The Rise of the Generalist-Specialist Photographer

There’s No Skill in Skill

“Eggs and Rain.” Photo by Josh S. Rose, ©2021.

This studio image here, of my son on a rainy day whim, is a high quality photo that one would once have had to pay a pretty penny for. It’s the kind of photo that, when I first started doing photography I might have looked at and spent a long time trying to figure out. But these days, we all know pretty much how it gets done. From the color matching technique to the single light and bounce technique, I’d be surprised if this image seemed at all mysterious to you.

Photography skill as we’ve known it is undergoing a significant overhaul as it proliferates to the masses, via YouTube, blogs, social media and e-learning. From shallow depth-of-field portraiture to strobe photography to long exposure landscape work — understanding any of it is now only a click away from wherever you are sitting right now. And that is tearing down some very old myths about our work.

Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2018.

I had this realization myself a few years back, after becoming obsessed with the work of the late Peter Lindbergh. His black and white photography moved me with its film-esque feel and mix of editorial and portraiture. He seemed to have found a voice in that blend, yet his work had a simplicity to it. A few decades ago, I’d have been out of luck trying to really grasp his technique. I could have stumbled around for years trying to emulate it. But in this day and age, it took me all of three minutes to find out exactly what camera and lens he used, and even his entire approach to shooting.

This was thrilling. But at the same time it seemed like a giant warning. If me, then anyone.

There’s no skill in skill anymore because it’s so easy to access the shortcuts to learning the technical details of a camera, composition, and lighting. But also pre-production, direction and post production. The entire process of photography is now at your fingertips. This is a great disruption to the industry.

Photography has long been an industry of haves and have nots. Those with means and access have always had an advantage over everyone else. And the old guard in photography often held trade secrets sacred. There are no more secrets.

As times change, we must shed our old sense of how things work and what defines us. A newer model for success is taking form and for those with the grander sense of it, new possibilities abound.

Before: Specialist vs Generalist

In late November 2008, Americans had lost more than a quarter of their net worth from the previous year. The S&P 500 was down 45%, housing prices had dropped 20%, GDP was contracting at an enormous rate, unemployment was rising — it was the great recession. But it wasn’t bad news for everyone. Shoe repair and the tailor industry experienced unprecedented growth. By 2019, we saw the rise of the artisanal brand. Bread-makers, boutique fashion brands, home spun coffee houses and the return of the turn-of-the-century mustache were unmistakeable outgrowths of the recession. Why? Because when things get tough, we contract. Like a turtle into a shell. It feels safer to have a very tangible and marketable skill, so we veer toward specialism and familiarity.

Conversely, when we are flush as a society, we broaden ourselves; dabbling across many areas and speaking of the multi-faceted, renaissance lifestyles of Shakespeare and da Vinci.

This has been our history to date and it’s reflected in ideas like being “a jack of all trades, master of none.” But this is all changing right now, making old dichotomies like this obsolete.

After: The Generalist-Specialist

Today, a new form of worker-person is developing thanks to this proliferation of skill.

By all measures, 2020 should have pushed us further into specialism, but it didn’t. Half of all Americans have a side hustle, we are identifying in less binary ways, and over the last year Americans went on an incredible learning spree. Oddly, we only seem to be expanding into broader and broader versions of ourselves, despite the world’s problems and a down economy. And of all the things we e-learned during the pandemic, “job-specific specialized skills” represented only 10% of our screen time, far outweighed by Cooking/Baking (52%), Arts & Crafts (31%), Yoga/Fitness/Meditation (26%), learning a new language (21%), playing an instrument/singing/music (16%), gardening (13%) and photo/video/graphic design (11%). I would suggest that the ease with which we can now get specific technical training in traditionally difficult fields has offered an entirely new outlook on our sense of expertise. And even where we gain our sense of security. Today, our generalist and specialist natures are learning to co-exist. We talk a lot about the gig economy, but that is only an observation on work itself. It’s our larger sense of identity within the context of work that is really transforming us.

The Rise of the G-S Photographer

As photographers, we can take our learnings from this and decide that revealing how we got a shot does not in any way detract from our own larger narratives. Because we are no longer defined by our specialist knowledge. And, in fact, by giving that portion of our repertoire away, we open a door to discussing our greater value. This is the new math of the Generalist-Specialist photographer.

My own transformation has followed exactly this path. With two decades of agency experience as a creative director, I have been able to change the conversation from my skill as a photographer, to a new denomination of Creative Director/Photographer. But I won’t bore you with that — it’s only one way to combine generalism with specialism. I’ve seen photographers pair their skill with activism, politics, travel, dance, and many other larger narratives. Their stories are not just about skill, but about how they apply it and what else they bring to it.

Elevate Beyond Specialism

Elevating the narrative about who you are and what you do is a hard thing to do in photography. We all came up with this feeling that we will be successful in the medium once we establish ourselves within the circle of specialism. This can be a certain look to our work (color grading, sets, models, locations), a technical area of expertise (product photography, celebrity, fashion, photojournalism, etc.) or even something extraordinarily creative (our eye, our process, our ideas, our stories). Our training is so deep in this that it’s an entire paradigm shift for many of us to break out of that circle. But you have to, because anything you’ve accomplished within just that circle is available to all. So it’s a commodity.

The technique for becoming Generalist-Specialist in your work involves widening the lens on yourself; taking a look not only at your skill in photography (which is still vital to your success) but in those other areas of your life that you also care deeply about. And I offer to you the idea that by putting them together into a new image of yourself, you also add meaning to your work and invite new conversations, beyond the table stakes discussions of camera settings and light set-ups.

This is not an easy journey, but that is also how I’m sure it’s the right one. Adding complexity back into our career paths is how we return value to it.

Thanks for reading. More of my photography here. Instagram here.

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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