Sunday, December 03, 2006

What do great photographers have in common?

This is something that fascinates me. What makes a great photographer great? What do they have in common? I think I know the answer and I want to share it with you.

It’s not good cameras. Although judging by the amateur photographer’s obsession with the latest consumer offering and number of megapixels you would be forgiven for thinking that technology is the be all and end all. The perception that a great photograph is linked to a great camera pervades society. Someone walks into a gallery, sees one of my images and says, “Wow that’s amazing. You must have a fantastic camera.” Oh well. You just learn to shrug.

Yes, well you know it is not a good camera that makes a great photographer. Is it the ability to compose, to control light and excel in the technical aspects of photography? Well these certainly help the photographer to achieve the look he/she wants. Millions of photographers possess excellent technical skills but it isn’t enough to differentiate their work. And many of the greats were not very concerned about the highly technical aspects of their photography.

I think the thing that the great photographers all share is that photography in itself is not all that important to them. It is merely a vehicle, a medium, they use to explore and communicate.

Ironically it seems to me that so many photographers wanting to capture that ultimate image are too obsessed with photography to actually achieve something meaningful. They keep chasing the next technique, the latest camera, a new fad, a style they’ve seen and want to imitate. By concentrating on photography for its own sake they are limiting what their work can achieve. All it is likely to do is win praise from other photographers similarly obsessed with producing high impact visuals that dance vividly on the screen to empty applause and are then quickly forgotten.

Here are some of the real drivers that I’ve identified among the truly great photographers in their different fields:

  • Photojournalists: the best are often driven by the need to show the truth, to fight injustice, to inform and educate people about issues that they think are important
  • Landscape photographers: the best are in awe of nature and its beauty. They want to show and celebrate the world we live in and are often concerned with the preservation of this beauty
  • Wildlife photographers: the best want to show how precious and special animals and wildlife are. They are often concerned with conservation and are driven to communicate the feeling they have that life, in all its forms, is wonderful and should be protected from the destructive nature of mankind.
  • Artists: too broad a category and probably a meaningless classification as it overlaps across the board with other categories. However artists in essence are concerned with holding up a mirror for all of us to look into and ask ourselves, “Is this me I am seeing?”
  • Commercial photographers: the best bring flair to their work which is all about pleasing their clients and making a living at the same time. Success is measured in the bank because how much you get paid is ultimately a reflection of how well you please your clients and how much they think your work is worth.

You get the drift. The answer to the question, what do great photographers have in common, is that they are all profoundly driven to use photography as a vehicle to communicate something that concerns them deeply. None that I know of are just concerned with making a pretty picture.

As always your comments and emails are valued.

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