The practice of photography can be like fashion. Or it can be a life long linear process.

A display in the window of the Nespresso Shop on Newberry.

As I sat trapped in a coach seat on an aged and tattered American Airlines airplane I had time to think about the whole spectrum of art photography. I wanted to have a clearer window into the different ways in which people who aren't using their cameras to make a living in a traditional, commercial application of photography approach their subjects and their understanding of style. How much is generated internally and how much is a reflexive reaction to a world inundated in images?

I spoke with a person in the film industry on Friday. We were talking about HMI lighting (yikes! more lighting from Kirk?) and he made a remark concerning still photographers. I give him credence since his background originally included a successful career in photography. His remark, in regards to the real lack of lighting acumen among most shooters was this: "There's no such thing as a good photographer under 40."

Rather than trying to be snarky what he was really trying to say is that it takes both 10,000 hours of working on a craft to even begin to get a sense of mastery, and that the first twenty years of working in the arts is a process of working through all the different styles and influences you are plagued with until you finally get to the point where your true visual and conceptual nature shine through and you are able to comfortably separate your work from the transient seduction of the photographic fashion of the moment. It's the point at which you decide that you don't need to learn HDR or layering or a specific method of fill lighting just because everyone else is doing it, in the moment. 

Said in a nicer and simpler way:  It takes time to find your voice.

Back in the 1960's John Szarkowski curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art in N.Y. called, Windows and Mirrors. Here's what the Museum's press release had to say about the show:

".......In John Szarkowski's view, the dominant motif of American photography during the past 20 years has been a movement "from public to private concerns." Unlike the generation of the 1930s and 40s, Szarkowski suggests, the generation that came to artistic maturity and public recognition after 1960 is 
characterized by a pursuit of highly personal visions of the world rather than by any attempt to offer a comprehensive program for social or aesthetic progress.

MIRRORS AND WINDOWS has been organized around Szarkowski's thesis that such personal visions take one of two forms. In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror--a romantic expression of the photographer's sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window--through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality. 

The 1950s marked the historical watershed in photography's turning away from public to private concerns for a whole complex of economic, social and technological factors including the decline of the great picture magazines (Life, Look) and the diminished commercial and, by extension, social opportunities available to the photographic professional. Two major influences 
in the realignment of photography's relation to the world were Minor White's magazine Aperture, which first appeared in 1952, and Robert Frank's 1959 book The Americans, a personal vision of the Eisenhower era. 

Between White, the prototypical "mirror," and Frank, the prototypical "window," there was defined, in Szarkowski's works, "a model for the fundamentally divergent concepts of photography's function," a model still "useful in the critical 
analysis of the continued evolution of American photography during the past two decades." 
Among the leading practioners of the "mirror" approach are Paul Caponigro; Jerry N. Uelsmann, whose surreal, technically stunning montages have been widely influential; Robert Heinecken; and painter Robert Rauschenberg,......" 

I was amazed that my memory of this show and of Szarkowski's thoughtful demarcation of the two houses of fine art photography was one of the first things that came into my mind as I grappled with my current opinion of where the momentum in photography resides and why I am so disquieted by the present trends in the art of our collective visual passion.

I've recently come to the conclusion that there are two spheres in our world of photography. There are images (the vast majority) that are "found." And then there are a tiny percentage of images that are "created." While most uses of cameras seem to be for documentation, or documentation with embellishment (cellphone images of today's breakfast taco with a bit of post production nostalgia thrown in....) and don't require more of a photographer than to wander about on a kind of scavenger hunt, looking for images that resonate because they are re-imagined icons of popular culture. Our re-capturing becomes just another echo... Even in this world there's a hierarchy. The most mundane on the bottom. The "street scenes" that mostly show a stranger's back. The gratuitous snap shot of your friend slurping coffee or smoking a cigarette. The top end of the hierarchy is arguably the landscape photo since it shows a higher form of active subject discrimination. A more nuanced search. But it's still an adventure in "found" work. Chances are that, because of the ubiquity of "found" photography and that implied saturation of that genre most of us would choose the same angles, the same basic icons, and make the same artifacts of our culture because we've already previously ingested the roadmap to the image, subconsciously.

Amazing to me is the idea that while we are all scavenging with our little cameras the people whose work we are fascinated with are busy "creating" their images. Whether it is Annie Leibovitz directing and demanding that people share in her vision of what their portrait should be (and making it up as surely as a movie) or Gregory Crewdson who imagines complex tableaus and then painstakingly creates them with crews of lighting professionals, actors and stylists. His images can take crews of forty or more to create and each is thoroughly imagined (created) before a single grip truck rolls.

David LaChapelle is another prime example of a photographer who created his own lush color fantasy world completely from his own fertile mind. It's the creation of a differentiated vision that compels us to be much more interested in this kind of work than in the vast majorities of mostly straightforward documentations. Look at the work of Chuck Close or even the lighting of Martin Schoeller.

Between the two spheres there is obviously a mix, or center ground, that gives us a bit from both pursuits. A fashion image by Peter Lindbergh is a combination of a found beauty subsequently written into a shooting concept which removes the found beauty from everyday and, by the application of lighting, posing, propping and rapport turns the object into a blend of conceptual and documented art.

In a more workaday sense, there are two kinds of portrait photographers. One is more or less documentary in nature, applying a set of accepting poses and lighting norms in order to make a documentation or enhanced found photo of the person in front of the camera. The more uniform the application of technical norms the less we are drawn toward the image. It becomes not a concept but cliched artifact of a portrait.

Then there are the portraits that reveal by collaboration and non-uniform technical structure. Marc Hauser rose to his highest stature on the strength of a series of black and white portraits done with very simple lighting but with wonderfully nuanced interpretations of non-artificial beauty in front of his camera. In some of his best work Arnold Newman's portraits are good examples of this successful intersection.

The work I've seen of someone like Zach Arias that rises above "normal" function are in his collection of studio portraits. Portraits that depend on his point of view and his direction of the subjects for their weight and value. His pursuit of exterior portraits always seem much more about working to get the technique correct more than interpreting a vision. Like a relatively new sailor trying to work a sail in a strong wind... But when he clicks in the studio it's transformative.

Like most fashionable pursuits I think we (in the collective sense) have embraced the "found" side of photography to excess over the last ten to twelve years. We've spent the time grappling with the effect of dealing with new technology instead of grappling with the exposure of our own inner visions and conceptual natures. We're constantly testing our cameras instead of testing ourselves. And it shows in a collective body of work that looks more forensic than narrative. More "cold, hard fact" than delicious and mysterious fiction.

The bottom line, I think, for the vast majority of practitioners who do this for the joy of discovering their vision, would be best served by doing just that. Now that we have a firm handle on how digital cameras work it's time to exit the cocoon of technical transition and get back to the real work of personalizing our work and exploring our own inner visions. We're not all sports photographers or war journalists. 

Stock photography has given us (as a culture) an endless supply of descriptive, documentary images of everything from the Eiffel Tower to cream cheese to every variation of the female nipple. We don't need to exactly replicate any of that. We didn't embrace this passion to become Zerox machines.  What might be interesting is setting up images that tell the stories in your mind. It takes more time and commitment but the pay off might be much more rewarding. Interpretation is usually more interesting than documentation...

We can shift the fashion of photography away from endless documentation. We can create images that don't exist in the world around us. We can choose our models and our intentional messaging and have fun with it. 

And once you find a subject matter (not style!) that works for you then you can dive in and do the hours it might take to translate your vision into a recognizable and diverse personal vision. And when you do the time you may end up with a genuine and unforced style you can call your own.

It's just a thought. Windows? Mirrors? As a portrait photographer I constantly vacillate between documentation and creation. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. But I mostly lose when I go on "auto pilot" and make a product. I'm more successful when I follow a plan in my brain instead of the ones in the books....

Edit: An interesting post over at NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2013/03/12/174043868/japanese-photography-a-tale-of-two-artists


  1. I know this one is not about gear but it's still okay to make comments and create a discussion. The above are just my opinions...I'm not stating them as unassailable facts...

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    2. A quick way to become irrelevant as a photographer.

    3. Kirk-- this is the INTERNET, dammit! You MUST state your opinions as unassailable facts!

  2. one of the best posts I have read on photography lately. "Vision", ironically, is not about regurgitating technical norms; it requires deep, humbling life experiences. You can't have perspective without empathy rooted in having traveled physically, emotionally and intellectually to the edges of your comfort zones. I dig this.

  3. Wow Kirk, pretty heavy stuff for a Sunday morning, but definitely a good read. Lately I have been thinking about some of points you made and it has helped me better define who I am as a photographer and if people don't like that then they can choose another photographer.

  4. Good reading, Kirk.

    Put more reductively, it seems to me to be exploring the differences between taking a photograph and making one.

    On that dichotomy, does extensive post-production editing turn a 'taken' photo into a 'made' one? I'd say it does most of the time (which is why I find it a little irking when a well-meaning commenter on Flickr says "Nice capture" or similar about a picture I've made).


  5. "Amazing to me is the idea that while we are all scavenging with our little cameras the people whose work we are fascinated with are busy "creating" their images."

    What's amazing to me is that, in my reading there appear to be these two photography worlds that have very little overlap or awareness of each other. Photographers who spend the bulk of their time in the commercial world do seem to be fascinated with people who construct their images. Photographers who spend the bulk of their time in the contemporary art world don't seem to have the same fascination. In some circles, Frank, Winogrand, Shore, and Eggleston are the patron saints, and people like LaChappelle and Liebovitz are hardly talked about at all. In other circles it's exactly the opposite.

    I don't really see the need to exalt one method of working over the other. Why should we hold mirrors over windows, or vice versa? Minor White and Robert Frank were both hugely influential and important--was either of them any "better" than the other? Cartier-Bresson "found" his images, Irving Penn "created" his. Should we value one more than the other?

    Or if you want to get more contemporary about it, should I value Crewdson or Dan Winters more highly than, say, Ron Jude or Alejandro Cartejena (to name a couple of more "found" photographers who have gotten some notice recently)? Or what about somebody like Alec Soth, who kind of falls in between?

    1. Interesting to me that the Boston Museum of Fine Art is currently having a show of photographs by Mario Testino. I guess they didn't get the memo about contemporary fascinations being relegated to one side of the aisle or the other....

      You'll note that I didn't say I thought one side had more value than the other, only that "found," "scavenged" and "discovered" works are over represented at the very moment in our cultural history as ART PHOTOGRAPHERS when the works of people who fabricated and totally controlled their imagery are ascendent in our collective taste. We can reach further back to Sandy Skoglund and even to Cindy Sherman for validation of the statement.

      As to the relative importance in the art history venue: definitely Crewdson. Dan Winters is a very proficient editorial photographer who also slides along the continuum in some of his work but....

    2. OK, but what is it that's making you say that "the works of people who fabricated and totally controlled their imagery are ascendant in our collective taste"? So the Boston Museum of Fine Art is having a Testino show. Well, SFMOMA just opened a huge Winogrand show. The HCSP group on Flickr somehow manages to have over 50,000 members and an active user forum despite Flickr's downturn. Street photography collectives like strange.rs seem to be expanding all over the place. And one of the biggest stories in photoland over the past few years has been the discovery of Vivian Maier. Google Street View has somehow managed to become one of the latest and more controversial fads. How does all that tell a story of constructed imagery being ascendant in our collective taste?

      And, sure, David Hobby and Joe McNally get a ton of followers wanting to learn about lighting. Tons of new contemporary photographers love to reference Avedon or Mapplethorpe. There's no lack of attention being paid to photographers who construct their images. But I don't see one "side" or the other being ascendant, or being the ones we're all fascinated with.

    3. I see a different topology. I must have a different vantage point.

      If you think McNally and Hobby are about creative concept and image construction then we're having two entirely separate conversations. I thought we were talking about art, not commerce.

      People participate in street photography, therein lies it's user popularity. What they revere is a totally different equation.

    4. I think that the reason that people are into the whole Strobist phenomenon is because they want to learn how to construct an image, and because those guys are very accessible. The fact that they are generally constructing images for commercial or editorial purposes instead of artistic purposes doesn't mean that they're not constructing the images.

      As far as what people revere, if you think that people don't revere Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Eggleston, Shore, and Winogrand, well, there's no other way I can put it other than to say that you're wrong. People also revere Irving Penn, Albert Watson, Richard Avedon, Man Ray, Sally Mann, Yousuf Karsh, Edward Weston, and any number of other people who constructed their images to one degree or another. I think you do a disservice to street photography and the people who practice it if you think that they are less passionate about the genre or less reverent of its patron saints than portraitists are of their genre and its masters.

  6. When I was starting out in the 70's I was scolded (gently) by an instructor who asked if I was going out "shopping for pictures". That was an enormously helpful comment that is still with me today.
    Thanks for a great post and a kick in the pants to eschew the autopilot for the hands-on, death-grip, full throttle immersion in your art.

    1. Thanks for the words from your instructor. I often find myself out shopping for pictures, and it rarely works...that comment will stay with me from now on.

  7. Thought provoking article. I believe there seems to be a human desire to categorize the world around them, be it photography or some other topic or craft or art or phenomenon. And the most common categorization appears to be the dichotomy: white or black, window or mirror, etc. Of course reality rarely precisely fits the categories. Most often reality is a continuum ranging from one ideal type extreme to the other.

    You Kirk and Szarkowski have selected the “mirror” or “window” dichotomy, a very powerful conceptual tool to help us understand the vast, ever-changing field of photography. Being of a less philosophical bent, I’ve always used a slightly different, yet similar dichotomy. I’ve classified photographers (and cinematographers) as either “realist” or “magical” photographers.

    The realist photographer, as I define it in this context, creates images by selecting slices of reality through framing and picking physical and temporal viewpoints. She starts out with the entire world and slices out a section to fill her frame.

    The magical photographer begins with a (usually) black frame of nothing. He then fills this black frame with image elements using light and props – the light usually is artificial and the props may be found or brought to the scene. He doesn’t frame an image, he creates one within the frame.

    I don’t think that one approach or the other is better or worse. Both tendencies have existed in photography and film making since the very beginning, Lumière and Méliès being two early examples.

    In my professional photographic/cinematographic life I started out as a convinced “realist.” Later in life I worked for a master of filling a black frame. I started out hating the concept, but actually learned a lot about photography by dealing with what’s required to fill a frame.

    1. Oh Peter, you brought a huge smile to my face!
      Freud would have a great time analyzing your judgement that realistic photographers are She's whilst magical photographers are He's............. ;-)

    2. > Most often reality is a continuum ranging from one ideal type extreme to the other.

      The idea that there are just two opposing poles is in itself an example of dichotomous thinking.

    3. the human brain seems to thrive on dichotomies.

  8. "The bottom line, I think, for the vast majority of practitioners who do this for the joy of discovering their vision, would be best served by doing just that. Now that we have a firm handle on how digital cameras work it's time to exit the cocoon of technical transition and get back to the real work of personalizing our work and exploring our own inner visions. We're not all sports photographers or war journalists."

    Yes, I believe that the evolution and revolution of the micro-chip which has freed and empowered the masses to evade the mystic of making a photograph has at the same time seduced the 'real' photographers/artists into trying to master digital technique and "the point where your true visual and conceptual nature shine through and you are able to comfortably separate your work from the transient seduction of the photographic fashion of the moment........" is lost/missed/forgotten.

    I personaly, find that I am shooting my digital photography pretty much in the same way as I my film photography. I learned how to use my digital camera to shoot the same way I shot with the film cameras and my post processing is very much what I'd do in the wet darkroom.

    Perhaps it's a generation thing, after all I have been shooting for 45+ years and have, I believe, found my 'thing/niche'. The only real difference is that I use a lot more colour shots, because they are there and I don't need to carry a second or third colour loaded body, but I still think in B + W and 50 shades of gray.

    Perhaps it's my ingrained reluctance to get bogged down by technology. I'm very impatient by nature and want to see my photograph as quickly as possible, because that's why I do what I do, so will use the minimum necessary to get there.

    Where I do use my software more is in my dance photography. It allows me to get to my vision much more easily and broadens my scope. My Street Photography 'style' hasn't changed much at all.

    As for re-creation, that's been around since the beginning of photography. It's been part of the Art & Photography education. Students sent out to copy masters. In today's terms copying digital technique. But, the vast majority will always remain copiers whilst the few creative talented will flourish whether they be Windows, Mirrors or iApples.

    I don't believe that being a Window or a Mirror really matters, it's the talent that counts.

  9. Having a vision and then realizing it, bringing it to life, is such an enormously difficult thing to do that most photographers are content with going out on the proverbial scavenger hunt. I'm often guilty of this as well. Simply having a vision is really where the challenge is. Interesting and worthy photographs can certainly be found, but even this process is more involved than simply going out with a camera and hoping for the best.

    The great David Lee Roth, yes the very same guy with the long hair and tarzan loincloth from the 1980's (if you know nothing of him he's a fascinating study and very well-read), was once asked by an interviewer how long it really took to write the lyrics for a Van Halen song...the interviewer not so subtly suggesting that the typical rock lyric was pretty dumb and meaningless. His response was, well...read a few thousand books, good ones, watch a few hundred movies and ponder them, have your heart broken a half dozen times, earn a fortune and lose it, preferably in the same calender year, climb a few mountains, travel to places that don't have water and electricity and don't speak your language...if you can do that it should take you about 20 minutes. I'm paraphrasing, but the point being that you need to fill up your basket before you can have anything really meaningful or interesting to say. Hence the 10,000 hour rule, or no good photographers under the age of 40.

    Great article Kirk, lots to ponder. Much more intriguing than the latest camera.

  10. Hi Kirk;

    Re HMI lighting: It’s only as good as the guy minding the generator. Being on Frequency is critical.

    As far as today’s lighting goes, everything you need to know is on the Strobists site – just ask Irving Penn.

    You recently pronounced that web sites were NOW about content and not about HTML/Flash gymnastics. Well, that goes for imagery too. All those folk who worked for Arnold Sacks and Saul Bass – who are now in business for themselves, know the difference – you know I’m right about this. The cream will always come to the top. The difference is even more dramatic today with most imagery not making the cut to the milk category.

    Re Szarkowsk: (a name I respect) To quote the Graphic Designer / Editor for the “Yearly Calendar” published by one of the two BIG camera Cos. (USA Group) – “I don’t care about any images that were made by dead white photographers” – when Ernst Haas’ work was suggested for a monthly image. This is the Flickerati generation in charge of “Taste” in corporate imagery.


    1. We as appreciators of photography have an obligation to search out a wider selection of images from more diverse sources. There are no longer intellectually capable gatekeepers, we have to perform that function for ourselves.

    2. “There are no longer intellectually capable gatekeepers..” I’m sure you’re correct in this.

      I can only speak for myself: I don’t base my regard for image quality on the artist’s ethnicity or a presence on this planet. What if we viewed Science and Mathematics in this manor? Erase the past – if it’s not on Facebook/Flickr – it’s not important..

      There may be some bright ones in the “new photo community” but, from the crop that come looking for work –. They have never seen a screwdriver and few think a portfolio is necessary. They are however great at ordering coffee/snacks: they have the Starrbucks menu committed to memory. Just my experience.


  11. Can I humbly suggest that of all your posts I believe this to be arguably the best. Keep up this type of thought provoking comment please and thanks for all your posts!

  12. --"There's no such thing as a good photographer under 40."--

    Whew, at least I have an excuse now!


    1. Adam, please remember, that's not MY quote. I'm pretty sure I was a superb photographer by at least......36. And then there are all the outliers.

  13. A real good post. Thanks.It gives me something to think. As an amateur I find myself swinging between a documentary realistic style and a more personal attempt to make, to build my own photography. But this means a long term projects, a lot of energy and dedication. It is not easy, attempts, trials, errors are part of the game. But when it works it will be more rewarding. It's a long way...and I'm 64 !

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  15. Saw a link to this post on Petapixel. ;)

  16. "Back in the 1960's John Szarkowski curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art in N.Y. called, Windows and Mirrors."

    Szarkowski curated "Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960" and exhibited the show at the MoMA in *1978*.


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