Almost everybody falls into one of two categories: creator or consumer. Do you spend more time making content or material, derivative or otherwise, than consuming it? Do you prefer to make or view images? Of the creators, there are positive, derivative and negative. The positives try to advance art, science and and knowledge by providing a point of view or product or device or service that hasn’t existed previously, whilst maybe or maybe not benefitting personally from the provision of said novelty. The line between positive and derivative is a blurry one, and perhaps doesn’t cleanly exist – in my mind, it’s down to whether the creator tries to add some element of originality or not; there’s no such thing as 100% uniqueness or 100% invention from nothing. We cannot create without some base of precedent or inspiration, no matter how remote or seemingly unrelated. But the more remote the connections that are made in the creation of something, the more the creator contributes by joining the dots, making the logical conclusions and helping the rest of us see what we might have missed.
The derivative, on the other hand, is merely a repackaging: there is nothing really original here. A good example would be the various consumer ‘crazes’ that sweep through Malaysia periodically – burgers, coffee, donuts, vaping, now ice cream. None of these products or services on their own are new; they’re derivative from a concept somebody’s brought back from overseas and offered to the local market. The first person to do it is arguably trying to introduce something that didn’t exist before, but the dozens of others who follow in their wake are not – and inevitably, the whole thing lands up lasting a few months to a year before the market hype dies down, and things go back to a more sustainable pre-frenzy level. One or two entities survive; those that are either the first, the best/best publicised, or simply have the longest staying power.
Lastly, we have the negative: these people cannot exist without the creative and the derivative. They are consumers in the very worst sense of the term: positivity goes in, negativity comes out. They exist mainly to tear down what other people have built – literally, metaphorically, verbally, and in pretty much any way they can. They are the pessimists, the trolls, the people who hide behind a veil of arrogant condescension on one site and then spout hate vitriol on another with apparent ‘truth’ twisted to suit their own purposes and prove their own self-worth. Without a positive or a derivative to attack and take down, they cannot exist: they must find something to criticise and destroy. They can only find some pale semblance of self esteem by bringing other people to a level lower than them – without somebody to degrade to make themselves feel better, they cannot survive. Despite outward appearances of confidence and arrogance, there’s really quite a lot of fragility there: the lower they have to bring somebody – for no good reason – the more they hate themselves, because their targets must be brought lower than them in order to feel any self worth. They are the trolls and argumentative people who pick fights on forums about minutiae instead of seeing the bigger picture.
Note that this is not the same as the critic, though a critic might well be a negative, too. Objective criticism is necessary and essential for the positive and the derivative to develop; without this external assessment, we cannot see our flaws and limitations – and therefore remain unable to work around them to reach greater levels. The key term here is objectivity; it is nigh on impossible to separate subjective, personal opinion from objective fact when it comes to anything creative or artistic. Quoting historical precedent is precisely thew wrong thing to do, because every single example that is a precedent now was the exception at one point: that is precisely the reason why they are remembered as being exceptional some time later. If anything, historical precedent determines what we should not repeat if we are trying to seek uniqueness.
The critic needs to be not just objective, but with sufficient knowledge across the discipline at hand and generally in order to be able to provide useful observations. It’s almost a case of the specialist again: you have to be a generalist to be able to see the big picture and put things into context, but also possess very specific knowledge to either troubleshoot or refine to a very sharp point. Not everybody is suited to be a critic; some people are too nice, some are too harsh, some are too emotional, and many simply lack the necessary knowledge and/or desire to acquire it. The worst kind hide arrogantly behind a veil of obfuscating verbiage that simply either impresses the layman into submission, or creates the false impression of erudition. And there are no supporting examples or explanations given, either. (See what I just did there?)
In a photographic context, the positive is the one who’s pushing the envelope trying to do things that haven’t been done – to visualise new ideas; to capture scenes or events or instants that have never been seen; to find a new perspective on the quotidian. The derivative are those whose subjects dominate the idea, (e.g. a straight product shot on white with flat lighting with no attempts made at creative interpretation of the subject) or where the whole idea has been done before – and the latest attempt is merely a duplication. This does not necessarily mean the result is going to be a bad photograph, but it’s not going to be remembered for breaking any new ground, either. The negative are those who do not photograph, are afraid or unable to put their work in the public domain, but are quite happy to criticise in a very personal and unobjective way. We should of course question whether and why our work was really so bad that the entire idea was missed completely.
The creative world needs positives, derivatives and critics – but not negatives. We need those who push forward the envelope and question why things must be done or interpreted a certain way, and even if we oppose or don’t understand them now, we may come to appreciate them later. They are the visionaries and the leaders and the mavericks who move understanding and access forward in leaps and bounds. They are those who find working links between ideas so tenuous and remote that the result is brilliant. We need the derivatives to support, gradually iterate and ‘fill out the envelope’ – who knows which incremental progression might trigger the next visionary. We need craftsmen because not every solution requires an artist; and if everybody was an artist, we wouldn’t appreciate art. We don’t need the negatives because they really don’t add any value, and frankly, leave the rest of us feeling pretty lousy. (I suppose in a better mood, they can also make us feel much better about ourselves – at least we’re not that misanthropic.) But we do need critics – the objective ones – to help us see where to go next. I think of the relationship between them as the engines, the maintenance crew, the lookout, and perhaps the sea anchor or barnacles…and I must constantly remind myself that without barnacles, we wouldn’t appreciate a clean hull. MT
Masterclass Prague (September 2016) is open for booking.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved