I’m cognizant of the irony that drips from this article’s title, and I’m fully aware of the reality that — without typing a single supporting word — I’ve already written myself into a literary corner. As I see it, my chance of securing your attention beyond this opening paragraph relies on one of two basic human instincts: perversion or curiosity. Specifically, those with a perverse desire to see another man flail about in a self-made paradox are sure to read on, while those with an innate curiosity will likely become so intrigued by the following graphic that they’ll forget all about the title’s inherent self-contradiction:
Few photographers, after examining this flowchart, would opt for anything other than Path 2. Not only does it clearly delay death, but it insures joy and self-actualization to all who choose it. Intriguing, isn’t it? Read on…
Amongst those of at least modest financial means, a significant percentage have access to a camera. It might be a cell phone. It might be a simple point-and-shoot. It might be an SLR borrowed from a friend, or even a cardboard disposable purchased for an important occasion. The urge to document a special event, person, or place is a natural tendency that touches all mankind — regardless of one’s political, religious, or social beliefs. For most people, photographs are nothing more than a tangible (though important) realization of a pleasant memory. These are photography’s happy innocents — people who have not tried to make photography into something more than it need be.
Fortunately or unfortunately, some of us choose to leave this utopian garden of innocence. The number of paths leading out are numerous, but they all entice with a common temptation — the desire to take “better” photographs. For some, the inspiration to relinquish innocence is awakened by the arrival of a new love — the birth of a baby, or the addition of a kitten or puppy. For others, it’s precipitated by a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to an exotic locale, or the realization that your child is an athletic prodigy. Perhaps it’s a desire to replace the generic art that hangs from your wall with something of your own creation. For many, it might simply be a case of wanderlust — the seduction of better photographic equipment has tempted many from the garden. Whatever the inspiration, each of us — each on our own separate path — finds a few fleeting moments of newfound photographic happiness along the inspiration trail.
Inevitably, the trail we each chose to follow — the one that inspired us to leave the garden of innocence — ends suddenly in a thicket of thorny shrubberies at the edge of a precipitous cliff. This is the point at which you have completed your journey of photographic inspiration. You stand alone — expensive camera in hand — with no idea what to photograph next. In a rare moment of self-reflection, each photographer realizes that the path that led here, though inspiring, did not deliver him to his ultimate goal — better photos. You may have taken more photos. You may have taken cleaner, crisper, and sharper photos, but deep down you know that they still aren’t much better than those you took in the garden of innocence.
It’s here — facing despair at the end of the inspiration trail — that every photographer ceases to become a traveler and becomes, instead, an explorer. The path that brought you here has ended short of the desired destination and, in order to carry on, you must now forge your own trail. Until now, the journey has been self-guided — but it’s here that photographers must explore the teachings of others if they want to progress. Such guidance may come from many sources: books, forums, friends, or even blogs like this one. The source of the guidance is not nearly as important as its content.
If you study the graphic that begins this article, you’ll see that the exploration stage is critical to every photographer’s journey — the proverbial “fork in the road,” if you will. If you’ve ever wandered through the photography section in a major urban bookstore, you’ve seen photographers who are at this stage of the journey. You’ll find them gathered around the “How-To” section — Lowepro bags, holsters, and backpacks dangling from their shoulders as they thumb through the myriad instructional guides spilling from the shelves. If you’re anything like me, this sight triggers two concurrent thoughts: 1) Maybe I should buy stock in Lowepro, and 2) why aren’t any of these people thumbing through REAL photography books?
Watch carefully, and you’ll see photographers reach over, under, and around each other to extract titles from the shelf: “How to Shoot Landscapes,” “How to Shoot Portraits,” “How to Shoot Macros,” “How to Shoot Black & White,” and the ever-popular “How to Shoot Nudes.” Meanwhile, in an adjacent section of the store — unnoticed and unloved — sit hundreds of books with exquisitely realized depictions of those very same landscapes, portraits, macros, and nudes.
For the benefit of those merely skim-reading, I should warn you that I’ve finally reached the nucleus of this article: My supposition that the path to photographic enlightenment is not paved with “How-To” books — it’s paved with photo collections and photographer monographs.
Seeking guidance in “How-To” books does not enable you, the photographer, to forge your own trail. “How-To” books may inspire you. And they may teach you about something, but they don’t teach you about the most important photographic tool in your bag — yourself. If you don’t know yourself and, in particular, your own soul, how can you hope to become a better photographer?
I would suggest that photographers who seek guidance in their local book seller’s “How-To” section take a few steps further down the aisle — to that unpopulated area labelled “Photography Collections” or “Photographer Monographs” — and just start looking. Even better, pay a visit to your local library. They’re often stocked with thousands of expensive, rare, and out of print photography books — just waiting for perusal.
Photography is not difficult. In fact, it’s one of the simplest things a person can do. Taking a good photograph doesn’t require an extensive amount of technical know-how, complex equipment, or handholding — all it takes is the ability to see. A “How-To” book can not teach you how to see — it can only teach you how to create an image that someone else saw. But photography collections and artist monographs can teach you how to see — because they can show you how someone else chose to photograph the very same things that inspire you.
In spite of my advice, many photographers will still search for direction in “How-To” guides and, as the graphic illustrates, they will remain in Path 1’s infinite loop — unsatisfied, joyless, and seeking inspiration from external sources, rather than from the passion within. The good news is, no matter how many times a photographer repeats the “How-To” cycle, each passage through “despair” yields another chance to escape onto Path 2.
Studying the works of other photographers helps us to unlock our own inner visual sense. The world is full of many things to see — big, small, chaotic, and quiet. Every person who looks out at this world sees it, feels it, and experiences it differently. The problem, for each of us, is to figure out how to craft a photograph that expresses exactly what it is that we see, feel, or experience. When you explore the work of other photographers, you’ll eventually discover photos that convey objects, thoughts, and emotions that match your own experiences. It’s a moment of liberation that’s nothing short of “joyful.”
Any photographer who’s ever escaped from Path 1’s infinite loop of despair has had at least one such epiphanic moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson frequently credited Martin Munkacsi’s photograph of three boys running toward the breaking surf of Lake Tanganyika as his inspiration for becoming a photographer. In turn, Elliot Erwitt has credited Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 photo of Saint-Bernard Wharf for showing him that photography isn’t about artifice, but about simple observation. It doesn’t matter which photographer or photos inspire you. It doesn’t matter if your inspirational photos are completely different from mine or anyone else’s. It matters only that you find them.
In his theory on the Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization at the pinnacle — the point at which we humans are the most satisfied. For a photographer, the road to self-actualization begins with a trip into the eye of another. When we see how another photographer has wrestled a shared vision into a compelling photo, it unlocks our creativity and opens our own dormant photographic eye.
Because I have unlimited access to myself, I’ll use me as an example. I have always been a fervent people watcher — keenly aware of body language, appearances, emotions, and circumstance. In my younger days, I often enjoyed nothing more than spending a leisurely afternoon at a busy sidewalk cafe, watching the passing throngs engage in the mere act of being. It was an endless source of fascination yet, even though I was a photographer, it never occurred to me that actual photographs could stem from this most curious “hobby.” It was the work of photographers like Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand that opened my eyes. They were the ones who showed me that a photograph didn’t have to be “pretty” to be interesting. They were the ones who showed me that there was actual photographic potential in my favorite pastime. Through them, I realized that photography was a way to show the rest of the world what, exactly, I found so fascinating about the seemingly mundane actions of everyday people.
Without discovering the work of these photographers, I might never have achieved the ultimate photographic desire — “better” pictures. In the process, I learned an equally important lesson — that by satisfying myself, it no longer mattered if others believed that my photographs were “better.” All that mattered was that I knew they were, and that I had satisfied the goal that long-ago pulled me from the garden of innocence.
If a photographer is lucky, he won’t die before he discovers that “How-To” books are not the road to self-actualization. If a photographer is very lucky, he’ll have multiple opportunities to engage in Path 2’s own inherent feedback loop. Photographers are only people. And people, by nature, are never totally satisfied. Each of us knows, no matter how much our photographs improve, that we’ll never be fully content. We know there is always a better photo to be taken, and we’re driven to take it. Prior to death, there is no point in a photographer’s journey where he can’t re-evaluate his direction. Our interests are layered, interwoven, and complex. Sometimes you need to peel away one vision before you have the capacity to explore a deeper one.
As transformative as the aforementioned works of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand were to my own photography, I did not immediately bond with either of them. It was probably a decade between the time I first looked through Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” and the moment it actually clicked. But when it did finally click, it was more like a lightning bolt than a tap on the shoulder.
There’s never a point where a photographer can’t and shouldn’t return to the exploration stage. New life experiences uncover new passions that, in turn, offer new trails for photographers to forge. Exploration is something that we — not just as photographers, but as people — should never stop doing.
I suspect all those who hoped to witness my struggle with this article’s self-inflicted conundrum have long-ago stopped reading, and are now purchasing the latest “How to Shoot HDR” book. In contrast, those of you whom I’ve successfully distracted with a fancy flowchart and some fuzzy logic might, instead, have embraced the article’s irony and are now searching for new photographic mentors in your local library’s Photographer Monograph section. The only loose end is that, by making this supposition, I’ve made it rather difficult to justify writing my own “How-To” book — too bad, ’cause those babies can be a lucrative source of income!
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Ob(li)vious” was shot with a Leica M9 digital and a 28mm f/2 Summicron-M lens. “One of Those Days” was photographed with a Leica M9 digital and a v4 35mm f/2 Summicron-M lens. Surely the technical details surrounding the other two images are of no concern.
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