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I have been taking photographs for almost four decades—mostly for money and always for myself. Over those forty years, I have slowly figured out what I wanted to ask the many photographers I encountered along the way. I have distilled this down to a list of questions that I would ask any photographer, knowing that the answers will help any photographer.
While these questions are important ones to ask any accomplished photographer you meet, they are also good questions to consider when thinking about a photographer whose work you are interested in, even if you might never meet them. The answers to these questions will teach you a great deal about what it is that makes a master photographer just such a master.
So let me explain the questions, and give you my answers:
Every photographer develops their own shooting strategy in their own unique way, be that interning, apprenticing, assisting, graduate school, on the job training, etc. Understanding how each photographer develops their particular style is important in figuring out your own approach to photographing.
As for me, I refer to the joke about getting to Carnegie Hall by “practice, practice, practice!” I have refined my skill as a photographer by taking thousands and thousands of pictures (possibly millions) over the years. I have developed my eye for making and critiquing images by listening to the frequently-critical input of the many talented photographers I have worked with over the decades. I also strive to photograph only those things I know I can photograph well, and those things I am interested in photographing.
Photography has a long and fascinating history. Most photographers happily admit which of their predecessors influenced them and their work. Be suspicious of any photographer who denies that they were influenced by photographers who preceded them.
As for me, W. Eugene Smith, Harry Callahan and David Burnett shaped my work (as well as the entire history of photography since that is what I studied in college). Looking at the work of others is the second best way, after shooting and critiquing, to become a better photographer.
Different photographers have different end goals for their work. The most successful ones are those who can consistently get their work to say what it is they want, even if they cannot articulate what that is or how that happens.
As for me, much of my work is stock photography and mainstream magazine photography, but in the best of all worlds, I create photo essays, which are sets of images that tell a story from my own distinct point of view. Some explore political ideas, like my project on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others are more celebrations of special places, like my “light study” on Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Photographers are not born fully formed. They start out as unskilled wannabes, and they reach their goals through luck, education, networking, perseverance, etc. There is no single route that guarantees success, though far too many educational institutions sell themselves as doing just that.
As for me, I started out as a fine-art photographer in college, studying the history of photography. Needing to make a living, I became a newspaper photographer, then a magazine photographer, and ended up doing in-depth photo essays. When that market disappeared, I started doing stock photography. Most recently, I have been doing a mix of multi-media, stock, assignment and teaching. Since the market is continually changing, I am evolving too.
I have blogged about this here.
The photo-gear industry is built on selling the latest technology/software/cameras, which is not inherently a bad thing. The competitive nature of that market keeps driving incredible technological changes. It also pushes prices ever lower for things like hard drive space. The question to ask a master photographer is not what brand of gear they use, but why they use the particular gear they use to solve their unique set of problems.
As for me, I use Olympus PEN cameras, Media One image-browsing software, and Adobe Lightroom, to capture, organize and make the final digital images that are at the core of my photographic process. The PEN cameras and the Media One software are something of outliers compared to their mainstream competitors, but they solve my problems more effectively and efficiently than any other technology out there.
This is the dirty little secret of professional photography. Most people do not like to talk about this, but if you learn how the pro that you admire actually makes their daily income, you can appraise them and their work more clearly. Today, the more revenue streams you have as a photographer, the more likely you are to make it in the ever-more-competitive marketplace.
As for me, I do some assignment work, though less than I used to. Multi-media is also a small component of the assignment work that I am doing. Stock photography is still my biggest source of income, though that is an ever-more-difficult market. I am doing more and more teaching, in workshops and privately. Blogging and writing articles for publications/sites is a growing part of my work. I do occasionally get grants or fellowships, which enable me to do projects. I sell some work in the fine-art market, but that is the smallest of my revenue streams.
This is an important question for ANY photographer to consider. Even if you do not take photographs for money, clarifying why you do it, what you get out of it, and what bothers you about it is enormously important. Most successful photographers have answered this question, whether implicitly or explicitly. They have built their careers on playing to their strengths.
As for me, I photograph for two reasons. My more political work allows me to research and explore issues that interest me, and then share what I find with others. I produce my light studies because my favorite thing to do as a photographer is to get up early, go somewhere new, watch the light unfold, and have little “adventures.” Though I get paid for my photography, the money just enables me to do these other two things, which are what I care about the most.
Not all of the answers to all of these questions can be applied to every photographer’s particular situation. Still, you should seek out the answers to these questions with a clear, even analytical mind when considering the work and life of an accomplished photographer. Knowing their answers, and then looking at your own answers, will go a long way in getting from where you are to where you want to be as a photographer.