The world of photography is filled with true artists, astounding technology, and experts who can help you become the photographer you want to be. There are photographers who just make you shake your head at the brilliance of their imagery, teachers who give back endlessly to the profession they love, and manufacturers who create tools that help us all produce the pictures we want to make.
But there is also some accepted rhetoric that might merit a little self-reflection, a change in priorities, and possibly a shade of skepticism.
As I’ve expressed in the past, what follows are some opinions and observations that I’ve written with the hope that maybe just one photographer benefits from them somehow. If you read them and disagree with any, or all of the observations, that’s absolutely fine. If something I’ve written makes you rethink your career strategy going forward, then I’ve succeeded. I have no agenda beyond that. I’ve learned a number of lessons from people I greatly admire as well as some tough lessons from my own mistakes. What follows is what I’ve discovered from a career in photography. The opinions are mine alone.
Originality and Manipulation
I know it’s controversial, but in my opinion, there’s very little that’s truly original. If photographers are really honest, most will tell you that every one of their images is their own unique construction built upon a foundational mashup of past influences of others’ photographs, paintings, illustrations, architecture, personal experiences, and the style of individual photographers they’ve long admired. Again, that’s what they’d say that if they were honest.
My own photography and values have been deeply influenced by photographers like Yousuf Karsh, Jay Maisel, Gregory Heisler, Pete Turner, Julius Schulman, George Hurrell, Arnold Newman, Herman Leonard and my brother, Mark J. Terrill. I still approach every project with my own eye and my own solutions, but stylistically those photographers resonate with me and I see that resonance in most of my pictures. To deny that influence would be a flat out lie to my colleagues, my clients, and to myself. We all can’t help but be influenced by those we admire and it comes out in our images. The appropriate goal would seem to be to put your own unique stamp on the work while drawing upon all that has come before you for inspiration.
But, if you’re in journalism, or anywhere else where the legitimacy of content is paramount, your own stamp should not include the clone stamp. If the picture isn’t good enough to publish in it’s original form, trying to improve it by adding a ball, taking out a person, or merging two images into one undermines our profession in a terribly destructive way. Journalism is already struggling to remain relevant and viable. How many more photographers have to lose their jobs in disgrace before we realize the importance of authenticity and honesty?
My Sensor is Bigger Than Yours
There is such an emphasis on equipment in photography that I sometimes wonder how much the quality of the camera introduces a false sense of confidence to the emerging photographer. When I read the blogs and web sites that discuss all things photographic, I’m astounded at the depth of the debate about the tools—as well as the venom behind many of the comments. There is no denying that cameras continue to get better and faster, sensors are becoming almost noise-free, and file sizes are increasing to the point of absurdity.
But very little of it will make you a better photographer.
If it could, then a really good computer would make you a better writer and a really good guitar would make you a better player. It truth, a camera, a computer, and a guitar are simply instruments. Yes, the instruments give you options and some of those options are really important. But, an instrument in the hands of an artist who understands content will create something with more impact and depth than one made by an artist focused not on the content, but on the number of megapixels of his camera, the speed of his computer, or the exotic wood of his guitar.
Some of the greatest photographs ever made were captured on that truly old-school technology: film. Yet somehow, collectors of the photographs of Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston and countless others don’t seem to care about the technology used to make those iconic images. They care only about the content within the frame. And I can assure you that past a certain point of usability, an editor or an art director doesn’t really care about the technology either. They crave what’s inside the borders of the photograph above all else.
This obsession about megapixels, photosite depth, and bayer patterns reminds me of the stereotype of the man driving a red Corvette who’s trying to compensate for some shortcoming. Almost without exception, photographers I meet who have the bleeding-edge camera technology can also explain the technical differences between CMOS and CCD sensors or various analog-to-digital converter advantages between cameras. But just as often, they seem to be carrying the most pristine and unused cameras on their shoulders as well as the most ordinary portfolios in their hands. It’s almost as though to them, the tool itself is viewed as more important than what that tool is used for.
In contrast, photographers who are focused on content don’t seem to really care how they make the picture—they just want to make it. For example, when it was first introduced in 1999, Jay Maisel switched from film to the 2.75 megapixel Nikon D1. The pictures Jay made with the D1 were noisy and just 7.5Mb in size, but the pictures he made with it were compelling and unique because the eye behind the camera belonged to Jay Maisel. If you ever have the opportunity to spend some time with Jay, you will quickly realize that he knows almost nothing about the technology inside his current camera, nor does he care. He knows how to adjust the f/stops, the shutter speeds, the focus, and where to find great pictures that others miss. The rest just gets in the way of his mission to make compelling imagery. I really respect him for his singular focus on what’s inside the frame and his indifference to what’s inside the camera.
Sharing, Conversation and Gurus
This is where I really should bite my tongue—but won’t.
The internet has made it possible for just about anyone to be heard and for anyone to anoint themselves an expert. Some of the people sharing their wisdom truly are experts and the dialog they engage in—whether in an article or on a message board—is indispensable. Their contributions add to the growth of both the experienced photographer and the rank beginner. A fine example of this is the website run by Rob Galbraith. The information he provides is detailed, complete and thorough. I’ve learned more information there that’s of useful value than at all the other photography sites combined. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
“I know more than you, I’m an insider, and I want to be sure everyone reading knows it.”
On the other hand, there are some sites that seem to be as invested in having the personna of their creators celebrated as they are at elevating the dialog about photography. Some of these popular photo sites have articles, message boards and even workshops, but so often the dialog seems to be contentious and mired in an attitude of, “I know more than you, I’m an insider, and I want to be sure everyone reading knows it.”
On a couple of the most visited sites, the leader is a self-appointed guru with followers he seems to expect will hang on his every word and worship him as much as the opinions he’s dispensing. Complete with the affectation of a self-important nickname, he’s just like a Kardashian: famous for little more than being famous. I think if you were to ask many of his followers, few could name any of his wonderful images, but several could tell you about his favorite BBQ restaurant in Albuquerque, the novels he’s currently reading, or what he thinks is just so cool.
I’m sure some of my colleagues will remind me that it’s all part of the “conversation” about photography and how important that is. To me, that’s like saying it’s important for an actor to watch the Academy Awards to improve his acting. It might be entertaining and it might be a nice distraction, but Jack Nicholson didn’t earn his statuettes by watching the Oscars. No amount of reading on a web site or posting on a message board can ever replace the practice of putting the camera to your eye and actually making pictures.
I guess it all comes down to what you want out of photography and of your time. Do you want to work for national magazines and advertising agencies, or do you want to endlessly debate the merits of various demosaicing techniques? Do you need another image for your portfolio, or do you need to post a rebuttal to someone’s opinion about card readers? Would testing an actual D4 or 5DMkIII yield more trusted information and teach you more about each camera in the process, or would it be simpler to just read what someone wrote on a message board and accept their opinion as fact?
It’s very easy to be persuaded by something you read online because once it’s in print it seems legitimate somehow. Consider the source of what’s being written, whether you wish to align yourself with the person behind it, and whether you want to devote your time to what they think is important for you know. Is it really worth the diversion to learn about someone’s dining preferences or being drawn into a message board debate if it takes time away from making new pictures, learning how to use light, or finding new clients?
The point is, your own pictures will always teach you the most and be the loudest and most authentic voice you possess.