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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- Paolo Uccello by Stefano Boris
- Piero’s Light: In search of Piero della Francesca by Larry Whitman
- Cezanne: A Life by Alex Danchev
- Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography