The tools we use

There is a question often asked about photographers which is why do they spend so much time looking at, comparing and then buying the latest camera or lens when virtually no other artist indulges in such pursuits but instead focuses on the art itself. After all, painters do not spend hours scouring brochures looking at the latest paintbrush or easel? They might regularly buy new brushes but they are a mere tool, to be discarded once the artwork is created and the brush is worn out. Don McCullin, the social documentary and war photographer, famously said in his book The Destruction Business:

“I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”

Don McCullin, Photographer

This nicely places the camera where it should be, as a tool to get the job done. The sad fact is, if you like buying shiny new gadgets, whether they be cameras, laptops or even the latest silver Mont Blanc pen (or “writing instrument” as they prefer it to be known), there is no correlation between creativity and equipment cost or quantity. As Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody:

“A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.”

Hugh MacLeod, Artist and Blogger

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used a battered old Leica to create most of his iconic images whilst the author Ernest Hemingway used an old Corona No. 3 portable typewriter to write his novels.

Henri Cartier Bresson’s Leica. Photo by Stewart Wallace
Ernest Hemmingway’s Corona Typewriter

What this comes down to is, you can have the best tools in the world but if you don’t use them to ‘deliver’ then they are nothing more than a useless pile of physical or digital garbage. True creatives know how to use tools effectively but they are not slaves to them. Success as a creative person means recognising the pillars that Hugh MacLeod mentions and getting rid of them in favour of delivering what they need. To quote MacLeod again:

“Good pillar management is one of the most valuable talents you have on the planet. All we can do is keep asking the question, ‘Is this a pillar?’ about every aspect of our business, our craft our reason for being alive, and go on from there”

Hugh MacLeod, Artist and Blogger

There is an apocryphal tale, often shared by photographers, which goes something like this…

A well known photographer is invited to a dinner party. When she arrives the host says to her, “I’m so glad you could make it, I absolutely love your work and think your photographs are amazing. You must have a really good camera?” The photographer smiles and nods her head. At the end of the evening as the they are all parting company the photographer turns to her host and says, “That was a lovely evening and your meal was amazing. You must have a really good cooker”.

In other words, whilst our tools may be very, very good in terms of what they can do, it still requires a creative person who can use them and to draw out the best of their capabilities. It is the creative that “delivers”, not the tool.

We also need to remember that if we are not careful our behaviours, our attitudes and even our personalities can become shaped, not always for the good, by our tools. If you use a tool frequently enough it can become plugged into your consciousness in ways you may not realise. How many of us have become slaves to the modern day menace of email where we think we are “working” simply because we have cleared our inbox for the day? Better make sure then that when we select our tools we do it for the right reasons which is they will assist us in doing our jobs and not take over our lives.

The Jesuit priest and media scholar John Culkin prophetically said in 1967: “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” What he meant by this was, although we think we create tools to help us, pretty quickly those same tools take over our lives and control how we behave. Think how the motor car over a period of 100 years or so, whilst an incredibly useful tool, now dictates so much of our lives from how we design our cities through to how we now have to deal with their environmental impact.

As a final thought on the importance of the tools we use it’s worth considering this. Homo sapiens today dominate the planet not just because any individual person is smarter or more dextrous than other animals but because humans are the only species on earth capable of cooperating in large numbers, most times with complete strangers. We have learnt how to create communication tools (the motor car, the aeroplane, the computer and the World Wide Web) that enable us to communicate on a massive scale. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Home Deus (p153):

“If humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Historian

Today, co-operation between humans is more important than ever. If we are to solve problems like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change then we must be joining together and making more and better use of the tools we use.

Published by Peter Cripps

Software architect, digital activist, blogger and photographer.

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