McLuhan and Fiore: “Professionalism is environmental.  Amateurism is anti-environmental.”

McLuhan and Fiore’s book, The Medium is the Massage, is an assortment of layouts, images and ideas around the effects of technology and mass media on the ‘public’ and the individual.  It challenges structures of education and media replication, encourages freedom, and respects pre-technological approaches to visual art and tangible forms of communication, acknowledging ocularcentricity in human society:

“Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts.  They suspect the ear; they don’t trust it.  In general we feel more secure when things are visible, when we can “see for ourselves.” We admonish children, for instance, to “believe only half of what they see, and nothing of what they hear.”  All kinds of “shorthand” systems of notation have been developed to help us see what we hear.”

[…]

“We are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!” (p117)

In the book, the notions of amateurism and professionalism are challenged, an important factor in discussions about photographic practice and the identity of photographers.

“Professionalism is environmental.  Amateurism is anti-environmental.  Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment.  Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society.  The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and to specialize, to accept uncritically the groundrules of the environment.  The groundrules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly unaware.  The “expert” is the man who stays put.” (p93)

In the context of photography, a professional photographer normally has a style, genre, something that they are known for, be it – for example – underwater photography or portraits.  They have their “thing”.  It could be argued, as McLuhan suggests, that a professional becomes stuck in that thing while the amateur instead moves between things, develops.  An interesting idea, but one that presents professionalism as potentially restrictive or negative.

Reflecting on this, I have never felt able to pin myself to one genre or approach, and cannot help but change, move, experiment. I am open to what will happen next without worrying about loss or demotion.  This approach is, however, not necessarily one related to a drive either to maintain professionalism, or a comfort in amateurism, rather a result of a set of life conditions including many experiences of loss, and the knowing I can recover from loss.  It seems a somewhat shaky existence may have left me with,if anything, a freedom to move through different statuses without feeling adhered to one or the other.

The Medium is the Massage
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
2008, London, Penguin