Rule 43: Be Thankful For Other Photographers’ Work


What fuels your photography?

Just as we don’t photograph for ourselves alone, we also shouldn’t learn from ourselves alone. There are countless photographers who’ve preceded us, to say nothing of our contemporaries (who, at last count, are legion). And even though there are times that, as I mentioned this time last week, it feels as though someone else has beaten us to darned near everything, that’s actually something we should be glad for.

For starters, it can be very intimidating to blaze your own trail. It’s always helpful when someone’s been there first; their work acts as a roadmap or a compass into what’s essentially uncharted territory when you’re first starting out. Be grateful that someone else’s work, and experience, is there to light your way, whether that person’s name has gone down in history, or isn’t known outside your camera club.

Others’ work can also be a good indicator to you of what you would, or would not, like to do or become as a photographer. If you’ve read much of what I’ve posted here, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of the photographers who inspire me… names like Cartier Bresson, Lange, Doisneau, du Chemin, and Orwig, for instance. Their photography, along with countless others’ photos, have given me a sense of what’s possible. Your list will probably be much different than mine. That’s okay. But I’d definitely suggest that you make one. Pay equal attention to photographers whose stuff you don’t like, and don’t appreciate them any less; they, too, have quite a lot to teach you if you let them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you will come across photographers whose work and style you appreciate even if it’s 180 degrees from what you do, or would like to. Be especially thankful for those photographers. I’m reminded of this almost every day when I look at the work of someone like Annie Liebowitz, whose photos show the touch of someone who’s just as much an auteur as a photographer. The same thing happens with, say, a really good wedding photographer. That takes a kind of talent that I haven’t got, and what’s more, a talent that I’m not all that interested in cultivating (the thought of photographing someone else’s once-in-a-lifetime event scares the shit out of me, to be completely honest). But I appreciate that talent, I appreciate the time and effort that someone’s put into their craft to arrive at the point that they can make those kinds of photos, and I especially appreciate that they’re generous enough to share them with the rest of us. I’m half tempted to call or email them and thank them for doing that kind of photography so that I don’t have to!

That’s just my take. What about you? What can you find, or have you found, to appreciate in other photographers’ photography?

Photograph For An “Audience”

Blue Ford 4

When’s the last time you asked yourself who your audience was, or who you were shooting for? What difference might it make to your craft, depending on who “they” were?

You’re your own first viewer. You saw these things before they were photos, remember, and saw them through the process of composing, exposing, and editing. And it’s not at all uncommon, having lived with our photos and ourselves for so long, that we take for granted what they’re saying is as evident to someone else as it is to us.

Shooting “for” a friend or mentor is a way around that particular trap. I put the “for” in quotes ’cause you don’t necessarily have to tailor every last aspect of your photography to that one individual (in fact, I’d suggest you don’t, ’cause you’re likely to end up crestfallen if you’re relying just on the input or approval of one person, even if you are that one person). Instead, I’d suggest that it keeps us from falling into the trap of creating self-absorbed, solipsistic crap. There’s plenty of that around as it is, so there’s no need for you or I or anyone else to add to it.

Which brings us to the ultimate acid test: putting your work out before the public, whether for sale or for show. Even our best critics, the ones we can count on for criticism that’s useful and perceptive, aren’t exactly going to prepare you for someone passing judgment on your work with their wallet. If you go that route, just bear in mind that low sales don’t mean you suck any more than robust sales mean that you’re the second coming of Brassai.

Of course, any of these audiences (even, or perhaps especially, counting ourselves) can be notoriously picky and fickle lot. Putting your work out there, whether it’s to anyone who’ll sit through your latest batch of snapshots, or a trusted friend/mentor or two is invaluable. Sometimes we know so well what it is that we set out to do, and the meaning we sought to convey, that we see it plain as day even when it isn’t there. Having a fresh set of eyes on your work is a necessary first step to let us know when we have, or haven’t, “got it.”

At some point, that transitions to us being able to take on that “outsider” role for ourselves and to be able to view our own work objectively after all the subjectivity that went into making it. It might feel a bit odd at first, but it’s a worthwhile habit to cultivate; when you’re not just shooting for yourself, you’ll be on your way to finding something that resonates with more people, but also on your way to making sure your images are saying what you mean them to say.

Rule 37: Use It or Lose It!

The Ballerina Revisited

If you’ve ever attempted a workout routine, stuck with it for a while, and then stopped (injury, bad weather, loss of motivation), you know how hard it is to get started again. You also know, as you start to get back into the swing of things, that you start to ache in places you never knew could ache. While photography doesn’t have that many aches and pains to go with it (though with heavy gear, that’s also a possibility), you still need to keep your skills sharp through plenty of practice.

This is especially true when you’re trying something new, like a different compositional technique or a camera setting that you don’t use very often. The first time or two, you may have to take mental — or literal — notes, or even refer back to the camera manual. Do it often enough, and it becomes second nature.

But if it’s something you may only be doing every so often, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned. Yes, I know, some smartass is probably going to say that it’s just like riding a bike. If that’s the case, I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall off my tripod. But I digress. If you haven’t used a skill in a long time, it’s easy to forget how to do it, or even not to do it quite as well as you would have if you’d been in practice.

I was reminded of this comparing some recent shots to an older series taken in the same place. The more recent batch was better in a number of ways (I hadn’t been shooting that long the first time I’d gone), but I noticed in that earlier batch that some of my shots used things that I liked (and still do) but that I’d let fall by the wayside, like using frames within my shots.

Now, that’s a pretty minor thing, all things considered. With that being said, the skills and little tricks that we bring to bear on our craft are a language unto themselves. They have their own vocabulary, their own syntax. As with your spoken/written vocabulary, the more you’ve got, the more options you also have to express yourself. Imagine yourself trying to express something, but you’ve forgotten the word or words that go with it. Your photography’s like that, as well… it becomes just a little bit harder to express the things you’d like to express without the right “stuff” with which to do it.

So. If you’ve picked up some new skill, be sure to dust it off every so often. Leave yourself a reminder, or go back over some of your older work. In either case, it’s a good way to ensure that your skills stay sharp (or at least don’t get too severely blunted) for when you need them later.

Beyond Photography: Gustavo Cerati, Meet Man Ray

The first time I heard Soda Stereo was around the time that their last studio album, Sueño Stereo, came out. Though the band would soon go their separate ways, I continued to follow the solo career of the band’s frontman, Gustavo Cerati, through a series of albums that dug deep into ambient, electronica, guitar-driven rock, and even a full-blown orchestral album. Cerati’s work always made for interesting, and sometimes even challenging, listening. This was not least because he sings in Spanish, but also because the musical style itself was constantly changing, slipping in and out of genres even over the course of a single song.

The language barrier, in my case, meant that bits of half-remembered high school Spanish, things understood in passing and in context, rendered the lyrics are as slippery as the music itself… acertijos bajo el agua, to borrow a lyric. The funny thing is, the lyrics still tend toward the cryptic even in translation; between that, and the music, the whole experience reminded me a bit at first of Radiohead minus the alienation and paranoia, but over time, it’s become something else: a reminder that the things we create sometimes resonate with people in ways that they might not understand themselves at first.

Man Ray, Violon d'Ingres

Which brings us, in typically circuital fashion, to Man Ray. Over the course of his lifetime would cross paths with all manner of artists (Duchamp, Stieglitz, Ernst and Arp, among others) and have a hand in Dada, Surrealism, photography, film, and conceptual art. In nearly every case, whether it was the eye-on-metronome Object to Be Destroyed/Indestructable Object (1923), the memorable portrait Violon d’Ingres (shown at left), or his Rayographs (objects developed directly onto photographic paper), familiar objects, and familiar artistic conventions, were repurposed or turned inside-out by the artist.

They’re different enough to provoke a double-take, maybe even a touch of unease; at the same time, though (as we might expect from an artist who’d been classically trained, and who also worked in graphic arts), they’re grounded in forms we know, and have seen countless times before. Like Cerati, Ray’s “language”, his visual syntax, isn’t always immediately apparent, so the work reveals itself in layers, and leaves itself open to interpretation.

Both these artists’ efforts work in much the same way. There’s a strangeness there, among the musical textures, lyrics, repurposed irons, and photographic prints, but in each case, it’s also anchored in something familiar, whether it’s a four-on-the-floor rhythm or the conventions of portraiture, even as it subverts what we’ve come to recognize or take for granted.

Quiero hacer cosas imposibles… If you’re going to attempt something new and different, therefore, it helps to remember that the things that have the power to surprise us aren’t always those that are radically different. Instead, that little “poke” is just as likely to come from something we know, speaking to us in a language or a syntax that teases just at the edge of our consciousness. Venture off into the strange, but keep one foot in the familiar…


Gustavo Cerati:

Official Site (Spanish):
Official Site (English, via Google Translate)
Official YouTube Channel:

Man Ray:
The Official Website of the Man Ray Trust:
Man Ray on UbuWeb:
A recent article from the Wall Street Journal on the artist’s estate and legacy:

Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos

Was That Really Necessary?

So you’re finally on your way to figuring out this whole photography thing. You already know you should have your camera with you; you’ve shot photos by the hundreds, if not the thousands, always working to hone your craft; and you’ve trained your eye to look for a photo opportunity in nearly everything you see. All well and good, right?

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing: there is such a thing as trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not talking about the effort that goes into getting the composition you want, or making sure your settings are the optimal ones for whatever you’re shooting — that’s time well spent. What I’m referring to instead is… well, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Sometimes, whether it’s because of the lighting, the weather, or even just the subject itself, there’s something in front of you, but there’s just no photograph there.

I understand that itch we all get, and the need to scratch it. You know the one I’m talking about; you’ve been walking through a location for what seems like hours, and you’ve yet to see a single thing worth photographing. Everything looks flat and dull, and before you know it, you start to feel a bit flat and dull yourself. Your shutter finger gets itchy, maybe your eye starts to twitch a little because it’s been away from the viewfinder for too long. You’d hate to spend a perfectly good day out with a perfectly good camera only to come home with an empty memory card. So you compromise. You settle on shots that, on a better day, you wouldn’t bother with, or you start trying to compose interesting shots of topsoil.

If you’re really struggling with the shot, to a point where it’s not simply a matter of getting the basics right (composition, lighting, settings, et cetera) as much as it is a nagging feeling that maybe you’ve got your subject wrong, listen to what your instinct is telling you. Let it go. Trying to find the right photo at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, is like trying to find an Eames chair at Wal-Mart. It probably isn’t going to happen, and if it does, it’s probably going to be a pale imitation of the real thing. There’s no shame in leaving the camera at your side, or putting it in its bag. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with waiting ’til something comes along that’s really worthy of your, your camera’s, and your audience’s attention.

Beyond Photography: Robert Fulghum, Meet Robert Doisneau

Robert Fulghum: All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Stop and think about some of the best images you’ve shot. Not necessarily the most technically proficient. The ones that, for all their flaws, you wouldn’t trade for anything. I know I have a pile on my hard drive, mostly of people I love just being their usual selves, or of things I’ve experienced that, even though I won’t soon forget them, I’m glad to have the photographic reminders of. I’m sure you have them too, blurry or hurriedly-composed shots (if you even gave a second thought to composition) of a thousand memorable moments.

A lot of what we think of as “art” catches those same everyday moments. The only difference is, there’s just a bit more attention paid to the finer details.

That brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the writer Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, and other bestselling collections of essays. This isn’t Thoreau or de Montaigne territory. Fulghum’s essays aren’t often concerned with events that wouldn’t happe to anyone else. He described What On Earth Have I Done, his last essay collection, as “adventuring out into the world as it is and noticing it and talking about it… being aware out there and being aware in here.” His essays, in other words, are more often written about the moments in life that we too often pass over or take for granted, in order that we might stop, reconsider, and quit taking them for granted.

Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, by Robert Doisneau

Another Robert — Robert Doisneau, whose centennial happens to fall this week — shared Fulghum’s knack for observing (and, in the case of his best-known image, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, recreating) intimate everyday moments. Doisneau begain photographing at sixteen, and while he would one day be regarded as a street photographer on par with Henri Cartier Bresson, he started out taking photos of the cobblestones beneath his feet because he was too shy to approach human subjects. By most accounts, that shyness never quite left him. Thankfully, though, it also didn’t keep him from capturing images that became synonymous with a certain notion of France, but that also gained fame in the world at large because their everydayness resonated with the rest of us.

It’s understandable to want to make a grand statement, and to want leave our mark on our craft, if not the world. With very few exceptions, though, life’s not usually made up of such sweeping, grandiose stuff. Our lives can seem — or even be — stultifyingly ordinary. But take a look around your own life, and your own world as it is. A pretty eventful place, no? Dive in!

The solution isn’t necessarily to try and escape what we see as mundanity (though that can be helpful sometimes), so much as to observe it closely, even lovingly. Both Roberts’ works endure as they do not because the people in them are extraordinary; it’s because they’re extra ordinary. They’re so normal that we’re pulled into these little microcosmic worlds sometimes in spite of ourselves. We’ve known, or even been, these people; these portraits, whether with words or photographic processes, are familiar to us because they’re drawn from a life we recognize.

On the Web:

The official Robert Doisneau site in French here, and in English via Google Translate here. Robert Fulghum’s official site is here.

Rule 31: Smash Your Idols

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. -- Lin Chi

I got to thinking recently about many religions’ prohibition against idol worship. Judaism and, by extension, Christianity both caution against idolatry (the Ten Commandments explicitly warn against graven images. Islam takes the prohibition so far that neither Allah nor Muhammad may even be depicted in art. What’s this got to do with photography? Well, hold on a second. I’m getting there.

The Buddha was famously supposed to have said to one of his disciples, “My teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t mistake my finger for the moon.” Some photographers, unfortunately, engage in this sort of idolatry all the time.

Let’s start with the gear worshippers, shall we? Never mind that your average photographer wouldn’t think, even for a second, of waxing rhapsodic over a ratchet screwdriver, cordless drill, or even one of those little rubber thingies you can use when the lid on a jar of pickles is too tight. A good many photographers* get a little woozy when they talk about the gear they’ve had, have, or have yet to purchase. The virtues of bodies and lenses are debated as though their spec sheets were an arcane form of scripture.

Then there’s an even higher echelon of gear worship, wherein the penitent swears fealty to only a particular type of gear. One may “only” shoot with primes, or certain speedlight setups, or with the proper medium format back. All others are proscribed, and must be forsaken.

Then, of course, we have the photographic Calvinists. Digital, to this lot, is an abomination. To them, film is the only medium worthy of consideration by a “serious” photographer. Certain subsects will take this a step further, and insist that the sacrament of film must be placed in a Holga or other suitable plastic vessel, preferably with duct tape affixed to keep out the light leaks.

And lest we forget the fundamentalists of style. They know all the rules for their genre of choice, and they are thoroughly convinced that no matter what your intention, if you’re not doing it their way, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t think they’ll neglect to call you out on it, either.

Gear, ideas and techniques are belabored as if they’re fine wines, with the unspoken assumption a little too often being that these things aren’t what they are — tools — so much as objects of awe and veneration. If you’re going to focus on something, focus on the simple act of making a good photo. No more, no less. If you fall into one of the above categories, here’s a clue: you’re a photographer, not a freakin’ Gnostic. Get over your obsessions, get over the mistaken assumption that gear makes the man, and most of all, for the love of all that’s holy, get over yourself.

Ahem. Sorry, got a little carried away. Let’s circle back to the original point. All the talk of idols doesn’t just apply to worshipping objects in stone or wood. It also means the idolatry of our own ideas and fixations. This isn’t an altar call; I don’t expect my comments section to be flooded with sudden remorse over gear obsession, or the fact that you told someone on a street photography forum that they’ve violated the spirit of Bruce Gilden by not getting close enough to their subject to constitute adultery in 35 out of 50 states. All I’d like to suggest is that if your photography is a labor of love (and really, it ought to be), make sure that love’s going in the right direction.

*Mostly male photographers, to be fair.

Embrace Imperfection

A Pretty Bad Photo of Mike Doughty

I can’t even pretend that the photo at left is a great picture. I’m well aware that, as the caption indicates, it’s a pretty bad photo. And yet, for all its blur, it conveys a sense of motion that might’ve been lost in a photograph that was more technically correct. If I had a mind to, I could even pass it off as an abstract. In short, for all its flaws, I like it.

I didn’t always. The morning after the show in question, I went over the hundred or so shots I’d taken, and deemed every last one of ’em crap. I saved them in spite of that, though, because I learned a long time ago that I can be absolutely brutal with myself when I’m taking the first look over something I’ve just done (which, incidentally, I still tend to do).

I’m hardly alone in this. I think that most of us (not counting those who’ve downloaded Picnik and bought an SLR and so feel entitled to call themselves “professionals”) have, at some point,  convinced ourselves that our work — every last bit of it — sucks. The irony of it is, if you’re convinced your work is terrible, it probably isn’t as bad as you’ve convinced yourself. And even if it was (we’ve been there, too), it won’t stay that way as long as you keep working at it.

But I digress. There’s an expression that I come back to from time to time: “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As I told a friend not long ago, sometimes good enough really is good enough. And sometimes, the imperfections in something have a charm all their own, or communicate in a way that a more accomplished-looking result (or one that we’ve gone back and polished to a high gloss) wouldn’t. Rolling Stone won’t exactly be beating my door down or blowing up my phone looking for the rights to this photo (nor, I can safely assume, would Mr. Doughty). But you know what? I can live with the photo, so I can also live with that.

The best thing about your craft, whichever one you happen to practice, is that you can always revisit it later. Photography, like writing, allows for a certain amount of revision on top of the practice that any craft allows, and even encourages, you to put into it. Hang onto your work, because when you do that, you may be surprised to find out that it was better than you thought when you first made it. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable in your own skin; there’s every bit as much to be said for being comfortable in your own craft.

Rule 28: Go Back To An Old Passion

I suppose it applies to escalators too, but c'mon, that's not exactly rocket science.

If you asked me twenty-five years ago whether I thought of myself as a photographer, I’d have looked at you funny. If you asked me now whether I could see myself on stage, giving a speech, or sitting behind a mic on the radio, I’d probably look at you just as funny. My interests have changed over time, and I’d wager that yours will soon enough, if they haven’t already. You might not still do all the things you did when you were younger — maybe time, money, or a bum knee won’t permit it — but don’t turn your back on them altogether.

I bring this up because I spent a good couple of hours yesterday shooting at my niece’s school musical. Granted, there’s the usual photographic business — figuring out the best sight lines, fiddling with settings and exposure, keeping fingers crossed that you’ve brought along enough memory cards — but beyone that, it was the chance to revisit something I’d done a few times in my own past.

It’s a good challenge to go back to things you’ve done in the past. For one thing, you have a different (and, I’d dare to say, somewhat deeper) understanding of something having done it yourself, even if you’re far short of an expert. Let’s face it, someone who’s been on the inside of something can bring an understanding to photographing it that an outsider might take a bit longer to pick up. 

For another thing, it’s easier from a photographer’s point of view to “read” the goings on. There are rhythms, or at least a kind of internal logic, to how certain things unfold. It’s a lot easier to settle into that groove, to find or even predict the best shots, when you know how something works. It’s a bit like following a score or libretto, in that you can skip ahead a bit to anticipate what comes next, wait for it, and capture it versus sometimes shooting blindly and hoping for the best.

I’ve written before about cultivating interests outside of photography. Those things, besides being a break from photography and something that can give you a respite from shooting, can give you new subject matter and a new perspective on your photography, even if that isn’t why you took them up in the first place. However, it’s not all about looking ahead to the next new thing; sometimes, it’s just as productive — and just as much fun — to go back to something you may not have given a second thought in a very long time, just to see what develops.

Rule 23: Learn the Rules

Rusty Buds

Whether you view photography as art, craft, or some mix of the two, it’s useful to bear in mind that it does follow certain rules. As with the rules that apply to any other part of life, some will view them as inviolable while some will swear that each one’s made only to be broken. The truth probably lies somewhere in between; these rules of photography have lasted as long as they have because they can be very useful, but breaking them won’t lead to your gear being confiscated.

As with anything else, you can pull up Google (or your search engine of choice), search “photography rules,” and come back with hits in the tens of thousands. One reason for this is that there seem to be nearly as many rules as there are photographic genres, and photographers. Some apply to settings (Sunny 16, for instance), some to composition, and others still to things like the ethics of photography. That’s not even counting the things that we devise as individuals, some for practical reasons and others out of a sense of superstition, to keep our process flowing smoothly.

Do we really need all those rules? I’d argue that they’re useful on a number of levels. As photographers, they give us a sense of focus, and a convenient means of learning the basics of composition and exposure. As a viewer of photography, they help us both to read and critique photos, giving us the tools to realize when and why a photo works or doesn’t. It also allows both photographers and viewers to step into the other’s shoes for a moment; the latter get to realize some of the challenges of making a good photo, while the former have an easier way to ensure that the point they intended to make gets across.

When you are dealing with a mature medium, it’s natural to think that it’s all been done (if we’re going to be honest, quite a lot of it probably has been) and to think that we might stand a better chance of doing something fresh or original if we throw the rules out the window. With that said, I’d argue that there’s actually a right way to break the rules, and it starts by knowing them. After all, if you’re not familiar with how and why a photo is put together, you’re not avoiding cliches by “breaking” the rules… instead, you end up with a lousy photo, or you end up with one that’s quite good, but that simply follows rules of which you may have been unaware.

There’s some validity to leaving behind, or actively breaking, the rules of photography, and I’ll have more to say about that this time next week. But for now, start by learning the rules, and knowing what makes a photo “work,” so that you can avoid some of the things that keep your shots from looking half-assed or ill-conceived.

Postscript: There’s a tongue-in-cheek list of 78 Photography Rules for Complete Idiots that combines some practical advice with some that’s just plain silly.