May 16, 2020

It’s Not the Tool

One of the best episodes of the bite-sized podcast from photographer David DuChemin, a Beautiful Anarchy.

David is one of my favourite working photographers, and was a key part of my photographic education.

I’ve spent many pleasant evenings wrapped up in his books—Within the Frame, Vision Mongers, Photographically Speaking, and others—absorbing his kind-hearted insights and enjoying the fruits of his photographic labours.

Nowadays, David continues to write and shoot, but he’s also taken to podcasting in the form of a brief weekly show called A Beautiful Anarchy.

As fans of his will expect, it’s more about the craft than the mechanics, and in this episode, he delves into the discussion of analogue photography, authenticity, and the slippery slope of chasing muses in the machine:

All of this talk about technology and tools and the idea that analog technologies might be our artistic or creative salvation is because the great temptation with tools or technologies of any kind is the same as the belief in muses: it offers us the chance to blame external influences for our failures.

I wish this episode had been available to a younger me. Though I do my best to avoid it, I am often guilty of thinking about my tools more than the work they help me accomplish.

Time spent blaming our tools is time we are not engaging our imaginations to overcome the limitations of those tools. It’s time spent not embracing their intrinsic constraints. The world is full of true believers, some in the promise of digital. Some in the hope of analog. Both risk missing what the heretics know and celebrate: that neither offers creative salvation. The art is in you, not the tool.

This isn’t a fresh insight, but it’s delivered with a gentle understanding that resonated with me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been feeling dejected about my choice in photographic equipment over this past year.

Then again, perhaps I’m giving that decision—good or bad—too much credit.

I just want to remind you that you are the source of that art, and when our art lacks some truly vital thing, like the authenticity that’s become such a catch-word lately, it won’t come from our tools, new or old, and it can’t be purchased.

The trouble with this line of thinking, and my only mild disagreement with the gist of David’s point, is that there is a right choice of tool for each person.

It’s the one in whose company we feel the least creatively encumbered.

And while the pursuit of that tool may be fraught with missteps and disappointment, avoiding the search entirely is its own kind of problem. David is criticizing the idea that you should pursue the best tools expecting them to make you a better photographer. He’s right to—the tools bring nothing to the table in and of themselves.

…if it somehow unlocks that thing lurking within you that suddenly frees your creativity and brings your art to life, I promise you, it was there to begin with.

I do believe we should embrace the limits of what we have; but over the long term, finding the right tool allows us to focus more of our attention on the art and less on the constraints.

The lesson, I think, is that this search should consume as little time, energy, and money as it reasonably can. The more time you spend battling those constraints, the more you grow as a photographer, so in some ways it makes sense not to hurry toward the end.

The journey teaches us to appreciate the destination.

Soon, I hope to write about my own search—about how I found the right tool but allowed myself to be lured away from it, about how I’ve been trying to live with that decision while counting the days until I can reverse course.

Until then, give this episode a listen, subscribe if you like what you hear, and remember: buying new gear, switching systems, and obsessing over technical specs are all disappointing and expensive ways of squandering your time.

There’s nearly always something more constructive you could be doing instead.

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