Study The Greats, Improve Your Photographs
There are two ingredients that fuel a photographer’s appetite when it comes to their abilities to create—inspiration and influence. The best inspiration normally comes from a muse, and one of the best forms of influence normally comes by the study of another artist’s work. While finding a muse is difficult and there are other sources of inspiration, finding influence is not, it’s around us everywhere, we just have to take the time to look and that comes from our own level of internal desire to improve our photography.
That level of desire is impacted by life, which sometimes brings us down, and sometimes brings us up. In those ups and downs of life, six photographers influenced my photography throughout many decades of capturing images. Hopefully you’ll take the time to research these photographers or others so they might influence your photography if they haven’t already.
Stationed in Germany as an active-duty soldier, one of the influencers I stumbled upon while perusing through a bookstore in Mainz, was Jeanloup Sieff. I actually purchased a set of small reproductions of his work that I could study and one of the photographs that caught my eye was that of a man and woman, both with cigarettes in their mouth, seen around the 1:19 mark in the video below.
Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1964, the black and white photograph connected the two subjects with their cigarettes plus the gaze in their eyes. My eyes went straight to the cigarettes touching, and then to each subject, back and forth, keeping me attentive for a bit of time—this photo illustrates the importance of interaction in an image. Seiff’s photography interacts with the viewer through its subject matter, often sensual with a common thread of “elegance and human warmth.”
My photojournalism career began as a sophomore in high school where I was a school photographer for our monthly newspaper and our school yearbook. While I spent much time in the darkroom plus shooting school events, I also spent time studying and admiring other photographers, and it was then that Yousuf Karsh’s lighting mastery caught my eye.
Karsh credits his photography career launch to his Life magazine cover photo of Winston Churchill, 15 years after Karsh started photography. He is known as one of the top portraitist of all time photographing some of the most notable people on the planet. In fact, Karsh was listed in the International Who’s Who (2000) of the most notable 100 people of the century, and ironically, only 49 people on that list he had not yet photographed.
His influence of patience and getting it right in the camera came to me from his own words, “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”
I first heard the name Robert Capa when a Sgt. 1st. Class, one of the editors at the 5th Corps Public Affairs office, looked at one of my military photos of soldiers in a live-fire combat exercise firing their weapons and anti-tank rockets in the field. Unfortunately that was 25 years ago so I forgot the sergeant’s name, but I remember him staring at my photo and stating, “It has a Robert Capa feel to it.”
That statement along with the fact the editor chose my photo for publication was enough for me to start my research on Capa, one of the founders of the legendary Magnum Photo Agency, where even Jeanloup Sieff became a member of the still operational and highly respected co-op of photographers.
Four years later, the U.S. Army selected nine journalists and one photographer to attend their Advanced Photojournalism Course at the University of South Carolina. It was an eight-week upper-level college credit course and our professor, Dr. Keith Kenney, was hard on us, and for good reason, to make us better photographers. As the only photographer chosen that year for the program, I chose Capa as one of my research paper topics and Kenney liked my choice based on my portfolio.
In that research I read one of Capa’s books, “Slightly Out of Focus.” Capa was a great photographer and in his book he focused on “life, love and war.” I really enjoyed this book which at times brought laughter as I read it, but most important, what I learned from all my research about Capa, was that the best photographers arrive early and leave last to get the greatest shots no one else will acquire.
Helumut Newton was catapult into fame for his nude photography rather than his commercial magazine work and his style is still an influence on my fine-art photography. It’s been said that Simon de Pury, the head of the New York/London auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, while having a discussion with Helmut Newton about the then upcoming inaugural show for his Zurich gallery, asked Newton, “…What else do you have?” Newton replied, “My landscapes, but nobody wants to see those.”
Newton was correct and soon “Sex and Landscapes” was conceived for that inaugural show in 2001. While undoubtedly the late Newton helped put the “politically correct” in nudity over the years, it’s not that nudity is so bad in our private conscious, it’s the difficulty of the use of the word in our vocabulary and the use of nude images in our visual arts—like a fear, our own society is the guilty culprit and it’s time for us to “grow up” and accept the beauty nudity brings.
With the fact I’ve traveled and worked in 43 countries so far, and lived in Europe for three years, I can say this problem with nudity is a more a U.S. problem than a European problem—perhaps that’s why many great artists originate from Europe. Newton indirectly taught me never to fear the public’s opinion, if anything try to change it in a positive manner, visually.
I’ve known Robert Farber for over 16 years now and consider him a personal friend plus mentor. Recognized by the Photo Manufacturers Association in 1987 as the Photographer of the Year, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis brought Farber into Doubleday for the publication of his book “By The Sea,” that would then win the Art Director’s Award for color photography. In total, Farber has authored many books, including “ten books of original collections of his work that have sold over half-a-million copies, four of them revised into later editions.”
Farber’s photographic art is recognized worldwide with over 24 gallery exhibitions. He’s known for his “painterly, impressionistic style that captures the essence of composition in every genre, including nudes, still life, landscapes and architecture.” Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, will air a documentary highlighting Farber’s life and career in the near future as it’s still in development, but I’m sure it will cover how Farber is an influence to many artists.
In all the years I’ve known Farber, he’s never told me once how I should shoot, though he’s provided some photo critiques and advice. Farber was the one person in my life that told me to go teach photography workshops, write books and magazine articles, plus ensure that you get paid your worth. He’s also advised me to look into getting my photographic work in galleries, the latter I’m currently pursuing. I remember him telling me once, “There are no secrets in photography because it boils down to execution along with a creative eye.”
His biggest influence is reminding me about my photojournalistic roots and that I should never lose sight of that style. He’s always stressed the importance of consistent style and photographers developing their style. Think about your photographic style as your brand or trademark—that is how people will recognize your work. Once you’ve found your style, tweak it, but don’t let others try and force their styles upon you. The public doesn’t want copycats; the public demands originality, and originality will influence others.
I first met James Nachtwey in 1994, eight years after he became a Magnum Photo Agency member, when the U.S. Department of Defense had selected me for their “top 25 military photographers” from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard that would attend the Dept. of Defense World-Wide Combat Camera Workshop in Ft. Meade, Maryland.
“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” -James Nachtwey-
Upon our arrival, we were divided into five groups of five military photographers that were assigned a notable civilian photographer. These photographers included Magnum photographer Eli Reed; the photo editor at the Washington Post, and at the time the only female ever as the National Press Photographer Association President, Mary Lou Foy; the chief of photography from the Denver Post and former White House Staff photographer, Susan Biddle; the 1993 Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Bernie Boston, plus several other notable photojournalists.
We spent a week with these photographers who gave us assignments we shot on slide film and our film was processed overnight for critiques amongst every civilian photographer. At the end of that week of assignments and critques, these photographers, along with Nachtwey, who to this day is one of the most highly award winning photographers of the world, chose the top five photographers out of the 25 in no specific order. It was truly a learning experience and I left there with job offers to work for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Denver Post, and a few others, but unfortunately I still had over a year left on my military contract.
I was appreciative of the selection into that top five group, but was more thankful of the wealth of knowledge learned and the influence from all the civilian photographers there. In reality, they all influenced every military photographer there in some manner. Nachtwey influenced me in knowing that he was one of the judges that chose me into that top five group, but more important, I remember discussing with him why he preferred TRI-X 400 film vs. T-MAX and his answer was that the TRI-X 400 film had grain while T-MAX had a muddy grain-less structure. He explained to me that grain made for sharper printing when it came to publication and he also told me his film was always developed in D76 diluted one to one at 68 degrees.
That day I learned the importance of grain when it came to printing and half-tone separations, plus how the most highly awarded photographer in the world kept things simple and traditional. Around 15 years later I saw Nachtwey at the annual Photo Plus Expo in New York. We were both speakers that year, him of course a “keynote” speaker, and while having a lunch break in the speakers room, I approached him and reminded him what he had taught me in 1994. We chatted briefly about his influence in my photography, then I left the room to conduct my lecture that day.
So those are the six photographers that have influenced my photographic style and abilities. Are those the only six? No, there are others, but those are the majors along with the other photographers at that 1994 Combat Camera Photography Workshop. I share these stories with you to hopefully give you an insight of what impacts my creations in photography along with my muse Heather Carden, my other half here on Americano Dream. While finding a muse is not an easy task, finding influencers is as simple as doing research, you don’t have to personally meet them to understand them.
I never met Jeanloup Sieff, Yousuf Karsh, Robert Capa, or Helmut Newton but I have studied their photographic works and their lives enough to feel as though I’ve met them. While those four are all in their heavens, their photography continues to influence me today and I’m sure others too, and if you’re unfamiliar with any of them, go research them out, today it’s easier than ever before. You don’t have to go to the museums, bookstores or libraries like I did, you just have to go online to your favorite search engine.
Do it, feel the influence, it’s the first ingredient of two that will fuel your appetite to create great photographs. With that I close and ask you to not forget the men and women of today that protect our future and freedoms of today and tomorrow; God Bless them, their family and friends, Rolando.