The Photographer’s Secret
Henri Cartier-Bresson might be one
of the finest photographers in history.
Not because he shot the famous
wars or scandalous pictures, but
because his designs are so precise
they begin to approach the practice
of painting, where he learned his craft.
Carrying on the artistic tradition
is master Myron Barnstone. Join
me as I visit his one man school,
where photographers, architects, and
artists come to learn the secrets of
Within the Leica community, Henri Cartier-Bresson holds a special position. He was a mentor to many of the Magnum photographers like Werner Bischof , Joseph Koudelka, and Steve McCurry. During his lifetime he influenced at least three generations of photographers. After his death, Bresson is still a favorite among street photographers, but why? The first man I ever met who could give me an intelligent explanation to this question was Myron Barnstone. While I was watching his DVD series, he answered a question I did not even ask him directly. Why is Bresson so damn good?
The answer…The design of Bresson’s images, their composition, figure to ground relationships, and timing is an example of pure design, the same type of design used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Renaissance artists, and every great artist up through World War II. And he happened to have a fantastic sense of humor which becomes evident in the jokes he tells with his images. This is just the beginning…
To explain this mystery further Myron uncovers the training Bresson received as an artist. Before his career as a famous photographer, Bresson studied under the artist, critic, and educator Andre Lhote. The education was in classical painting, where he was taught composition. Without a properly designed image, there is rarely a redeemable photograph. It explains why Bresson was against cropping or post production because when it comes to composition, you either have a picture or there is nothing. Bresson knew this and when he coined his phrase of the “Decisive Moment“ he was talking about a fraction of a second where the patterns of everyday activity gelled into a geometric composition that brought out the maximum strength of a scene.
How Myron Struck Me
We would all like to take great pictures, right? I assume that we don’t spend thousands of dollars on equipment and airline tickets only to take mediocre pictures. Like anything we do, we would like to understand what we are trying to do, understand the Masters who do it well, and develop our own voice that has power and energy. Do these sound like lofty goal? Maybe, but if you spend a little time with Myron you will see that everything Bresson put into his images was learned, not some God given talent for finding amazing images.
A few weeks ago, I left my home in NYC and took the train/drive out to Coplay Pennsylvania where Myron has his school. The studios reminded me of the lofts in Soho, before they were converted to multi million dollar apartments. Wide open floors with wood beam ceilings rest in the backdrop, as the artwork on display commands all the attention. When I arrived, Myron took me through 4,000 square feet of studio space. The walls are filled with drawings from his students who have gone on to become successful artists. For all of the parents who are reading this article, it is possible to be a functioning, highly paid artist. So if you have a daughter or son, who is inclined in the arts, have a chat with Myron. Devoting ones life to being an artist is not a sentence of poverty. Quite the contrary with proper training. They are a rare commodity. And do we really need any more financial analysts?
The body of work on display is worth the trip alone. Unlike the Open Studios I see at the prominent art schools here in New York, Myron’s students have a cohesive sensibility. The images have an incredible range in subject matter and style, but their design is a clear indication of his working system of teaching art.
Why Would A Photographer Study Art
We each have different aspirations for our images. Some of us are working professionals while others enjoy the time they spend with a camera in the back yard. But regardless of our aims, we would like to take good pictures. So what’s a good picture? Lets flip the question on its head, what’s a bad picture? If someone described your pictures as “Flat, confusing, and one dimensional,” most of us would be upset. (unless of course your are a contemporary conceptual artist who has completely different aims. They represent a fractional minority of the people who carry cameras, so I will just skip them) Ideally we would like to understand how the medium of photography works and use its strengths to create powerful images. The DVDs and courses are designed to teach you how to answer important questions like:
- How can we create the greatest illusion of depth so our images read like a window into the world?
- How do you determine the subject based on value?
- Is it possible to “look for scenes” that will have greater carrying power?
- Why did Bresson tell us to study contact sheets upside down?
- Within the limited alphabet of the artist, how can we use lines to design photographs?
- Why is the shape of our negative important?
- What are the mistakes that can be avoided which violate all senses of good design?
Answering these questions and hundreds more, Myron teaches how to design work based on a tradition that started before the Egyptians. Photographers can benefit from studying with Myron because creating three dimensional images on a flat surface is a 45,000 year old tradition. Myron can apply his 40 years of teaching experience and save you a lifetime of research. I own his DVD series and have watched it with a frequency that my girlfriend now asks me, “Do you see it?” when she makes breakfast for us. (Once you see the DVDs you will understand the humor in the above quote)
Are There Books On Design?
There are bits and pieces of information on the internet and in bookshops, but unfortunately the lessons on design employed by Master artists hardly exist in books. If you would like to test this theory out and happen to know any art historians, ask them about Edgar Degas’ use of the Overlapped Root 4 in his sketches and paintings? If they stare back at you blankly and mumble something about Golden Ratio design and how they understand it, you will see how infrequently these lessons are taught today, even to professionals. Before the 1940s, design and geometry were the basis of the master apprentice system that every famous artist endured.
Of the limited books that exist on the subject, none of them have photographers in mind. While Myron was in school at Oxford University, studying at the Ruskin, he was head of the Oxford Photographic society. He is a photographer, which gives him a distinct teaching advantage because he has designed his program with photographers in mind. In his analysis he discusses the artists like Delacroix, Canaletto, Vermeer, and just about all the Post Impressionists who used camera to create their images. But they did not simply copy the photographic image. We need to be taught how to see and translate scenes on to a two dimensional plane.
“Only through drawing do we learn to see.”
The shutter on a camera is not to be mistaken for a lever on a slot machine. Taking great pictures is not a gamble, it is a practice. We can learn it and replicate successful results over a lifetime with proper training. Without training the results for amateurs and professionals are hit and miss.
Moving Away From Content
Anyone who looked at the recent World Press Photo winners can see a trend in photography. Take notice of how many images require you reading the caption before you can determine if it is a good picture or not. This is not the case for all of the pictures, but there is a general trend where content is the dominant force in evaluating an image. This has happened because the oral tradition of design passed down from master to apprentice has become lost.
When American art after World War II made a break from its European roots, it “Threw the baby out with the bathwater.” If there is no discussion about the design of a photograph, then the only thing left to consider is the content. Content and design should exist in equal partnership for a successful image. Today this equal partnership does not exist. So who wins when content is the dominant force? The winners are over educated art historians (who write those terrible card posted in museums) and smooth talking artists (who greatest skills are sweet talking the clothes off of adoring fans).
For the rest of us, the conversation is either filled with statements like “The putrefaction of the vital life force” (a quote I heard in an art discussion referring to the concept of rape) or academic blather that requires a dictionary to understand. Honestly, the woman was talking about an artist who had arranged two barbie dolls to look like they were having sex. In my mind, not a big deal. But it is an example of what happens when there is an imbalance between design and content. Art is not rocket science. It has a simple language that anyone can learn and use successfully.
Art, in plain English
After studying with Myron remotely, I decided to enroll in his classes. My daily practices are as a sculptor, photographer, and occasional architect. Drawing is very important to me, but even more important is seeing. We learn to see properly, it is not gifted to us. The greatest service we can do to our eyes is educate them with simple tools, which remain at our fingertips for a lifetime. My personal preference is to seek out people with experience. Myron is nearly 80 years old, though he hardly looks older than 65. His ability to look at a picture and tell you why it works or is a mess is fantastic. His critiques are firm, but profoundly effective. He has been tearing into my pictures for some time now, and I still have a ways to go. But after each critique or viewing of the DVDs things become a little clearer. I can see, understand, and design better solutions for my work based on his teachings.
Born With Talent
The idea that people are born with artistic genius is nonsense. At best someone might be born with artistic interest. It explains why there are no artistic prodigies and why an artist in their 40′s can still be called “Emerging.” Even young Michelangelo had over ten years of dedicated work under his belt before he started carving the Pietà in his twenties. Artists used to start their training as children. In a quote often cited by Myron, Michelangelo said:
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain
my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all”
If the artist who made the David, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and outwitted just about every artist and architect of his day, including Raphael and Bramante, says that his craft took work, I will believe him. In most cases an embarrassing amount of work.
A Simple Step
For many readers of the site, a switch to a full time apprenticeship is not a realistic option. But watching some DVDs on the weekends or after work is a simple step that will have profound effects on your images. I promise you. So far everyone who has bought the DVDs, raves, simply raves about the material. And put into the context of the cost of Leica equipment, they DVDs are inexpensive. Would you rather have one lens and create masterful images or three lenses and use them all moderately well? Maybe I am a simple man, but between the two, I would rather use one thing very well than a few things poorly.
Towards the end of my studio visit, we watched the students draw from a live model. The circle of drawing boards, focused on the geometry of the human form touched a primal nerve. We are a curious species with an insatiable drive for understanding. While many of nature’s mysteries remain outside the bounds of our perception, there are a few lessons we can learn. Design is one of them. Equipped with digital cameras and computers that Da Vinci would have loved to use, we have an opportunity to study Master works and analyze our own images without even leaving home. The days of leaving for Italy on the “Grand Tour” and three years of dedicated study are no more. With the aid of a few discs, a computer, and a camera we are free to explore design and its applications with an ease that is unprecedented in history. Who would I recommended as a guide for this journey…? you got it, Mr. Myron Barnstone.
Myron Barnstone’s DVD Series, Click Below and Enjoy!