Brick and Mortar or Dog and Pony? Photo Education in the Age of Internet Gurus. 

Pacific Park

For what it's worth, here once again are my typically conflicted ramblings about online photography education and gurus from 2014, rescued from the ashes of my old blog...

Stop the presses!

Sometime last year, internet photo guru Scott Kelby switched from using Nikon cameras to Canon. Seems he liked the autofocus system and the higher frame rate on the top of the line 1DX that Canon loaned him last year better than Nikon’s D4 for shooting NFL games. And he thinks it feels like it was “designed by Apple” to boot. 

To his credit he admits that, coincidentally, Canon is among the many sponsors of his many business ventures, all built around teaching digital photography and software.

I guess it’s very old news to those who pay attention to such things, but it seems like the Kelby announcement was something of a big deal. From what I can tell, the internet was ablaze. The reason I’m just hearing about it now is because I’ve been busy trying to teach photography the hard way- face to face, in a studio, lab and classroom. I’m one of those anonymous chumps toiling day in and day out trying to get students ready to compete as photographers in a world where everybody else already is. I try to stay current with what’s happening, but the Kelby announcement must have slipped by me while I was reading Ken Rockwell. He swaps cameras like the rest of us change our socks, maybe even more frequently than some. 

But speculation and questions about the big switcheroo were posed in online forums over and over again- stuff like “what could this mean?” and “what other famous photographers may be considering the same thing?" 

Famous photographer? Cue the needle dragging across the LP! 

From Camp Kelby there were the predictable attaboys from those who sleep in their SK undershorts and photo vests while dreaming of image stabilized camera straps and Content-Aware-Content in some future iteration of Photoshop CC. 

From the delinquents across the lake over at Camp Couldn’t Care Less came shrugs of “BFD”, or “doesn’t Canon makes copy machines?” or even "Scott who?”

Me, I just wonder why the only photographers most people seem to pay any attention to anymore are the ones with social media skills and corporate sponsorship. The ones who are either actively or passively trying to sell us photo instruction or camera stuff. But then I stop and think for a second, and I realize the answer is obvious: we pay attention to them because of their social media skills and corporate sponsorship. And we just can’t seem to buy enough photo instruction and camera stuff. 

As recently as 2009, Zack Arias was a mostly unknown freelancer shooting garage bands in Atlanta with a small but loyal online fan base. Five years later he’s one of the most sought after convention and workshop speakers in the industry, an enthusiastic spokeshooter for the Fuji X system, producer of DVD lighting tutorials, author of a popular book of questions and answers about photography, voracious blogger, and a commercial photographer with a bottom line boosted by top shelf corporate clients. The secret to his unusually rapid ascent to the peak of his profession?

Talent and hard work? Obviously.

A shrewd use of social media? Definitely.

Magic beans and access to way more than a 24-hour day? Apparently.

A somewhat saccharine, introspective video posted to Scott Kelby’s website that same year? Probably.

It seems like more and more of the revered “interneterati” do things backwards. First comes the online pulpit, fame and fortune. It's all well deserved in Kelby’s, and by extension, Arias’ case due to an effective technology training platform, strategic partnerships, and very savvy marketing. Only later comes the actual photography deserving of such acclaim. As good as many of them are, the “buzz” distracts from the “beef”.

There are exceptions, of course. Career photojournalists like Joe McNally (now in cahoots with Kelby) and Strobist poobah David Hobby both achieved guru status the old fashioned way- they earned it. They spent their careers in the streets, on the front lines and in the trenches, sometimes literally, and then brought vast experience to their later work as educators. 

Not unlike a pile of fossilized bones unearthed on the African savannah, at first glance Kelby appears to be the common ancestor to today’s typical online photography and software sifu. For those who see the phenomenon as more epidemic than education, he may also look like Patient Zero.

But go back a few years and there’s Gary Fong cleaning leftover chicken salad out of a Tupperware container, jamming the thing on a flash unit and anointing it the Fong Dome, and almost single handedly creating the gazillion dollar speedlight modifier industry as a result. 

Go back a few decades, and there’s Aaron Jones hawking the Hosemaster from coast to coast and teaching light painting to those of us who, up until then, had simply been writing with it. 

And back when the mid-century vibe was square, not hip, Monte Zucker and his merry band of PPA personalities were the rock stars (OK, soft-rock stars) teaching weekend seminars down at a Holiday Inn somewhere. They're the knuckleheads who put the wicker chairs, white Formica boxes and fake brick graffiti walls in mom and pop high school senior portrait studios that still infest middlebrow middle America. So maybe Kelby and crew are simply carrying on a long, proud tradition.

Even so, it’s getting a little out of hand, don’t you think? A street photographer can’t wander around unobtrusively these days without tripping over Kai Wong shooting a somewhat inappropriate video tutorial or Eric Kim teaching a workshop about how to be like Eric Kim, whoever that is. Try to reserve time to shoot an assignment in a rental studio in any major market and you’ll most likely have to wait until Bambi Cantrell or Peter Hurley give their students a 10 minute bio-break. Snapchick offers premium access to her VIP members, providing more revealing pictures and videos of…snapchick! And trust me- you don’t want to be in Vegas when every wedding photographer in the industrialized world with an inquiring mind, a wandering eye and a roll of quarters descends on Sin City for WPPI.

It’s enough to make you think that the only way to make a buck as a photographer these days is to teach other people how to make a buck as a photogra...hey, wait a minute…

A friend and colleague related an incident recently that, to him at least, highlights the extent to which photographic education is starting to look more and more like an old time medicine show. My friend comes at his opinions from a position of some authority- he spent more than three decades shooting photo essays for National Geographic. Look up “why I want to be a photographer” in whatever dictionary answers such questions and you’ll not only see his picture, you’ll see his pictures

He was approached by a major New York photo equipment retailer (not that one, the other one) to record a series of educational videos for their website. When he submitted a pilot episode for review, the retailer loved it, but had one request. Instead of showing his beat up old Gitzo tripod in the piece, the one that had travelled with him on assignment for years, the one that had seen every spot on the planet at least twice, they asked if he would use one of the tripod brands they wanted to promote, one that they would be happy to send him. 

He politely declined, and the online photo education market lost a truly credible voice and a remarkable opportunity.  

What if the thing that eventually causes the entire “photo guru-industrial complex” to collapse of its own weight is this: the stuff that can be taught in a three minute video tutorial, a three DVD set or a three day Las Vegas extravaganza is the easy stuff! It’s the surface stuff that helps explain why so much photography these days looks like a delightful Parisian patisserie but tastes like a mass produced vanilla wafer.

It’s probably why so much of what these guys show us looks more like demonstrations of equipment and software capabilities and less like the singular work of thinking, feeling creative individuals. It’s why so much of it looks so amazingly, technologically perfect, but ultimately sterile. 

Has Scott Kelby created a valuable resource for teaching and learning digital technology? You bet your sweet bit map he has! Is he a famous photographer? I guess, but let’s leave the jury out for another few years before we decide whether fame and import have anything to do with each other .

But if the reason you dip into his media empire is to learn something about Photoshop, does it really matter? Kelby and his crew are great Photoshop teachers! If for some unlikely reason you need to string a truckload of speedlights together to light a shot, there’s nobody in the world better at it than Joe McNally, and he’s happy to teach you how. Go shopping for your lighting gear with David Hobby at Home Depot instead of B&H and you will definitely have some fun and save some bucks. Have a question about anything remotely related to photography? Zack Arias has the answer. These guys are great at showing you how it’s done and what’s possible. But after accumulating all of that knowledge, it’s still up to you to figure out how to do something interesting with it, and more importantly, why. 

It’s like the age-old “forest and trees” analogy. This kind of education feels a lot like trying to build a tree from the twigs down instead of from the seed up. I suppose if you nail enough twigs together you might eventually wind up with something that looks like a tree, but you also wind up spending an awful lot of time nailing twigs together in the midst of such a deep, dark, fascinating forest.

It's becoming more and more difficult for brick and mortar photography schools to attract and retain students. Whether correctly or incorrectly, they believe it still takes time to learn this thing well, it’s hard to get good at it and even harder to make a living with it. Students need someone to look them in the eye every now and then and tell them their work sucks, show them why, and then pat them on the back when it doesn’t suck anymore. Actual schools continue the master-apprentice model of education, and that can be a hard relationship to nourish when the master and apprentice can only look each other in the virtual eye, if even that. 

A truly famous photographer by the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that “photography doesn’t take any brains…it takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs”. Quaint, I know, because nowadays, it does take brains, along with big balls and a trust fund.

But should it take anywhere near the volume of gray matter and greenbacks that workshop gurus, software companies and equipment manufacturers would have you believe, would NEED you to believe? Because by making an earnest attempt to deconstruct and really understand Cartier-Bresson’s short, simple statement, a serious student of photography may self-discover far more than all the tutorials and workshops in the wide, wide world of web combined. 

I don’t know Scott Kelby, but here’s the thing: If he’s half the teacher and photographer that everybody thinks he is, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that he would agree.

A postscript: Just as I was finishing this essay, my e-mail inbox beeped, and up popped a message from KelbyOne training. It looks like Joe McNally is coming our way here in Boston next week, and I’ve been invited to spend $89 to attend The Power of One Flash Seminar Tour- that’s a $10 discount off the regular fee. Scott says he doesn’t want me to miss the opportunity to join this “legendary photographer & learn to create great lighting with just one or two flashes.” 

I wish I didn’t already know how to do that. It sounds like I might have learned something.

Randall Armor1 Comment