The 120-Year-Old Argument Against Gear

The 120-Year-Old Argument Against Gear

Alfred Stieglitz’s influence on photography is incomparable. Hailed as the "father of pictorialism," he not only helped define the movement but helped forward photography’s place in a broader art context.

Some History, Some Terms

You might be wondering what some of these words mean? And who is this Stieglitz?

Usually, when you see a word ending in “-ism,” such as pictorialism, it means that the word describes an art movement or a philosophy.

A photograph is entrenched in reality. If something doesn’t exist, you can’t take a picture of it, can you? No, you cannot. Before Stieglitz, this was certainly the case. I mean, it was still the case afterward too. But not entirely. Pictorialism is this idea that a photograph of something can be more than just a photograph of that thing. You can use tone, color, and composition to emphasize parts or the whole of a thing so that the image of the thing is more than just the thing itself. A photograph need not merely document reality but can expand upon it.

Pictorialism is so ingrained in modern society that most of us don’t give it a second thought. If you use any semblance of pictorialism in your work, you have Stieglitz to thank!

Gear Is a Tool

Spend any amount of time in any modern photography group and you’ll run into that guy. We all know that guy. He knows anything and everything about the latest lenses and camera bodies and the what’s what of the technical aspects of photography. But his pictures are another story. He either hasn’t taken one in ages, or they are all just so bad.

Stieglitz is known to have talked about lenses, cameras, stop-baths, and chemicals. He called all these things tyrants.

It’s not about the gear. At all. But rather the images you make. You have to certainly know the ins and outs of how to use your gear, but it’s not about the latest gadget or gizmo but rather applying what you have at hand.

Gear is a tool.

Images are more than just mechanical. They need a certain life breathed into them; they need to be art. But to get to that point, you have to know your gear so well that you’re not even thinking about it. It’s second nature. And that only comes with the humility that you have more to learn, and you should always learn something with each shoot, but then, you should also take this praxis and applying it over years and years of study. It works without shortcuts. There are no shortcuts.

Where to From Here?

A lot of what I’ve written here is borrowed heavily from Alfred’s Stieglitz’s writings from circa 1899. I find it fascinating how stuck photography is to the gear that we use to make photographs. These are ideas that are still discussed ad nauseam today, nearly 120 years from the time of Stieglitz. I could be wrong, but I don’t think painters sit around talking about brushes or types of pigments that much, at least not to this degree.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong, but it really should be about the pictures. What do you think?

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Justin Sharp's picture

Spend a few days in an art school and you will hear painters go into excruciating detail on types of brushes, pigments, and all sorts of other details. Maybe it’s a bit different since it doesn’t deal with technology like photography but I think all disciplines geek out over their gear.

Mike Ditz's picture

Most artists, creative people find something they like and stick to it as there is one less decision to get in the way of creativity.
A childhood friend is a director/scriptwriter who had his favorite paper and a certain pen that he writes with, his shelves were full of the same writing notebooks all the same brand and size, he also had a case of the same pen...

Tom Reichner's picture

Very true, Justin.

I belong to my county's Artist Association, the membership of which is mostly comprised of acrylic, oil, and watercolor painters. Most of each weekly meeting involves a lot of discussion about paints, pigments, brushes, canvases, and fixatiffs. Conversely, there is very little discussion about techniques or how to achieve a certain look or inspiration or composition or anything like that.

When one of the painters shows a painting to the group, there are lots of questions about the brushes used, and the pigments used, and what fixatif was applied, etc. They really are all about the gear that they paint with, more than the artistry itself.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Look, you're correct. That was a bit of a throw away line on my part without going into too much detail. I guess my point was that if someone is a chef, we say they cook well. If someone is an electrician, they are good at their job. If someone is a painter, we admire their talent. As someone on the 'outside' of most jobs, we say the person is doing a good job.
But if someone is a good photographer, the question is often "What camera do you have?" rather than the inherent belief that the person behind it is talented.

So it's about the perspective of those discussing technicals from within a community; or admirers from outside of a community.

Deleted Account's picture

From my comment yesterday about wanting to do gum bichromate, you can probably guess the direction I'm heading.

I made this yesterday.

Thanks for posting, Ali :)

Timothy Gasper's picture

I love this photo. Where do you live? I am in Utah where we don't get many cloudy days. Kinda wish I was back in Wisconsin where I grew up. Very nice sir.

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you so much, Timothy. South east Queensland, Australia; which is sub-tropical. I'm waiting for the really big clouds of end summer.

Timothy Gasper's picture

That's it. My wife and I will be there shortly. Keep the light on.

Deleted Account's picture

You'd love it. Flip side, I've got to go a very long way to get to salt flats.

Ali Choudhry's picture

The only thing I miss from Brissie are the beaches. Melbourne does not have those.

Deleted Account's picture

Yeah, but I'm a 14 hour drive to the snow. I've had a week long backcountry trip planned for two years now. Bloody virus!

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well we do have the Great Salt Flats just a few miles from us. The closest I've been to Australia was Vietnam, but that wasn't so pleasant. No worries, we'll get there. Have fun.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ali asked,

"Perhaps I’m in the wrong, but it really should be about the pictures. What do you think?"

I agree with you, Ali. Photography is all about the photos we create, and not about the gear that we use to take those photos. That is why it is called "photography" instead of "cameraography".

We get into photography because we like photos, not because we like cameras. Or, if someone does get into photography because they like cameras, then they are sadly misguided and should pursue camera collecting instead of photography.

Cameras are just tools. A camera should mean no more to a photographer than a pair of pliers means to a plumber. They're all just tools with a job to do. Period.

That being said, cameras are important. Why? Because they're cool? No. Cameras are not cool. They are just tools.

But tools are important, to the extent that they do the job that we require of them. Hence, a photographer should use the tool that best does the job that he needs it to do. It would be foolish to use a camera with slow autofocus and a slow frame rate if one is trying to get tack sharp photo sequences of a skier as they rapidly descend down a steep slope at top speed. Conversely, it would be foolish to use a camera with low resolution if ones' goal is to capture highly detailed photos of a wild stag that show all the hairs of his coat rendered clearly and distinctly.

The gear we use only matters as it directly relates to the images that it allows us to capture.

Timothy Gasper's picture

My favorite line that you said....'cameras are important. Why? Because they're cool?' That's what I said to myself to justify what I purchased. But seriously, yes, I did buy more than I need. But now that I'm retired I find that I also like to collect them. Is that just another justification????

Ali Choudhry's picture

Agreed. A camera is a tool. A better tool will make your job easier but it won't make you better. You, yourself have to be better.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well...Henri Cartier-Bresson used just one camera with one lens for most of his life and look what he achieved. Now I feel like such a pig owning fourteen cameras and I don't know how many lenses and accessories. It's so interesting what we will do to justify our wants and desires.

Christopher Lloyd's picture

Slight overreaction here I think.
'Gear' (a term I dislike) is just what you use to get yout image.
Sure, some people obsess about it far more than the image but it's the same the world over: drivers who obsess over specifications and have no interest in their destination for instance?
And of course manufacturers try to get us to buy their stuff - but we don't have to.
Personally, I love using my old Olympus E1 from 2003 but my EM2 mkII from 2017 lets me take pictures in a much wider range of circumstances.
But I also use my old film Olympus OM3 from 1986 and love it. In fact, recently most of the 'gear' I've bought has bedn for that.
Do I get better pictures? No idea. But they are different and I'm having a great time using it.
Bottom line: just do what makes you happy with whatever 'gear' works best for you. And let the 'gearheads' do their own thing.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Jerry, I'm not sure you actually read the article?

Daniel L Miller's picture

This is a constant issue — I'm beginning to think there should be a test before a reader can make a comment. 😆

Michelle VanTine's picture

Great piece Ali

Ali Choudhry's picture

Thanks Michelle! :)

Tom Reichner's picture

Not at all true for me. I buy old used cameras, mostly models that have been discontinued.

I wait until a camera model is two or three generations old, and then buy it. I am currently making arrangements to buy a Canon 1DX off of Craigslist. That camera cost $5,000 when it was released in 2012, but the old used one I am planning to buy, with 440,000 shutter clicks, is only going for $700.

THAT is what people do. At least the smart people like myself :). haha!

Ali Choudhry's picture

Not sure you read the article, gaius?

Ed Huyer's picture

The way I see it, if you're incapable of taking a good picture with a $200 point and shoot camera, you're not going to take a good picture with $20,000 in gear.

Sure, better gear may give you more flexibility, or technically improved image quality, or make some kinds of pictures easier, or even enable pictures that wouldn't otherwise be possible. But none of that matters if you lack the knowledge and skill needed to pick up a basic camera with a basic lens and take some well composed, interesting pictures.

Ali Choudhry's picture

This is a great summary of the article!

BubbA Gumphy's picture

The only people who suffer angst over their gear are the ones who aren't really doing anything of significance with it, and the ones who are creating something of lasting value don't fixate on gear.

Koolaid Challenge's picture

You don’t know what can be done until you try it. Different cameras, lenses, focal lengths, accessories, some are foolish, some are useful. This is the time and place to experience it all, to learn the subtle and not so subtle differences and pick something from all that which defines you as a photographer. In the end you may return to the 50mm or you may discover you see something in each lens you buy, a quality that makes each one worthwhile.

Peter Blaise's picture

Ali Choudhry wrote ( edited ) "... Gear Is a Tool ... know our gear so well that we’re not even thinking about it. It’s second nature ... we have more to learn ... learn something with each shot ... apply it over years and years of study ..."

Thanks for that.

Yes, our gear is a tool.

And also our prior shots are tools - revisiting my prior shots each day informs me for my next outing on what to better control to accomplish my intention with my photographic storytelling.

And more.

Thanks for the reminder article.

Yet, if Steiglitz hadn't been a pivot for photography-as-technical tool into photography-as-expressive art, others would have, and did.

So let's explore and celebrate them all - Sarah Anne Bright, Franziska Möllinger, Anna Atkins, Bertha Beckmann, Jessie Mann, Brita Sofia Hesselius, Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri, Sarah Louise Judd, Elise L'Heureux, Julia Shannon, Thora Hallager, Emilie Bieber, Caroline Emily Nevill, Virginia Oldoini, Julia Ann Rudolph/Julia Ann Swift/Julia Ann Raymond, Lady Clementina Hawarden, Julia Margaret Cameron, Louise Thomsen, Elizabeth Pulman, Thora Hallager, Malta Adelaide Conroy, Frederikke Federspiel, Mollie Fly, Geraldine Moodie, Mary Steen, Sarah J. Eddy, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Julie Laurberg, Harriet Brims, Laura Adams Armer, Gertrude Käsebier, Gertrude Käsebier, Mathilde Weil, The Allen Sisters, Emma J. Farnsworth, Eva Watson-Schütze, Zaida Ben-Yusuf, Elizabeth Brownell, Sarah Acland, Christina Broom, Signe Brander, Dora Kallmus, Mary Carnell, Margaret Watkins. Katherine Russell Bleecker, Trude Fleischmann, Naciye Suman, Marie al-Khazen, Elise Forrest Harleston, Ruth Harriet Louise, Martha Holmes, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Hansel Mieth, Berenice Abbott - and that's just a few before Steiglitz - as well as Henri Frédéric Amiel, Talbot, Niépce, Paul Strand, John Edwin Mayall, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and so on.

Dang, I have a lot to look up now!

Ali Choudhry's picture

Hi Peter, I think you might also enjoy this then!