I was recently reading about one of my favorite photographers, Andre Kertesz, and it got me to thinking about all of my favorites. What photographers do I most admire, whom would I emulate, whose work would inspire me to make pictures if I didn’t know anything else about photography? So I started compiling a list. That’s part A of this exercise, and I recommend you do it now: make a list of your top ten photographers of all time.
For me, that list goes like this (albeit in no particular order). I do have a fondness for Kertesz so I’ll list him first. Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Steve McCurry. Those first four are easy. These would have to be my favorite photographers, hands down. I wouldn’t have thought they’d have such a documentary slant, but they do. Look there, I’m learning something already. To continue with my list…
5. Mark Seliger. I sure love his portraits.
6. Dan Winters. Same goes for him. Inspiring and amazing.
7. Alec Soth. Simplicity to the n’th degree.
8. Todd Hido. I’m in awe of so much of his work.
Time for another pause. Those four are on the list today, and probably will be for a good long time. These four are portraitists and fine artists with an interesting, sometimes theatrical, sometimes documentary flare. Again, I’m learning even more about my photographic tastes.
The last two are tricky. I could consider Annie Leibovitz (yes, a superstar, but also an amazingly talented and prolific photographer) or Frank Ockenfels with an aesthetic that makes me weak in the knees with envy… And there are a ton of working photographers I admire as well. For the purposes of this exercise I’m going to go with Leibovitz and Ockenfels as my 9 and 10, simply because I know they consistently have impressed me for a long, long time. Again, portraits, creative, theatrical, yet somehow very real. I’m once again reinforcing an aesthetic photographic preference. That brings me to part B of this exercise: analyze your list to determine what you really live in the work of other photographers.
I’m clearly taken by photographers who don’t create visions of fantasy or illusions or special effects, but rather photographers who have a simplicity about their work. Maybe that could be described as a purity of vision in a documentary sense. This even applies to the portraitists, and even their most theatrical works. Because on some level, those images are designed to provide the viewer very factual information about the subjects. I’m starting to become aware of my own strong affinity for graphical compositions as well, which I’d say I share with many of these photographers. Which brings me to part C, and ultimately my point.
If I want to make work that inspires me, on some level I should make work that is similar to these photographers. Why not simply start from scratch and identify what they do, and distill how I can do that too. That’s the first step to making great work, I’d say. If I distill the things that these photographers have in common, things like authenticity, documentary, reality, graphic, people, quirky, interesting, unique, powerful… These words should be always on my mind when I’m creating my own work. If I’m doing something different than this, moving in perhaps the wrong direction, maybe I’m not serving my basest photographic instinct: to make work like that of my favorite photographers.
So I’m advocating that you try this little exercise for yourself. List your favorite photographers, distill what it is you most like about their work and what they all share in common, and then put those things to use as targets in your own photography. I think this is just one simple way we can learn directly from our favorite photographers.