You can’t walk half a block down Times Square without spotting a dozen red stripes on L series glass. A 24-70 here, a 5D there, and the intrepid tourist toting a new D800. And let’s not forget the mirrorless cameras, the point and shoots, and, of course, the ubiquitous iPhones. And it’s not just Times Square. In any corner in any place, where anything is happening at all, you can be rest assured that life will be documented. Exhaustively.

The question in the modern age isn’t who is a photographer. It’s who isn’t a photographer? And what makes us different?

Here’s what’s NOT the answer: Professionals don’t get better bokeh, sharper shots, luminous light, cleaner composition, and exact exposures. If that’s the answer, we are lost! Not because those things aren’t true, but because those things are not the human values of photography. Those are not the traits that elevate and distinguish us. They’re simply out of focus.

Great photography is about emotion and ideas.

It has a point of view. There are photographers and photographs who are witty, emotional, intellectual, playful, cynical, and optimistic. Oftentimes many of the above. These are the human components of images and the essence of great photography. And it doesn’t matter whether you use L-series glass or iPhones to imbue your work with these traits. They just need to be there.

The problem, though, is communication is not static. Today’s “witty” is tomorrow’s boring. Today’s “emotional” is tomorrow’s pedestrian. Good is a moving target. It has a sell-by date, because good is really about the reaction we induce, not whether we create images mimicking anything we’ve created before.

When we create a picture, we catalyze a conversation.

And we participate in it. This conversation is not just with the present, but with the past. A rich, storied discussion filled with repartee and reply. Maybe we see a picture we love, and we pay tribute to it by reusing and extending its concept.

Would there be Martin Parr without Robert Frank? Or maybe we see a picture we hate, and we oppose it by shooting something utterly differently. Compare Roversi and Richardson. Every picture is an extension or refutation of something before it. The question isn’t how images are taken. The question is why. And to answer that, we must look back.

The reality is we are all freeloaders, hitching a ride on the work of those preceding us.

Cartier-Bresson, Weston, Evans, – their photographic DNA is embedded in every image we make. But the danger comes not from the fact that we incorporate their visions into our work but, rather, when we fail to see how we are doing so. Because if good is about creating a reaction, then it also requires an element of newness. And new isn’t so much that which has never been done, as it is that which has never been combined.

History tells us what has been combined and how. History helps us distill interwoven strands of modern images into the component threads that form them. History tells us what was done when, how people reacted, and where our influences originate. And in doing so, it gives us raw materials we need to reconstruct techniques and ideas into our own unique vision. And this is history’s true value. Not just as inspiration and not just as blueprint, but in letting us form building blocks that we can rework and reassemble in our own way. By enabling us to see meaning and theme and by letting us understand references we make, history frees us of the past and propels us into the future. Without knowledge of history, all we can do is copy. With knowledge of history, we can create.

The thing is, everyone may be a photographer. But very few know much about photography.

Plenty of people know shutter speeds and apertures, composition and timing. But not many know how to use those things and to what end. Because that’s a question of history and context. And if being a “professional” means more than better gear and advanced technology, it’s going to be that comprehension that gives us our real identity.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

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