Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

The Photo Expo at the Javitz Center, which I try to attend each year, took place a couple of weeks ago. Everyone I spoke with agreed that there were too many empty booths–that it was a smaller show than in the past. But still it is a big NYC show. Visitors found major and minor manufacturers. There were software developers and general problem-solvers hawking solutions to photographers’ problems. Labs promoted cheaper and cheaper prints; binders showed cheaper and cheaper books, as well as gimmicky and distracting album designs. Computer programs guaranteeing faster results but requiring less skill, knowledge, and talent were offered, and at a “SHOW SPECIAL” discount!

Readers of this column may recall my articles on video, “Short Or Short-changed?” HDSLR’s (high-definition single-lens-reflex cameras) are simply not ergonomically feasible for acquiring sustained meaningful video footage. So vendors sold brackets, sliders, and complicated gizmos to compensate for such shortcomings. But they fail to make the camera a fluid extension of the mind’s eye, which the big, expensive video cameras were designed to be–in the hands of skilled camerapersons, who are so few and far between today.

Classes were also offered. None were on camera-handling skills. Or understanding and seeing light. Many were quick fixes, how to do something once you made the foolish business decision to become a photographer in today’s world.

But there were some interesting classes for professionals. My friend John, an amazing underwater and wildlife photographer, benefited from such a class. He came away with a single mind-blowing concept–that he no longer is a photographer! As the instructor pointed out, everyone with a phone today claims to be a photographer. Remember that a photographer may use a phone, but a phone does not make one a photographer. Now if you can remember this, you may be in the minority. So since we think in the terms we speak, a true photographer referring to himself by that term is more likely to paint the mental picture of a person with a phone, handheld or tripod-mounted. Is this good for anyone? How can the public choose someone with skill and talent, if all use the same terms? How can consumers understand the difference?

Today, for many, the term photographer does not suggest any skill. It takes time and practice to learn to see. Much effort and desire take us beyond the capture of a moment to the sculpture of something special because of one’s awareness of light and perspective. Camera controls have existed for a reason, to give a creative person options. Those controls are not there solely to help us to achieve any image. Automation does not do it. If we accept automation in imagery, we might soon be reading an automated article, story, or novel. Choosing camera options, making the small and big technical decisions, empowers the true photographer to get the results in his mind’s eye–to get the exact image he wants. But what if there is no mind? What if there is only a button-pusher?

Yes, software programs can change things. But they cannot make the image what it could have been with the right vision and skill at the moment of image capture.

Forty years ago, my mentors explained that anyone could take pictures. OK, so back then you had to know a few camera settings. But there were always pros who knew little and still made a living. People go to a pro because they think he knows something and assume that he feels something. But the more one knows, the more one recognizes. And those who knew–those customers who could feel imagery–were able to discern the skilled; they could separate the wheat from the chaff. Today, with so few skilled and so many simply picture-takers, it is easy to find yourself comparing small tangerines, when what you want are beautiful large Jaffa oranges.

Many real pros care about their craft. Many pros want to continually improve. They attend workshops, classes, and shows like this regularly, so that they always know about the latest solutions and the best products. But the vendors at these shows, more and more cater to an amateur customer, or to a beginner, who knows very little and is often expected to compete with a phone photographer who knows less. A large part of the show was album binders. Today album binders do it all. They design the album, print the photos, and then bind those photos. What does the photographer have to do? Well, I guess he could call you when the album comes back from the binder! Oh, no–the binder drop-ships the album from India or Italy.

Many of their clients are not skilled photographers, and the books show this. The majority of the books have pretty snapshots, shock-value candids, and little substance. The biggest impediment to album binders is the mediocre work they show in their books. Some professional vendors do not want to cater to the amateur public. It makes their excellent product look bad. They are not retailers, they are wholesalers. The show was smaller because many pro vendors did not participate. No doubt some have gone out of business too.

Now John is no longer a “photographer.” What is he? How should photographers that apply skill, style, and substance differentiate themselves from the majority that do little more with their camera than you might do with your phone?

I am about to buy a new phone to take pictures as only a photographer could! I think (like a photographer), therefore I am (a photographer). v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.


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