HOW TO BE A BETTER PHOTOG: STUDY GREATNESS

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

Ernest Hemingway was talking about writing but I find the idea to be equally true of photography (or any form of art or craft).  There are artists who seem to appear, sui generis, from nowhere, without precedent or antecedent though in the end this is a false narrative.  There are, indeed, great and original talents, but everyone is influenced by something.

The question, then, is what and who are you going to be influenced by?  Do not fall into the trap that if something has been published, that even if something is wildly successful, that it is good or worthy of emulation.  There are many very successful photographers and writers who produce terrible work. Some of this we can acknowledge in the present moment to be terrible (though sometimes time will prove us very wrong).  In that sentiment, if you are doing something new and innovative, it is your responsibility to stick with it, expand your experiment, and to keep working. Sheer belief should keep you going though it is, of course, no guarantee of success or recognition.  History is full of great artists who died poor and who now are regarded as geniuses and whose works sell for millions. History is also full of terrible and mediocre artists who were very successful and who now are discredited and unknown.

I do not know of any good artist who is not insatiable in their pursuit of knowledge.  They study and they read and they explore. The act of taking in knowledge opens new neural pathways, generates new ideas, and ignites the essential drive and desire and competitiveness that allows one to go on, essentially alone, to make and to create.  Everyone I know has their heroes, their role models, the people who went before who help to show the way forward.

I also do not mean to suggest that we should never read a book for fun, that every moment should be spent laboring through the pages of Russian novels.  However, I will tell you not to consume too much mental junk food, nor should you confuse it with what is great or that which you aspire to produce. If it is specific genres of commercial work that you do wish to produce: illustrative stock photos, inspirational landscapes, over-saturated sunsets, then you should study the examples of these with which you are most taken then go about figuring out how to make them yourself and market them.  

There is nothing wrong with making these images but they are rarely, if ever, great in the sense that they tell us more about ourselves and the state of humanity.  And even if you wish to make nothing but very pretty sunset photos I would still advise you to study great photography, photography that has stood the test of time and criticism.  None of us may ever be great and if we are we may never know it. Perhaps it is best if we never do, as that will keep us ever unsure, ever striving to be better. History is also full of artists who did some great work then fell victim to their own egos and the accolades of the public.

So study great photography.  Really study it. Read about those photographer’s lives and what they had to say about the craft and their careers.  Buy some photo books. Check them out of the library. Spend real time looking at an image, looking into the corners and shadows.  Try to see actual prints in museums and galleries. Don’t pass by them as you pass by the glowing ephemera of social media. Imagine what the photographer was feeling in that moment, why he or she framed the scene in a certain way, included this thing and not that thing.  What was intentional and what happenstance, luck, a happy accident. Imagine how they looked at or created the light. Imagine how the air smelled, the ground felt under their feet, where they were standing. Was the camera slick with sweat in their hands, were they excited, scared, or calm?  Don’t become overly concerned with gear but find out what camera, lens, and film they were using, what were the circumstances of their being where they were when the shutter was depressed. Look at Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam War image of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc naked and burned, running from the napalm and imagine yourself there, trying to focus your Leica M2 and weighing your responsibilities as a journalist and a human.

Ask other people who their heroes are, who has influenced them.  And here, I’ll give you a start. Here are 10 great photographers to study in addition to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Sebastiao Salgado, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Ansel Adams: Mary Ellen Mark, Raghubir Singh, Alex Webb, Graciela Iturbide, Raghu Rai, Aristeo Jiménez, Martîn Chambi, Larry Burrows, Luc Delahaye, and Josef Koudelka.

Go forth.  Aspire to greatness.  Be great. FP

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