A reoccurring problem, faced by aspiring and experienced photographers alike, is that at some point, you take the easy route or low-hanging fruit when it comes to your photographic work. Often, at least at the start of your photographic journey, capturing images of easy subjects seems like a quick route to great imagery. Stepping out of your comfort zone is hard.
Unfortunately, thousands of images of these subjects exist. Travel photography as a photographic genre has many examples of subjects that could be described as low hanging fruits; images of street beggars and children for example.
Many great photographers have turned to teaching in their latter years and often share their insight into subjects such as this. In this particular post, I want to explore how we as photographers can step outside of our comfort zone using three examples of essays on this subject. I guess you could say it’s a common sense look at a subject that is often overly intellectualised.
We will discuss how Thomas Roma prevents his students from capturing only the low-hanging fruit, how Mark Steinmetz pushes his students to look further for uncomfortable photographic situations and how Larry Fink dares to make his students simply think.
© Thomas Roma. Found in Brooklyn
In The Photographer’s Playbook Roma discusses how he stops his students from photographing the subjects that are easy to photograph and have been captured many times before. Roma also argues that if a photographer can capture images that resonate personally, ones they are emotionally invested in, in the same way as a diary entry or a love letter, then that is the only time criticism will really matter:
I have just one request for those at the basic level of photography: take photographs that can be criticised in a meaningful way.
On the first day of class, I recite a list of things that my student’s photographs can not contain: nudes, children, old people, fire hydrants, rows of bicycle wheels that make interesting shadows, mimes, single musician bands, portrait artists on the sidewalk and homeless. In other words, the low hanging fruit for the photographer who is just starting out. They get the idea.
To show a more productive direction, inspired by the words of Robert Frost “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”, I do a class survey asking for the hands up of those who have written a diary. Generally a good number of them have. Then I ask how many of them have written a poem, even a poem that has never been showed to anyone – even more hands go up. Finally I ask them who has written a love letter or a letter to home. By then, I have them all.
I tell them that my request is taking photographs that resonate in their lives the same way – photographs they care for – and that’s the only way in which criticism can matter.”
*This quote has been translated from Spanish and slightly altered to make it easier to read.
Thomas Roma has been the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and his work has appeared in exhibitions internationally, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Centre of Photography in New York. Roma taught for over 15 years at prestigious universities such as Yale before settling at Columbia University where he currently teaches.See more of Roma’s work HERE
© Mark Steinmetz. Margaretha, Athens, GA, 1999
In his online essay entitled Photograph somewhere you are very uncomfortable, Steinmetz discusses how for many of his students it is their lack of bravery and avoidance of risk that prevents them capturing original subject matter:
There are all kinds of successful photographic approaches where the photographer is quite comfortable when taking his or her pictures. I don’t think André Kértesz, for example, ever felt uncomfortable when taking a photograph. Someone like Brassaï, however, had a bodyguard with him at various times. So much of good photography happens when one begins to overcome one’s personal limitations. Students tend to be very shy, particularly when photographing people they don’t know. They often retreat to photograph in empty, abandoned places where no one will bother them.
To do photography for the most part one must manoeuvre one’s body around to actually be in the right spot to take a picture. The photographer must be physically in front of something. So often it seems that students are not getting themselves in front of the things that really interest them because they aren’t quite brave enough. I try to remind them that passion can’t really exist in the absence of risk, the feeling of risk. Over the years a few of my students have gone to dangerous neighbourhoods and clubs, to slaughterhouses, or visited their estranged parents, but most of them never really address this assignment directly or fully — many find clever ways to avoid it. But perhaps this assignment gives them something to think about”.
We also recommend you read Steinmetz advice on starting a photographic project here.
Mark Steinmetz is an American photographer best known for his monochrome film work. His understated but striking black and white imagery has become synonymous with his work. Steinmetz also lectures and in the past has worked at Yale and Harvard amongst others. He is currently working on the MFA course at the University of Hartford.
© Larry Fink. Pat Sabatines 8th Birthday Party, 1977
Through a 45 year successful career, Larry Fink’s emotive black and white stories, based on social situations, have been a model for an entire generation of documentary photographers. Alongside his photography, Fink also teaches at Bard college. In his book On Composition and Improvisation, Fink challenges his students to think deeply about their images:
When I look at photographs with students, I ask simple primary questions about what they were aware of at the time of shooting: what did you feel? What was in front of your eyes when this photograph was made? How many different elements were you aware of? Did you notice the magic of this relationship of shapes or that the wind blew and made this go a bit blurry, which completes the whole picture?
I ask more cryptic questions too: can you think of yourself as a child? Is there any possible way that you can create a child’s sensibility of wondering in your pictures?
Or leading questions: did you like that person? If they don’t know: can you tell me about what it means to not know? If you have talent, the only way to go about making really brilliant pictures is to give up the idea that each and every picture has to be a work of art in and of itself. The picture has to be part of a more fluid sense of process. It’s just a photograph after all. It can be discarded. You don’t go to jail when you make a bad one. Don’t worry about it so much. Work hard towards it, but don’t think that if you fail, that this moment in your life is a ruination.”
Larry Fink’s work has been exhibited around the world with shows at prestigious venues such as MOMA in New York, he also shows in galleries regularly in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. Fink has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and was awarded an honorary doctorate from College of Art and Design, Detroit, 2002.
What can we learn from Roma, Steinmetz, and Fink?
We can all relate to the three pieces of advice above, to some extent contradictory but all pointing in the same direction: get out of your comfort zone. First in terms of easy topics, secondly in terms of easy environments and thirdly in terms of easy thinking of what you are photographing. For the sake of your own photographic evolution and also showing some respect to your potential audience by not adding another layer of visual pollution to the already saturated photographic landscape.
Perhaps some examples will help to make the idea of low hanging fruit in photography a little less desirable. The two following examples are perfect to show how it is possible to turn two of the most clichéd topics in photography into something remarkable. In breaking Thomas Roma’s advise, Sally Mann made family photographs something special with her work on Immediate Family and Lee Jeffries, photographing homeless people across America, created a project that went above and beyond the often captured images of the homeless…. Low hanging photographic fruit? Maybe. Original and authentic? Certainly.
Further Reading on Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone
The following three books are a great complement to the discussion in the post above. The Photographer’s Playbook by Jason Fulford includes mini-essays by many well-known photographers including Thomas Roma and Mark Steinmetz mentioned above. Sally Mann’s Immediate Family is a modern classic and one of the best examples of how to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Finally Larry Fink’s On composition and improvisation is a great book for learning how to use composition to create original images with both feeling and meaning.
Some parting words: I hope you enjoyed reading the advice of these three great photographers. I think it is often all too easy to fall into the habit of falling complacent and shooting in comfort instead of pushing yourself to shoot better, more original and authentic work. Hopefully, you will take away these lessons and apply them to your own work.
Remember the words of Imogen Cunningham “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow”
If you’ve read the advice from the photographers above and found it interesting, why not share your views in the comments below? How do you push yourself out of your comfort zone?
Note: The copyright to all the images in this post belong to respective photographer/gallery/agency. This post originally appeared on Eyevoyage, and has since been edited and updated for this blog. Thanks to Fermin for his help, guidance and research, making this post possible.