What's the best way to learn the art of photography? Obviously, there's no single answer. If there is a character trait that applies to all photographers, it's insatiable curiosity, but the process of making photographs can differ greatly from person to person - from 8-lane superhighway to tortuous goat trail. We're not all built of the same stuff and we don't all want the same thing. Some are voracious readers and can absorb text like a sponge; others are visual and non-linear and can't sit still any longer than the 30 second setting on the shutter speed dial. Most of the world has gone digital but film and darkrooms still have stage time. Some shooters consider accuracy and sharpness to be holy grails; others use cameras to paint like Van Gogh.
One shooter's style may be another's worst nightmare. HDR, high key, B&W, street, fashion, sports, infrared... there's a long list of turn-ons and turn-offs to wade through to find your own way.
The photographic age has produced any number of masters along the way, from the pioneers who invented a new technology or world view to the new creatives who bend technique and vision to incredible extremes. Now, in our age of instant access, we have a window to them all. We have a varied educational menu to pick from - from expensive schools to online blogs, with fresh (and stale) information flowing at us in torrents. With a bit of effort, anyone can develop his or her own MASTER CLASS syllabus.
That's the easy part. Just because we have access to brilliance doesn't mean it will rub off on us every time we watch a YouTube tutorial or spend a few mornings with Creative Live or drool over the front page of 500px. We still need to do the work, get our hands dirty, dig deep, compost the soil, eradicate pests, prune bad habits, and water the little green buds (to butcher my favorite Being There analogy).
Who are the classiest photographers? It's a wide and widening field, but there is a common core. CLASSY MASTERS leave a vital legacy. They master the technical craft, then break new ground and struggle against status quo, exploring where no one has gone before. They are often misunderstood in their own time. A few make a fortune; most live purely for art. But every classy master I know is uncommonly curious and works his butt off to sail beyond, over the edge of the world, to create his own photographic Eden. Classy masters are not followers but challengers of convention. Ironically, as they develop their unique and visionary styles, they become the idols that the next wave looks to for inspiration and answers.
At some point in our own artistic journey, we come to a crossroads. We can take the easy way out and adopt a style or look that requires little or no sweat (presets, Instagram). Or we can choose to suffer and clamber up the goat trail, grappling with our own worst natures of laziness and instant gratification. The masters do that, one painful step at a time. If we do the same, will anyone know the difference? Sure, it's easier to cheat these days than ever because of the low cost of automated post processing. But bottom line, no amount of processing can repair a lazily executed idea or sloppy composition. The choice between copycat and master still exists (and always will). While there is a place for paved roads, plugins, and presets, the goat trail should always beckon. No one else carries your backpack. You take in only what you can pack out. You make the photographs that emerge in your own inner darkroom.
Our goal is to love and learn from classy masters all we can, but not be satisfied with the ragged translation to our own work. If we want to excel, an honest look in the artistic mirror should be the first priority every day. If we don't like what we see, we keep at it until we do.
Let's approach our assignment this way:
Make a list of masters that matter to you. They may be photographers, painters, writers, musicians, or other role models.
Choose one and dig into why he, she, or it matters. Is it the style, substance, message, color, emotion, etc. that moves you? What keeps you coming back?
Do some online or library study of your chosen master. Find out what makes him or her tick; get under their skin. What new ground did they break? How did they do it? Now that you know, do you respect them more or less? How does it relate to what makes you tick?
With a particular master in mind, go make some photographs. Try to channel them into your work; chances are high it will spark some new ideas. Pursue them. Allow yourself to fail. Delete freely. Recognize magic when it happens.
Share your photos on Photo Assignment, but perhaps even more importantly, share what you've learned about a classy master with the rest of us. It might be just what someone else needs to hear right now.
Here's a highly condensed list of CLASSY MASTERS that have mattered to me, and why. If you don't have any of your own, feel free to use them as a sparkplug. Listed in no particular order.
Richard Avedon - stunning personal b&w portraits, full of character and soul. And the lighting - wow!
Bill Cunningham - eccentric NY Times photographer (he died this week). There's a great documentary on Hulu.
Garry Winogrand - crazy cool street photography with the boldest composition ever.
Yousuf Karsh - powerful low-key b&w portraiture.
Jerry Uelsmann - master darkroom illusionist; he's largely responsible for me being a photographer at all.
Diane Arbus - her bravery scares the carp out of most people, for good reason. It was even too much for her.
Jay Maisel - bold color and minimalist design elements make for unforgettable images.
Clearly, two weeks of studying classy masters won't bring anyone anywhere near their level. But it should provide some fuel to our own inner fires and maybe give us a glimpse of some personal potential we didn't know was there. Photography is all about exploration, after all, and studying the masters is a powerful way to make the leap into the creative jungle with some healthy trail mix.
CLASSY MASTERS will run for two weeks, from June 29 through July 12.