Dead Photographers Society

July 05, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

The Unknown Lens

Taking inspiration, and ripping out a page from the Peter Weir film "Dead Poets Society", this is a follow up to my previous post. Sadly, there are so many photographers these days, both pro and amateur, who have little or no knowledge of just how incredibly rich we are as an artform. Mention the word history in mixed company, and you can almost hear the groans. I hated "History" in school, was bored to tears by it, but then we didn't have the internet way back when. 

I did however enjoy the history of photography I was given, in large part because I had a wonderful teacher. So where do we go from here? How do we approach photography's history in order to learn anything that will help you today? After all, the cool stuff is in what's currently being done today! Really? Following along what everyone else is doing around you leads to stagnant sameness. Don't do that! It's natural to look around next to you and try to emulate what is popular, after all, it works, right? Maybe not.

With the speed of todays' world, it takes no time at all for a look or style to reach the saturation point of cliché. Even your own work can feel like a cliché of itself after a while. How do you stay fresh, and self-innovating? How is looking at a bunch of dead photographers work going to help? Isn't Ansel Adams' work a cliché after all? Yes and no.

Photographers are first and foremost problem solvers. Regardless of whether you shoot for yourself, or for a paying client, you are trying to solve the problem of how to communicate a message to someone using a particular language. Like any language, photography has a rich history of nuance and slang in the form of subject, composition, light and shadow, shape and line. The language of color is vastly different that the language of black and white and grayscale. Each persons' accent as it were, in the way they see a subject, is unique. So why would you borrow someone else's accent?

It is one thing to be inspired by another artists' work, and quite another to emulate or copy it. I think of inspiration as a sort of diving board or cliff; something you jump off of, a departure point for you to see what comes next. Too many people today stay on the jump off point and admire what it looks like and how it was made. Being problem solvers, it fascinates me to see how others managed to communicate their answers. It becomes my springboard which broadens my language.

I had the wonderful opportunity years ago to assist with another photographer photographing Sir Elton John's collection of images for the exhibition "Chorus of Light: Photographs from the Sir Elton John Collection." 

© Charlie McCullers

Having the chance to work on this project, and spend several days photographing Sir Elton and his home in Atlanta, showing how this eminent collector of great photography lives with his collection was a great honor (yes, that's me standing in during a preliminary lighting test).  Seeing up close images created by Irving Penn, Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Horst, Arnold Newman and Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham and Herb Ritts among many others was just tremendous! I recognized so many iconic images, and was introduced to many others I had not known. It was like getting an exquisite tour of the history of photography in the most beautiful setting.

Once you begin to move away from the rather limiting vocabulary of the contemporary photography world, get beyond all of the HDR, iPhoneography, sun-flair-in-the-lens, softbox-umbrella-octobox, speedlight, Photoshop'd images most everyone is focusing on, and explore the ways in which other photographers, yes dead photographers, communicated their messages, your own language  will grow in wonderful ways. Remember to be inspired, a word which means your breath goes, "Ahh!" Don't copy or emulate, but use your gifts to step off that cliff and see what is next.

One day, all of us will be members of the "Dead Photographers Society", and as Mr. Keating asked his students in the film, "What will your poem (photograph) be?"        


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