Photography as Knowledge

Yu, Chong-ho

Norman, Oklahoma, 1990



Mental Process rather than Manual Dexterity

Some one argues that painting is a skill but photography isn't, because only a well-trained painter can create beautiful paintings but any one can use a point-and-shoot camera to make nice pictures. In response to this assertion, I argue that one of the characteristics of photography is that it is a kind of knowledge rather than a type of skill. Therefore, photography should be evaluated in a different standard.

First, let's look at the basic difference between knowledge and skill. Philosophy, psychology, physics, chemistry, math are different types of knowledge that are entirely developed by mental processing. Dancing, painting, martial arts, playing piano, and playing tennis are skills that requires manual dexterity, eye-hand co-ordination and muscle/bone flexibility. My watercolor professor Michael DeWitt told me,

"Learning watercolor painting is just like playing basketball. There's no secret for putting the ball through the basket or putting the right color on the paper. Just practice and practice to make your hands do what you want."

Photography has been misunderstood as a skill since it first appeared. Actually photographic images are crystallized by mental processes rather than resulting from manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination or muscle/bone flexibility. If I show you how to mount a lens, load a film, you can do it next time. What makes a person a great photographer is the knowledge inside his brain. Like physics and chemistry, the information of photography is extremely heavy. A careful photographer would record the technical information of every frame. Also, when one works in the darkroom, especially with professional films, like a scientist, one must write down the filter and exposure information every time in order to discover the perfect combination. But no painter needs to write down how many gram of red pigment and how many gram of white pigment were used to blend into a new color.

Fusion of Knowledge and Skill

Painters may argue that painting is a fusion of knowledge and skill, instead of skill only. Laying the paints on the canvas is a skill, but embodying a theme in a subject and creating a composition is an intellectual process. I have no objection to this point. However, photographers, just like the artists of other media, also think about and even conduct research about the theme, subject, and composition. In the "what to do" level, both painting and photography are knowledge. Their difference is at the "how to do" level.

Neither Knowledge Nor Skill

Some one may argue that photography is neither knowledge nor a skill. In the good old days photographers held a light meter and did serious calculation frame by frame. Today the electronic cameras can make anyone become a so-called "point-and-shoot professional." Equipped with these cameras, a photographer may take a great picture without understanding how it happened. The so-called "point-and shoot professional" is a contradictory term and only an advertising gimmick. According to Dan Richards and Pete Kolonia, among 15 autofocus cameras in the market only five of them-namely, Nikon F4S, Canon EOS 630, Canon RT, Canon EOSl, and Minolta Maxxum 9000 were designed for advanced amateur and professionals. All of the rest were made for snapshooters. Moreover, the real professionals still use large or medium format cameras, which are basically operated manually and highly rely on human judgment.


Photography is not as respectful as painting in fine arts. It is because some people still assess this medium by the criterion of "skill." Photography, in their eyes, is only the work by machines, but not a "skillful" medium. If people have difficulty accepting photography as a high art, no wonder people also hardly accept computer art as a serious medium. Computer art and photography are on the same plain. A computer artist needs the knowledge of programming language and software applications to create art. Manual dexterity such as keyboarding is irrelevant.

I have no intention to downgrade painting or skill. Actually both knowledge and skill are equally important in making contribution to our culture in different ways. However, we should accept media such as photography and computer art as fine arts, and acknowledge that knowledge can make art, not just skill.

Copyright © 1997



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