First published in Outdoor Photography, 2011. © Niall Benvie
You’re perhaps familiar with the notion that it takes 10 000 hours of concentrated application to become “expert” at any creative pursuit. So, if we’re able to apply ourselves properly for four hours a day, 5 days a week, we’re looking at around 10 years from novice to master. That’s a very imprecise figure of course, but it’s clear that if the theory is valid, none of us are going to master any of the arts in the space of a year or two, especially one as complex as photography.
Photography is a generous medium, though, as it lets us believe we’ve mastered it as soon as we conjure our first “great picture”. This is good as it encourages further practice until the point is reached when we realise how poor our early “achievements” actually were. And so the process repeats itself until, eventually, we create something enduring. For some of us that can take far longer than 10 000 hours while others fall into their stride sooner. Either way, each continues to think about the medium in an increasingly sophisticated way the longer they practise.
A useful measure of any artist’s progress is the emergence of their style. This is something many photographers at the beginning of their journey are impatient to define without realising that they posses one already. But lack of confidence and, more particularly, the pressure of external influences, tend to inhibit its expression until later on – perhaps after the 10 000 hours mark has been passed. I suspect too that in the days before the internet and an abundance of photo magazines the comparative insularity of photographers fostered individuality and allowed them to find their own voice more readily simply because there were many fewer influences to overcome.
It should follow that the best teachers are those with many years of experience, whose work is readily identifiable and who are comfortable in their own photographic skin. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered what photographers with little experience and no publication record have to offer in their workshops. But a recent article in New Scientist (“Don’t get smart: the curse of knowledge”, August 4th 2011) casts doubt on this assumption. And one sentence in particular stopped me short:
‘ “It’s an oxymoron, but ignorance can be a virtue in education,” [Susan Birch of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver] says. To teach effectively, you need to see things from the naive perspective of the pupil – and the more knowlege you have acquired, the harder it becomes. “Sometimes a less-experienced teacher can be better at pitching the message at the right level,” she says.’ In other words, perhaps the increasing sophistication that comes with time is actually more of a hindrance than a help.
My first reaction on reading this was that there are good and bad teachers across the knowledge spectrum. I remembered being taught at university by one brilliant professor who brought his subject to life and another whose whole class failed its first term paper as he had failed to communicate his expertise in an accessible way. I also remembered when I wrote my first photography book more than 10 years ago and trying to get to grips with Photoshop 5.0 in the space of a month so that I could write about it for the book. While, in retrospect, the information wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t actually wrong either and I was at least able to produce something accessible to others a few weeks behind me on the learning curve. Too often now I get the impression I’m going too fast for my workshop participants!
I’ve heard stories too of well-known photographers who, perhaps because of declining stock income, have started to teach workshops and proved ill-suited to this sort of work. Some of us are natural teachers, others are not but it seems that if you are, a lack of experience may not necessarily be a hindrance to helping others progress.
You may think that the lack of any formal accreditation for photography tutors would make it almost impossible to choose a workshop with confidence – a choice being made ever harder as more photographers clamber on the already creaking workshop bandwagon. And if those anecdotes and the research in New Scientist are to be believed, a “name” is no guarantee of a workshop’s success.
But perhaps the choice isn’t so hard after all. Look for a workshop pitched to your level of knowledge and the specific technique you want to master and you’ll find the options dramatically reduced. Like most other leaders, I’ve taught workshops over the years to “mixed ability” groups because whoever has contracted me is worried about narrowing the appeal of the class by specifying that it is for “absolute beginners” or “those just about the become professional.” I have to tell you that it always ends up as a compromise for everyone concerned. I think too that there is often a lack of focus on teaching specific skills – be that printing, using a field studio, editing DSLR video or creating proposals – that themselves may take a few days to get to grips with – simply because of the smaller market.
Learning photography from a teacher attuned to you and what you want to learn will undoubtedly speed your creative journey. But in the long term, only through learning from and about yourself will your own style find expression. And that may take 10 000 hours.