Have We Made Things Too Complicated?

| March 2, 2010

A reader reminded me of this article I first published last year and I thought it would be useful to share again on this journal.


In his book “The Proud Robot,” 1940s science fiction writer Henry Kuttner tells the story of an eccentric inventor who wakes up from a drunken stupor to discover that while intoxicated he built a talking robot with a complex narcissistic personality. He then struggles to remember why he did it. By the end he realizes he really just wanted to build a better beer can opener and got a little carried away.

Think about modern photography in the same light and how much we have wrapped around the basic concept of making images. I’m not talking so much about the astounding technology involved, but rather about the tremendous amount of peripheral buzz that complicates, hobbles, discourages, distracts from, and get in the way of the simple desire to make an image.

Every so often when reading through the ever-present debates on “X vs. Y”, the supreme importance of such things as metadata, “digital asset” management, keywording, geo-tagging, morals of “manipulation,” and a myriad other extraneous topics, I stop and wonder why so much of the virtual world of photography is not about photographs.

It’s no wonder there is so little creative and innovative image-making out there when so many camera owners spend more time and energy talking and bickering about the practice rather than actually pursuing it. Seriously, if you head into the wild in search of inspiration while your mind is preoccupied with what keywords you should use to optimize the search engine results for any images you might make that day, you may as well tie a boat anchor around your waist before hitting the trail.

While I’m quoting from sci-fi authors, a quip form Philip K. Dick is especially relevant here: “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” I’m pretty sure we would not have some of our greatest literary creations if authors related to their books and essays as “bleached wood pulp assets,” or chose their titles and narrative based on search engine optimization.

It is the nature of inspiration and spirituality to transcend technical minutia and mundane tangible considerations. If you became a nature photographer because your soul soars and transforms with the power, delicacy, and sensory stimulus of natural forces, stand up right now and shout out “enough!” Get out from behind the computer, strap on your boots and head outside. Touch the leaves, smell the earth, run your fingers on the gritty surface of rocks, listen to the gurgling of water in a stream, watch an insect crawling into a flower, stare at the clouds or stars or ocean waves or mountain tops, listen to the songs of birds – these are the ingredients of great art. Put all else out of your mind, open your heart, and make it your goal to see something you’ve never noticed before.

I’m confident there are no keywords etched anywhere on Michelangelo’s “David” and that Beethoven did not embed optimized metadata in the score of “Pastoral”. In the end, greatness prevails. It may take time to be noticed but great art will always surpass and transcend the mediocre, repetitive, and mundane, no matter what its Google ranking is, whether it’s film or digital, manipulated , found, keyworded, twittered, HDR’d, geo-tagged, cropped, or anti-alias filtered.

“There are no rules for good photographs. There are only good photographs.” –Ansel Adams

If your photographic goal is to inspire and express your creativity; do what you do for the love of it. Everything else is secondary. It’s that simple.

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Category: All Posts, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (16)

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  1. Emily Krug says:

    What an inspirational message and reminder of what is really important, in life and in photography. Thank you.

  2. Without metadata and any sort of SEO, how is your modern day audience going to find you ? (Assuming you want your visual style, ART, or message to be found) It is mind boggling and cumbersome, the steps a successful artist must take to be seen.

    I think your reference to Digital Asset management is a bit out of place given the context of the other points. That is, I define DAM as current organization of ones media. Ansel might have used metal drawer(s). Michelangelo might have used another means.

    Current trends, IMHO are a necessary evil. “It’s no wonder there is so little creative and innovative image-making out there”… how do you know for sure ? They just might not be in the forums, or SEO optimized, or even online … ;~} We all know artisans of the sorts.

    I hope your right about greatness prevailing … but look at Beta video, it was superior in just about every way to VHS, but popularity made the decision, not greatness.

    (Takes a big toke and ponders once again some of the darkness of the “current”)

  3. Guy Tal says:

    Interesting points, Matt! The real contention comes down to the unholy (albeit a “necessary evil” as you describe) union of art and business.

    I’m sure there are amazing artists and amazing works of art out there that I am not and never will be aware of. Still, as advanced as we think we are, the real world-wide web is, as it always was, the array of person-to-person communications. In time I believe that get art will be discovered, if only by one or two individuals who will pass on the word. It may not be as fast or effective as a first-page Google placement, but I trust it will happen.


  4. I hope your right.

    Like with your Art. It’s not just the visual image experience at hand, but the substance and driving force behind your craft. The “goodness” and deliberate intention with a spiritual core. Knowing the Artist and the Art makes a complete experience and interpretation.

    Not to get off topic, but stock photography feels SO empty.

  5. Roberta says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Although I’m working in digital today, and would likely not go back to film, there are times that the technology becomes too great, too complicated. It is then that I’ll go pick up a paintbrush and transport myself back to a simpler, more tactile process. Of course getting outside with nature is a great cure too. It is there that my greatest memories are built.

  6. Phil says:

    My sense is that metadata, SEO, geotagging, DAM, keywords — all of that is the business side and entirely tangential to the photography itself. Just a decade ago there were fewer photographers, each of whom probably produced fewer images. Today, there is an onslaught of images so the business side has developed in order to support what Matt suggested: the ability to get one’s images in front of viewers. While it may be technically more accessible than ever before, at its core photography is what is was before all those ancillary distractions came along.

  7. Some might believe that creativity and art come from the mind, but I contend that the best art or photography comes from a deeper place, or as a gift from nature, or as a happy accident, any of these are as good as the other and they’re essentially the same. Personally I am still skeptical about the internet as an outlet at all for fine art, as purchased by museums and major collectors. I suppose lots of galleries are doing it, I just haven’t found the handle yet. Then again, I’m spoiled in some ways, my father’s work makes it easy to land exhibitions and gallery representation. If the internet went away tomorrow, people would find us just fine and my income would go up because I wouldn’t be spending so much time trying to learn SEO. Ultimately, keeping the finding of your own voice above catering to what sells, was my father’s primary advice to young photographers and his own mission in life. The best of both worlds might be embodied in the work and career of Ansel Adam with his rigorous concentration on creating the best art, as well as his attention to sharing it and employing good promoters, not to mention his advocacy for the medium and for the environment. The main path to avoid, in my opinion, if you are interested in producing quality art, is photographing for the market.

  8. Carl D says:

    Hey Guy

    If you add a little ‘retweet’ button to this blog, you’ll get more traffic. 🙂



  9. Dan Baumbach says:

    In all art forms, no matter how good the artists are at marketing themselves, some people thrive and some remain unknown, and as far as I can tell, very little of it has to do with talent.

    One might as well do the work that they want to do and hope that their lives provide them with the time and money to continue to do it.

  10. Kari Post says:

    Great message Guy!

  11. David Sanger says:

    Guy. I think that artists have always a had a responsibility to the work to get it “out there” , to get it seen or heard or read. Mozart spent time seeking patrons, Beethoven too.

    The internet and all the digital process and marketing you disdain is part of the unglamorous work necessary to make the art visible to people. Someone has to speak up for our images and it has to be us.

    But the point is well taken that it is not to be confused with the creative work and cannot be allowed to get in the way of vision and inspiration, the touching of the leaves, the smelling the earth, the seeing of it all.

  12. Chinle says:

    The artist owes no one nothing. It’s not about owing, it’s about your soul. Great artists are great because they follow their heart, they don’t even think about audience or money.

    It’s always been that way and always will be, that’s what gives you the freedom to well, be free.

    And that’s why a lot of them are unknown and starving. But they can look at themselves in the mirror, they’re true to their muse, they’re pure and free spirits.

    And you know, it shows, you can tell who’s in it for the money and fame or whatever. And who isn’t, if you can find them.

  13. In the commercial photography business (products, in particular) we joke about the amount of effort so many companies put into their metadata and asset management systems. Not that ease of retrieval and differentiation is not important, but the eternal archival of product assets that have a shelf life of an average of 18 months yields very, very little return.
    Not quite on point for your article, I know. The relevance, I suppose, is to advise photographers and brand owners to take some time to understand the long term use of their images (or lack there of) when considering image management.

    Great post, Guy,

  14. Very well said Guy. As always.

  15. Jay Goodrich says:

    Nice job Guy. As usual you have created a thought provoking piece. I hope that it hits home to many.

  16. Mark says:

    Hey Guy – nice piece. My thoughts on this are some of these things belong as distinct separate activities.

    In the field, concentrate on why you are there, what brought you there, and attempt to combine the difference between what your heart sees and what your brain sees. Afterwords, use all of the great organizational tools and processing tools we have available to us today to either complete the vision or realize it is complete as is.

    Maybe keywords will group together a set of images that belong together as a project. It could be a theme of images that has accumulated over years. Maybe some processing tool will bring forth details the emotionless camera left behind, but still had with you in your memory and heart.

    I feel that such things are appropriate in their own place, as as you mention, do not belong where they become anchors around our ankles. They belong only where they may help us see more potential.