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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellert


A few weeks ago, my sister, a professional musician, teacher, orchestra conductor, choral conductor, and writer put forth a request for her colleagues to send her some of the misconceptions they as musicians had run up against over the years. That lit up a lightbulb in the space between my ears to do the same thing, but with regards to the visual arts. I put out a request on Gallery 12’s social media circle. The length of the responses resulted in breaking this blog into three parts, which we’ll publish over the next few weeks.

Pam Hayes leads off with her insights into one of the saws that all of who teach studio or performing subjects have heard.

You may have heard the old adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. This quote is attributed to George Bernard Shaw from a drama series called “Man and Superman”, written in 1903. This saying pertained to me because I was an art teacher for over twenty years. Since I primarily created art work as examples for my students, I felt that statement was meant for me. However, it is a misperception of the abilities of artists who do become teachers. Even though I did not ‘do’ art for public consumption while I was teaching, it was definitely not because I couldn’t do it. As an art teacher, I had to know about and be able to demonstrate, a wide variety of media. Teaching gave me very little time to create my own singular body of work. But after I retired in 2008, I have been able to create a lot of work in several different media. Landscapes are my favorite subject and I have created many pieces using oils, acrylics, watercolors, oil pastels, soft pastels, pencils, charcoal, ink and alcohol inks. I had to practice my skills in painting and drawing on a daily basis to be able to teach my students how to use different media. Teaching about different artists who created important work was also a way to improve my own knowledge of the history of art. Choosing to teach art did not diminish my skills, I believe that it truly enhanced my ability as an artist. I am sure that this is true for a lot of artists who teach, and teachers who are artists. Perhaps the saying should be changed to “Those who can, do; Those who can teach, can do it better.”

Rising to the challenge, I found it easy to recall some of the myths and half-truths I’ve heard over the past sixty years of engaging in and thinking about photography and photographers. I’ll start by noting that photography bears some parallels to other commonly followed arts such as singing and playing a musical instrument. One can reach a certain level of competence with minimal effort, but progress beyond the elementary requires a large degree of dedication, and it is across this dividing line that I find the most frequently-held misconceptions. After making a list, I found that the misapprehensions fall into several broad areas, and I’ll take these up in turn.


Misconceptions here have been with us since the inception of photography about 1830, beginning with “Photos don’t lie, they show exactly what was in front of the camera.”This oldy and goody comes from the notion that photography is inherently mechanical, what is in front of the camera is what is photographed, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, there is a certain amount of truth in that. But, as one of my esteemed teachers, Boyd Norton, was fond of telling his students, “The painter adds into an image only that which is required to convey what they have in mind, while the photographer, not having that luxury, must find ways to minimize elements in front of the camera that distract from the intended image.” Thus, successful photographers learn how to position themselves in front of a subject, wait until the right light, or if in a studio setting modify the existing light, make a few steps to one side, or get higher or lower, all to include just the necessary elements and exclude distractions. The resulting image may be very different from what a snap-shooter gets. Is the well-composed image any less “truthful” than the snapshot?

Things got really sticky once we entered the digital age and suddenly “photoshopping” became a pejorative term for modifying an image from what was in front of the camera. I have news: photographers have been doing that since the very beginning of photography in the mid-nineteenth Century. I was myself doing it in college, sandwiching multiple negatives and using selective exposures to create “made-up” images that reflected my feelings of the time. They would never have been mistaken for photographs of a real situation.

Obviously, the camera and photograph can be used as a tool of deception, and this has, given human nature, been going on for a long time. The amount of permitted deviation permitted from a documentary photograph and an “art image” is a problem that seriously plagues photographers to this day. This is a huge issue, and a full exploration is well beyond the scope of this blogpost.

Many do not regard photography as art at all, again, from the point of view of the mechanical component in image creation.I certainly do not mean to suggest that all photography is art, but then, we start getting into the never-ending and unresolvable debate about what constitutes art. I think I will save this discussion, as well, for a future blog!

I’ll wrap the first part here and next time look at some of the misconceptions I’ve heard over the years regarding the various skills that photographers employ.

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