“Empathy, optimism and lots of spare batteries”: Legendary photographers’ advice for a creative life

Shoot for the stars.
Shoot for the stars.
Image: Reuters/Gene Blevins
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The online photography magazine Lensculture has published a short, free PDF guide chock full of advice for young photographers from the members of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.

Coming from a variety of disciplines, from fine art portraiture to gritty war photography, the Magnum roster is comprised of photographers working is many different corners of the photo industry.

Some photographers, such as Steve McCurry and David Allen Harvey, shot on assignment for magazines when the industry was at its peak and photographers were paid far more handsomely than they are today. Many of the younger members today don’t necessarily depend on assignment work the way photographers may have 30 years ago and devote more time to artists grants and personal projects.

The combined wisdom in the short publication “Wear Good Shoes: Inspiring Advice from Magnum Photographers,” offers some practical advice for the aspiring photographer. But the wisdom doesn’t apply only to photographers. The central idea in much of this advice is that creators must pursue a clear personal vision, as free from compromise as possible.

Alec Soth’s advice is particularly helpful for a person starting out in a new field:

Try everything. Photojournalism, fashion, portraiture, nudes, whatever. You won’t know what kind of photographer you are until you try it. During one summer vacation (in college) I worked for a born-again tabletop photographer. All day long we’d photograph socks and listen to Christian radio. That summer I learned I was neither a studio photographer nor a born-again Christian.

Mark Stuart reminds the young creative that nothing worthwhile comes without perseverance:

Time… It’s all about time. You need lots of it. If you can afford this most cherished commodity, then you will be well on your way. Apart from that, good shoes, a degree of empathy, optimism and lots of spare batteries.

David Allen Harvey preaches finding an authentic voice over technical wizardry or an obsession with success:

It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. Many young photographers come to me and tell me their motivation for being a photographer is to ‘travel the world’ or to ‘make a name’ for themselves. Wrong answers in my opinion. Those are collateral incidentals or perhaps even the disadvantages of being a photographer. Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings and something almost literary to contribute to the discussion, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Those thoughts are summed up a bit more succinctly by Christopher Anderson:

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.

And Elliot Erwitt offers the most basic nugget of wisdom:

Learn the craft (which is not very hard).