When does nature photography depart from its roots in photojournalism and become art? I suppose that a self-absorbed photojournalist might ask when their work becomes something more than just a record of an event or moment in time.
I can't help but see an ironic parallel that exists between the career that sustains me and the passion that fulfills me. I am a teacher. I teach biology, I think biology, and I love my content. I am enthralled by the history of my science, the new ideas, and the uncertainty that is inherent in the study of life. I work with teens every day, and try to convince my reluctant audience that there is more to the world than the microcosm in which they live. At the core of my science is a desire to discover the very essence that defines life, the chemistry that sustains us, and mechanisms that fuel its evolution. As a teacher, I am a specialist in my discipline; as a biologist, I am generalist. I freely admit to knowing a little about everything and a lot about nothing.
The tools I carry to class each day are the stories I've experienced and assembled across my many decades. I unravel the abstractions of the double helix, cellular chemistry and ecology with metaphors that are tangible to the neophyte biologist. Yet, my art, teaching, is under siege. As a profession, we are described as those who can't. To the masses, we are bottom feeding scavengers with an endless appetite for tax dollars. Newspapers and blogs quote the uninformed, political extremists, and anti-taxation groups that claim education robs the state treasury. To them, we cost too much, fail too many, and deprive future generations their opportunity for success. These same "news" outlets promote the point of view that my job is easy, I am overpaid and anyone could do it. Ironically, society implores skilled and knowledgeable professionals to join the teaching ranks while they rage against those who have committed their lives to educating the masses. Why would anyone choose to devote their precious college funds in the pursuit of an undervalued and underpaid sector of society. In spite my rich education that includes a B.S. Degree in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, a Post-Baccalaureate Degree in Science Education, and M.S. Degree in Biology, my own education is as undervalued as the skills I bring to the classroom.
I have spent more hours than I care to admit seeking an explanation for the disrespect that I sense from the general public. While I feel appreciated by those I serve each day, the same cannot be said for the community at large. I have no data to support my hypothesis, but I believe that the status deficit in my profession is rooted in the ubiquity of experience. Because we have all been students, spent countless hours with teachers, and been participants in this massive public enterprise, we see ourselves as experts. Our collective experience through twelve or more years of public education is the credential we use to justify our criticism. We frame our arguments in hindsight, but lack the knowledge of the present. Experience defines our point of view and lack of experience explains our ignorance.
This ramble of a blog began with a simple query... when does photography become art? Because taking pictures is as ubiquitous as our experience with the education system, we all see ourselves as the expert. Like education, photography is a practice for the masses. In this era of digital imaging, deep knowledge is undervalued. Understanding light and the interplay of aperture and shutter are now relegated to the technology that does the thinking for us. The art of seeing has been replaced by a "scatter and shoot" mentality; shoot enough and you're bound to get a good one. Unlike painting, sculpture, or music photography requires little dexterity... a "skill for the masses." Nonetheless, I still pursue this craft, I believe that there is more to my practice than the technology between my eye and my subject. Like my passion for biology, I thrive on my deep knowledge about light and image making. I reject the axiom... those who can do, and those who can't take pictures.