Every once in a while, I’ll go over a day’s worth of shots (or will be looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re browsing theirs), and one or the other of us will comment that a shot was “lucky.” I got to thinking about this. What role does luck play in all of it, if any?
I hesitate to chalk it up to skill, after all. I mean, if you’re Joe McNally or Moose Peterson or whomever, then yeah, you’ve got oodles of skill and experience behind you. I’m none of those individuals, however, so I don’t have quite the same reservoir of skill and/or experience to draw from. So some shots clearly are luck, because they’re the convergence of just the right time, place, and subject, and you, or me, or even Joe McNally being there (I’m sure even he gets the occasional lucky shot).
So if it’s not luck, and it’s not skill, what is it exactly? Woody Allen once said* that half of life is showing up. Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) said** something similar: “f/8 and be there.” So. Be there, and have your camera. The rest, at least in theory, will take care of itself. All the luck in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t have your camera, though, so make sure you have it.***
Since I like to give examples, have a look at my neighborhood Jack Sparrow. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen times in the last year, and each one of those times, I haven’t had my camera. Can’t blame him. He was there, after all, dressed to the nines and being his photogenic self. I was there, too. But my camera’s not his responsibility, so missing the shot those other several times I can’t blame on anybody but me.
Any of those other times could’ve been a lucky shot, but wasn’t. It’s the preparedness — having your camera, knowing how to use it, and being ready to use it — that separates the lucky shots from the fish stories, the missed stuff and all that we wish we could’ve gotten but didn’t. There’s some truth in the adage that we make our own luck, but if we don’t have what we need to capitalize on it, it goes to waste.
*At least I’m pretty sure it was Woody Allen. I think from now on, I may just attribute everything to Abraham Lincoln, just on general principle. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hit on something he actually said.
**Yes, I’m sure this time.
***Why don’t we attribute this one to Yogi Berra while we’re at it? The “hill of beans” bit at least sounds in character.
Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.
Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.
On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.
For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.
The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”
Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.
As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers). You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as http://www.marx-brothers.org/ and http://www.marxbrothers.nu/ (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.
When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site (http://www.magnumphotos.com/) is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.
*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.
***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.
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After last week’s post on Daniel Boorstin, I’m hesitant to put up yet another short post with a link to someone else’s stuff. With that said, A: I don’t plan to make a habit of this, and B: I haven’t been able to get this video out of my mind since watching it last week. I hadn’t heard of Sir Ken Robinson before seeing this talk he gave at TED, and in case you hadn’t either, I’d like to remedy that, since what he has to say — about education, creativity, and where those things intersect (or, sadly, fail to) — is witty, heartfelt, and vital. Share this with a friend, an educator, and/or anyone who doesn’t quite understand why the arts and creativity matter, in or out of education.
If you walk across my camera I will flash the world your story. — Woody Guthrie
Something a bit different than the usual “Beyond Photography” post today, in that I’m only devoting it to one person: Woody Guthrie, whose centennial is today.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on the 14th of July, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. What happened after that could well have been anybody’s guess, given that Woody wasn’t one to stay in one place for very long. And all along the way there was music; other people’s at first, but before long an avalanche of his own songs that chronicled what he saw day to day. For all the songs that he recorded during his career — hundreds of them, over a little more than ten years — he also left behind notes for a thousand or more songs in varying degrees of completion.
He also wasn’t above revisiting a subject or reworking a song. “Dusty Old Dust” (originally part of the Dust Bowl Ballads collection) would reappear during World War II as an affectionate send-off for the troops who were shipping out (“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Ye”), while there’s also a pronounced similarity in the rhythm and cadence of many of his talking blues songs (listen to “Talking Sailor Blues” and “Talking Fishing Blues” back-to-back for a good example). Even his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” would appear with variations in its lyrics.
He also collaborated with other singers, such as Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, coming away from each with new ideas, new songs, and new ways to approach his craft (he later told Ramblin’ Jack Elliot that his playing style was essentially a carbon copy of Leadbelly’s). In their own way, those collaborations would continue long after his untimely death of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, thanks to the work of his daughter Norah and the Woody Guthrie Foundation in getting Woody’s lyrics into the hands of Wilco, the Dropkick Murphys, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics and others.
But if there’s one thing that makes Woody’s music endure more than anything else, it would be the sheer breadth of it. For someone who said that playing anything more than two chords was showing off, it was pretty obvious that Guthrie not only had smarts to spare, but also that he’d steeped himself in the music that had come before him — quite a lot of it, from traditional ballads to blues and nascent country-and-western. But he didn’t immerse himself only in music; wherever he went — and he traveled quite a bit, criscrossing the United States and also spending time during World War II in the Merchant Marine — he also got to know the people he met, incorporating their stories into his own, and into his music. He didn’t shy away from much of anything, taking on topical material (like the Ludlow massacre, the sinking of the Ruben James, and the plight of migrant workers) alongside politics, Eastern philosophy, children’s songs, and pretty much anything else that struck his fancy.
You could say that Woody Guthrie wasn’t much of a guitarist, or that he wasn’t a great vocalist, and you might even be right. But what music has in common with photography, and the reason I find myself approaching both time and again as though they’re two sides of the same coin, is that there should be a balance, a sense of harmony if you will, between what you’re trying to say and how you say it. There’s a simplicity and honesty to Woody’s work that isn’t such a bad quality to have if you’re a photographer. And a lot of the singer’s other qualities — the sense of humor, the willingness to collaborate, and an ability to get new things out of old subjects — would probably serve you well, too. But there’s another lesson lurking in all of this as well: perhaps the single most important thing to have in your kit isn’t your lenses, your flash, batteries, memory cards, air blower, or even your camera. Pack your curiosity first and you’ll be amazed at how much better the rest of your kit — whether it’s the physical one or the metaphysical one — works as a result.
My eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls… — Woody Guthrie
POSTSCRIPT: What I’ve written here only barely scratches the surface. There’s a vast number of resources if you’re curious and would like to learn more.
But of course, beyond the thousands of words written by and about Woody Guthrie, the legacy wouldn’t be quite the same without the music. Start with The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 on Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a comprehensive collection of music recorded in the mid- to late-1940’s that has the added bonus of being thematically arranged and well-annotated, with excellent sound quality. There’s also Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, which overlaps in places with the Asch set, but it has the added bonus of a disc’s worth of material that hadn’t been previously available. Finally, if you’d like something that’s shorter but still representative, the Dust Bowl Ballads (recorded in 1940) is a fantastic and cohesive set all on its own.**
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**There’s also a set of Alan Lomax recordings from 1940 which is as fascinating as it is uneven; the sound quality is iffy in places, and the performances often aren’t as tight as later versions. With that said, it’s also a great snapshot of someone working by the seat of his pants, and leaves you with a different appreciation of Guthrie’s genius than the more polished versions that would come later. It’s out of print on disc (and terribly expensive used), but still available as an MP3 download.
A short post today, mostly because I’d like you to read something and it feels a bit like I’m imposing if I ask you to sit through five hundred words from me and then read someone else’s stuff on top of it. It’s an essay by Daniel Boorstin, the historian who wrote The Americans, The Discoverers, and The Creators (among others), and who was also Librarian of Congress from 1975-1987. The essay is called “The Amateur Spirit,” and it’s a good reminder to maintain a touch of beginner’s mind no matter what your discipline. Enjoy!
When I’ve profiled charities and nonprofits in this space, I’ve tended to focus on organizations whose focus and mission are directly photography-related. Indeed, many photographers who are charity-minded are already well acquainted with the work of one or more of these organizations. While I’ll be going back to profiling more of those great nonprofits and their work in this space, I’m making an exception this month for Idealist.
Here’s the thing: I think that photo charities are great. They’re even better if you have a cause about which you’re passionate, and to which you want to donate your talents and services. But what if you just want to get your toes wet, or if you’re not 100% sure where your passion and time are best spent? That’s where Idealist really shines.
The idea for Idealist came to founder Ami Dar in the mid-1980’s. Eleven years and a couple of name changes later, Idealist launched. In the decade and a half since, it’s become the closest thing online to a one-stop shop for anything and everything related to nonprofit organizations. Not only are there literally thousands of volunteer opportunities from all around the world, there are also jobs, internships, programs, and a pretty lively community around the whole lot of it.
And while it’s not a portrait charity, it’s a great fit for photographers who might want to volunteer. Sometimes you might just be looking for a shorter-term volunteer gig, or maybe you’re not confident enough in your photography to volunteer as a photographer but you’d still like to do something. You’re likely to find something here. It’s also good from an organizational standpoint, especially if your NPO/NGO’s mission isn’t explicitly related to photography or portraiture, but you could use a bit of help behind the camera.
So, whether you’re looking to donate (time, money, or services), work, launch your own organization or project, or find just the right person for something you’ve already got up and running, give idealist.org a try (if you haven’t already). It’s a phenomenal resource.
Postscript: visit Idealist on the web to find out all about who they are, what they do, and what, in turn, you can do: www.idealist.org
Today marks a year since The First 10,000 first went live. That’s 200-odd posts, several thousand visitors, and God only knows how many hours spent behind the camera and the keyboard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say some “thank yous” to those of you who’ve gotten the site to this point.
Usually everybody leaves wives for last, which baffles me. Mine puts up with quite a bit, not least of which is the tapping away on the keyboard into the wee small hours of the morning; nor should I neglect to mention my incessant enthusiasm for finding some new (and invariably buggy) place to get just… one… more… shot. Thanks, sweetie!
Thanks to anybody who’s taken the time to show me something that’s improved my craft – written or photographic. Sometimes it’s family (hi, Mom!), friends, or other photographers (thanks especially to Steve Coleman and Sabrina Henry for the words of encouragement), but just as often it’s been complete strangers who were willing to share something of what they knew (James Cooper, if you ever read this, thanks for the impromptu tutorial in Hoboken; I owe you a beer).
Special thanks to Phil Yurchuk, for friendship and invaluable advice (technical and otherwise), to say nothing of bailing my ass out every time the blog or server hiccups.
Finally, to everyone who reads the blog and/or follows The First 10,000 on Facebook and Twitter, thanks again (and again). Without y’all, I’d just be some guy snapping and scribbling into the void, which wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by, contributed to the discussion, and/or given me something to think about. Doing this has helped my understanding of my craft, and hopefully has helped you in some small way as well.
Sometimes, in photography as in life, the questions are just as important as the answers. So, with that in mind, think this one over for a second: What is your photography for?
I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of “What kind of photographer are you?“, though I think that’s also a useful question to ask. We can think of this in terms of utility, obviously. That is to say, we can ask to what use our photos will be put (would we like to see them on our own walls, or in a museum, or on the glossy pages of a magazine?). There’s a tradition of this in craft, from the earliest human history to the Bauhaus* and beyond. And that, too, is valid.
But there’s another, equally important, sense in which we need to ask the “What’s it for?” question. That is: What is my work for? What does it affirm? It’s a point of pride among some photographers to let you know that there are certain lines they won’t cross. They’ll only shoot film, or only with prime lenses, or only portraiture, but only in the style of a certain photographer or school thereof. They’re very quick, in other words, to tell you what their photography negates, ignores, or works against. Each photographer becomes his or her own Groucho Marx.**
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with not wanting to shoot certain ways, or to sidestep certain trends. Our “look,” such as it is, comes from a complex set of variables that come into play each time we frame the shot, and the things we choose not to do each time are hardly the least of those considerations. We cannot, and should not, stop there, however.
It’s all well and good to oppose something, but that fades after a while or becomes a pose of sorts. On the other hand, if your work is an extension or expression of your values, both photographer and viewer can sense, I think, that the photo is grounded in something. Our purpose in our craft, as with our lives, changes with time and experience, so I don’t think there’s a single purpose, or a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. Instead, it’s something we need to revisit from time to time.
Photograph with a sense of purpose. It doesn’t even have to be the same purpose each and every time, but there should be something there. Doing that, and thinking it over every now and again, is more difficult than nihilism (at least in the short term), but questioning your motivation, even if it’s as simple as being a better photographer today than you were yesterday, gives you a touchstone when your inspiration flags or life throws you a curveball, and can also help your work to express depth and sincerity.
That’s my two cents’ worth (adjusted for inflation). What do you think?
One night a couple of months back, I was at a total loss about what to write in this space. I’d been shooting, and had even been doing a bit of writing, but it seemed like nothing was clicking. I actually came within a hair’s breadth of reviewing the new-ish Lyle Lovett CD, Release Me. Even by my standards, and even with my habit of tying things that, to the untrained (or perhaps more sane) observer, have very little to do with photography back to photography, this was a bit of a stretch. So I was thinking, This being a photo blog and all, I’ll have to bring it back it back to photog– oh, wait, got it.
Generally speaking, you don’t judge something by its cover. Well, you’re not supposed to, anyway. But I always thought that Lyle’s covers, shot by photographer Michael Wilson starting with The Road to Ensenada, were a bit like the singer himself; there’s a touch of melancholy suffused with just the right amount of wry humor (as with Release Me‘s shot of the singer entangled in a lariat). In other words, Wilson’s photos fit the albums (including shots for The Bears, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, the Bodeans and others) in a way that album covers don’t always. After a series of emails, I finally managed to catch up with the aforementioned Mr. Wilson. For someone who worried aloud that he might not have much to say, he proved to be… well, as affable and perceptive about photography as I’d hoped. I’m happy — heck, make that honored — that he was kind enough to sit through an interview with me.
It’s no mistake that Wilson’s best known for his portraits of musicians. His first ambition in life was to play the French horn. There was only one small problem; as he admits, with a laugh, “I was one of those people who was blissed out by it but I really couldn’t play it. I had no talent but a lot of enthusiasm.” The money that would’ve gone into a French horn went instead toward a Pentax Spotmatic, which Wilson calls “the first piece of the puzzle.”
The second piece of the puzzle, as Wilson tells it, was a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University. “I got a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn, I got a scholarship because nobody else wanted it. I go to sign up for classes, and the advisor asks me what I’m interested in studying. I told him I didn’t really have any plans, but that I was interested in photography. Lo and behold, he said, “Oh, we have photography next year in the Fine Art program. Would you like to be an art major?” So I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” That was the third piece of the puzzle.”
At NKU, he credits Barry Andersen for helping him to realize that photography wasn’t, as he’d originally thought, something people did for newspapers. “I got there and it was like being in a darkened theater as the lights go down… the curtain goes back and you see this wonderful thing you never would’ve expected. That’s what the history of photography was to me. I had no clue that for 150 years people had spent their lives taking pictures. That did it for me. Watching a filmstrip of Bruce Davidson talking about his photography, that’s the moment I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Upon graduation, he found he had no interest in graduate school, or in teaching photography. However, even as he wandered from one odd job to the next, he found himself working his way closer to a profession in photography. Here, I’ll let the man himself take over:
Michael Wilson: I took a job as a photographer’s assistant at a textbook publisher. They had an in-house studio and I did the darkroom work and assisted on shoots. It was very controlled photography, everything lit to the nth degree. By this time, I was three years out of college, out of my honeymoon with photography, and I felt a sort of dread of photography coming over me, especially on days we’d be in the studio doing these controlled pictures. I remember thinking, “If this is what a photographer is, I don’t want to be a photographer.”
All the while, music has always been my main inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice that when I’d spend a couple of hours at a record store, you’d occasionally run across a really beautiful photograph, like a Stephen Shore photograph, or a Robert Frank photograph, and I’d be reminded of the pictures that made me love photography when I first discovered it, the pictures that made me want to be a photographer. The work of the usual suspects… August Sander, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt… all those people and that work was so unlike the sterile, institutional work I was doing for my 9 to 5 job. So when I’d go to the record store after work and I’d see a photo on a record that really came from the heart, I’d say, “Man, how did that happen?” So there was all this frustration building up, but it didn’t take too long for it to come to a head.
Paul: That dread, was it the work itself being so regimented starting to grind you down?
MW: It was that. Think of it like money sitting in a bank account somewhere. It was like that money was being spent on something I really didn’t care about and I felt like I was going broke. I’d get envious, because I’d see these photos and say, “Well, somebody’s doing beautiful work.” I think after a while the chip on my shoulder got big enough that they just asked me to stay in the darkroom.
I had a friend who was an illustrator, and he knew what was going on. He said, “Well, show somebody your pictures you care about.” I put together a handmade book of portraits, work I’d done for myself, and I sent it to a name – she really was just a name that I’d seen on a bunch of record covers that I liked. She was the creative director for Warner Brothers. I didn’t even know what a creative director was at the time, but I knew that if I looked over five records that I thought were really beautiful, three of them would involve this person. And I thought, “This person responds to the same things in the world that I am.” So I made a handmade book of about ten to twelve photos that my wife bound together, and I sent it over. A few weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Bodeans. They’d been given my name by Jeri Heiden at Warner Brothers and she suggested I get together with them and make some photos. That was my first break.
PB: So you sort of drifted into this.
MW: I drifted, but what was deliberate – and I tell this to photographers now – is instead of following the money, I’d say to look at the pictures you wish you would’ve made. Go back and follow that picture back to a photographer, back to a photo editor. I just followed pictures I loved back to a name, and back to a person. It’s a long shot, but that’s probably the best advice I can give to anybody, especially if you’ve got a strong photographer who has an idea of the kind of pictures they want to make. I meet a lot of young photographers who are trained to do specific things – tabletop, headshots – and that sort of shotgun approach is a different approach that I don’t really know as well. If you know what kind of pictures you want to make, and you know what kind of pictures make your heart beat faster, see what names are attached to those pictures.
PB: Speaking of pictures that make your heart beat faster, who are some of the photographers who’ve done that for you over the years?
MW: I’ll name an unfair and very partial list. August Sander is one of my favorites. Bill Brandt, Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson… Emmet Gowin, Robert Adams (also for his writing). I could go on and on. I’m not as aware of the current “edge” of photography, but there’s a portrait photographer in South Africa I really love named Pieter Hugo. And Andrea Modica is also wonderful… But once you start talking about photographers, it’s like talking about music, the records you really love. You start, but you can’t really stop. I’ll leave it at that.
[After a pause, he continues] The woods behind our house are filled with grapevines. I love how those grapevines grow. There’s something in you, there’s work that exists out in the world, and it has the role that light does on a plant from the inside out. Without thinking about it, we grow toward things that move us. And those are people who’ve been light to me.
PB: Continuing on music and some of the photographers you’ve mentioned previously, how did you arrive at your style? Was it something learned, or…?
MW: Yeah. Now I’m getting nervous, like I’m about to teach a workshop. [laughs] I don’t perceive myself as having a style. I have a way of working, but that’s just the tools in my toolbox. I just throw a bunch of pictures on the table, and… okay, this works, this doesn’t. They tend to be pretty simple. There’s a photograph I did for the Replacements for All Shook Down, it’s just two dogs standing in the middle of the street. I hesitate to call it a style. It’s not a deliberate choice. What I have done is I’ve chosen to work in a very reductionist, simple way. I think I benefited a great deal from those four years at that book publisher, where everything was lit and gelled and we would tweak shadows a half an inch one way or another. For me, that was painful. I felt like, “Life is way more interesting than what we’re doing here.” I realize now that I was shortchanging it, ‘cause there are people who make great pictures by exerting a lot of control over a photograph, orchestrating every element. I think I came to find that that’s not going to suit me well in the long run. I just didn’t have the patience for it.
The other thing was, early on when I went freelance, I’d take along a strobe and a softbox, and I’d try to be professional and get the lighting just right, but those pictures were never as good as the pictures I made when I was just walking around and I just had to find the lighting. So that was more of a subtractive decision. I got to the point where I just told artistic directors, “I don’t use lights.” The truth is, there are occasions I carry a light with me. I recently did a shoot for a record company I work with, they told me I’d be shooting in a club basement with no lights and no windows, but 99% of the time, I don’t augment the light. If it’s fluorescent, or bare bulbs, or whatever, I just use it. I’m better off that way.
PB: It’s funny, ‘cause I look at somebody like David LaChapelle, and I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have the patience to do this.” But I wonder, am I copping out doing that?
MW: If you look at LaChapelle’s work and it resonates with you in a way that you want to do that… in his case, there’s a lot at work in his pictures. The lights, the styling. Anyway, I’d say that you know when your pictures complete the thought that’s in your head. If you’re making pictures that feel like a finished thought, it’s not a cop out. The pictures I made with the strobes and all that stuff, I didn’t want to show those to anybody because it didn’t feel like me. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it unless the nagging persists. And then you need to call a doctor. [laughs] Certain people are almost like directors. It’s a different mindset. They know what they want before they go in. I’m a total reactionary. I need something to respond to. They imagine things, and create them… “Wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so was covered in a suit of leaves?” And then they go to the lengths it takes to execute that vision. If you’re the kind of person that has that kind of vision but won’t do the work, then yeah, you’re copping out, but otherwise it’s not.
PB: Speaking of reacting to what you see, what strikes me in your work is how the album covers especially just seem to go with the music.
MW: Yeah, that’s more serendipity than anything else. In the case of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller’s a friend, and he’d played guitar for her. He suggested me, and that worked out well. Sometimes, like with Lyle Lovett, the art director knew me and knew him, and because he knew both of us as people, knew that we would “get” each other. I’ve also worked on projects that haven’t turned out well. There was a time when I was getting offered work because of Lyle Lovett’s popularity, people would say, “We should get the guy who did Lyle’s picture,” but they had no knowledge of me. They saw it as a “look,” and almost without fail, those didn’t turn out well.
I can give you an exception, though. The most recent Lyle Lovett record… Release Me was his last album on Curb. It was just me and him. We were sort of joking around, then we saw this lasso and it just came together. It was a silly joke on the title. But I wasn’t allowed to get his suit dirty. [laughs]
PB: Walk me through the process of getting from that first contact from an art director to me holding the disc in my hands.
MW: I’ll give you a specific example, a best-case scenario. I do a lot of work with Nonesuch Records. They’re really good, a great record label that respects photographers. There’s a new record by Shawn Colvin that I shot. I knew the title of the record, I’d heard the music, and that’s good, but it doesn’t change how I make the pictures. It helps me to know them a little bit, but I don’t pick different cameras or change the shots.
Nonesuch isn’t committed to your photo being the cover. They’ll say, “Go make pictures, and we’ll see what happens.” So what I’ll do is just go and make the strongest pictures I can. Some will be color pictures for publicity, but then I’ll also just take pictures I like to make. This shoot, I did some shots with a pinhole camera, and just played around a lot. The cover picture was taken at the end of the day in her back yard. I knew the music, I knew the title, but you’ve still got to make an interesting picture. I just spend a day, however long the artist has, usually about four to six hours, and make a bunch of pictures. They’re really simple pictures if you look at them. If you saw me taking them, you’d say, “He’s really not doing anything.” The Shawn Colvin picture is a woman smoking a cigarette by her garage. There’s no high drama. But it’s a lovely thing as a photographer to have a designer who gets it and can put it in a setting where it resonates. I feel really lucky when that happens. Those are pictures that are really simple, but I’m happy that they’re out in the world.
PB: So the photos are more a reaction to the people than the music.
MW: Exactly. It’s funny, the Jeremy Denk record… he’s a classical pianist. The music is inspired by fractals, but the pictures that ended up working were the simplest ones. It’s just a guy sitting on the floor. Sometimes the ideas behind a record are so huge – a broken heart, being really happy – they’re usually big things that are hard to photograph. What’s cool about doing portraits is if you make a really honest picture of somebody, there’s a kind of power in that that leaves room for lots of complicated ideas that you’re not talking about in the portrait, but they’re there.
PB: A lot of the photographers that I’m drawn to, it’s like… whatever life puts in your lap, that’s what you’re photographing that day. It seems like you leave your subjects room to speak for themselves.
MW: When I’m looking at a portrait, I kinda want to feel like I trust that picture of that person. I know that’s a slippery slope, but I think you can tell. You see someone trying to look coy, or look some kind of way, and you say, “That’s not real,” you know? But when you see a strong human connection, those are the pictures that hold up over time, even when it’s a family snapshot in an album. It’s like trying to cross a stream and you’ve got your choice of rocks to put your foot on to get across. You look at a rock sometimes, and even though something’s sticking out over the surface, you know it’s not steady. You find somewhere else to put your foot because you know it’s solid. That’s the kind of portraits I want to make. I don’t want someone to feel duped. Like the Lyle Lovett pictures. They’re often exaggerations, but hopefully there’s something honest about them.
PB: Whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re rethinking how and why they shoot, how would you advise someone to get to that kind of honesty, if that makes sense?
MW: Yeah, it makes sense. I guess I’d say there’s a few things that go into that. It’s gotten to a point now where you can push a button on your camera, and the picture looks pretty good. But the biggest dose of reality or inspiration I can give someone is to just go to the library, pull the photo books off the shelf, and look at them. There’s a really powerful energy when you’re learning something new and you’re excited. That’s a really important energy, and we need to keep that enthusiasm. Robert Adams talks about how artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, and you need that. But you also need to look at pictures that are beyond you. Look at the history of photography. Yes, take pleasure in the pictures you’re making and stay enthused, but spend deliberate time looking at people who’ve made pictures for their whole lives. That, to me, feels like something really important to do. To know what the scope and power of the medium is. That’s bound to be frustrating, but none of us are original. We’re all mining veins that exist in the soul or in the world. We see someone who’s mining from a particular vein that’s also where we want to be digging. That’s different from the early pleasure you get when you pick up a camera and start playing. The curiosity is good, but you need to add to it some deliberate looking.
PB: The understanding versus a scattershot approach…
MW: Not even an understanding of how they did it. Just to know that there is somebody named Robert Frank who took a little camera and surreptitiously photographed what it felt like to be the outsider. To know Karl Blossfeldt, who in the 20’s and 30’s made these incredible photographs of plant forms. Emmet Gowin and these incredible family photos that read like stage plays… that stretching that comes from being exposed to something. Not the settings. Just having your eye and your head stretched.
PB: Any particular piece of advice you wish you’d had starting out, or some piece of advice you wish someone would’ve given you early on?
MW: The first thing that pops into my head is, “Beware of jealousy.” Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got. Whether you’re trying to get attention to try to make a living, or get attention to get shows, it’s hard to just be satisfied with the smaller stuff, like making pictures and doing it as well as you can. It seems to me that most of the energy and desire to enjoy looking and be out with your camera gets sapped. You suffer from the desire to get noticed. If you’re a freelance, you need to let people know what you do, but it’s that part of it that I wish someone would’ve said, “There’s no reason to be jealous.” If photography doesn’t exist in some truthful, joyful place in your life, if you don’t get unforced joy or don’t see something beautiful and want to say a prayer of thanks – that sort of prayerful part of the process needs to stay intact by whatever means you can do it. A lot of damage happens when you’re just trying to get attention.
PB: When you get to that point, whether it’s jealousy or frustration, or just a rut, how do you get out of it?
MW: The physicality of the process. The actual walking outside and realizing, “this is what I love to do.” Lately in my life that’s happened a couple of times. A younger photographer’s asked me a few times to walk with them and take pictures. That’s been a godsend to me. Doing something physical, doing the duty part of it – the actual discipline of shooting. Maybe nobody needs or wants you to make a picture, or is going to pay for it. In my case, I’ll just find a neighborhood and start walking. Just do the work of a photographer.
PB: Any thoughts in closing?
MW: There’s a quote I love by John Berger: “What makes photography a strange invention with unforeseeable consequences is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” And this one’s by August Sander, who’s one of my heroes. It plays off the same idea. He said, “If I have attempted to pursue and represent the revelation of the spirit through nature with only the photographer’s usual means, both the stimulus and contemplation necessary for this has come to me through my experience that miracles do happen.”
I: Thou Shalt Know Thine Equipment: Thou shalt pore over the works of the Masters, and also of the Technical Writers, yea even of humble Bloggers, in order that thou may know thine Gear. Thou shalt understand that other Trinity, consisting of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and also ISO. Nor shalt thou neglect exposure compensation, or blaspheme thy Photos through the overzealous application of Photoshop. Lest it be forgotten, read thou also the manual.
II: Be Thou Considerate: Thou ought not to go to such lengths to get thine shot that thou elbowest olde ladies, or doth speak rudely to passersby. The Spirit has laid it upon my heart to tell you, “Do not be an Ass for the sake of a Photograph.”
III: Thou Shalt Learn New Things Always: Let thine curiosity be limitless, that your joy may also be, and may thou also not let a day pass without having learned some new thing.
IV: Covet Not Thy Neighbor’s Gear: Woe unto him who speaks evil of his gear, for which he paid many talents. Neither shall he lust after his neighbor’s Leica, nor his Canon, nor even his Sigma, though it be worth a mint and look so very shiny. Nor shall he confuse the talents lavished upon said gear for the talent he’s got.
V: Thou Shalt Not Look Down Thy Nose at Thy Fellow Photographer’s Efforts: You whose work is heralded by the trumpets of angels, who now shoot with charms to soothe the savage beast, whose photographs even now move men to weep and women to rend their garments, were not always thus. Act therefore with kindness toward those whose experience is not as great as yours, that you may help them to learn.
VI: Thou Shalt Experiment: While thou shalt keep these commandments reasonably sacred, thou shalt break the Rules (with discernment) if it will make a better Photo.
VII: Thou Shalt Strive For Simplicity: Whether thou makest photos of the fowles of the air, fishes in the sea, beasts of the ground, or yon Dairy Queen whose dilapidated neon Sign is so pleasing in God’s sight, thou really ought not to cram the frame with that which is not needful.
VIII: Thou Shalt Approach Thy Craft With Sincerity, Curiosity and Gratitude: This great and oft myfteriouf Gift we have been given ought not to be taken for granted. See and Appreciate the beauty of the random, ineffable, and sometimes incomprehensible World, the better to photograph it, and also to be glad for it.
IX: Thou Shalt Remember Thy Roots: Honor those who have gone before you, your great Teachers, as well as the Saints Henri and Ansel and Dorothea, and all others of blessed memory, that your work may honor and be worthy of them.
X: Thou Shalt Shoot Often: I mean, verily, how dost thou expect to be any good otherwise?
He who has ears, let him hear.
Postscript: Maybe these commandments aren’t to your liking (and maybe, for that matter, I should’ve done them in the NSV versus the King James; too late for that now). If so, share thine — sorry, yours — in the comments below. You can also peruse other photographers’ versions at the links below: