Imagination Leads to Technology, Not Vice Versa
This story was originally published in June 2012.
Recently, my family and I were watching the movie The Wizard of Oz. It looked really great; the tornado was absolutely terrifying and real, and when it went psycho and turned colour, the colours were better than 99% of the photographs most people send me today or that I shoot myself. The Wizard of Oz was shot in 1939.
There was no practical colour movie film in 1939. The Wizard of Oz was shot on black and white film! Yes, the three-strip Technicolor process on which it was shot, shoots on three strips of black and white film and combines the images later, when printed with the Technicolor process.
Then it dawned on me that imagination begets technology, but that technology never creates imagination. The key here is that imagination is the source of everything known to man. It creates technology and everything, while merely purchasing technology creates nothing.
Buy any camera you want, but no matter how fancy, it is not going to take any better pictures. With an artist’s imagination, we can create great images with any camera. With over 60 years of improvements in cameras, lens sharpness, resolution and dynamic range, why has no one has been able to equal what Ansel Adams did back in the 1940s?
Funnily, photographers loaded with the most extraordinary gear use the internet to get the exact GPS coordinates of Ansel’s photo locations and hike out there with the image in hand to ensure they get an exact copy (illegal by US copyright laws and common decency). Yet, their pictures lack all the impact and emotion of the original they thought they copied?
I am not kidding. A bunch of these turkeys used university astronomers to predict the one time in almost two decades that the conditions would match and had 300 of the clueless converge at just the right spot. They still didn’t get the clouds, snow or shadows right. This makes Ansel or any other creative artist cringe. Compelling photographs come from inspiration, not duplication.
Buying a Bösendorfer doesn’t mean you can play the piano. Buying a great camera does not mean you can create compelling photographs. People know cars don’t drive themselves, typewriters don’t write novels by themselves and that Rembrandt’s brushes did not paint by themselves. So why do some otherwise intelligent people think cameras drive around and make pictures all by themselves? The most advanced, exotic and expensive car can’t even stay in the same lane on the freeway by itself, much less drive you home.
No matter how advanced your camera is, you still need to get to the right place at the right time and point it in the right direction. Every camera requires you to make manual adjustments now and then, regardless of how advanced it is. Never blame a camera for not knowing everything or making a wrong exposure or fuzzy image.
Maybe because it is entirely an artist’s eye, patience and skill that makes an image and not his tools. Even Ansel Adams once said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
A camera catches your imagination. No imagination, no photo… just crap. The word ‘image’ comes from the word ‘imagination’. It does not come from ‘lens sharpness’ or ‘noise levels’. Your equipment DOES NOT affect the quality of your image. The less time and effort you spend worrying about your equipment, the more time and effort you can spend creating great images.
When it comes to the arts, be it music, photography, surfing or anything, there is a mountain to be overcome. What happens is that initially, when you study any art, you just believe that if you had a better instrument, camera or surfboard, you would be just as good as the pros. You waste a lot of time worrying about your equipment and trying to afford better. With years of effort, if you have the spark, you finally become as good as the other renowned artists whose works you enjoyed. And then, when someone comes up to you asking for buying advice, you have an epiphany where you realise that it has never been the equipment at all.
You finally realise that the gear you have spent so much time accumulating just makes it easier to get your sound or your look or your moves. You could have got them—albeit with a little more effort—on the same garbage with which you started. You understand that the most important thing for the gear to do, is to just get out of your way. You also realise that if you had spent all the time you wasted worrying about acquiring better gear, making photos—you would have reached where you wanted to, much sooner.
So why do the artists whose works you admire tend to use fancy, expensive tools, if the quality of the work is the same? Simple. Good tools just get out of the way and make things easier. Lesser tools may take more work. They add durability for people who use these tools hard all day, every day.
Advanced users may find some of the minor extra features convenient. These conveniences make the photographer’s life easier, but they do not make the photos any better. Of course, on a lighter note, there is nothing wrong with the best tools, and if you have the money to blow, why not? Just don’t ever start thinking that the fancy tools are what created the work.
With imagination, anything is possible because imagination itself will create whatever it needs, to realise what has been imagined. For a creative mind, anything is possible.
About Ken Rockwell
Ken Rockwell is equally known for his photographs of landscapes and American culture, as he is for his exaggerated style of writing and quirky sense of humour. Despite being popular for his camera reviews on his website, www.kenrockwell.com, he strongly advocates that equipment is only a means to an end.