Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Came Before

A Midwest friend of mine gave a presentation at a local photography workshop the other day. The workshop was focused on shooting models: glamour, fashion, and more. Prior to his presentation, he had emailed me his fairly detailed outline covering the topics he was planning to speak about. For the most part, it was Photography 101.

"What level of photographers will be there?" I asked after having a look at his outline.

"Mostly beginners and novices and maybe a few intermediates," he said.

I made a couple of suggestions, mostly that he shit-can those parts of his outline which, I thought, seemed to get into way too much minutiae. (Think stuff like Ansel Adams' Zone System and more.) Anyway, my suggestions weren't anything major. Overall, it was a very well thought-out outline.

My friend tells me his presentation went very well. He had also prepared some hand-outs to go along with his words. In the handouts, he listed some suggested reading material. He was nice enough to include my e-books in his suggestions. One of the attendees mentioned he had already purchased my book, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography. The person told my friend (who then told me) that he had printed the e-book out and that he liked it so much he read it twice. Twice! That's the kind of compliment all writers love hearing!

During my friend's presentation, he mentioned a few iconic photographers. Specifically, photographers noted for their pictures of women. George Hurrel and Helmut Newton were two he mentioned. To my friend's surprise (and to mine as well after he told me about this) not a single photographer in the room had ever heard of Hurrel or Newton.

Wow. Just wow.

"And these were a bunch of new-ish, but serious, photographers hoping to learn about pretty girl shooting?" I asked.

"Yep," my friend told me.

Throughout most of my childhood, I spent a lot of time living and breathing baseball. (Much like so many other boys.) Each year, I could hardly wait till baseball season arrived because it meant two things: 1) I would be playing on a youth team and, later, on a high school age team and 2) my beloved New York Yankees would return to the field wreaking some serious havoc in the American League and, hopefully, come the Fall, in the series.

Almost as soon as I began my love affair with baseball, I realized I wanted to know everything about it. Not just how to play the game, but it's history and more. Sure, players I idolized -- players like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris and more -- were in the current line-ups. But I also wanted to know about many of baseball's greats. Especially, of course, Yankee greats. From Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio and more, I soaked up all I could about my new-found heroes from baseball's past. I'm not just talking about stats and the records they achieved. I also wanted to learn how the greats played the game. You see, even at a young age I came to understand the importance of learning something about, make that a lot about, what came before in baseball; including whatever I could learn about how the greatest players became so great. (Through their skills and abilities and more, that is.)

Baseball may be worlds apart from photography but the importance of studying and trying to learn from those who came before is as true for photography as it is for baseball. For those of you who are serious about your photography, it's not enough to simply learn the "how-to" steps to better pictures. It's not enough to learn why you should do certain things or when you should do them. It's equally important to learn from, and study, what came before. And the best way to do that is to study the work of the greatest photographers who came before. Certainly, those of them who are well-known for shooting whatever it is, whatever genres, you might be most interested in shooting.

I'm not saying your work should mimic the work of those who came before. (Although there's lots to learn from attempting to do so.) But there's nothing wrong with letting that work influence your work. In fact, I doubt you can avoid having it do so. Besides, your work is probably already influenced by the work of others whether you realize it or not. And don't feel like that's a bad thing. It's not! It never has been. Much of the history of great art, from painting to sculpture to music to literature and, yes, even to photography, is built on artists being influenced, often heavily influenced, by other artists who came before them.

The pretty girl at the top goes by the name Ash. (Click pic to enlarge it. Right-click and open to enlarge it even more.) Obviously, it's a high-key shot. I used a 46" Photek Softliter for my main with a Lumopro Lite Panel for fill. I also used a couple of small, shoot-thru umbrellas, either side from behind, for highlights.


Jay Kilgore said...

I teach workshops as well and to be totally honest, I spend no time talking about the greats. Yes, they should be known about, but IMHO, I feel as though attention to those who are living and breathing now is where the focus should be. By paying attention to those who can talk and answer questions, Newton, Adams, Hurrell and so on, will continue to live.

There was a rap group named Digital Underground. They had a song called "Heartbeat Props" and the hook was "You're giving more respect to a dead man, than you do the man, and the man has the plan in his hand!" Upon hearing that in the 90's, I realized that it's true. All those guys are great, but why not spend more time trying to talk to those who are alive and creating work NOW? I am HUGE on mentors and blog about it often. I truly feel as though with out a mentor, you are lost in the photography world.

Hope all is well with you!


jimmyd said...

Hey Jay!

I agree. My friend only mentioned guys like Hurrel and Newton in passing in his presentation.

The stuff I'm talking about isn't what I'd expect any workshop leader to "teach" per se. Instead, I think discovering and learning from the masters is something photographers should do on their own time. I definitely think it's something they should do and if they don't learn something from looking at the work of the those great photographers who came before, they're not really looking at that work.