The Andros Factor

This is a screenshot of the ‘About’ page of the website for Andros 1978. I contacted the photographer to request a photo of him to accompany this post, but he required vetting of the piece before considering the request. I do not offer my journalism for vetting by subjects before publication or posting, so that didn’t work out. This is a reproduction of a publicly accessible web page found here and is posted as reference in the public interest.

There’s been a bit of fuss on Facebook about a statement by young photographer Andros Belfonte about his three-and-a-half year career in photography.
(Here’s the original post and comments for those on Facebook and a transcript here, for those of you who aren’t)
I know this because I posted the first dissenting comment among the flood of congratulations that followed his statement and by then, some other folks had chimed in.

The key fragment in his statement ran like this…
“Today I still haven’t read the manual (no time), don’t know what ISO, Shutter Speed or Aperture really does (I have an idea but who cares) but yet I have 25,000+ FANTASTIC FANS on Facebook.”
I know that my first reaction to that was one of irritation. Who boasts about being ignorant of the details of their craft?

My response, after several posts of congratulations rolled in, ran somewhat counter to the general tone of things.
Me: “I’m sorry dude, but that’s an appalling boast.”
But what was I really reacting to?

It isn’t as if Andros is the first photographer to build a career off a thin understanding of photography’s intricacies, a heap of intuition and some crafty marketing.
The trifecta of collapsing prices, dramatic improvements in camera technology and the explosion of social media have created an unprecedented spike in interest in photography, forever dropping the bar to entry for a craft that once operated on the basis of high cost and knowledge barriers and skill scarcity.

I’ve got a Canon EOS 1Ds (2002) and a Samsung Galaxy III (2012) and the physical difference between the devices is as striking as the quality of the photographs they produce. In a crazy inversion driven by technology, the pocketable smartphone hammers the 55 ounce professional slab of magnesium on image quality like a Good Friday bobolee. There’s simply no competition. Is this a useful metaphor to consider?

I’ve spoken to Andros on the phone a couple of times, chatted with him on Facebook and even seen him once or twice but never had a chance to speak personally, but he’s exactly what he sounds like.
A chatty, charming, constantly moving man-about-town who happens to have a camera instead of a cane and top hat who just happens to win friends and attention almost effortlessly.

While some folks on Facebook have been politely removing his name when referencing his posts, I’m pretty sure he not only doesn’t give a damn, he’s probably relishing the attention.
What’s inflamed so many passions and got some folks thinking twice in the debate that’s followed is the possibility that he might be right.

In a follow up to his post, Andros notes…
“As you know I don’t mingle with any photographer nor do I attend any seminars etc. Furthermore I will continue to use the words “Professional Photographer” until such a body emerges that restricts that use. As a matter of fact how do the older photographers get the title “Professional” in the first place?”
“I wonder if it’s when they shot 10 weddings or someone tells them their work is “fantastic” or did they join some governing body that we don’t know about? Ironic that most of them feel we young hot -shots don’t deserve the title.”

It’s worth noting that it was Andros who introduced the idea of photographer licensing and the concern about whether or not he’s a professional photographer to the conversation on his own. Nobody had mentioned either notion prior to that. Those aren’t concerns that I find relevant.
Those concerns are mirrored by other young photographers in their comments, which leads me to suspect that there is a prevailing worry that there’s a marker somewhere that needs to be crossed before one is regarded as a “professional photographer” and nobody seems to know where it is.

Some folks describe a professional as someone who earns their living doing something, but that tends to be covered by the terms “contractor” or “supplier.” If I’ve had any benchmark for when I think of a photographer as a professional it’s when they behave professionally. Like porn, it’s something you know as soon as you see it.

I think I’m right in observing that many of Andros’ comments were calculated absurdities aimed at stoking a promotionally attractive flame war, rallying his supporters and generally driving traffic to his Facebook page.
This is a smart thing to do if you want attention and want to boost your 26,000+ likes. Just as a point of reference, I should note here that the popular Laura Ferreira clocks just 17,000+ likes on the Facebook chart of meaningless adoration.

I’d responded to Andros’ original post because it seemed like this personable young photographer was taking a dump in the metaphorical pool of photographic practice and that water was going to be coming my way sooner or later.
But sticking with that metaphor for a bit left me wondering whether I wasn’t worrying about a body of water that was draining away anyway. Perhaps he was prescient in following his instincts to take a joyously celebratory crap on the whole practice of photography as I’ve known it since it was all swirling down the drain anyway.

The modern digital camera is a miraculous device. You have to work hard to take a bad picture with even a low end system and the defaults cameras ship with are set to make the whole process foolproof.
This makes a lot of sense for the companies that make them. People who have a great experience with their equipment are more likely to buy more gear, making the Sonys, Canons and Nikons of this business more profitable.

If along the way the cameras become smarter than the people holding them, where’s the harm? With zone focusing, facial recognition and truly intelligent exposure algorithms, today’s digital cameras make better and faster decisions than all but a few photographers and the pictures are all the better for it.
I manual focused for decades, but now that I wear glasses that have three discrete zones of clarity, I’m happy to let the camera do the thinking for me on that front, confident that it’s got better eyesight than I do now.

Then Andros asks me in the flow of the Facebook discussion, “A painter goes to school/university and learns how to draw and creates a masterpiece. At the same time an average guy who knows nothing about painting decides to do a drawing and it turns out to be a masterpiece. Which one would you have more respect for? Which one would the masses rally for?”

It’s a maddeningly off-base analogy because drawing is an analog exercise that demands studied craft if you aren’t an autistic prodigy and his photography career, along with mine and everyone else who uses a digital camera today, doesn’t stand on the incremental gains won throughout the history of the craft.
It leaps boldly into the future buoyed by millions of hours of programming by an army of code warriors who want to make picture taking easy and rewarding.

For everyone who takes the time to learn how to use Photoshop’s clone tool and healing brush with creative restraint, there’s someone who drops a batch of photos into SnapHeal. Who would the masses rally for then?
Having failed to bite at the naive artist bait/argument, Andros then moves on to software to make his case.

“Then came technology and all who were unable to jump on this bandwagon would soon be left behind. Photoshop and digital cameras would be their [photography’s old guard] worst nightmare…(just imagine your father trying to use Photoshop).”
Setting aside the rather ghoulish vision of my zombie dad trying to hold a mouse that keeps slipping out of the rotting flesh of his hands (mostly because he was cremated), I’ll settle for pointing out that I toned my first photograph in Photoshop (v1.07) when Andros Belfonte was 12 years old and leave it at that. I am his dad using Photoshop.

Finally, Andros coaxes me with flattery, claiming that I “literally wrote the book on photography in Trinidad.” Entertaining hyperbole aside, that’s a book with many chapters and many talented contributors. I’ve been on the planet a bit too long to fall for that one.

It’s hard to really get angry with Andros’ assertions. There’s something quite giddy and compelling about his sense of what photography is all about and his cheerful dismissal of actual photographic knowledge feels like a modern update of Tom Sawyer’s rebellious dismissal of “larnin.”

Young Mr Belfonte is being subversive and he knows it, making it a cornerstone of his personal marketing strategy. He’s the street corner artist discovered by MOMA, the intuitive auteur enabled by software and the social media superman able to gather thousands of likes in a single bound.
I can’t say any different. He’s got the likes. He’s got the fans ready to jump to his defense and he says he’s got the business.

It’s easy to demonise Andros as an ignorant lout so uneducated in his chosen craft and so drunk on Facebook likes that his ego has long cut loose from reality, but I’d never say that, not least because everybody is the hero in their own story and the Andros 1978 story is, to a young person, clear, inspiring and oh so attainable.

I don’t think for a minute that Andros is as clueless as he wants folks to believe he is. “ART AND NATURAL TALENT,” the capital that he capitalizes, will only take you far and then there are files to transfer and images to work on. There’s work that you can’t avoid if you want the results he gets, whether he gets the image in camera or on a computer screen and to suggest otherwise is, well, to lie.

For at least two decades now photographers have been secretly hoping for a Photoshop menu command that simply reads “Fix Photo.” We don’t have one yet, but we’ll probably get there soon enough.
The progressive migration of everything routine and calculable into the processors that run our cameras the coding that runs our imaging software will continue and there will be more Belfontes in our future.

Young Andros may well find himself lionised as the most outspoken of a new breed of pure photographic artists and brilliant social media marketers who will define the vanguard of a new technology driven freedom to create.
To such photographers of the future shooting and processing slide film will seem as crude and as alien as nailing shoes to a horse would seem to today’s fancy dan mounting up his new rims.
It will be a brave new world. I cower in consideration of it.
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