Ive come to realise that learning the technicalities of how to take a photograph is really just the very start of any photographers journey - to really further your work, looking at great photographers is paramount in understanding how practitioners today are using their voice to make work people really care about. I thought I’d run through a few photographers that provide me with inspiration, in the hope that other people will find some inspiration too. Looking to these photographers can help further ones understanding of what great photography is, which will in turn provide us with a foundation for taking great photographs ourselves.
Truly one of the greats, his book ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ from 2004 is a beautiful chronicle of a journey along the Mississippi river, exploring the river that spans the length of the country and is said to represent an aged mythology of America. A member of Magnum, his work is seminal and considered one of the great works of the time, mentioned in the same esteem as Robert Franks ‘the Americans’.
“In the beginning the project had nothing to do with the Mississippi,”... “It evolved from a project called From Here to There in which one picture lead to another, linked by an idea or a theme. In the process, I travelled down the Mississippi, and I got to thinking that the idea was too gimmicky. So I shifted to the idea of the Mississippi being the link.”
Working on a large format camera, Sleeping by the Mississippi is more about the spirit of wandering and peoples’ dreams than the river itself. Throughout the project, Soth asked his subjects to write down their dreams, and this is evident throughout the book. As a whole, It becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s work that says something, and obviously it is very beautiful, but it has a voice, and that is what great photography is about.
Shooting the project over many years alongside working a full time job, it is a stark reminder that you do not need to be a professional photographer to create work that people take notice of. If you have a hunger to take photo’s and have something that you want to say, then the platform is open and the opportunities are vast.
What can we learn from his work
Choose what format you want to shoot on
His portraits are beautiful, technically brilliant and shot on large format - it’s testament to his craft. Large format photography is not accessible to many people, medium format and 35mm is expensive enough, but it’s evident that the results can be well worth it. There’s a lot of talk online about which cameras to use, and generally I believe that the camera that you use, specifically in the digital age, is not essential to making great photographs.. but conversely; choosing the format that is best suited to your photography can really push your work to the next level. In this case, he is shooting on a format that few except those at the top have the time, energy or money to use - and the resulting work is unique and striking.
Shoot with purpose but be open to the idea of finding what you want to say along the journey.
For me, this means going out onto the streets with an open mind, and approaching shoots with a malleability to adapt and an openness to create.
2. David Heath (1931-2016) Website
I’ve chosen David Heath because of the dramatic and beautiful results of his amazing printing skills. In the photoshop age, it’s easy to forget that the negative was also just a canvas upon which many photographers were able to create their art. I find him particularly interesting, because so much digital work is over-edited, and therefore editing is generally frowned upon, but Heath achieved amazing results in the darkroom with his printing. In a way, David Heath can be looked at as inspiration of how to edit heavily, and well.
Mr. Heath saw his work as being neither documentary nor photojournalism but rather “a manner of poetry or even of drawing (in the Rembrandtian sense).” He called it “lightness underlined with disquietude.”
John Szarkowski, “discoverer” of Diane Arbus and William Eggleston, lauded Mr. Heath’s photos for their “great emotional force,” for their combination of “the small-camera approach with a rare formal intensity and precision.” - it is testament to how well respected Heath work is amongst the giants of the field.
His book ‘A dialogue with Solitude’ was published in 1965 and is an amazingly fluent catalogue of portraits from Philadelphia and the Korean War.
Mr. Heath largely taught himself, hunting for pictures in downtown Philadelphia or taking his 35mm camera aboard buses. The photo essays of Smith and other contributors to Life magazine were early inspirations.
What can be learned
Editing is fine, don’t be afraid to edit, but make sure that you have a coherent vision in mind that translates to a whole series. Simple tools can create dramatic results. Whilst it is important to not over-edit, accept that it has been used since the start of photography to help artists realise their visions.
I’ll be introducing more photographers in the coming weeks, with more of a focus on contemporary female photographers, as they are very influential to the new paradigm, and some of the work is amazing. Thanks for reading.