Creator or consumer?

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Entropy is the way of all things

I have a theory: there are only two kinds of people in this world when it comes to content and creative output. Either you are primarily a consumer, or primarily a creator. We also have to take two other parameters into account: quantity and reach; total impact is determined by both – little quantity and widespread reach is probably about the same as high quantity and narrow reach, with high quantity and high reach of course having the greatest net output. A consumer is a person who has little quantity or reach; certainly less than the media they consume. A creator is a person whose output exceeds their input (reflagging and distribution doesn’t count; that’s not creating anything new). Of course, a much simpler way of looking at this is by time: do you spend more time reading and watching, or making/ shooting/ posting/ writing/ sharing?

Nothing is quite this clear-cut, of course: you cannot be a creator without being a consumer of some sort, because there isn’t such a thing as true originality: there’s always traceable inspiration from some source. Not only that, creativity is really a symbiotic and evolutionary process: it’s simply not possible to go from dilettante to sophisticate without traversing the intermediate stages, which are necessary to gain the understanding that takes you to expert level in the first place. You cannot make a photograph if you haven’t seen a certain number of existing photographs to have some idea of what the concept of the photograph entails. We must all therefore start out as consumers.

But education is important: you can’t want what you don’t know about. It’s difficult to create at first because there are just too many options, and no obviously ‘better’ or ‘easier’ path – do you start with portraits? Wildlife? Landscapes? Still lifes? The process of consumption is at very least one of passive education; if you look at enough material, it’s impossible not to learn something through osmosis. I suppose this brings us to a sort of passive reinforcement state: I certainly found in my earlier days of photography that the more of other photographers’ work I would look at, the more my work would take on stylistic aspects of theirs; they became an influence, conscious or not. I know I consciously sought to emulate the work of photographers I admired at one point, which requires a certain amount of consumption before you can create anything; to move beyond that, I feel you have to know yourself better.

This is said not so much in the new age sense of self-discovery, but to ask what compositional, stylistic and subject elements you like and dislike – and why. Without really knowing this, it’s impossible to make consistent work, and impossible to make work that you yourself will be happy with. Using a a food analogy again: it’s the difference between randomly sampling things at a buffet without really taking note of the labels, and seeking out dishes you like (or might like, since they’re related by culture or ingredients). I think this is really the transitional point for most people: if you can push through the challenge of introspection and really figure out what it is you want to create, and why that drives you, then the creation part almost becomes impossible to stop.

From a photographic standpoint, it’s the ability to suddenly see compositions and opportunities everywhere. The challenge is no longer ‘what do I shoot?’ but ‘how do I curate?’ We swing to the other extreme and now have to go back to the more fundamental question: why are you shooting? Interestingly, no matter what the response is – ‘to record my kids’; ‘to cover an event’; ‘to make a living’; ‘to share what I see’ – the fundamental reason is still to create. To create memories; to create a historical record; to create wealth or value; to create a different impression. We are making our idea and point of view accessible and visible.

There’s a bit of an elephant in the room, though. The ‘catch’ with photography is that unlike a lot of other art forms that truly offer full freedom to the creator (you can paint something that does not and has not ever existed in reality, for instance) – photography always has to be derivative. We cannot photograph something that does not exist (though retouching specialists and certain paranormal photobloggers will claim otherwise, and even in the latter case, existence is somewhat mandatory). The physical object has to be there for light to reflect off it and hit our sensors or emulsions. Does that make all of it a fundamentally consumptive pursuit? No, because I think you still need a good degree of firstly observational ability to notice something interesting, and both imagination and technical skill to execute it and translate it into something visible to a less expert audience.

I’d like to think all photographers are doing this because they fundamentally want to create something. The rest is merely inconsequential fluff – how you get there is not so important as where you’re going and why you’re going there. It may matter because some destinations are only accessible by certain routes and methods, and generally the more difficult the destination, the fewer people will understand why you want to go (or want to go with you) and the more bricks will get thrown. The less guidance exists, the more creation you’re going to have to do along the way to get there. But the rewards will also be commensurately greater. Pioneers were always derided and usually never got recognised until the level of understanding of the rest of the world caught up.

Notice I said ‘all photographers‘: there are a large number of very vocal people on various fora and review blogs and the like who are not really creating anything but a lot of noise and confusion, or worse, mongering hate. Alternative points of view are welcome, but so is objectivity. Photographers must actually make photographs to be considered such, and that should be the primary purpose of equipment buying – the tool is subservient to the purpose. There’s nothing wrong with things being the other way around, but that makes you a collector, not a photographer. And conclusions formed from the perspective of a collector or quantitative tester and not a photographer are only useful for other collectors or quantitative testers – not photographers. I think this line has never really be clear in photography in particular; it wouldn’t make any sense to base a car purchasing decision on the opinion of somebody who doesn’t drive – yet photographers do it all the time.

If anything, I think social media can be detrimental to creativity simply because human nature tends to be jealous, negative and somewhat hostile to anything different to one’s own opinion or preferences. Without the stubborn or convicted few who are willing to try, we’d still be living in caves. A negative opinion without any constructive criticism is not useful at all – if anything, it’s extremely discouraging of experimentation. But conversely, constructive criticism is perhaps one of the most useful bits of guidance a creative can have: it’s very difficult for us to be objective, which means we often get blinded by emotional attachment to an idea or image, and can’t see its flaws. More frustratingly, we may be aware something is not quite right, but not know why or what to do about it.

There is really only one way for me to finish this post: by encouraging all of you to recognise that transition stage between consumer and creator; pushing through the ‘why’ and knowing why you’re shooting. This translates into better images for you, and more inspiration for the rest of us – remember, creation is a derivative activity. On top of that, don’t be a negative consumer: try to encourage the process of creation and foster improvement, rather than discourage it. It’s a big world, and there are as many preferences and opinions as there are people – which means there’ll always be an audience for all of us. Why not be part of developing that? MT


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  1. Since becoming a creator [professional photographer] I don’t have the money to be a consumer anyway ;p

    • Haha, good one!

    • Well, you still consume free (or nearly free) images via internet, public library, museum, cinema. Does an opera set and staging designed by William Kentridge (cost of Met Opera live telecast video ticket for Lulu (Alban Berg), $15.00) or a group of paintings by Max Beckmann (free admission to the local art museum) have direct one-to-one relationship with my photography? No, but these are “brain food”. We all need “brain food”, no matter how technically skilled or technically impaired one may be.

  2. Michiel953 says:

    Douglas Skyhawk…

  3. As Eleanor Roosevelt DIDN’T say:

    Creative togs discuss ideas; Pulitzer prize winning togs discuss events; amateur togs discuss cameras


    I really enjoyed that Ming, I’ll endeavour not to ‘bang on’ as there’s not so much for me to add… Except that after over 20 years of various photographic endeavour I’ve spent the past the 7 months or so sharing, reaching, sharing, and I’ve found it to be a very rewarding experience (once one realises that the majority of people that one will run into online can be simply filed away as “white noise”)

    It’s always nice when someone gets it, it can be frustrating when someone doesn’t, and it can eye opening when someone sees more in your work than you intended…

    These experiences are IMO worth pursuing, as each one can lead to growth, and has made me question and (hopefully) refine what I do.

    I’ve always seen myself as ‘a homegrown practitioner, plodding away in his own garden’ and whereas I don’t see that changing anytime, it’s been good for me to open the gate and invite people in

    • I just make pictures because I enjoy it more than pretty much any other creative or professional pursuit. But I recognize there’s a little ecosystem around that has to be built in order to keep everything ticking over…

  4. “I’d like to think all photographers are doing this because they fundamentally want to create something. The rest is merely inconsequential fluff – how you get there is not so important as where you’re going and why you’re going there.”

    Actually I find that my issue – and I think I’m not alone in this – is that the process of photography itself tends to become an act of consumption instead of creation. If I see great light or learn a new way to compose, the thought process resembles playing a computer game: “ooh, my photography skill is going to level up” instead of “wow, what an opportunity to express myself”. Some people are content with that, but I do have the urge to create so it’s actually painful not to be able to fulfil it very often, and tends to result in weak images, too.

    I think at the bottom of the issue is lack of purpose. If you have one (or several) in life, then it’s easier to find one for your photography, and again translate it to specific learning goals and experimentation. Without a purpose… it’s just imitation-based drills to prepare for the day you might find one. Self-development – or worse, trying to please others – is a generic purpose that only carries you to certain stage (or age).

    Making art is a great exercise in breaking through that barrier; it’s far easier to succeed in e.g. corporate career without having to learn to know yourself. Unfortunately for those of us struggling, it’s far easier to find help in fixing compositional imbalances than defining life goals and photographic vision.

    • You need to do one before the other – it’s difficult to say and express one’s thoughts if you do not understand the structure of language or have an adequately large vocabulary; at some point we switch over from copying simple sentences to expressing our own ideas. I don’t know if most go far enough to reach the stage of fluency, but if you can’t fix compositional imbalances and make the intended subject pop, then there’s no way your audience is going to be able to identify that subject either 🙂

      • True, true. Without technique it’s almost impossible to come up with original workable ideas, as you also pointed out in the article (though a lot of modern art looks like is just inspiration without any skill, but I wouldn’t call those succesful attempts).

        You can go far down the route without caring for anything but learning from others, but I think there’s a difference between enjoying the process and being passionate about the images. The only times I’ve actually been impressed with my own photography has been at the few occasions when I was doing it for someone else (though voluntarily and free to express my own view). I think it’s both a motivational and inspirational factor; I generally enjoy helping others, thus using (and even learning) the technique for that purpose probably result in better images and more satisfaction.

  5. To many observers images appear to be realistic, though they are representational. Lens angles, lighting, and even the position of the camera influence observations from viewers. On the manipulation end, Photoshop has been demonized, despite being a very useful tool. Just to use Photoshop (Lightroom, Phocus, or Capture One too) does not always mean objects edited in, or out, of images.

    The internet gives the angry, jaded, or simply mean-spirited, a platform to cause havoc, without fear of retribution. This is the chaff in the useful conversations. Much of this is like people throwing sand in the air, or in our faces. One thing that creative professionals develop quickly is a very thick skin to criticism. The experience is not always easy, but it’s a big part of the process of our profession. On this I think you are handling things quite well.

    • Adding and removing things in post has been happening since the start of photography – though for some odd reason, the public does not accept this. To do so convincingly in PS is actually very difficult – as anybody who’s actually tried it will know. By the same token, nobody questions inaccurate/interpretational/biased painting: if anything, hyperrealism isn’t really much of a thing at all…

      *Puts on asbestos jacket* 🙂

      • Indeed, much criticism is towards poorly done Photoshop. There was a great article in Resource Magazine recently about this. One question that came up is whether it is “proper” to present a product in the best way, or whether a higher level of realism should be followed.

        I can feel the flames already. 😉 If I recall my art history correctly, hyper-realism came about in the 1960s, when Adobe meant a type of dwelling or brick.

        • I’m all for presenting it in the best way and removing one off randomness like dust, but not impossible composite lighting…

  6. Praneeth Raj Singh says:

    a) I agree with sanecinema (John). You’re a damned fine writer.

    b) I don’t think there’s any neat point or line of transition from consumer to creator. Looking back at my journey in photography, I can’t figure out when photography became such a large part of my life and took up so much of my mental capacity. However, I find that it’s a lot more satisfying to create, even if just for yourself, than it is to consume.

  7. Great post with lots to consider. Diligently working on improving the creative side.

  8. Martin Fritter says:

    I am not sure it’s possible to generalize about photography. “…photography always has to be derivative. We cannot photograph something that does not exist.” There are a number of photographers who create their images from scratch. For example, Gregory Crewdson. Or Cindy Sherman. Or Jeff Wall. (Actually, I find much of this work to be airless.)

    Also, what’s not derivative is a way of seeing. In other words, if one takes a picture of a tree trunk, one is taking a picture of how one looks at it. So there is this chiasm of subjective and objective – “as if it knew before knowing” to quote Merleau-Ponty.

    • But Crewdson et al still use physically extant objects. They might create a scene from their own minds, but it isn’t – and can’t be – the same as say a painting of a person who doesn’t exist, or mountains that never formed…

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Well, that’s certainly true, although his work obviously exists in the space between creation and consumption. He’s building sets, and setting up lighting cranes and hiring actors and so on. So a lot like cinema. And Sherman is putting on costumes and wigs and prosthetics.

        Love your work with abandoned machines!

  9. Chris Huff says:

    Creator, definitely. One of my best afternoons shooting was when I picked the subject of places I’d had lunch with friends over the last year. I came out with five or six stellar photos that are still my favorites. And when I find myself shooting the same stuff over and over, it’s this theme / topic shooting that forces me to think differently, think new, think fresh.

  10. This is a great article. When it comes to picture-taking, or picture-making, I often find it difficult to distinguish between “creating” and “consuming” . If I’m “capturing” an image, am I taking a bite out of the world, or am I responding to it creatively? And when I share an image, am I offering for consumption something I’ve created, or something I’ve consumed? Drives me so batty that sometimes I have to leave the camera home and keep everything I see all to myself. 😉

    • Thanks. That’s a tough question: I’d like to say that it could be either, though that might sound like a copout. You could be a consumer if you merely make a snapshot sod the scene that doesn’t add any of your own influence or interpretation; a creator if you see and share something in that scene where the scene serves merely as a base and nothing more.

  11. Stefano says:

    A lot of food for thought here.
    Personally, I think I may define myself as an invisible (selfish?) creator 🙂 . I spend a lot of time reading and watching, a good chunk of time shooting but…I rarely share something.
    This mainly because of the poor average quality of the audience, which in most of the cases (forums, blogs, etc.) is much more interested in gear and technicalities than photography (“Huh, this HCB’s picture is poorly focused” or “Nice shot of Loch Ness monster, but it’s ½ stop over-exposed…”).
    But…I often feel the need of some criticism, which of course I can’t get without sharing. Quite frustrating, isn’t it?

    Anyway: your blog is a treasure. You’re 101% right when you say that the future of photography lies in education. And you’re constantly educating your readers.

    • I think it’s a matter of finding the right audience – or a structured feedback method. May I suggest the Email School or Weekly Workflow? 🙂

      • Stefano says:

        I’m actually very much interested in the Weekly Workflow. I just have to replace my old banger (early 2009 iMac), which can barely handle Lightroom CC… let alone PS, which I’d like to start using. 🙂

        • Believe it or not, I run PS on the 12″ Macbook and it runs just fine, even with 50MP Hasselblad files…and that thing has significantly less power than your iMac. 🙂

          • Stefano says:

            No reason not to believe it 😉 (see my reply to Tarmo’s message).
            I think my next purchase will be Introduction to Photoshop video. 🙂

        • You might find that PS is not as resource hungry as LR. The former can do more complex edits on the photos, but they are applied one at a time and the next action will start from whatever state the image is in. LR works differently: any change to the image requires it to run through *all* the adjustments you’ve made so far, because things always happen in the same sequence. That takes a lot of processing power. MT’s workflow is also relatively light (but powerful).

          Short version: try it and don’t worry about the computer.

          • Stefano says:

            Hi Tarmo,
            thanks for the explanation.

            I wrongly assumed that PS was more resource hungry than LR. Just for my defense: my switch from Capture NX to Adobe CC is very recent. 😉
            Time to give PS a try!

        • Frans Richard says:

          If you haven’t already, try maxing out the RAM and replacing the HDD with an SSD. Lightroom runs fine on my 2009 Mac mini with 8 GB RAM and 1 TB SSD.

  12. Niklas says:

    Dear Ming,

    you make good point here. And I must admit that you touch upon a bit of a personal weak spot because I am very much still in that transition which you have identified. Still, I want to thank you for that, because it encourages me.
    Nevertheless, I don’t fully agree with you. I don’t think that you can measure someone’s (artistic) quality purely in terms of quantity or reach. After all, there are many photographers who choose not to share: maybe its because they don’t want to participate in social networking or because their work is deeply personal or for some other reason. It may be a bit clichéed but think of Vivian Maier. Whatever one may think about that story, here pictures are great. Surely, she has had impact after her death with a notable quantity and great reach. But would she have been any less of a creator or an artist, had her pictures not been discovered by chance? And even if there are people who read and buy lots of stuff and create little, does that automatically make them consumers? I don’t think that dichotomy fully works. Think how many artists there are that have created a very small oeuvre. Certainly the world would have forgotten about Vermeer, who produced merely 34 images in his lifetime, had these pictures not been of such outstanding quality. It stands to reason that he studied a lot more than 34 paintings in his lifetime…
    I think your model is accurate for most of us in this day and age and I would be happy if I could really make that transition to “creator”. Still, I think a number of people fall through the cracks of your model and would be labeled “consumer” rather unfairly in a dichotomy in which one option is clearly presented superior to the other.

    • I think there may be a bit of a miscommunication here – Maier was definitely a creator. Whether one shares their work publicly or not is another thing entirely; I was using the modern situation as an illustrative example. 🙂

      In short though – a purely consumptive model is unsustainable, and a purely creative one is pointless. We need both for society to function effectively.

  13. Ming, you’re a very good photographer, but you’re also a damned fine writer.

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