This year marked a celebration of 177 years of our medium and the strides photography has taken. From being viewed as a gimmick and not respected as an art form, to becoming the dominant form of art and communication across the globe, it’s been an epic journey. Indeed, most of the things we take for granted today would not be possible without the medium of photography. We currently live in a world where anyone who owns a smartphone has instant access to acamera, and consumer grade digital cameras are extremely cheap and easy to use. So now everyone thinks they are, or can be, a photographer.
But what makes someone a professional photographer? What makes an artist? Part of it is gear, knowing what you need to make your vision happen, and knowing what you can ultimately do with your equipment. Part of it is getting paid, the general public having an appreciation for what you can do with your work. But how do we get to that place? The answer in my opinion is easy: know your craft.
When I started out the first thing I did was go to a friend of mine, a well known photographer in my area, and ask him if I could assist on some shoots and see if I even liked photography as a potential career path (SPOILER ALERT: yes I did). I assisted him on some really cool projects including a summer-long campaign for an internet furniture company. Next step, I went to art school for photography. One of the first courses required by the degree path was a pretty intense History of Photography. Covered everything from camera obscuras, to the “first”, or oldest surviving photograph from a camera, “View From the Window at Le Gras” by Nicéphore Niépce (which I had the pleasure of viewing a few years ago on a trip to Austin, TX where it is on permanent display in the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus), to the digital revolution. Learning about the history, the development of the medium, the different techniques that have come and gone, and then learning how to shoot, develop, and print film has absolutely made all the difference in my life and work.
What has imapacted my journey the most is the influence I have garnered by studying the photography greats of history: Muybridge, Stieglitz, Capa, Curtis, Mapplethorpe, Weston, Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Cunningham, Ray, Bourke-White, Weegee, Frank, Abbott, Steichen, Parks, and on and on. So if you are asking yourself, “How do I stand out?” Go back. Go back and study the greats. Stand on the shoulders of giants and hone your craft to a razors edge so that you can carve out a space for yourself in the pantheon of the best. Who knows, maybe one of us will get a spot in the MoMA or the next member of the Magnum stable of photographers. It is a goal we should all be striving for.
I someday want my name in a photographic history book. I don’t know how I’ll get there, but that’s the goal. It should be your goal, too. So learn about the greats, learn how they did what made them great, then add yourself to that knowledge base. This is how you will stand out.