There are plenty of blog articles out there which claim to give young photographers ‘secrets’ that will help them make a career in photography. The truth is that it takes a combination of hard work, talent, and some luck.
The best (and most timeless) advice generally comes from the masters, those who’ve made it already. The following three letters offer a rare insight into the advice of some of the 20th centuries most influential photographers. Though they are separated by decades in time and with different approaches they are all sincere pieces of advice to young photographers, backed up by experience in both life and photography.
All of this in a time before the urgency of blogging and social media undermined it all. These letters, long after they were written, still offer genuine insights and advice that are as useful today as they were the day they were written.
"It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness."
- Paul Strand
Paul Strand is often seen as one of the biggest influences on modern photography. In 1923 he wrote this letter to a group of photography students. In this letter Strand discusses developing photographic vision and how to go about doing this, in particular, stressing that there are no shortcuts:
"We are all students, some for longer than the more experienced ones. When you stop being students, you may tire of being alive with respect to the direction of your work. Therefore I speak as a student to student. I mean, before you spend time on photography (which will take much time) I think that point of being a student is important for each one of you.
If you’re really pursuing painting or something else, then do not photograph, except in the case of pure fun. Photography is not a shortcut to painting, to become an artist or anything else. On the other hand if the camera and materials fascinate you and motivate your energy and your respect, learn to shoot. Discover first what the camera and these materials can do, without any interference, only with your own vision. Photograph a tree, a machine, a table, any old thing, do it again and again by changing the light. Look at what records you make, you will discover the results obtained with different paper types and gradations. Color differences can be obtained using one or another developer and how these differences change the expressiveness of the image. The field is unlimited, endless, without leaving the natural boundaries of the medium. In short, experience and forget the art of pictorialism and other words that are more or less meaningless.
See author’s books, exhibitions, at least know what they have done as photographers. And look critically at what each is doing in general and what stage each one of you is at now. Some have said that Stieglitz had force because he hypnotized his models. Go and see what he has done with his clouds, to discover if his hypnotic powers also extended over the elements. Look at all these things. See what they mean to you. Choose what you can assimilate and forget the rest. Above all things, look around you, your immediate world. If you are alive and that means something to you, and if you show enough interest for photography and know how to use it, you’ll want to photograph that meaning.
If you allow the vision of other people to come between the world and your own vision you will get something ordinary and meaningless: pictorial photography. But if you hold a clear personal vision, you will get something, at least a picture with life, even of a tree or a box of matches, if you believe that these things have a life. To achieve this there are no shortcuts, no formulas, no rules. However, you need most rigorous self-criticism and constant work. But first learn to shoot. To me this is already a problem without an end."
*This letter has been slightly corrected to make it easier to read.
Paul Strand (New York 1890 – Paris 1976) was an American photographer and filmmaker who played an important role in establishing photography as a legitimate art form in the early 20th century. Alongside his contemporaries Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, his influence in the development of 20th photography is uncontested.
"A good picture is born from a state of grace. Grace becomes manifest when one is freed from conventions, free as a child in his first discovery of reality. The game is then to organize the triangle."
- Sergio Larrain
Sergio Larrain wrote this letter in 1982, to his nephew Sebastián Donoso, who had previously asked Larrain where to begin in becoming a photographer. The letter was written a decade after Larrain quit photography and retreated to the Chilean countryside to dedicate himself to Yoga and Meditation until his death. The original version, included in the book Sergio Larrain, Vagabond photographer is full of erasure marks and corrections, demonstrating the effort Larrain put into making his nephew understand with simplicity, the kind of career path he was about to take.
"The most important thing is to have a camera that you like, the one you like best. It has to feel right, its body, and you have to be happy with what you are holding in your hands. The tool is crucial for anyone with a trade. And it should be simple, exactly what you need, no more and no less (a good body, the Pentax with a macro 1:1 lens; Panchito has one I think so go and have a look). Then you need a 35 mm enlarger that you like, one that is as efficient and simple as possible. Leitz´s smallest model is the best and you’ll have it for life. (Leitz has a branch in Santiago, they can import).
Then you have to go out and seek adventure, like a boat with all sails hoisted; go to Valparaiso or the Chiloé Archipelago, or walk the streets all day; wandering, always wandering around unfamiliar places, and when you´re tired, sit back against a tree, buy a banana or some bread … that´s it, take a train, go somewhere that takes your fancy and have a look, leave the world you know, find your way into places and things you´ve never seen, allow your own desires to guide you, travel from one place to another, go wherever you like … and little by little, you´ll discover things. And pictures will steal up on you, like ghosts; take them.
Later, once you have returned home and developed them, make some prints ands start to look at your haul, all the fish you´ve caught … stick them to the wall with tape, print them in postcard format and look at them … Start playing with the “L” shape, looking for crops, images to frame, and you´ll learn composition and geometry, you can make a perfect frame with an “L” (two pieces of card cut into an L-shape). Enlarge your framed compositions and put them up on the wall.
To live with them. To see them as you pass by.
If you´re sure a photo is no good – throw it away!
Take better ones and stick them a little higher up on the wall, in the end you will have kept only the good ones, and no others. Holding on to the mediocre ones will condemn you to mediocrity. Keep the “hits” only – the really arresting images, throw out the rest because everything you keep will be retained in the unconscious.
Then do some exercise, busy yourself with other things and don´t worry. Start looking at other photographer´s work, searching for quality in everything you came across – books, magazines, etc. Select the best and if you can cut out the good ones and stick them on the wall besides those you have taken. And if you can´t cut them out, open the book or the magazine at the page you like and leave it open, on display.
Allow them to seep in and nourish you for weeks or months on end – you will learn a lot by looking. But little by little they will surrender their secret to you and you will learn what is good, and see the depth in each one.
Continue living quietly, do some drawing.
Go for a walk, and never force yourself to take photos, as the poetry will be lost and the life it contains will be frozen. It´s like forcing love or friendship, it´s impossible.
When you are ready to start again, you can set off on other voyages and wanderings, make your way to Puerto Aguirre, you can go on horseback right down to the glaciers, from Aisén… Valparaiso is always wonderful, getting lost in the magic, taking a few days exploring the hills and lanes and spending the night in a sleeping bag somewhere … finding reality like swimming at the bottom of the sea, with nothing to distract you, where nothing is as expected, you try to take a step in your espadrilles, slowly, as if you have been purified, wanting to see … singing softly.
You will photograph what you find with great care; you have learnt to frame and compose; now do it with the camera … and bit by bit, the bag fills with fish and you go home. (Learn to adjust aperture, change the foreground, saturation, speed, etc. Learn to play with all the possibilities your camera offers).
You will come close to poetry, yours, that of other people, be inspired by what other have done well (MoMA in New York has published a number of books, my father has a few of them in his library), make a collection of excellent images, a small museum, in a folder. Do what you want to do and nothing else, trust only your own taste.
You are life and life is what you choose, don´t consider what you don’t like, don’t use it. Your choice is what matters, but use the work of others as inspiration.
You will make progress.
When you have several really good photos, enlarge them and show them in a small exhibition – or make a little book. Bind them together (look at what I did during my apprenticeship, my father has them in his library). This is how you will establish a basic standard. By showing your work you will get better at picking out the good and the bad by pitting it against others – you´ll feel it.
Putting on an exhibition means giving something, like preparing a meal, it´s good for the others to show them work done with good taste, it´s not self-congratulatory, it´s a good thing, it´s healthy for everyone. And it´s good for you too as you can see how you measure up.
So now you have what you need to start.
You´ll need just to walk around a lot, sitting down under a tree somewhere or other … a solitary stroll in the universe, which suddenly you are really seeing for the first time. The conventional world is a screen, you have to get out from behind it – when you take photographs.
I’lll write more later.
Finding your own truth is the key to everything."
Sergio Larrain (1931–2012, Valparaiso, Chile) is widely considered to be the finest Chilean photographer. During a trip to Europe in the late 50’s, he presented Henry Cartier-Bresson his work on street children in Santiago and was subsequently asked to join the prestigious Magnum agency in 1961. Larrain worked professionally for barely a decade, producing four books, which despite his short career had a disproportionally large impact on photography
"A quote that I like very much… comes close to explaining my attitude about taking photographs…. “Chinese poetry rarely trespasses beyond the bounds of actuality… the great Chinese poets accept the world exactly as they find it in all its terms and with profound simplicity… they seldom talk about one thing in terms of another, but are able enough and sure enough as artists to make the ultimately exact terms become the beautiful terms"
- Stephen Shore
Stephen Shore is seen as a pioneer of American color photography and some of the most eminent modern color photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Martin Parr have all cited him as a major influence on their work. In this letter to one of his students at Bard College, Shore eloquently discusses artistic integrity, the motivations of work and the slippery path from photography to art:
"Dear Young Artist,
Yes, I think you can do both, participate in the art world and maintain your integrity. But your success in doing it depends on your relationship to your art.
I’ve been teaching at Bard College for more than twenty years. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet graduate students at several institutions over the years. More and more, I see students who are driven by a desire to have a show in Chelsea and be a successful artist. Certainly not all students, but I’ve seen a definite shift.
This is understandable, of course. However, for me, it has little to do with why I make art. I believe that art is made to explore the world and the culture, to explore the chosen medium, to explore one’s self. It is made to communicate, in the medium’s language, a perception, an observation, an understanding, an emotional or mental state. It is made to answer, or try to answer, questions. It is made for fun. In short, it is made in response to personal needs and demands.
A student might see a great work of art and say to himself, “This is a great work of art. I want to make a great work of art, too.” And so, the student sets out to try to do so. And if he has some talent, he might produce something that looks just as though it were a work of art —almost convincing. If one didn’t know any better one might actually mistake it for a work of art. The only problem is that the great work of art that the student so admired was not a product of these same motives. It was the by-product of the artist’s personal quest.
Having ambition is not a problem. In fact, ambition is necessary to be able to carve out the time needed to produce your work from the multitude of other demands on your life. The question is how that ambition is directed. If you adhere to your personal path, having shows and sales will not do any harm. In fact, you might actually make enough money to live, even live well. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. The problem comes when the market begins to influence your motives and decisions. If your work needs to evolve and change, it may mean abandoning an approach that brought you recognition.
Of course, you do want to establish your voice as an artist and to, as you put it, “develop a true sense of self.” But if you wait until you know you’ve finally found it, you may never have a show. Finding your voice may be a process, not a goal. I have students who start studying photography in college and tell me that they want to “express themselves.” I think to myself, “You’re only eighteen, how can you express yourself when you don’t know yourself?” But that shouldn’t deter them. In learning and practicing an art, they may embark on the path of finding themselves.
I have one final thought to add. In doing so, I may be misjudging you and doing you a disservice. But I sense from the tone of your letter that you may be using your moral dilemma as an excuse for not engaging in your work and that you are using your vulnerability to deflect criticism from me. Cut it out!
Good luck and best wishes,
Tivoli, New York"
Stephen Shore (1947 New York) pioneered the use of color in art photography in the 1970s. He is renowned for his ability to capture the colors and nuances of everyday life, capturing the beauty in the often mundane. In 1971, at the age of 24, Shore became the second living photographer to have a solo exhibition at the MoMA. Over the past three decades, he has become one of only a handful of photographers whose imagery has significantly impacted the future of color photography.
What can lessons can we learn from the great photographers?
Despite the fact that these letters were all penned in different times and at different points in the history of modern photography, there is a wealth of information for all photographers, not just young or aspiring photographers, to learn from. There are many takeaway messages from these writings, and much of the advice we can gain from them has been echoed by many of the great historic and contemporary photographers.
1. When it comes to gear, less is more.
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.”
- Ernst Haas
Stick to using the minimum possible amount of equipment. The fewer items and the more simple the better. You have to love your gear physically. Hold it in your hands for as long as needed until you feel comfortable with it. Then master it, as a craftsman would do with his tools, but remember that ultimately your gear reflects what you see.
The true limitations come from within rather than the limitations of your camera. The key message here is to love the equipment you’ve got to work with and train your eye.
2. As a photographer, the images should always come first
“Photography is a language. Think about what you want to use it to talk about. What are you interested in? What questions do you want to ask? Then go for it, and throw yourself into talking about that topic, using photography. Make a body of work about that.”
- Jonas Bendiksen
Photography is not a shortcut to anything. Not to becoming an artist, not as a transition to any other artistic disciplines, not to gain social recognition, not to make a fortune. Do not let any of these drive your photographic decisions, only the end result of the photograph.
Ultimately, as a photographer, your images are what is most important and these should be driven by what you want to say. Use photography as your tool to say what you want to share with the world, rather than for any other kind of reward.
3. Visual learning never stops
“Make your own mistakes. You need to have your own experience and nobody else can really tell you what to do.”
- Sohrab Hura
The photographer is a long-life student. Learning never ends. Keeping a curious and humble student mindset is an essential part of the photographic process. Self-criticism and constant work is the only path.
Mistakes happen as a by-product of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. These are just as valuable as your successes in improving your images and your approach.
4. Seek inspiration everywhere
“My advice to photographers is to get out there in the field and take photographs. But also, if they are students, to finish their course, learn as many languages as possible, go to movies, read books, visit museums, broaden your mind.”
- Martine Franck
Assimilate all you can from books, exhibitions, paintings, cinema or any other artistic fields. Get exposed to them, learn from what others have achieved before you and then put your own mark on them. Do not copy.
Remember to look outside the world of photography too. The world is your subject and the better you understand the things around you, and the closer you look at the everyday the better your images will be.
5. Don’t fall into the trap of clichés
“Study photography, see what people have achieved, but learn from it, don’t try photographically to be one of those people.”
- Chris Steele-Perkins
Escape the ordinary. Do not allow the vision of other people to come between the world and your own vision. Photograph only in response to your personal needs and demands. Focus on what something means to you and leave aside the rest.
Stay true to your message, learn from the masters but seek to be inspired and apply their successes to your own work, don’t replicate or lose your own vision.
6. Be hard on yourself
“Always be critical, question the conventions of the medium, and reflect on your own position and intentions as an artist.”
- Max Pinckers
Avoid visual pollution. Only keep the best images. Discard the average ones; otherwise one will tend to be subconsciously reproducing those again and again. This applies to all visual imagery you collect.
Nothing is ever perfect, keep questioning and you will keep improving. Push the boundaries of your photographs, try new things and new ways of saying things.
7. Photograph without expectations
“Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make shitty pictures that you don’t care about.”
- Christopher Anderson
Do not force yourself to take photographs. Enjoy roaming around, to wander without a purpose and above all, get away from what you already know.
Give yourself space to breathe and experiment. Success comes in the unexpected moments. Allow yourself the freedom to enjoy photographing and the rest will come in time.
These 3 books offer the best insight into the work of these master photographers. In the cases of Sergio Larrain, Vagabond Photographer and Steven Shore: Survey these are the only monographs published to date, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. They both do justice to the photographer´s work and include insightful essays as well. In the case of Strand, the long-unavailable 1983 Aperture classic Paul Strand: 60 years of photographs has been re-released and represents the best introduction to his work.
Some parting words: I hope you enjoyed reading these letters as much as I did. The advice given by these photographers is still incredibly relevant today. In an age when photographers are more interested in likes on Facebook and shares on Twitter, it is important to take a step back and look at what is important. The photographs. If you’ve read the letters above, why not share your views in the comments below? Do you still think, like me, that this advice is relevant today or do you think it is a relic of the age in which is what written?
Note: The copyright to all the images in this post belongs to respective photographer/gallery/agency. Thank you to Fermin for his help in writing the original article for Eyevoyage, from which this has been adapted and expanded.