Who or What is a Photographer?

Blog Author Richard Newman

First off, I’d like to thank David Gremp for taking the "blog chair" for the last four months! I’ve been busy editing a documentary film and it’s taken all of my attention. I hope you enjoyed David’s words and images. He’s a long-time friend, and I appreciate that he stepped in for me.

In a recent conversation with another friend of mine who is deeply involved with photo education, the term “photographer” came up. And it, surprisingly, begged some questions. Who or what is a photographer in today’s world? Do you have to have a camera to take a photograph? Don’t cell phones take nice photographs? Is anyone with a cell phone a photographer?

Photography has a checkered and controversial past. At one time, and in certain cultures, it was thought to be sorcery capable of stealing a person’s very soul. It survived the “what-is-photography?” soft-focus pictorialist vs. “the straight print” f/64 wars of the early 20th century. And, it endured the “is-it-art?” debates of the mid-century. Photographers and technologies have evolved to show us the world in black-and-white and color . . . and now, cell phones can do it all!

It brings to mind the case of that little company from Silicon Valley: Apple. Ten years ago, Apple hired professional photographers to help them market their products. If you, as a photographer, had Apple as your client, you were on the top of the heap and you made a pretty good living. Today, Apple uses customer-submitted iPhone imagery and videos for very high-profile advertising. Big change? I’d say 180 degrees!

Back to the question: who or what is a photographer? If you went to photography school more than ten years ago, you likely learned how to expose, process and print your own photographs. Now, the digital world has superseded all three of those steps. iPhones produce dynamic-range images, computers display these photos on high-resolution screens, and instead of making a physical print for viewing, we share them on Facebook or our websites. The computer appears to have solved all those complex issues. Just because someone can operate an imaging device, does that make that person a photographer? Maybe it’s time for a new word?

I’m not trying to be elitist, I just don’t know what to call that person with a camera anymore. For that matter, how many “photographers” still own a stand-alone camera? How about a point-and-shoot? Is that REALLY a camera? Or, for those of us who do own those stand-alone devices, does that actually separate us from the rest of the pack?

I have many friends whom I still consider to be photographers, and here are some of their common traits: they are all inquisitive, thoughtful, committed, quirky, funny, well read, undaunted, conscientious and, for the most part, happy to accept the challenge of solving a problem. I suspect that these personality “characteristics” are not specific to photographers, but those shared by anyone who is deeply involved in the creative process. Is it the camera, the process, or the intent that makes them unique?

Lots of questions here this month! But, I do think it’s time to create a new word. I’m just not sure what that word should be.

The only picture that I want to share this month was taken, ironically, with my cell phone. I live very close to Big Sur, and on July 22, 2016, the Soberanes fire was started by a careless (stupid!) person. It’s now destroyed over 100,000 acres and is still only 60% contained. I would just like to say “thank you” to the firefighters and public officials who have fought this beast. It’s not in the news, but it’s still very real.

So, is this a “photograph?” Am I a “photographer?” I look forward to your response—just email me at blog@texasphoto.org.

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