Should we think “I wish I’d taken that shot” when viewing great photographs?
I think there’s an important distinction to make between photographs we admire, and photographs we wish we’d made ourselves.
Most of the photographs in the typical “most influential” lists are great photographs. Admirable, useful, impactful. Typically, though, there are very few I wish I’d taken myself. Because war zones are scary, because dead children would rip my soul in two, because big events do nothing for me, because I like to walk, not hang from a chopper, because the aesthetics of those photographs rarely correspond to my tastes, because many other reasons …
I’m thankful someone took them, and admiring. But not envious.
On instawham, the situation is somewhat different. Very few photos there are important, even fewer inspire me, but there are some there I’d have liked to to have made.
Either because of the location, which appeals to me. Or, more often, because of some quality of the picture-making that speaks to me.
To me, this illustrates an important point. If you want to become a master of the craft, it’s important to be able to articulate who you can draw inspiration from. And why. Projecting yourself in the work is key to progress. How would you have done it? And you can’t just project yourself in any work. Admiring something is not necessarily aspirational or useful. The chosen work must match your context, your personality, and your voice, hidden or found.
Also, when we do find inspiration in someone else’s work, it becomes important to isolate why.
You’ll find that the two rarely overlap. It happens. Environmental reportage lends itself to a fine art approach, for instance. But few of the very memorable shots, those found in newspapers more than on gallery walls, ever do. Nor do fine art photographs often strive to document war atrocities (though it does occasionally happen).
One thing I find in the emails sent to me by photo newsletters, is that many aspiring artists adopt an almost anti-fine-art attitude to shots that also convey little meaning, and thus produce very weak work. As if the grimy look and sloppy composition were enough in themselves. They’re not. You need at least one or another of those options in your work. And it takes a Sebastião Salgado, Ed Burtinsky or David Maisel to combine both.
When you find yourself looking longingly at photographs, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we admire them or really wish we’d taken them. And in the second case, it pays to analyse the why a bit more. This will separate the wow shots from those we can use for personal training.
Photography, like wine, is about sharing. Taste, preferences, culture, craft, values. For our photographs to speak to others, we need them to convey meaning, art or both. And to do this, we need to draw careful inspiration from the work of others. The first question to ask yourself when viewing a seemingly great photo is “do I wish I’d made this myself?” It’s a tough one to answer truly.
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Morning Pascal, Having, blearily-eyed, read, your post (stormy night, not much sleep) I find myself going, “Hmmm..is this true?” So an excellent post then. I’ve never thought about photos this way so will investigate thoroughly. Interestingly your forest photos appeal to me as I can imagine the walk. I love those walks and I have many similar shots of trees and paths, tangles of vegetation etc. but I always regard them as “personal” and unlikely to be of interest to others, maybe I should reconsider.
Hi Steve, thanks. Sorry about the little sleep, didn’t realise the storms were still going on. I hope all is well around your home!
Lots of people seem to love nature, so your forest photos would probably appeal to a great many of them 🙂
This is where I derail.
I don’t “envy” someone else’s work. Envy implies want – wanting to be something you’re not, to have something you haven’t. I only want to be “me”. It’s now 72 years and counting, since I made the decision to go my own path, do my own thing, be my own me. It’s gotten me into all sorts of “differences”, but at this end of my life I have to say I have found it very rewarding, very fulfilling, and far more interesting than attempting to be someone else – somebody that I’m not.
Sitting in a secret drawer, 5 cm below this keyboard, are three negatives from a much earlier era in my life. You’ll get to see them one day, after I scan the negatives onto this computer. For quite different reasons I’m proud of all three. One of them got me into a terrible row with another group of photographers, but it would spoil the story to tell you now. The point, though, was me breaking from “tradition” – me refusing to follow everyone else’s view – me being “me”, instead.
And frankly, Pascal, that is precisely what I see in YOUR photos, YOUR articles.
Thanks Pete. But I strongly believe that we can be oursleves and still draw inspiration from the work of others. I’d argue that the greatest artists were all very much themselves, yet all had mentors and guides and sources of inspiration.
In today’s overflowing media stream, it’s important to know what you can draw inspiration from and what should best be left to others 😉
This is where I disagree (I do not like to be railroaded either ;o), going one’s own path for the sake of going one’s path may not necessarily be enough of a reason to validate such a choice. Simply because that path might be the wrong one, for others or even for oneself (although we also learn, or should learn from our mistakes). Breaking traditions for the sake of breaking traditions (and what “traditions”) may not systematically be the right reason and generate the right results. We need a good reason to do it, and to produce the right successful (to be defined) photographs to justify our choice. There are two famous sayings (“traditions”) that have proved true to me, by experience: 1-“ignoring the past may lead us to repeat its mistakes”, in other words I think we have a lot to learn from the past, past photographers, past photographs (whether we “envy” them or not may not be the point, although I would agree that “envy” may not be the solution, “get inspired” may be better); 2-although personal experience is also a great teacher, or at least should be, there are times it fails (whether it is 72 years, or more, or less) which leads me to my second rather humorous and irreverent quote, a well-known one for a French audience: “Le temps ne fait rien à l’affaire,.. ” (G. Brassens) = “time does not matter, when one is wrong, one is wrong” ;o) “Being oneself” may not be enough to justify doing the right thing, maybe Hitler or Stalin were just doing that, “being themselves”, breaking away from their traditions… that did not quite end well. I do think your point would be better made (to be fair, there are obviously good reasons for it) if we could see your images, they should validate your point, or not… (just a thought). All the best.
Agreed. In fact I can’t think of many major artists that weren’t :
(1) Doing their own thing
(2) Inspired + mentored by others.(*)
Is there another way to grow personally than to integrate the reality outside us and the reality inside of us?
But this is not ancient Greece, where one great master would teach in public. Since there is so much to see, read and hear, these days, much of it not that great, and much of what is great not necessarily relevant to us, it’s also important to define a process to choose sources of inspiration wisely 🙂 That’s what this post is about.
(*) There are indeed outliers, like Vivian Maier, who appears to have distilled her talent from the aether, but that is definitely more the exception than the rule.
I once saw a documentary on Picasso at a meeting of the local Dante Alighieri society.
I’m sure I’ve told you that story before, Pascal. Where he lost his temper with the people interviewing him, and whipped out a canvas on which – in the space of 10 minutes, while the camera rolled without stopping – he painted an impressionist masterpiece.
And the point he was making is that like any other great artist, he had to learn technique from others.
But once he had mastered technique, he was free to fly with his own wings, and do as he pleased.
I’m perfectly happy to follow his example, in the context of my photography.
What I produce may not suit others – that negative in my drawer certainly didn’t – but that, IMHO, was because their mindset was set in cement, and they’d ceased to explore the world around them, to find “difference”.
Difference can be a disaster, sure. But difference can make all the difference. Thinking outside the square solves many problems, many issues that were at the time seen as insoluble.
Failure to take the challenge can generate a trillion photos of the Eiffel Tower, taken from Place Trocadero, with cellphones.
But it’s wildly unlikely to create a masterpiece!
True, and most of the artists we hold in highest respect today were often severely criticised when they introduced their … deviances … to the world 😉 Some, like Van Gogh never got recognised as great until they were dead. Monet was the object of scorn, and I’m pretty sure Picasso’s life wasn’t all plain sailing either.
My point in this article is just that, as most of us will seek inspiration in the work of others (no one I know has ever become good at anything without doing that) it’s important to be careful about who we choose and what it is exactly we want to steal from them (in the words of Picasso 😉 )
Many thanks Pascal for an important post. I agree that we can (and should) admire and learn from others’ photos while remaining true to our own vision. In fact, studying great photos can and should be an exercise in self reflection and self knowledge.
Thank you Robert. Yes, we can always learn from others. They key is to choose the “others” wisely and understand what we can take form their work 🙂 All the best.
Hello Pascal, nice piece. Yes the real question is always why? Yea Thank you for reminding us: why did I take this photograph, choose this subject? Why did I make it this way? Why do I still like it past the experience of making it (or not)?
One small remark, I know I have a strong bias against magenta, my friends and fellow photographers know it, but don’t you think photos #1 and #4 (all 4 photographs are great by the way) have a slight magenta/red bias? What camera were you using (I have a friend who has the latest SONY and whose uncorrected JPGs show the same bias. All the best.
none of the photographs on this page are colour neutral. Two have a heavy magenta shift, two have a heave blue shift 🙂 All are made with a Hasselblad X1D and the colour shifts are entirely mine 😉
“Why” is always an important question. Equally important is what we can learn from others, and how to choose the others from which we can learn, so that we can ask “why” about their work as well 🙂
Hi Pascal, was just wondering were you mentored or inspired by Mr Magenta himself ( Serge Ramelli ) or is it just a French thing 🙂 😉 just asking for a friend you understand.
For the record i have no strong feelings or biases magenta or otherwise 🙂
Honestly, I’m just having fun with colours, pushing them in all directions and keeping what I like 😉 2 towards Magenta, two towards blue. Now if I get two high key ones, we can make a new French flag 😉
I like your colour-shifted forests!
Especially Cool Forest I.
The “foresty” feel increases with the subdued realism, methinks.
– – –
I never tried that, but I accidentally found out how easy it is to make a forest look sinister.
John Bauer …
… used other crafts…
( Apologies for the setting.)
It was with my Fuji XF1. A forest photo wasn’t really satisfying and I started to shift the few in camera raw-to-jpg-settings… Suddenly I had a deeply sinister forest beside a very welcoming one – and both looked very real.
Just slight to moderate changes of contrast and colour intensity…
– – –
Yes, there are outliers, self taught artists – and photographers.
And they often enough show us – and teach us – rather out of the ordinary “things”.
There *are* disadvantages in looking (too much) at others’ results…
As well as all the benefits discussed above.
Interesting, Kristian. What did you do to the forest photo? I find that cooling and desaturating while darkening shadows can lead to a menacing feel.
I’ve always wondered how those outliers come to be. Statistically, they are predictable but, when you examine their lives, what made them what they became? Someone like Vivian Maier, with work, little money, few friends, almost zero feedback on her work, … how did she become such a keen observer? That inner drive is impressive.
your recipe for menacing sounds right – I had no PP software then – and what I did was most probably similar except that I don’t remember using white balance – which in hindsight I ought to have done.
I had to check the manuals:
The XF1 RAW-to-JPG settings are few, Colour density, Highlight tone and Shadow tone are the ones I used – each in five steps as I remember.
( There’s also White balance, which I don’t remember using, and Film simulation which I didn’t use.)
Next time I find a good enough forest scene I’ll test again … but I’d want a somewhat rough forest patch and just a bit of sun shining into it.
– – –
And how did van Gogh find that vibrating life in skies, churches and growth? And then find his very own way to make us viewers believe in it?
More seriously, I think the more passionate/obsessive you get about anything, the more you will try out ideas, often very intuitively.
Also, check out Ian’s comment at the bottom of the list, for more info on VG’s inspiration 🙂
Hm – ::- -)) …
Personally I find that alcohol dulls my senses – half a glass of wine, and the nuances of a musical soloist begin to fade…
… though there are said to be things that make sense only after some serious drinking … but take a look when sober again!!
( O.A. made a drawing I can’t find now of a dilapidated wooden staircase meandering up a rocky hill. A man looking up:
“You gotta be damn drunk to be able to climb that one!”)
And, well, alcohol is forbidden at shooting sports – because it can calm a nervous hand and finger…
Unfortunately, I believe he was a big user of the stuff. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0186V1962
It probably did his mental state no good. Very sad.
I’ve seen it mentioned.
If the lines of that church and the patterns in that sky should be the result of an alcoholic hand – then absinthe in his case was a drink from the gods!
( – and he *didn’t* destroy that canvas in a sober moment!)
Happy New Year, Pascal. I’d would suggest a third reason some photographers inspire me: their life-long devotion to the art of photography. Edward Weston comes immediately to mind: here is a man who lived his whole life very purposeful about his photography, paring his lifestyle down to the bare minimum to avoid distractions. Clearly some of his photography is fabulous – I think largely of his still life work (peppers, cabbages, etc.). I am unmoved by most of the work from his later periods, such as his landscape work. But, I remain inspired by him. Example 2: Robert Adams. Still living and well into his eighties, Adams turned away from a career as a university professor (English) to devote his life to telling the story of human impact on the landscape and environment. I’ve studied his work carefully; I can not find any single image I would have on the wall of my study as a stand-alone print. The power of his work is in the story a whole sequence of images tell. To me, few other photographers approach Robert Adams legacy and his work, too, inspires me.
Happy New Year, Frank and thank you 🙂
You make a very interesting point. I was thinking in technical terms, but it is true that we can admire anyone for the way they live their life. Particularly today, at a period where values have so been dissolved into personal ego.
Weston, (Ansel) Adams and a few others were explorers. Explorers of knowledge, trying to find rules where there were few previously. I’ve always admired that scientific approach, and particularly when applied to non scientific areas, where it is less natural.
Robert Adams and George Tice, to me, are unsung heroes of photography. Pure geniuses who deserve a much greater recognition.
I like how you make some shapes and colors stand out – sometimes more subtle – and separate themselves from the background. To me it seems to throw another layer to the final image. Whether it was achieved by superior lens, good lighting, or color shift exercise, I find the color ambiance appealing. I particularly like the third image where I think subtlety proved to be the winner.
Trees and forests are my favorite subjects, too, but my pics are often lacks soul. So much appreciated.
Picasso is known to have admired the works of Cezanne but was able to derive his own genuine style. Van Gogh probably learned from someone, but his paintings are just too beautiful to be deriven from others. Picasso was recognized in his lifetime, but Van Gogh was not, I believe.
Hi Joseph, thank you for the kind words.
I think those great artists begin with an inner drive. They want to create, it’s almost a vital necessity for them. And from there, they need to find a way to express what they have inside them, which isn’t formalised. So they draw inspiration from others, on very specific aspects, such as painting highlights, or skin or … and then apply that to their own work.
Copying another painting or photograph is a great way to understand how the author made it, but all too often, you see hords of photographers striving only to imitate someone else’s style (HCB’s style, for instance). Whereas they should be doing their own thing and drawing inspiration from HCB’s compositions, or use of shadow or whatever else.
It takes a bit more work to decide (1) who to learn from (2) what to learn from those people, and it doesn’t have to be entirely a formal approach, you can simply build up your intuition through looking at a lot of their photographs. But it’s a much stronger approach.
The third photograph can be seen in the top right corner of the 2nd. When I took the second, I then noticed the tree that’s in the second and moved in closer. I’m attracted to shapes like that. The camera and lenses do help in getting a clean image with no specific style, and then, through PP, I try to add contrast in places and remove it in others to create a bit of pop. I’ll write about that soon.
Interesting titbit. A local artist by the name of Martin Mauve , used to play tennis with us at the local tennis club.
His ancestor was Anton Mauve a dutch painter known for painting sheep if I recall and is revered in a little dutch village still for his paintings of sheep.
As I recall van Gogh was a student of Mauve and who was married to his cousin.
Terrific read. Jus maybe the words of Ernst Hass fits with your article: “Beware of direct inspiration. It leads too quickly to repetitions of what inspired you. Beware of too much taste as it leads to sterility.”
Thanks, Sean. What a quote!!