The Rollercoaster of Learning

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It’s funny how, when you first notice something, it tends to reappear almost regularly thereafter in various situations and place and in various forms. Not long ago, I read about the four stages of learning in a little ebook by the Canadian photographer, David duChemin. Then, not long after, an explanation of those same four stages appeared in a book I then read, by the photographer Rick Sammon. Interestingly enough this book I had bought long ago, but only recently got around to read.

After those two first encounters, the four stages have appeared in many different circumstances, until I finally learned that they originate from Gordon Training International. Initially known as the «four stages for learning any new skill», the four states of competence was a learning model originally introduced by Noel Burch, an employee of the institute. First drafted in the 1970s, this «conscious competence» learning model is described as the psychological states that are involved in transforming skill incompetence to competence or outright mastery.

The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, and then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

Being one who teaches workshop and give lectures, and also being passionate about understanding the creative process, this was for me an eye-opener. On some level The Four Stages of Learning is pure common sense, but seeing it in writing made me realize how well they describe my own journey as a photographer, as well. Because it is a journey.

As duChemin writes in his lovely, little book Master the Craft; «Mastery is a tricky thing. It’s not so much a destination as a journey. That journey takes us through predictable stages:
• Unconscious incompetence
• Conscious incompetence
• Conscious competence
• Unconscious competence
We go from not knowing what we don’t know, to knowing how much we really don’t know, to learning more and being very aware of what we know, to finally knowing a great deal but being able to operate in that knowledge somewhat intuitively.»

The first stage, unconscious incompetence, can also be describe as «I don’t know what I don’t know». In photographic terms, it describes the entry level to the craft, the first encounter, maybe, with a camera. When we first get into photography, we take some shots, look at them on the camera’s display, and say something like, «hey, that’s cool, I did it!»

For most people that is probably good enough, but others maybe get caught by a more profound interest in the photographic process. They enter into a new stage where they search for knowledge and understanding. This is the conscious incompetence stage, «I know what I don’t know». This stage can hit us like a ton of bricks. It can be frustrating and it can be demanding. We realize that we need help and have potential. This is the first step, really, in becoming a good photographer. We maybe read books, attend workshops, take online training courses and so on to get a better understanding.

At some point we reach the third stage, conscious competence, «I grow, and know and it starts to show», or, «I know what I know». Knowing we are good is a good feeling. However, it takes a lot of hard work to get to this level of learning. At this stage, we also know that there is plenty out there that we still don’t know, and we may still at times feel inadequate or encounter low self esteem. Nevertheless, we do know what we know.

As you build experience and expertise, you reach the stage of unconscious competence—wherein you do not have to think about the activity that you are very good in. You use your skills unconsciously and keep building your level of understanding on a more unconscious level. This is the level we all want to reach in the things we care passionately about. We don’t really have to think too much about what we are doing—we just do it. The rollercoaster ride of making pictures is not over; we still have creative ups and downs. Nevertheless, being on the rollercoaster is much more fun than being on the merry-go-around of making middle-of-the-road photos, as Rick Sammon points out in his book «Creative Visualization».

This is what duChemin writes about the last stage: «To me, mastery is about getting to the point where the tools in my hand no longer get in my way. It means getting to the point where I more easily reach a state of flow in my creativity. It doesn’t remotely mean the creative efforts themselves come more easily; they may come harder. Once you’ve been doing this for 30 years, you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and your standards have grown along with your craft. You always have something new to learn.»

In the end, that is all what matters to me; to keep learning. I may have creative ups and downs, but learning more about my craft, my skills, myself and the world around me is for me always a driving force and ultimately nothing but pure enjoyment.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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Go Light!

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Why is it that for so many obsessed with photography the obsession goes all the way to the equipment – and for some even only to equipment? Like me, I don’t care about equipment on a rational level – and in a practical shooting situation, but as soon as Canon (and, yes I do like Canon!) comes out with a new version of my camera I crave for it – or a new improved construction of my favourite lens; I feel like I need it. Of course I don’t, because I do know that good photography isn’t about equipment, but about vision and creative flow. And why is it only us – photographers? When did you ever hear about a writer who needed the latest update of a computer before he or she could write the next novel? For one; I have never.

It’s a counterproductive obsession. The more equipment you carry, the less likely you are going to load it up on yourself and get out there and shoot. I think there are two reasons for this fixation. For one it appeals to the geek in (some of) us – and for those only interested in equipment it really complies with their nerdy personality (you need to watch out my friends!). Secondly – and more importantly – it’s a about fear of missing a shot. Any photographer dreads such an experience. So we amass every piece of gear we feel gives us that readiness to elude this to happen. Longer lenses, stronger strobes, cameras with ISO ratings that would astonish us only 5 years ago. We are pulled to this stuff like a magnet.

It’s all very deceptive. I am not talking about sports photographers who need that big 500 mm or wildlife photographers who need that 400 with and f-stop of 1.4 (if it only existed…), but you and me and most other photographers – professional or non-professional – who shoot daily life or people or landscape or architecture (I’ll give that the latter may find a tilt-and-shit lens very useful, though…) We don’t need 36 M-pixels, 15 frames a second, 51,200 ISO or even a 300 mm. Honestly! Of course if you are on an assignment you want to make sure you deliver. But that’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about that thing in my brain that screams and throws a tantrum each time I set a long lens aside in favour of travelling lighter. It’s yelling at me, telling me how stupid I am when I let go of all my DSLR’s and everything that goes along with them.

But I have learned to ignore that pull. Yes, I will miss some shots, but not more than all the shifting between tons of equipment will do. On the contrary. I have learned that less is more (who said that by the way?). Really. I get more focused on what I can do instead of what I might miss. With loads of equipment I’ll miss moments because I’m wrestling with lens changes or a heavy backpack or the paranoia that my expensive gear is going to get damaged or stolen. With less equipment I will be more ready at any given time; I can concentrate on the life unfolding itself in front of me, I will have more time on the street or wherever I am, because I don’t need to rest so much as a result of carrying too much, and I can ease down and let things develop in a natural pace.

The fact is that art becomes better with more constrains. When you put a constraint on yourself and how you work it forces the creative process to shift into a fierier pace. So less ends up being more, again. Like the photographer David duChemin says: «I think it’s a sign of growth as artists when we begin to embrace, even create constraints, instead of trying so hard to avoid them.»

I mentioned travelling light. Often now when I go to a foreign land doing a travel story, I will only bring my Fujifilm X-10. That’s it and that’s that. And I really get all the shots I want to. Well, no, not those landscapes my 400 mm would have picked up, but I am anyway mostly a wide-angel kind of guy. So what’s the big deal? A little point-and-shoot camera (a little more advanced I admit to that) instead of 45 pounds of equipment? When I travel like this and meet fellow colleagues they mostly give me those big eyes, saying «you must be crazy – or not really a photographer.» Well, I know the difference between expensive camera-equipment and excellent photography, and sometimes I wonder if they do…

I would like to round of with a quote by the excellent photograph Edward Weston: «[A photographer’s] greatest asset is the directness of the process he employs. But this advantage can only be retained if he simplifies his equipment and technique to the minimum necessary, and keeps his approach free from all formula, art-dogma, rules and taboos. Only then can he be free to put his photographic sight to use in discovering and revealing the nature of the world he lives in.»

Completion

Vårløsning i elven ned fra Tarlebø, innerst i Isdalen

Yesterday I received the latest book written by the photographer David duChemin called The Print and the Process. As the title indicates it’s about the whole process from the very first moment of conceiving an idea of what will one day become a finalized artistic work or expression, to exactly that day, when the work is completed and ready to be displayed and shown to the audience. For photographers that will often mean what is stated in the title; a print, either hanging on a wall, printed in a magazine, smaller, glossy prints given to friends or relatives or even shared on social media and platforms. Or maybe; ought to I should say. Because in reality with today’s digital world most photos never get out of the computer, we check them when we download them – if we even do that, I know for a fact that too many pictures are kept on the memory cards and never leave the camera – and then we mostly forget about them.

They really deserve better. What is the use of all those images if nobody ever gets to see them? I am guilty of this myself too often, too, although since photography is my profession my work is often printed in magazine. And I think most of you are probably guilty too, even though, like me, you at least have an outlet through your blogs. But I think anyone creating or taking photographs should think more consciously of the completion of one’s work – as should any artist.

Completion is not only about displaying or showing our work, it’s also marking the end of one creative process in order to open up for new ideas and a new flow of work. It’s a mental transition between old and new, which makes us ready to embark on new creative tasks. Photographer Minor White likened the process of the artistic production to the phases of the moon. In the waxing phase, we are building, creating, forming and shaping the world towards its completion. The full moon represents the completion phase. And the waning moon symbolizes a new phase of the cycle: The need for release, to cut the umbilical cord and give the work its own life. For some, until they send their offspring into the world, they are not ready for a new phase of work.

In order to reach this completion and mental readiness for a new cycle, we must pay attention to the finalizing stage of the creative process. For photographers it means we need to get our work printed and displayed. It doesn’t necessarily mean a hard print on the wall, just as duChemin notes in his latest book: «I use the word “print” here in the broadest sense, in the sense that Adobe Lightroom, for example, allows us to print to JPG or PDF». As he points out, the important thing is to get our work out there, whether it’s presented on a wall or on our website. He continues: «Ansel Adams called the print the final symphony, though he was referring to actual prints. How we get that symphony is a process and we all have to have our own ways of getting there».

The completion is also strongly connected to detachment, which I have written about before (Engaged and Detached at the Same Time). With completion we are more easily able to detach from our work, and leave it to itself. Thus we should do the best work we can do in the creative phase up until completion, and then let the rest take care of itself. Or as David Ulrich says in The Widening Stream: «When your works, founded on inner necessity, are completed, release them. Take responsibility for their passage into the world. Put them out there in whatever manner is possible, reasonable and realistic. This stage is important to move on. We must prepare the ground for new actions and fresh insights».

Vision is Beginning

Intent is what brings depth and significance to a photograph. In many ways you can say it’s the lifeline of the photograph – or any work of fine art for that matter. A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either. It might be as beautiful as anything in the world, but we still won’t stay with it for more than a glimpse of time and we won’t remember it if it doesn’t reveal the photographer behind it. A writer without anything to say in his novel, a filmmaker without a story in her movie or a musician without passionate songs, aren’t going to spellbind their audience and will all soon be forgotten. In the end nobody is going to care about their work. So it is with photography and photographers. A photographer who has no intention with his or her photography will most likely bore the viewers – no matter how technical brilliant the work is or how beautiful the composition is. Intention is what brings uniqueness and substance to a photograph.

«Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.» Those are the words of David duChemin taken from his eBook The Vision Driven Photographer.

For David duChemin intent is a way to focus on the why instead of the what in the photographic process. It’s all about being clear about why you shoot what you shoot. By having a clear intent you will better be able to express your vision. For David duChemin the photographic vision is just another word for the intent behind the photograph. Vision is everything – without it the final result is dead. duChemin is one of the photographers today who has been most unambiguous about the need for intent in the photographic process – for the photographer to have a vision. He is probably also the one who has best been able to put words to the somewhat abstract idea of vision and the role it plays in photography. It’s not without reason he calls himself a vision driven photographer.

The photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins – or where it should begin. Unfortunately most photographers – and I willingly admit that I am prone to the same thoughtlessness, too – don’t have a clear thought about their vision, they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition. «Before our photographs can say what we want them to, and in so-doing to look like we want them to, we need to understand what we want to say, and how we want to say it. That’s vision.» That’s another quote by duChemin.

In order to better understand the vague and abstract idea of vision, David duChemin splits it in two types. He talks about personal vision and photographic vision. The former is something everybody has although we are not always consciously aware of it. It’s our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s what makes you vote for a certain party, it’s what makes to choose to do what you do, it’s what makes you pay attention to what you see, it’s what makes you photograph something and not something else. The personal vision is based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. It’s what makes you frame an image in a certain way, it’s what makes you choose a certain lens over another, it’s what makes you photograph from one angle or another. While personal vision is the how you see life, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

For some time now I have been pondering over duChemin’s words to make it fit into a more complete understanding of the photographic process. Vision is where it all begins, but then what? How can we bring vision into the rest of the process? The equation I have come up with looks something like this:

Personal vision → Perception → Reflection → Photographic Vision → Manifestation

Your personal vision is where it all starts. It’s what makes you choose to photograph something over something else. It’s the intent, which could be anything from wanting to show injustice in the world to declaring your love for something or someone. As a photographer you then move out into the world with your intent, and as you know, suddenly you see something that catches your attention. That’s the moment of perception. On the street you suddenly see a couple or an action that arouses your photographic interest. Even in the studio the same thing happens, but instead of moving around in the world until something catches your interest, you move the world around you and rearrange it until it feels right. While in that moment of perception, take a bit of time to reflect over the reason why you were stopped by whatever made you stop. Even if it was only light that seemed to arouse you interest, something made you choose this subject matter of that. This is paying conscious attention to your personal vision. Then continue to discern how you best can express this intention by photographic means available to you. This is the part where your photographic vision comes into play. Only then is it time to pull the trigger and continue the photographic process all the way to the final print, the manifestation of your vision.

This all seems like an elaborate process but as a matter of fact the more you get into the habit of paying attention to your vision, the faster the whole process will progress. From something catches you attention, till the camera has captured the subject, in reality it might only take a fraction of a second. The important part is being aware of your intent – or having a conscious vision. Unfortunately most photographers don’t. They see something without being aware of why the subject caught their attention and then start shooting right away. Of course their personal vision still made them react, but they just don’t know why or are not aware of it. The photographic process may look like this:

(Personal vision) → Perception → Manifestation

Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting? Are you a vision driven photographer? Or do you only arbitrarily take snap shots of whatever catches you interest?