General Writings:

Intuition v. Construction

(philosophy v. technique)

'We compared a typical outing: A) Me, typicaly, wandering along with camera until some scene grabs me, and God points down from the sky shouting "f8 at a 60th"; B) David [Bayles], typically... seeing a forest beside the road, and knowing from experience that the light would be good in there, and from the terrain that ferns would be growing in there, and figuring that he can stop and wander through the woods and pretty soon will find some ferns that he "can work up into a photograph". No intuitive flashes, no "inspiration"- just hard work.'#

Ted Orland

Two Camps

Photography and photographers can be divided into two major groups. One the one hand you have the philosophic school, typified by Minor White, Paul Caponigro and Wynn Bullock. On the other hand you have the stereotyped commercial studio photographer, to whom technical skill is first & foremost.

Frequently, these two factions express dislike for each other. The intuitive/philosophisers denigrate the constructors as having no vision, with accusations flying in the other direction of 'head in the cloud' dreamers.

The division is perhaps most strongly felt in the field of photographic education. Do you teach 'life and vision' and let the technical skills come after, or do you establish a solid foundation of skills and hope that they actually take some interesting pictures?

The answer, of course, is both. Either extreme is harmful.

Neither extreme is whole: too much work that I see either fails due to inability to use technique, or from lack of vision. In an ideal world, one would never be present without the other.

The Prevalence of Technique

Our society in the West is based on scientific reductionism, so anything that cannot be easily reduced to facts & figures is suspect, and more than that we do not have effective conceptual tools to deal with non-reductionist paradigms. As a result, in this debate the technical side appears easier to grasp (er, how do I get more intuitive?). Because of this, technique is the default choice for education, often with a minimal or non-existant place for what I call 'clarity of vision'.

Can You Teach Art/Intuition/Life?

'I don't think you can really teach something which is in you.'#

You can. But it involves tutoring, rather than learning by rote, it requires small groups, not degree level classes of 30+, and it is very intensive. In addition, it helps enormously if the students have more experience of life than 13 years of educational institutions. Unfortunately this means that it is nearly impossible within university culture in the present time.

We now end up with the curious role of the Fine Art course, traditionally less technically inclined than others, that can no longer aim for clarity of vision either. Without technique or vision, what are you left with? Poorly developed conceptual art, never very moving to start with, the tactics of shock art with its law of diminishing returns. Courses that concentrate on how to hijack the modern art market, on talking the talk without having any content.

Yet Another Third Way?

As I have already stated, I only see advancement through integrating both polarities, taking their strengths and forming a cohesive hybrid.

From The Tao of Photography:

"To be sure, technical knowledge alone does not ensure artistry. As Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki explains, 'If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an 'artless art' growing out of the unconcious.'# Before one can transcend technical knowledge, however, one must have technical knowledge."#

Technique forms a very strong foundation as long as it is combined with a pursuit of vision, of enhancing life & understanding.

Humanity stands on two equal legs, how should photography & art do anything else.


I have no qualms whatsoever in striving for quality, and in deciding for myself what quality is. Not for me postmodernism's unbelief in value. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Why spend time & resources to produce substandard work?

My views leave me open to accusations of being elitist, but I prefer to think of myself as a 'skillist', whether those skills are in the technical area or in clarity of vision. Preferably, of course, in both.

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This page last updated in August 2001