writing instrument that is where you are when the ideas flow. Pick teaching technologies that facilitate learning and connecting humans with ideas first and foremost. Keep playing until you find the set of technologies that allow you to be the most human. As one of my favorite thinkers on technology, Doug Engelbart, wrote in 1962, “We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined technology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.” If you use technology to augment your humanity and then get out of the way, you can’t go far wrong.