Pictures Of You
Most of us got into this field because we definitely loved taking pictures of people, or landscapes, or life on the streets. I certainly didn’t pick up a camera because I saw a cool product in a catalogue; I picked up a camera because I was drawn to images that were lit in a particular way, because I loved black and white, available light and un-posed subjects. When I had done this for years as a pleasurable hobby, I found myself at loose ends after people started hiring me to photograph them or their loved ones in the style I’d done: As soon as the art moved from hobby to business there started a subtle erosion of the essential point of view that made my work different from everybody else’s.
And if you really think about it, the convergence of digital imaging and the photo sharing sites on the web has quickened a process of homogenization that now seems relentless. How many of you think that a reportage style of wedding photography is wonderfully unique? Every wedding book I’ve seen in the past few years has exactly the same stuff in it, including the close up of the fingers trying to button up the back of an antique ivory wedding dress!
I think we conform for a variety of valid anthropological reasons. We have a subconscious desire to please our tribe. We fear striving for originality and excellence because we have a suspicion that these things aren’t valued by our clients, and showing different work might cause them to reject our services. Which we then interpret to be a rejection of ourselves. We might fear the hostility that will inevitably come from those who are practicing the status quo.
But here’s the nasty reality statement that I’m sure you’ve known was coming from the minute you started reading this: The people who populate the top 1% of the art world don’t really give a minute of thought to what might “play well in Peoria”. They pursue their vision. Their own vision. And they do it in a way that basically welds them into the longer view of art history, or photo history, because it introduces aesthetic game changers that the rest of us will buy into decades down the road and work to incorporate into our collective offerings. But we won’t understand the value of those goods until it’s just too late… Think Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Both of them were incredible pioneers as opposed to Chase Jarvis and Michael Grecco, for instance, who simply understood a trendy, contemporary use of the tools and the power of good, pervasive marketing.
Consider this for a moment… Nikon and Canon sell 80% of the cameras used by professionals today. Both have the identical format! Your choice is really sensor A or sensor B. Processing algorithm A or processing algorithm B. Can you imagine the photographers we truly admire from the film age being constrained to choose between just two different films? Where is the differentiation? Where is the rugged individualism? How did this all happen? Some postulate that every move toward convenience decreases overall quality. That every wave of mass acceptance creates inertia to consider whatever the masses have embraced being the “standard”.
So, what do you do? If you are a business person, first analyze your business carefully, and if you find that selling your current product, no matter how “commodified” it is, is going well and your market share is growing, then continue on your path. But if you feel like you got into this field to do something unique and different and you have the queasy feeling that you let the weight of life and money drag you into some compromised stasis, then start pushing back and reconnect with why you wanted to be here in the first place.
When I was attending University, in Italy, I had a friend who came to me and complained that she couldn’t possibly fulfill her promise as a great fashion photographer unless she had a Hasselblad and a stable of good, Zeiss lenses. But she whined that she could never afford them, so she was doomed to failure. Shortly afterwards, her parents bought her a brand new, turbo-charged Volvo… I suggested her to sell the car and buy the dream. She thought I was insane. The money trumped the art. The comfort quotient kicked the crap out of art. I caught up with her two decades of “life lessons” later. She has become a gifted artist. She pursues her vision. She lives on the edge. She doesn’t own a car. But, here’s the news flash: She’s happier than she ever was because she’s very clear about what she wants.
So, how do you change? How about throwing away all the trappings you feel compelled to offer as art? You have the “Art” with a capital “A” in you, or you would have never chosen this discipline. I know you might think this sounds preachy and high-handed but it’s really a synopsis of the journey of self discovery I’ve been on lately. I’ve opened the files in my computer and started using the Recycle Bin: Anything that doesn’t feel good about my work goes into there. And I’m keeping only the photos I want. It makes me feel lighter.
However, if any photographer of real ambition would like to radically improve his or her photography quickly and efficiently, I suggest shooting with nothing but a Leica M and one lens for a year. Shoot one type of black-and-white film (yes, even if you’re completely devoted to color and digital, and hate film and everything it stands for. You don’t have to commit to this forever; it’s an exercise…). Pick a single focal-length: 50mm, or 35mm, or 28mm. Carry the camera with you every day and shoot at least one roll a week. The more time you spend looking through the viewfinder, the better; the amount of frames you shoot is related but not so important. Then, process the film (preferably by yourself…), scan the negatives and after archive the images in a folder, in chronological order for future reference. Craft well, but don’t crop and don’t fuss too much: Just take what the camera gives you. Leica M pictures are unmistakable. They represent a very individual style of photography, they have the power to strike a chord, fascinate and surprise… But if you don’t like this idea, there is no need to get all scornful or whimpery with me. But I’ll say this: A year with a single Leica, a single lens and single type of film, looking at light and ignoring color, will actually teach you about seeing as much as three years in any photo school, and as much as ten or fifteen years (or more) of mucking about selling and shopping for gear like the average hobbyist. At the end, I guarantee, you will be a much better photographer than you were before you started. You just will be. It’s a promise. And I’m not even trying to be didactic or contrarian or provocative here: What I say is simply true.