Your biggest challenges, the ones that stand in the way of your best photographs, are not technical; they are creative. I’d put money on that being true for almost everyone who reads this. Once you’ve learned the fundamentals, the challenges you have won’t be solved with your tools so much as by your thinking.
When you look at the work you’re creating and wonder why it’s not what you imagined or hoped, it’s probably not your camera. And when it all comes together and your photographs are more than just perfect but personal and even poetic—when they’re not only visual but visceral—that too is the fruit of your thinking.
More creative thinking results in more creative photographs.
This is all the more important when you remember that seeing is not a function of the eyes alone; perception is a function of the mind. How we see, even what we see, is in our thinking. I was reminded of this recently while reading an interview with photographer Stephen Shore, who said, “It seems to me that a good photographer is a combination of two things: one is interesting perceptions, and the other is an understanding of how the world is translated by a camera into a photograph.”
If we’re willing students, I believe the camera teaches us both.
At a recent lecture series, I met a woman who introduced herself as someone who photographed as a way to see—and not to miss—what she had overlooked. I told her she was as much a poet as a photographer, and she laughed and brushed it off, saying, “No, I’m just old.” Maybe. But not everyone who lives long also lives so wide awake, so keen not to overlook it all. Not to miss anything.
Having open eyes should not be mistaken for having an open mind. One of the reasons the craft of photography is so powerful and holds such allure for many of us is that the camera helps us see and think differently. Doing so makes us more awake and alive.
“Interesting perceptions,” Stephen Shore says. These are a matter of individuality, not groupthink. We don’t arrive at them by edging ourselves closer to the crowd, but instead by learning to see what is overlooked, even if that’s an overlooked way of thinking about something common. After all, it’s all been done, and that makes everything a little more common. The strongest photographs will not be those with a subject that was previously unphotographed, but those that are photographed from an interesting point of view. And they will be made by those who think about the world in interesting ways.
So when my new friend said she photographs to see what has been overlooked, I don’t think it’s so much that she’s never seen a shell on the beach, but that she’s never noticed one in such a way that she truly gives it her attention and consideration. The camera helps with this because it begs us—even forces us—to make choices if we’re to transform that shell in a photograph from “something pretty” to something “pretty interesting,” as my friend Dave Brosha says.
To make an interesting photograph of the shell on the beach requires us to think differently about it. To see it for more than it first appears to be. Maybe that’s an unexpected juxtaposition. Maybe it’s the light. Maybe it’s a vision of that shell only the camera can make possible as it interprets light, space, and time differently than we can. Maybe it’s as a symbol or metaphor.
Or, as Edward Weston so beautifully put it, “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”
To do that requires we think of rocks as more than “just a rock.” French American painter Robert Henri implored his students to “paint the flying spirit of the bird, not its feathers.” To do that requires that we see more than just the feathers—that we think differently about the bird. And when American Magnum Photographer David Alan Harvey begs us not to shoot what it looks like but to “shoot what it feels like,” we had better feel something about it, whatever it is towards which we’re pointing our lens.
My cameras have taught me to dig deeper within and look longer at the outside world in hopes of finding what’s more than on the surface. They have taught me (are still teaching me, really) to give everything a second look and a second consideration.
Interesting perceptions come from photographers who themselves are interesting. Or perhaps this is better: interesting perceptions come from photographers who are more interested—curious and unwilling to overlook even the smallest thing which we might otherwise have glanced over in our search for something more obvious.
The best photographs do not capture the obvious but show us the thing we might have missed; they show us the obvious in a way that is anything but. Weston’s Pepper No. 30 does this. It’s just a pepper, yet so much more than a pepper.
Weston’s Pepper No. 30 does more than show us a pepper; it also shows us Weston. It pulls back the veil a little on a man with interesting perceptions. I sometimes wonder if it did the same for Edward himself, showing him something new about himself and the way he saw the world. Weston’s pepper might even show us something of ourselves as we respond to the photograph in the same way a Rorschach test might when what we see within the inkblots is something more than an inkblot. What do you see in those sensual curves? I’ll bet it’s more than a pepper.
Perhaps this explains some of the attachment we feel to our cameras when, having helped us open our eyes and changed our thinking, they become more than just a camera. On my best days, my camera feels like an extension of me. This certainly explains why we feel so strongly about making photographs if, like me, you feel more awake and alive when doing so.
The camera asks us to look again and enter into a more interesting dialogue with the world.
My cameras have helped me not only accept my own view of the world but expand it. They’ve helped me come to grips with and to value my “interesting perceptions,” which is hard to do for any of us who think and see differently in a culture that encourages us to compare ourselves with others and to grind down the bits of ourselves that are “weird.”
Interesting perceptions come from within. They are expressed (and often learned) with the camera in hand, but they come from someplace else—an inner place where all our influences mingle and combine. They beg us for more influences. And it’s not a stretch to suggest that the best thing we can do to think differently is to expose ourselves to different thinking rather than the echo chambers that encourage more of the same ideas, galvanizing the tastes we already have.
Interesting perceptions come from the labyrinthical parts of ourselves that are hard to map but easy to hide if we’re uncomfortable with them, though that would be a real shame because it is precisely the bits that make us weird that also make us interesting. Those are what we most need to see (and about which we need to think differently) if we’re to make photographs that are more interesting. But more importantly, if we’re to get to the end of our lives and not find that we ourselves were the one thing we most overlooked.
For the Love of the Photograph,
*An important update, August 15, 2022. Since publishing this article some very real concerns about the reputation of (now former) Magnum Photographer David Alan Harvey have been brought to my attention. He is accused of sexual harassment and abuse (and you can find more in this article from the Columbia Journalism Review). By quoting Harvey as saying “shoot what it feels like” I was endorsing a photographic idea, not the man himself, but in light of these allegations I feel it’s important that you know I will always fall on the side of the defenseless and those hurt by the abuse of power, and while I am keeping this article intact as I wrote it, I will not be quoting David Alan Harvey in the future, nor citing him as an example of what is good, excellent, and worthy of respect. I will try to be more diligent in the future about those I quote.
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
Thank you, David!
Late to the party but I’m thinking about your comment regarding your/our relationship to our camera. Among Indigenous people, the drum is never considered to be a thing. To the extent that we regard it and engage it as ensouled, it acts as a portal, a gateway into non-ordinary experience. Of late, I have come to reflect on my relationship with my camera in much the same way – that it is not merely an “it” but ensouled (as is everything in existence). To the extent that I engage my camera in this way, I am not just “using” it but have entered into a relationship with it. I ask of it as it asks of me.
A lack of creativity leads to boredom. Photographers are storytellers with a light paintbrush. Great article!
And sometimes the photograph reveals more than you saw – perhaps because you didn’t have the knowledge to understand what you saw. I was talking to Esther Beaton (Australian Photographer) and she told me of an orchid she photographed in the wild. She could see the tiny spiders on the stem and wanted to highlight them, but it took a biologist at a photo viewing to understand this was a species new to science with some sort of a symbiotic relationship.
You always manage to write just what I needed to hear, David. Thank you for yet another inspired and inspiring post! I think I’m going to print this one out and hang it above my desk, because I know I’ll need to refer to it regularly.
Thanks, Avril. I hope you’ve got a big wall above that desk! 😉 Nice to hear from you.
Reading your article was so refreshing. I am currently working on making photographs of heavy equipment for a project and I don’t even see it as equipment anymore. Fascinating subject that lets my imagination and my mind explore. Can’t blame it on my camera, no no. Your article just reminded me why I open my eyes. Thanks so much for that.
The honour is mine, Joanna. Thank you for reading!
Thanks David for this thought. It put words on things that happen sometimes to me when on the field and when I found myself like an overpressed lemon facing a subject or a non subject to photograph. I felt that I would have to sit and take hours to take the picture. Then I felt guilty and not competent as if I had to click and click as if I know instantly what to photograph. Your article here help me to appreciate and support me if I would take hours only to take a shot of a simple thing of daily life. So thank you again for your generosity.
Hi Daniel – Your comment “when I found myself like an overpressed lemon facing a subject or a non subject to photograph” made me laugh. It’s a great metaphor. I think we’ve all felt it before but it’s amazing to me how there always seems to be more in the lemon if you squeeze it from a different angle. 🙂
My goodness, “something pretty to something interesting” hit home. Most of the pictures that I take bring me joy and delight, but often fall short of that when I share them with others. so I guess when I take a picture of something, maybe ask myself “how to make this pretty to interesting?” Thanks, I needed to read this one for sure. I feel I don’t really have a creative brain and generally needs steps or instructions……
Beautiful. Thank you
You’re very welcome, Diego. Thank you for the encouragement.
Keep at it, Laurie. We all have a creative brain. It’s just problem solving and we all do it differently. Often it’s just the feeling that there is a right and wrong way to things that makes us feel like we’re the only ones doing it wrong and therefore not “creative.” This craft is a long journey. Focus on the joy and delight and you won’t stray too far. 🙂
Following you for so many years now, every now and then sharing one or another of your always stimulating contributions with a fellow photographer, I dearly want to thank you for your this week‘s episode.
Currently, I am about to reduce my equipment, in part as a tribute to my progressing ageing (I‘m 74). In a first step, I will be selling my beloved Leica 100-400 Tele (I‘m in the micro 3/4 world) because it is no longer realistic for me to hunt for those spectacular nature photographs this lense is made for. There are other goodies in my bag which will allow me to go on.
Once again, your latest episode reminded me of what this is all about: to see what others may have missed; to find an expression of it making it worthwhile taking a closer look; or to surprise someone (myself included!) with a view of something in a new light. And of course, this is a creative process!
Thank you for being with me!
And thank you, Oswald, for being with me. Without people like you my own creative life would be much less rich and meaningful.
I am still processing all the experiences of that last lecture series myself, David. Your post today was a perfect summation and a reminder to keep putting my perspective into my photographs and to not be afraid to let my “weird” show. I think I’m getting better at it. I hope “G” realizes what a gift they gave all of us with those words of introduction…along with a hell of great story later on! Take care.
Good morning, Jane. That time in PEI was so good! I’ve been missing it. If the only thing you got out of it is the confidence to embrace and display your “weird” I think it will have been time well spent. I hope you’re well. 🙂
Your post reminded me of this story: https://wildwoodtracking.com/awareness/tott/tottfall93pg15.html
(Tom Brown, Jr. runs https://www.trackerschool.com/default.aspx)
Thanks for that, Mike!
Thought provoking article David. Now I’ve got to dig myself up after many years of burying myself! Never really thought about things this way before. Thank you
You’re not alone in this, Ian. Too many photographers try to match their work to the expectations of others, and in doing so miss out on the best discovery of all: finding themselves. It’s a good journey, though, and I don’t think it’ll take too much digging. 🙂
David – Your comments clearly ring true. Guy Tal, another original thinker on what makes meaningful photographs, entitled one of his books “More Than a Rock,” an obvious homage to Weston. In addition to your books, I heartily recommend More Than a Rock and Another Day Not Wasted, each of which contains a series of 3-4 page essays that are thought provoking and consistent with your thoughts.
Yes! Guy Tal is one of the great voices on photography right now. He’s a good man. Thanks for mentioning his books. I hadn’t heard of Another Day Not Wasted.
Once again your words are therapy for me. Having grown up trying to hide myself from not only the public but from myself in shame. Now having said that I am not unlike everyone else but I can only say that after 69years of life. I am normal but weird in my ways. After all these years I am still afraid to be seen doing what I love, making photos, for fear of what others will think. The idea of being an artist is something only talented people can claim. I know that is nonsense but it is still in the back of my psyche. It is so good to know that others are there as well. I look forward to our next session doc.
LOL. Thanks, Greg. I’ll get my billing department to send an invoice to your insurance company. If you’re self-pay, we’ll let it slide. 🙂 “The idea of being an artist is something only talented people can claim.” You’ve already said you know this is nonsense, but a reminder: an artist makes art. That’s how they become artists. But talent comes from making art too. Only a few of us (not me, I don’t think) are born with it. It’s honed. It’s a bi-product of doing more of what we love. Don’t worry about talent. Do the work. Do what you feel compelled to do. Don’t worry about others, they’re all too worried about what others will think to be thinking too hard about what you’re up to. LOL. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Book in for your next session on your way out. 🙂
My artist’s statement says “I take photographs in order to learn how to keep my eyes open, and to find out what it is that I see that someone else might not.” Which is true, although I left out the part where my physical therapist insisted I take more walks.
Lovely article! When I first started taking photos, I wanted to make “perfect” postcard shots of the places I was. Now that I’m over 70, I’ve discovered it’s not the places where I was, it’s more about the people I was with and what we were doing there! So, while the Taj Mahal is grand, it’s better to have a photo of my daughter taking a photo of it!
“So, while the Taj Mahal is grand, it’s better to have a photo of my daughter taking a photo of it!” – YES!! Well put, Anne. Personal and poetic resonates with us more than perfect ever will!
I love it. Well put, Tim.
Great read David! I’m often trying to see and feel in a different way. It doesn’t always work but at least I found a way that didn’t work. Kind of a Thomas Edison mentality.
I’m of the same mentality, Stephen. Just keep finding what doesn’t work and you’ll always be closer to what does. 😉
I really love this post thank you David lately I have been missing the feeling when I hold my camera and look at the world around me in a whole new way. This post helped remind me to not overlook myself and slow down and see with new interesting perceptions.
Thanks Maria. Might be time to grab the camera and see what’s to be found!
This was an amazing read, thank you! I’ve been working on myself as the person behind the camera instead of working on my technique or working the camera.
Feeling is everything now.. I hope I can get past myself to follow through and not go back to comparing or pleasing others first. Thanks for this.
“I hope I can get past myself to follow through and not go back to comparing or pleasing others first.” You can, Kim. Keep your eyes on what you’re making, don’t lift your head to look around and no peeking over your shoulder. I still remember one of my teachers in grade school saying “head’s down, eyes on your own work.” I can hear her voice in my head still. It was good advice then, it’s even better now. Comparison is the thief of joy.
I once attended a Jay Maisel workshop. One of the students in the room asked him how she go about making more interesting photographs? to which Jay responded in his usual New York terse way – become a more interesting person.
No one gets to the point and says it like it is like Jay Maisel, eh? 🙂