In the same Luminous Landscape thread that sparked my last post, the topic of learning from the work of famous photographers working in your chosen genre(s) came up. In my previous post, I made the point that your work is your own, and you should let your work dictate your choice of equipment. Unsaid, but implied, was this: Just because Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica doesn’t mean that you should run out and get one to do street photography.
On learning from the masters, I’m going to take a position that may seem inconsistent with my stand on equipment selection: I think almost all photographers would benefit immensely from studying the work of successful photographers who preceded them.
Let’s start with a narrow example. In my opinion – and I’m not alone here – the key to learning black and white darkroom printing is learning what a good print looks like. Along the axis of the present discussion, the extremes are:
- Study the prints – preferably real prints, not reproductions – of the best black and white printers until you have a gut-level feel for what makes the printing (as opposed to the totality of the final image) great. Go into the darkroom and try to make prints with the qualities you admire in the masters’ prints. Repeat ‘til done. Strike that last. Repeat indefinitely.
- Go into the darkroom and start printing. If you find something you like, do more of that. If you find something that you don’t like, do less of that.
I’ve seen many people do the latter. They show up at print critiques with weak blacks, or blown highlights, or inky shadows, or chalky midtones… not done for artistic effect, but because they don’t know any better. By the time they’ve figured out the rudiments of printing, at best they’ve lost years and at worst they’ve gotten discouraged and taken up ballroom dancing.
They’re the lucky ones; once they’ve caught on, they can reprint everything (assuming their inability to recognize a good print isn’t accompanied by an inability to recognize a good negative). But what do you say to someone who’s spent years making images whose content, esthetics, message, and feel are similar to the qualities of a series done by someone famous, making comparisons inevitable, if by comparisons the message is muddled, the feel is unfocused, and the esthetics jumbled and weak? “Uh, you might want to take a look at Joe Blow’s Dried Mud series,” in a mumble?
The old saw about standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us only works if we look around to find shoulders to stand on, and if we’re not so egotistical or misguided to think that we can’t learn anything from the work of others.
Even if you think that you can learn faster following your own muse and having your artistic sensibilities unsullied by contact with the work of others, you can’t expect that your audience will enjoy such splendid isolation. People have been making photographs for more than a century and a half. Photography is the most common form of flat art. Every art director, gallery owner, museum curator, book publisher, and magazine editor you encounter will have experience with the art photography canon that varies from moderate to encyclopedic. Most of your potential customers will be at least somewhat informed (interior decorators excepted). They will all compare your work to that of others. If you’ve done that yourself, you can avoid some really awkward conversations.
I hope I’m preaching to the choir on this one. Over on LuLa, that wasn’t universally the case.