10 Lessons from a Master

 

This has been an interesting week in my life, to say the least.  I had the opportunity to talk at length multiple times with a photographer whom I greatly admire.  Here’s a short bio:

“Born in New York City in 1947, Jock Sturges is a fine art photographer living in Seattle, Washington. Best known for his nudes and extended portraits of families in Northern California counter-culture communities, Ireland and on French naturist beaches, his large format images borrow significantly from classical periods in both photography and nineteenth and early twentieth century painting.
 
Represented by twenty-five galleries in nine countries, Sturges’ work is also to be found in the collection of many of the world’s museums including The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and The Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art in Germany. “

 

In other words a very experienced person in the art world. 

When I found out he lived in Seattle (where I live)  I mustered up my courage and sent him a short note. I just said that I was also an art photographer in Seattle.  I knew he was very busy, but if he ever wanted to meet and talk photography, I’d love to do that.  I also included a link to my web site.

To my astonishment, he answered back.  Here’s what he said:  “I’d be interested to meet you. I’ve noodled around your two sites and see a really excellent photographer who is a bit divided against himself….”

He nailed me perfectly with that last part.  He also included his phone number and invited me to call.  Nervous as hell, I did, and not only did he want to meet, he invited me to his house.

He warned me in advance that he’s very opinionated and honest – to be forewarned.  That was exactly what I wanted.  We talked about art, the history of photography, my prints, direction and focus, how galleries work, philosophical discussions as well as the nuts and bolts of how to properly mount a print (hint:  it ain’t foam core). 

Here are some of the lessons I learned about being a fine art photographer:

  1.  Know the history of art and photography.  This is absolutely critical.  Jock called it “the pyramid”.  These artists are the foundation of all great art, and if you want to elevate yourself to be a block in that pyramid, then you need to understand that foundation.  If you do that, and then add your own unique content and style, you too can become a block.  And as you continue to refine your art and push boundaries, you can move higher up the pyramid to become something of significance that can have a lasting history.  I know art history fairly well, but my photographic history knowledge still has some gaps.  He recommended ‘The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present‘ by Beaumont Newhall, as well as books by Harry Callahan (no, not Dirty Harry), Emmett Gowen (who greatly influenced Sally Mann) and others.  By studying these greats, you’ll start to understand composition, form and light, but most importantly content. (By the way, Jock had great stories about many of these people and I loved listening to them.  You should hear the “real story” behind Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise Hernandez”)
  2. Find the one thing, the one passion, the one obsession that can consume your photography for life.  If you had to choose only one thing to photograph for the rest of your life, what would it be?  He said to look at all the Masters of painting of photography.  The vast majority of them concentrated on one particular type of photography or subject and explored every facet of it, every nuance, every subtlety.  They lived, ate and breathed it, saw it in every light, kept exploring, looking deeper and deeper until they captured its essence in a photograph. An exercise: If your house was on fire and you could only grab one print, which one would it be?  Now go out and photograph nothing but that for 6 months.
  3. A unique style and technique does not make a great photograph.  Content makes a great photograph.  Your subject.  Your in-depth understanding and relationship with that subject, be it a particular model, subject, location, city, culture, whatever, is what matters.  Substance beats style every time.  As you explore the subject in depth, the style will be the result of that, not the other way around.  This is a critical point to understand and what lead to the second of our conversations, just so I could fully comprehend this concept.
  4. Think long term.  Think about an entire lifetime of work when you’re seeking your direction.  Limited projects also have a limited value and can result in a scattered vision.  Unless it ties into your overall body of work (see item #2), leave it out.  Or at the very least, don’t put it anywhere that galleries can ever see it. 
  5. Don’t rely on gimmicks.   That infrared film that I’m currently in love with won’t last as part of a vision in the long term.  Same with things like tilt/shift lenses or even Holga cameras (see item 8).
  6. You only get one chance to make a first impression with galleries.  Your prints should be first rate.  You should edit ruthlessly.  If you don’t, galleries will think you don’t know the difference between a good and a bad photo.  They should also be mounted properly using archival materials.
  7. You need a deep portfolio before attempting to break into the big time.  You may have 20 great photographs, absolute stunners, but as soon as a gallery sees those, they’ll say “Those are great – show me 20 more”.  If you don’t have that depth, you’ve just blown item #6.
  8. Toy camera work isn’t taken seriously by galleries.  Yes it’s interesting, yes galleries may show it (I continue to get shows in them, but I’ve had that same sense).  If you want to move to that next level of long-lasting excellence you can’t rely on gimmicks.  See item 9.
  9. All of these rules can be broken. There’s nothing that says you can’t be the first toy camera photographer with a permanent presence in the Met.  Or the first iPhoneographer at MOMA. Pioneers of photography break new ground, but they’re also single-minded about it and drive it into that realm of respectability with sheer will and talent.

And #10, the biggest take-away from these conversations:  Confidence.  Validation.  I had a person with an in-depth knowledge of art and photography, who is a serious presence in the art world, tell me that I had the potential to do good things with my photography.

I’m still wrapping my head around all of this.  I’m sure my life has changed for the better because of these talks.  What direction my photography will take I don’t know.  I’m still coming into focus on item #2, but for the first time in my life I feel like I’m very close, and I’m excited about the future.

Ttyl,

Mark

P.S.  I know that Jock’s work came under attack here in the US from right-wing religious fanatics who think all nudity is bad. In Europe it’s no big deal.  I’m not going to get into a debate about that as it’s obvious how I feel about his work.  Any comments relating to that discussion will be deleted.

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19 comments

  1. Fantastic stuff Mark, very pleased you not only got to have that conversation but also saw yourself through someone else’s eyes and that that person was someone you respect immensely. Whatever he had given you in conversation it was probably that latter fact that was most important. Best of luck moving through those points.

    I have that Harry Callahan book, I must get it down off the shelf and back onto the table for a while so I can peruse it again.

  2. Great read Mark and what a great opportunity. I really like #2 as I feel I’m in that stage of my photography – trying to figure out what it is that I love to photograph and focusing on that until I capture its essence. That’s a big challenge for me as I feel like my photography is all over the place and I’m in need of some direction.

  3. So this phrase, “until they captured its essence in a photograph. ” doesn’t quite fly for me because in fact no one picture can ever perfectly encompass the ideal or ideals we seek. When we are lucky and make a picture that succeeds very well, then there is a ghost of it there, a tantalizing glimpse. But that is enough — to feed us and lead us on. Importantly for me it is not the finished print that is the great joy for me but the time in the light making the pictures. The prints are but a symptom of that, a convenient and agreeable after effect. But not the main point. Good photographs want always to be a symptom of something larger and more important than “photography”. Please, in your work, never speak to me about lenses. Tell me rather what you love.

  4. This is fantastic, Mark, both the article and the experience.

    I have known for a long time that I don’t want to do commercial photography. And yet the more I learn about galleries and the world of photography as art, the less interested I am in that.

    So what am I doing with my photography, then? Is it just something for family and a few friends to enjoy? As important as that is–and I often forget just how important it is to make those records of our daily life that we can look back at and enjoy later–it still feels unsatisfying, or at least it feels very limited. Where are the opportunities for growth?

    Am I left with publishing books as my only venue? It’s an interesting question, and almost completely off-topic from your post.

  5. Yes, great point from Jock, particularly his statement that “Good photographs want always to be a symptom of something larger and more important than ‘photography.'” I have been guilty of that in the past, being so focused on the idea of making art that I produce nothing but insipid little self-absorbed pictures that bore me so much I stop photographing for a while.

    I have often tried to figure out what I love about photography. I enjoy the act of photographing but not nearly so much as I love the excitement of loading the pictures on my computer and then seeing what happens as I “develop” the raw files. When it comes down to it, my favorite thing about photography is the digital darkroom work.

    And maybe I just need to accept that and embrace my tendency to be drawn to shoot photos that I know will be pleasing to post-process. Let the art, if it’s there, emerge from that.

    1. One other option to consider, Tommy: There is some very creative work being done with digital composites in photoshop. Taking existing photos and creating brand new art from those or from other inspirations by combining them, manipulating them, etc. If you love the digital darkroom aspect, perhaps that’s an option.

  6. I have considered the digital composites, Mark, and at this point they don’t interest me that much (my wife is another matter–that is exactly what she wants to do). There’s just something about pulling out colors and contrast and so forth from those flat raw files that I love.

    Anyway, I should stop using the comments space on your post for my personal therapy. 🙂

  7. ” have often tried to figure out what I love about photography.” The point isn’t what is attractive about the medium of photography. That’s just a bag of technologies that lets us make pictures. The crucial point is what is it about the world that you love so much you want to keep aspects of it IN your pictures. HOW pictures are made can be seductively interesting but to be thus distracted from the first importance of WHAT they are made of is to ensure mediocrity. Photography in and of itself is just not interesting. It is what photographers KNOW about the world and life and can show us in their work that moves and instructs.

    With the publication of his three books on the zone system in 1953, Ansel Adams moved from being someone whose work reflected a profound affection for the Sierra to a man who was a technical guru — a professional “photographer”. Look at the dates on his good work. You will be hard pressed to find more than one or two that date after 1953. His work went from being about his passion for the mountains to his interest in the science of photography itself. Deadly. He worked for another 35 years to almost no good effect. If that is not a good cautionary tale of the danger of liking photography for its own sake I don’t know what is.

    About composite work: if a photograph is good, it should be left alone. It does not need to be combined with another to be still better. It is just about certain that doing so will just obscure it. if a photograph is less than good, combining it with another to improve it is just…. sad. For all their ardent labor, the alchemists of yore never did succeed in making gold from lead and tin. The mathematics of this failed physic survive to this day.

    Are these things fun to do? Yes. Without question. If they are what you want to do then do not let me distract you. I know my bald opinions can be unkind — even irritating. Not my aim. I’m just always trying to draw people up to what I see as a higher game. One that has a chance to win us all.

  8. Absolutely no offense taken, Jock. I deeply appreciate your comments here, and, like Mark, prefer bald opinions to ones made soft and pointless in an effort not to irritate.

    Thank you for reminding me–again–that photography is merely a means and not the end itself.

  9. A fascinating post for me to read, Mark because over the past 8 months I’ve heard this–and more–from Ray. I’m pleased that you found someone whose opinion you hold in such high regard that it has the potential to change your life. We’re now expect amazing things from you!

  10. Great blog post Mark! Like Mark Krajnak above, I read that with the feeling that I have a long way to go, and that I’ll be stuck forever at the beginning. This post has been a great pointer on how to get an education in photography, and given me lots to think about. Thank you (and Jock) for sharing.

  11. there are so many lessons/layers to this experience, mark. for starters, the courage of reaching out to someone you admire from afar – that one act set all else in motion. thank you for sharing this with us all. the generous input from jock can now be used in the service of honing in on just what your (my) work is about. this critical thinking can potentially catapult your art. as jock stated, “As you explore the subject in depth, the style will be the result of that, not the other way around.” to that point, i don’t think it’s about the holga, film type or what have you but what one’s intention is and having a clearly defined visual language. i own “line of beauty and grace” and it inspires me often – i highly recommend it.
    with much gratitude from shāna

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