May 192016

Your questions answered

Who should I study to improve my craft?

British photographer Dave Geffin asked:

Who (and why) are the most important artists photographers should or could look at for inspiration and understanding on how better to improve their own understanding of the craft?

Success comes in many forms.  For some it is a problem of economy.  They would like to make more money. For others it is a philosophical problem, where they want to get at the root of why they take pictures.  Some want to make their mark on the world, while others would like to be “An artist’s artist”, meaning that they appeal to a very small, but very informed audience.  How you define success is entirely up to you, but it is safe to say that when any of us wants to improve our craft, we want to succeed in one way or another.  While we may be able to see the road to success, it often appears to be very long with no end in sight.

Improving our craft is a collaboration with history.  If you want to improve your craft, don’t just study the artists you admire, study the artists that inspired them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to “self taught photographers” rag on about how they invented something that has been in existence for hundreds of years.  Not knowing someone came before us does not make us innovative but instead makes us ignorant (and who really aspires to be ignorant?!).  Not too long ago, I heard a photographer claiming he invented the use of the white background.  Meanwhile Edouard Manet used one regularly in the 1800′s for his portraits.

Edouard Manet's Portrait of the Model 1880 (using a white background)

Edouard Manet’s Portrait of the Model 1880 (using a white background)

From my own experience, I’ve looked to those people who have succeeded in the past and studied their approach.  When it comes to photography the easiest way to think about it is to study the artists that inspired the photographers you enjoy.  Let me give you an example.

A view of Mont Saint Victoire by Paul Cezanne

A view of Mont Saint Victoire by Paul Cezanne

Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the more influential photographers of the last 100 years.  Many aspiring photographers would love to find a signature style, work around the world, and bridge the gap between the photography and the art worlds like HCB did during his lifetime.  But why was he able to do this?

MEXICO. Puebla. 1963. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

MEXICO. Puebla. 1963. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

If you want to understand the photographers you like, don’t just look at their pictures on the Internet.  Find out who they studied when they were younger.  It will reveal aspects of their work that you will not find online.  Cartier-Bresson had a few artists that he credited as being “the best.”  They were:

  • Paolo Uccello: 15th century Italian artist who was a pioneer in drawing and painting platonic solids.
  • Piero della Francesca:  15th century Italian artist who is credited as one of the founders of Perspective and who wrote extensively on mathematics.
  • Paul Cezanne:  19th century French artist who learned perspective only to break it down piece by piece.  His post impressionist innovations became the foundation of Cubism and Futurism.

Have you heard of these artists before or are they new?  If they are completely new, please look them up.  If you know the names, but can’t see the connection between their work and HCB, I’d recommend the books below.  And if you know the artists and can see how their influence changed the course of HCB’s life…then share your knowledge with other photographers online.

Study of a hood in perspective by Paolo Uccello

Study of a hood in perspective by Paolo Uccello

To simplify these three artists even further, we could say that Uccello and della Francesca created a system of three dimensional form, then Cezanne inherited that tradition, broke it apart and put it together again.

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

If you would like to improve your craft, my suggestion is to discover your artistic family roots.  Art history offers us a network of sisters and brothers in arms who share our interests.  They experienced many of the same aspirations, doubts, and failures that we experience.  Their negatives, their sketchbooks and their biographies hold thousands of lessons-learned that we can apply to our future work.  The experience brings us into a wonderful communion with the artists that inspire us.  Throughout the process we will find that most of the problems we face were solved long ago.  Why re-invent the wheel?  By learning from history, we can leapfrog forward to the innovations that will fulfill our artistic path, and then leave our lessons for the next generation.


Additional Reading

  11 Responses to “Your questions answered: Who should I study to improve my craft?”

  1. Thanks for answering the question Adam, enjoyed this read and took a lot away from it!

  2. Yes great article Adam! Of course I know Della Francesca but will have to look into Ucello and Cezanne. Loved how you said not knowing what came before doesn’t make you innovative but makes you ignorant. Very true. You know I also started appreciating great works of art and artist even more when you learn the history of art and the artist. When I learned Michangelo life story it made me value his art even more (which was crazy because he is my favorite artist) because he apprenticed and learned art history/technique too. The weird thing is sometimes I do not care for an artists personal life and it probably taints how I view their work. For example my good friend favorite artist is Salvador Dali. Yes I think he has some amazing paintings but I can’t help see a pompous arrogant kooky guy paint them. That may be unfair and even a different discussion. You are so correct though, Adam, art history is so storied and filled with great contributors its a crime to be totally ignorant of it.

    • Hi Gary,

      Glad to hear that you are diving deeper into art history. It is literally filled with treasures that need just a little translation into photographic terms.
      When it comes to the personal lives of the artists, I have a feeling none of us would have enjoyed the company of Caravaggio. In fact, there are a number of collectors I know who want nothing to do with artists. They enjoy the work and not the people.

      Sometimes it is great when the artist, as a person, lives up to the work…but it is kind of rare.

      Happy reading!


  3. Any artist who is not also something of a historian is unlikely to be or to continue to be actually ‘creative.’ Any ‘breakthroughs’ in creativity upon deep study, end up not being out of nowhere, but a result of persistence built upon deep knowledge of earlier persons’ accomplishments plus, often, a dash of inspiration, that itself combines elements from before. Newness resides in the combinations of earlier ideas, the sum of which no one has tried or explored before. Very little can be shown to be without any precedent or prior effort.
    Where I’m going with this is to assert beyond the content of this article, that the nearly universal lack of knowledge of image structure IS ignorance and detracts from the likelihood of real ‘creativity.’

    Re your example by della Francesca: Page 97 in one of my all-time favorite books, and, IMNHO, one of the single most important books on art ever written, Charles Bouleau’s “The Painter’s Secret Geometry,” where he notes the use of two very common geometric schemes, rabatment for the architecture and the 4/6/9 musical ratio to place the figures. There is zero probability that this is a product by one lacking of knowledge and intensive use of these then common and well-known among artists techniques. A lengthy discussion of della Francesca’s art starts on page 90 and is fit into the use of musical consonances in 16th C art.

    • Tom,

      This is the reason that comment threads exist on website. One of, if not the most complete comment I’ve ever had on the site.
      Really appreciate you taking the time to read the article and adding this gem for other photographers to read.

      My hats off to you!

      Thank you once again.

  4. Another inspiring text!

  5. Adam,
    I still haven’t figured out how to exploit to any depth the insights in TPSG for regular photography. The most immediate payoff for me is to try to see some of these techniques in 2-D art and enjoy pieces more because of being aware of the geometric organization. The best way to inculcate sensitivity and awareness would be to have had a course based on this book. As for 35mm photography, I can only imagine that the exposure and awareness can allow one to sense better some of the geometry in a potential image and use the viewfinder to refine some of that, but it would only be possible for the most basic aspects of a geometric technique. The intricacies of the webs of lines based around various intersections and such would be impossible except for the most static of studio work in large format. In other words, while I think it better that a photographer know this material and have exercised with it in galleries or one’s own art, I cannot figure out a way to make it directly applicable to most photography except in the most reduced ways. HCB was able to perceive to choreography of the evolving image in his mind and use his viewfinder to frame it well, but even he probably didn’t apply directly much beyond a basic geometric vision.

    • Hi Tom,

      This was a conversation I would often have with Myron Barnstone.

      What is the extent to which a photographer can grasp and apply compositional armatures. He and I are both of the belief that it is reduced, from what the painter can do. The photographer can at best manage a few divisions and a few points of armature intersection.

      For myself, I am usually looking at the background for 1-3 divisions…which is obviously not hard once you know what you are looking for. Then it is a case of waiting for 1 or maybe 2 points of grid intersection.

      As it works out, I see photography very analogous to fighting sports in that, you can train in a gym for technique and with an opponent you might sacrifice a bit of form for the moment. But if you never train with any technique the application with an opponent will be a complete disaster.

      It does help to review the pictures afterward with armatures or tracing paper to be constantly aware of personal tendencies and habits. But Im sure you are doing that. The artistic approach of using a pencil goes a long way to training muscle memory and visual memory. Much more so than “just looking at a picture or screen.” But many photographers never practice this. And it is very connected to their ability to progress.

      Really enjoy your line of thinking on this.


  6. Couldn’t agree more.

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