You can see the original article I wrote on David Alan Harvey here.
I just finished a week-long workshop with David Alan Harvey as a part of the Provincetown Magnum Days event. I have already written an article on the lessons I’ve learned from David Alan Harvey– but wanted to use this opportunity to further expand on what I’ve learned from him, and also add some new things I’ve learned. Here I go!
1. Be sophisticated
I want to become the best photographer I possibly can. This means that I can no longer compare my work to photographers on Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram. I want to compare my work to the Magnum photographers– and get brutally honest feedback and critique from them. There is a saying in Sociology: “You are the average of the 5 closest people to you.” If I surround myself with only great photographers– I will become great (or aspire to be great) via osmosis. It is like stepping into a perfume store– I will naturally gain the scent (by being around others).
But simply being around the masters isn’t enough. I need to consume, inhale, and digest the work of the greats. I highly admire David Alan Harvey’s color street photography– and I want to elevate my color work to the next level.
Harvey shared during the workshop, “Nowadays– photographers must be sophisticated.” He shared how so many photographers create great work now, and it is very easy to take a “technically proficient” image. In fact, it is easy to take a great image now. But that isn’t enough– a photographer needs to learn how to make a body of work that stands on its own– a series of strong images. Kind of like a necklace strung together with pearls (pearls being photographs).
Therefore when he started the workshop and gave us all critiques– he told us that he going to give us “tough love”. He told us that he “doesn’t bullshit people” – and wanted to critique our work compared to Magnum photographers, to give people a fair assessment of how their work stacks up in the whole field of photography.
It isn’t necesarily fair to compare someone who has only been shooting street photography for 6 months (against a Magnum photographer). I still do firmly believe that a photographer should compete against him/herself– to be the best photographer he/she can become.
But at the same time– you need to ask yourself: “How good do I really want to become?”
I want to become the best photographer I possibly can– and I feel that trying to become more “sophisticated” in my work is what is going to help me get there.
So during the workshop with Costa Manos and David Alan Harvey, I wasn’t looking for pats on the back. Sure it is a huge ego boost to get a pat on the back, but it is brutally honest feedback and critique which I needed.
So when getting feedback and critique from David and the other Magnum photographers– I asked them to tear apart my work and be brutally honest with me. When they critiqued my work, I didn’t defend myself or my work. I just kept my mouth shut, and nodded. I asked them to help me find holes in my work, and advice where I could take my work.
Ask yourself: “How good do I want to be?” Think to yourself– do you really want to become a great photographer? Are you willing to put in the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears to elevate your photography to the next level – and possibly be on the same level as Magnum photographers?
I think external recognition is bullshit and a way to depression and anxiety. So become the best photographer you possibly can, and try to make your work more sophisticated.
How do you create more sophisticated work? Here are some tips of things I recommend avoiding:
a) Avoid Cliches
You can start off by avoiding cliches. Avoid simple black and white photos of people walking past billboards.
b) Avoid Single Images
David Alan Harvey is only interested in series, projects, and photo-essays.
I see a lot of photographers online just trying to create strong single-images that will get them a lot of “Likes” and “Favorites” on social media.
While I do think there is a lot of merit behind strong single images, I still feel that the greatest photographers are the ones who put together a body of work.
A body of work is a series of images that has a statement about yourself, about society, or a message you are trying to get across to your viewer. Very rarely do photographers become great just based off of a bundle of disjointed single-images. Of course there are exceptions (Elliott Erwitt and Steve McCurry), but I still feel the best examples are the ones with bodies of work (Josef Koudelka and “Gypsies”, Martin Parr and “The Last Resort”, David Alan Harvey and “Divided Soul”).
c) Avoid showing bad images
I think to build sophistication in your work– you don’t want to show bad images. You need to edit ruthlessly (only share your best work) – and let your images sit and marinate a long time before sharing them.
For example, I have a simple rule of thumb: it takes me at least a year before I can emotionally disconnect myself from a photograph to realize whether it is good or not. This will also give you enough time to sit down with other photographers face-to-face to get an honest appraisal and critique of your work.
d) Know what makes a great photograph (and body of work)
To become a more sophisticated photographer, you first need to know what makes a great photographer.
As a simple assignment, do the following (inspired by Charlie Kirk: Go to the magnumphotos.com website and look at all the photographs in all the photographer’s portfolios. Look at each body of work and ask yourself: “What makes their work so great? What makes their work better than mine? How has their single images resonated with many others? What statements do their bodies of work say? Which of their photos do I not appreciate or understand, but why do others like them?”
I also highly encourage spending as much money as you possibly can on photographic education: on photography books, workshops, and travel. Of course don’t just go out and buy a 1000 books (and not read any of them) – but surround yourself with great photography and inspiration. Avoid gear-review sites, gear rumor sites– anything that will lead to G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). Rather, whenever you get an urge to buy a new camera remember: “Buy books, not gear.”
2. Absorb inspiration from outside arts
David Alan Harvey gains his biggest inspiration from things outside of photography. In fact, he says he isn’t very inspired by photographers. He gained his largest inspiration from literature, paintings, and music.
He also loved French painters, because they could “make something from nothing.” Kind of like street photography– you don’t need fancy models, double rainbows, sunsets to make interesting photos. You can just go out on the streets, and snap whatever interests you.
Using the literature analogy– he sees himself as an author, not a photographer. He sees himself as an image-maker, and puts images together to have a larger context as a theme. Kind of how a musician puts his/her music into an album– into a larger body of work, as a larger theme.
Even when it comes to composition, he sees it like “writing sentences.” However just because you write good sentences doesn’t mean you can write a book.
He therefore sees putting together photos as the most important thing (rather than just making strong single-images). In a book, you need a narrative: you need a beginning, a middle, and end. That isn’t possible with just one sentence.
Similarly in photography if you want to build a narrative– you need a series of images that stitch together a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the sequencing matters and is important.
At the end of the day, photography is just another form of art and communication. And with photography– you want to communicate something to your viewer. Whether it is an idea, an emotion, or a concept.
I think the best photographers are the ones that gain their inspiration from outside and disparate fields (music, literature, painting, sculpture, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, etc).
They say that creativity is just putting together two different concepts and ideas– and synthesizing them into some new and novel way.
So for me, I actually gain my biggest influence from philosophy, psychology, and sociology. In my street photography– I am trying to understand humanity and social interactions. At the end of the day, I see myself less as a photographer– and more of a sociologist with a camera as my research tool.
So don’t feel constrained that you just have to look at photography to gain inspiration.
My suggestion: follow your curiosity. If there is anything that interests you, follow it like a dog follows a scent. Be obsessive. Consume the arts like you would if you were hungry and suddenly discovered a buffet in the middle of a desert. If you somehow like interior decoration and design, look at that and study it. Perhaps that can shape how you create the inner-space in your photographs. If you are into engineering or science, perhaps that can help improve your compositions in your photography. If you like poetry, perhaps that can help your editing and sequencing of images. If you like history, perhaps you can see your photographs as historical documents.
3. Limitations are freedom
Nowadays we hate limits. We want to be “limit-less”. We don’t want any constraints in our life, our time, or relationships, or our photography.
However one thing that really inspired me was how David Alan Harvey said: “Limits are freedom.”
a) Limitations in equipment
For example, he only shoots with one lens (roughly a 35mm equivalent). This means that he has already made the decision what size his canvas is (if you use a painting analogy). Sometimes painters get stressed out because they don’t know what size canvas to paint on. But if you already pre-select your canvas size, you paint around those constraints.
The same thing in photography: by choosing just one camera and one lens: you set a limitation on yourself– which ultimately gives you more freedom. You know what equipment you are bounded to (so there is no stress in terms of what camera or lens to use that day). And once you realize that limitation, you no longer have any excuses– you just go out and shoot.
He even said the following:
“Too much choices will screw up your life. Work on one thing, then expand on your canvas.”
Another nice example: Harvey told us that limiting his equipment is liberating, in the sense that he can dance while drinking a beer. He said if you have lots of cameras and a zoom lens, you can’t dance.
So our best asset as creatives and photographers is this: our limits.
b) Limitations in area
David Alan Harvey also limits the areas in which he shoots. For example, when he was photographing the world cup in Brazil, he did most of his shooting in the one mile or so around his hotel. He said this helped him in many ways: he conserved his energy (he isn’t as young as he used to be) and I believe it forced him to be more limited with the canvas or area he could photograph.
I can relate with this example. About 3 years ago, Jacob Patterson from the ThinkTank gallery in Downtown LA came up with a street photography competition/exhibition: You were only allowed to photograph on one square-block (both sides of the street) in the Fashion District in Downtown LA. And you had to present your best 3 images for the show.
At first, it was quite frustrating. I wanted to have more freedom to roam around the streets. But soon, I discovered the benefits: you became to know the area really damn well, built friendships with the locals, and also forced yourself to be creative in such a limited area, space, and canvas. Ultimately myself (and others) ended up creating strong work in about a month of just shooting that one square block.
Sometimes I want to be limitless in terms of the area that I shoot. I get bored quite easily with an area– I love novelty.
However I am starting to realize the benefits of limiting the location or area you shoot. It helps you to get to know an area much better, and to build a body of work with more consistency. The best projects I have seen are generally on one subject matter, or one location.
c) Limit your direction
Also when David Alan Harvey sees a good scene he wants to photograph, he limits his direction.
For example, when he was working on a book on Hip Hop Culture – he was able to gain access to a strip club in the Bronx in NYC. He followed his guys into the club, and kept his camera facing the same direction the entire time. The guys soon started to ignore his presence, and all the while– David is working the scene. I think in the few hours he was there, he took over 600+ photographs.
I think that when you see a good scene in street photography (an interesting situation, wall, or area) – keep your eyes fixated on that area, and see how you can milk a great photo of that area. You perhaps might want to build an interesting foreground, middleground, and background. You wait for the elements and subjects in the background to move around, until you get the perfect arrangement of elements in the frame.
3. Don’t be easily satisfied
I think if you want to truly become a great photographer– you can’t be easily satisfied.
One of the things that David shared with us is the downside of shooting digital: in the sense that a lot of young photographers are self-satisfied too quickly by looking at the LCD.
David shared the biggest error many young photographers make: stopping too soon.
For example, when he sees a good photographic scene– he will take dozens (or even hundreds) of photographs of it (if necessary). He shoots digital now, and it has given him even more freedom to take more photos of a scene– to truly get that perfect image.
The problem with looking at your LCD screen while shooting (“Chimping”) is that it kills your flow. By seeing your LCD screen too quickly, you are too easily satisfied with what you have (rather than thinking if you can get a better shot). This is actually one of the biggest benefits of shooting digital for me– to not become easily satisfied, to keep up the hustle because I am unsure whether I “got the shot.”
I think there is a big “myth of the decisive moment” in street photography– in the sense that we think that the great photos of history were just in 1 shot. In-fact, if you look at Magnum Contact Sheets, you can see that the greatest photos in history often take many attempts of photographers “working the scene” to get the perfect image.
Don’t be easily satisfied with your photography. As Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” Keep up the hustle. Keep pushing your boundaries. Don’t be satisfied with what you already have– aspire to become even greater– to become even a more amazing photographer.
The second you are satisfied with your photography is the second you become complacent. I think the biggest secret of success in photography (and life) is this: avoid complacency. Continue to create even better work, reinvent yourself, your process– whatever will take you to the next level.
And don’t chimp.
As David Alan Harvey said during the workshop, “Don’t fucking stop. Don’t stop short. Squeeze the last drop from the lemon.”
4. On taking your photos to the next level
This point expands on the previous points a bit.
David Alan Harvey works hard. Really hard. When he is out shooting, he will put in 14–16 hour days. However what he is really looking for is only 3 good situations. And once he finds those situations, he will “work the scene forever.” In-fact, he mentions that a lot of photographers he knows get frustrated with him– because he will take forever to just make one photograph (by shooting dozens if not hundreds).
He wants to take his photos one step further. He told us an analogy of doing a high jump: an 8 foot high-jump is a good jump. But “…if 20 people can jump that high, you want the edge. You want to jump even higher.”
Also on the previous point– he doesn’t waste his energy moving around too much around a city. He will find a few good areas and milk it all its worth. He shared the advice:
“Don’t walk and look for photos. Don’t waste energy. Stay somewhere until you absolutely nail it.”
He wants to avoid complacency. He said:
“Don’t go for ‘good enough’. If you are a racecar driver, you want to drive it a 15th of a second faster. A little better is a whole lot better.”
David Alan Harvey mentions the importance of going for “top-level photos.” He told us (I am paraphrasing):
“Some people have a tiny edge. It shows, because they are the ones who will get their book published. So study the top people, don’t set your standards by a Flickr group. Study the masters, from the past to the present. Study the difference between the best photographers. Critique your work compared to the best. Don’t dumb it down. Don’t just go for ‘ok’. Be better than photos you’ve already seen. Go for better than your own best.”
Imagine yourself as an athlete (not like a photographer). You want a small edge– but it is that small edge in a top-performance that will make all the difference.
If you are an olympic weight-lifter and you can deadlift 600 pounds, deadlifting 602 pounds can make all the difference.
If you are a sprinter and you can run 1/100th of a second faster– that makes all the difference.
If you are a writer and you can out-publish your peers by 1 book a year, you have the edge.
If you are a photographer and you make your work just a little bit better than all the other photos you have seen before– you have the edge.
Avoid “good enough” – aim for better.
5. Have something to say
As an author– you want to have something to say. Being a photographer is the same thing. You don’t want to just take photos of whatever on the streets– just because it is weird, funny, or amusing. You want to say something deeper.
The best authors pour their hearts and souls into their work. They show the world their unique perspective, their vision– and make themselves vulnerable.
As a photographer– you want to share with the world your unique vision. You don’t want to just imitate others, and imitate the work you have seen the world.
How do you see the world differently? How is your vision unique? What do you want to say (that hasn’t been said before)?
Do you want to become a great photographer? Because it takes a lot of work. Do you want to take your photography to the upper-level, or do you just want to be a hobbyist? What do you have to say about the world?
David Alan Harvey said this perfectly: “You can’t be an author unless you have something to say.”
He also told us this advice (once again paraphrasing):
“End up looking like your pictures. Magnum photographers photograph who they are. Alex Webb has an intellectual approach. He and Henri Cartier-Bresson pull back from people, and don’t drink beers with people (while I do). You must show your personality in your photos. Cindy Sherman, Dwayne Michaels, and Sally Man do this well.”
I don’t think there is anything such as “objectivity” in photography. You deicde what to include in the frame, and what to exclude. Therefore photography is your own unique vision and perspective of the world. You choose the focal length, where to stand, and when to click the shutter.
As a street photographer, you don’t have the same ethical duties as a photojournalist or documentary photographer. You want to give your unique viewpoint.
If you can see yourself through your images– you have accomplished your goal.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was first a painter, then a photographer. He called his photographs just as small sketches from everyday life. He was more interested in drawing/painting than photography. He also was immensely obsessed with composition, and it shows in his work.
Daido Moriyama’s photos are dark, edgy– and have a sense of loneliness, despair, and confusion. This works well in his gritty black and white work– in which he is wandering.
Jacob Aue Sobol craves intimacy. You see it in his images. He gets close to his subjects– he has them trust him. He is very direct and head-on.
Bruce Gilden is a rough and tough New Yorker. He is criticized the way he shoots, but that is who he is. He is a brash and upfront person.
Martin Parr is a social critic. You can see it through his images, that aren’t positive portrayals of humanity and society.
So what about your vision is unique– and what are you trying to say?
6. Capture soul and emotion
David Alan Harvey was a fan of Diane Arbus– in the sense that she “…got the souls of people in photos.”
He also told us the following (paraphrased):
“You need photos that ‘screams something.’ You need hate, sadness, fear, and emotion. You need extreme blood or death, or go very very quiet and bland, or with mysterious photos. You need to go one way or the other. Photos can be esoteric or specific. Don’t stop short.”
Harvey also encouraged us the following:
“Work on something you’re personanlly connected to. Composing light and shadows– fuck that. Have something to say.”
I think a photo without emotion is dead. Sure you can make all these fancy layers, compositions, lights, colors, shadows, etc in photos– but if they don’t have some deeper sense of what it means to be human, who cares?
I think the best photos are the ones that are emotional– that have soul. Photos that hit you in the heart, and burn themselves into your mind.
As human beings, we are an emotional and social being. If we can harness that visceral part of what it means to be a human being through our images– it will create much more memorable and meaningful images.
7. Don’t fuck up
One of the students in the workshop works as a wedding photographer. David Alan Harvey said that wedding photographers actually make strong photographers– because of the following rationale (paraphrased):
“Weding photographers are good, they need to get the moment. They can’t fuck up. Wedding photographers can’t be lazy, they need to go in for the moment, and understand the light. There are now a lot of good photographers that come from wedding photography. The wedding photographers are the new photojournalists of the times. The old generation were all newspaper photographers (but they are dying off).”
David Alan Harvey also told us the importance of having pressure and discipline in photography (paraphrased):
“You can’t get good photos without discipline, hard work, and pressure. You need to be forced a little bit – you need a little pressure to make good pictures.”
I have once heard the quote, “Pressure makes diamonds.”
I believe it firmly. If I didn’t have an audience for my photography – I wouldn’t work hard to make good images, and edit brutally. Similarly, one of the biggest reasons I work hard writing and blogging is because I know that I have you as a reader to please and help– and a community that depends on me to write consistently.
Wedding photographers often get a bad rep. I know a lot of people are snobs towards wedding photography. But honestly (if you shoot weddings and are looked down by other photographers) – fuck them. You work hard. You have the pressure to make strong images to please your clients. Avoid snobby photographers.
But anyways going back to the point– remember that life isn’t easy. I think it is Marcus Aurelius who once said, “Life is more like wrestling than dancing.”
If you want to truly become a great photographer (not everyone does) – you need to push yourself, to have pressure, and to have constraints.
For example, I know a lot of academics who cannot get work done without a deadline. Similarly, if you set a limit on the time it will take you to work on a project (for example a week-long photography workshop), you will be forced and pressured to make good photos.
For example, when I did the workshop with David Alan Harvey, I technically only had 2 nights to work on my project. I was quite stressed and pressured– but it forced me to work hard and make good photos. I ended up going to this one bar in Provincetown called “The Old Colony” – had a few beers, took along my camera, and broke outside of my comfort zone to make portraits of people inside the bar. I talked to strangers I normally wouldn’t feel comfortable with– but ended up having a great time with them, having introspective conversations, while also making good photos.
8. Keep it simple
One of the biggest takeaways I got from the workshop with David Alan Harvey (and pieces of advice about life) was to keep it simple.
He told us that almost all of the great photo projects in history have had a pretty simple concept– but were executed pretty well. Nowadays a lot of photographers go for very complex concepts in their photography. But it is the simple that gives you focus and direction.
For example, David Alan Harvey, Costa Manos, Susan Meiselas all liked my “Suits” project– because it was simple (I photograph suits), and it had a consistent mood (gloomy, depressing). They all encouraged me to continue to work on it – as it was a simple yet strong project that I could do well.
When you are working on a photography project– avoid the art school approach. Don’t go for some super-grand idea or concept. Keep it simple. Make photos that stick to your theme, and are easily understandable (but done well).
One approach is “typology”– in which you literally photograph a single subject matter. So for example in my “Suits” project– I just photograph men wearing suits (suit and tie). For Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies” project– he traveled, lived, and photographed the Roma people (politically correct term for ‘Gypsies’) for 10 years.
Another approach is location-based. You can just photograph and document one area or location. For example, in Martin Parr’s “The Last Resort” – he photographed Brighton Beach in the UK for a few summers. Another example, William Eggleston has done most of his photography in his hometown– and the project and theme of his work is just based on that area.
9. Squeeze personal work from professional work
I have a lot of photography friends who work as professional photographers– and get burnt out and tell me that they have no time to work on personal work.
However one great insight I gained from DAH was this: “Squeeze your personal work from your professional work.”
David Alan Harvey told us it was a myth that all of these Magnum photographers would have unlimited time to work on their personal photography on the side. Rather, they would try to squeeze in their personal work (while on assignment), or in-between assignments.
For example, Elliott Erwitt has a lot of his professional work done during commerical shoots (when he sees something wacky or strange happening). I even know some photographers who make interesting candid ‘street photos’ while photographing a wedding (on the side).
If you work in a business (or something non-photography-related) try to squeeze in your personal work in your everyday life. If you work in an office, work on a project on offices (see Lars Tunbjork’s “Office” book). If you work as a doctor, see if you can document your daily life as a doctor– or perhaps even photograph your patients (outside of the office). If you work as a teacher, photograph your students (if possible). If you are a student, do a self-documentary series of your life of a student, and photograph your friends.
I think the secret to being a great photographer is to have your photography accomodate your everyday life– rather than trying to accomodate our everyday life for your photography.
Personally even though I am technically a “full-time street photographer” in the sense that I make my living teaching street photography workshops, I very rarely have huge blocks of time to just wander and shoot. Like you, I have to answer emails, do my finances, go to the grocery for milk and eggs, run errands, fill the car with gas, drop off Cindy to class, and all the other things of everyday life.
So what I do is photograph every opportunity I can. I will go into a store shopping for a watch, and ask the salesperson if I can take their portrait. I will be on the way driving somewhere, and see an interesting urban landscape– pull over, and take a photo. I will sometimes be stuck in traffic, and photograph from inside my car (looking out, similar to Lee Friedlanders’ “America by car” series). If I am at dinner with Cindy, I will try to take an artistic portrait of her.
Regardless of how busy you are, don’t make excuses– make photos.
According to David Alan Harvey, another big mistake that a lot of photographers make is the following: They don’t stick to something long enough, and they don’t finish. He elaborates below (paraphrased):
“Photographers tend not to finish. They get started, but don’t end it. Relationships with projects are like relationships with somebody. It is easy to get romantically involved in the beginning, with nice wine and candlelit dinners. The same is with a photography project. In the beginning, you are interested– then most people quit. Personally I only finish 1/10 of the things I start, which is pretty good. However most people don’t even do any of the ten. Finish!”
David elaborates on the long process it takes to work on a project or book (paraphrased):
“The first photography project you work on is like a flutter of love– it is easy. But going all the way to a book or all the way to 60 years of marriage is the same thing. Finish the whole long process to make a book. You need fortitude.”
He also uses the analogy of the left brain (which is generally associated with the analytical and rational side of the brain) and the right brain (the more artistic side):
“You need to shoot with the right side of the brain (passion). To finish, you need to use the left side of the brain to get it done. If you can’t, you need help. Everyone has both sides. Figure out what is your weakest point, and have someone else help you with that side.”
Harvey brings up the importance of having a partner help you (paraphrased):
“With Sebastian Salgado, his wife ties his shoes, and is his business manager. So if you don’t have any business sense, get a wife or a husband to do the business side of things. Having a real partner is the way to go. It is very hard to have someone else dedicated to you for so many years. Think carefully who you choose.”
11. On editing
Some advice David Alan Harvey gave on editing (choosing your best images):
- David Alan Harvey recommends Photo Mechanic (or Lightroom) – whatever works for you.
- Don’t shoot both black and white and color in the same series.
- When sending your photos for critique, don’t sent more than 10 photos in a day (less is more).
- Treat flash cards like film. Keep your flash cards, and don’t delete anything. Your flash card is the best hard drive– because they are more robust and not as likely to crash as a spinning hard drive. But realize that eventually, everything will fail (importance of having multiple backups). DAH keeps all of his original flash cards in ziplock bags.
- When you share your photos for a critique, create an “A edit” (your best images) and a “B edit” (your ‘maybe’ photos that you are unsure about).
When presenting your work he told us: “You want to present the best work you can.”
12. On immersing yourself in great work
A quote I wanted to share from DAH I found inspirational (and insightful in building up your taste for good photography):
“The best is immersing yourself in all the great photo books that have been done. The more books you read is like the more music you listen to. If you look at a lot of photos, you subliminally take your taste level up. Suddenly, the more experienced you get, the people you first really liked, you find that they’ren ot that good.”
So once again– look at the work of the masters, and invest in good photography books. Currently off the top of my head, the books I recommend everyone buy:
- “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka (available for pre-order)
- “The Last Resort” by Martin Parr
- “Veins” by Jacob Aue Sobol/Anders Petersen
- “The Americans” by Robert Frank
- “Magnum Contact Sheets”
Harvey also shared that, “The book is the ultimate goal of a photographer” and that it will always exist.
I often get anxious because I want a lot of validation via likes/favorites on social media. But who gives a shit about my Facebook, Flickr, or Instagram 50 years from now. Will it still be around? I doubt it.
But books will remain. I hope to make at least 1 good photography book before I die. Then I will have accomplished my job as a photographer.
So make your goal as a photographer to make at least one good book before you die. “Divided Soul” by David Alan Harvey (I think it is his best work) took him 10 years to complete. “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka took him about 10 years. “Wonderland” by Jason Eskenazi took him about 10 years. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take that long to make a great project (“The Last Resort” took Martin Parr around 2 years)– but great work often takes a long time. So don’t be in a rush– take your time.
I reckon if you can make 1 good photo once a month for your project, you should be able to make a good book in 3–5 years. And if you take 10 years and focus on just one project– you will make a damn fine book (if you work hard and edit ruthlessly).
You can see some recommended street photography books here.
13. Avoid the negative bullshit
David Alan Harvey mentions that there are a lot of negativity in photography. What he said in the workshop (paraphrased):
“Pissed off photographers will always find something wrong with the system, and eat themselves alive. Avoid the negative bullshit. Do your best pictures, and pretend you have an assignment for a magazine.”
It is easy to get caught up with negativity and bullshit when it comes to social media. There are a lot of negative, dissatisfied, and frustrated photographers that vent on Flickr threads, Facebook groups, online forums, etc.
Instead of focusing on negativity– focus on positivity. Surround yourself with other inspired photographers who spend more time taking photos than complaining about the photography market, and gossiping about other photographers.
14. On working on projects
David Alan Harvey further gave lots of good advice when working on projects, books, magazines, etc.
He talks about how a photographer can work in terms of publishing his/her work:
“We should try to get our photos to the magazine level, then a book/exhibition, then collector print.”
How to get your work into magazines
Harvey also gave some good advice on how to get your work into magazines: First of all, have an idea, and if you do your homework, present the idea. Don’t talk about the potential photos you will take, tell them about the story you want to take. Magazines are interested in stories, not just photographs.
In regards to getting an assignment, he also told us the following advice (paraphrased):
“It is always better to have somethign in progress to get an assignment .Have a unique story you’re already working on. Nobody is going to sign you to a magazine based on your portfolio.”
He says that magazines need to know you are already resilient as a photographer– and you have the tenacity to work on a project under pressure. So therefore by showing a work-in-progress, you already show the magazine what you are capable of.
When working on a project
Below are also some practical tips when it comes to working on a project:
- In a project, avoid photos that are too similar.
- “You either need variety or no variety in a photo project.”
- You need a ‘body of work’ – like putting together a set of poems.
- “Half of the battle is having a good sense of purpose, a good idea, and a good title.”
- “Once you pick your canvas size, you have all the freedom in the world.” (Canvas size as the camera, lens, equipment, subject matter, space).
- “Easy is hard. I tis hard to get to easy.”
- Don’t get carried away with too many stories. Just focus on one story.
- “Don’t overthink this shit.”
- Great photographers have a simple idea: Ansel Adams just chose Yosemite. Most photographers do a really simple subject.
- “You can make your projects complex to some degree, but don’t make it complicated.”
- “The biggest mistake photographers make: don’t feel like you have to be an encyclopedia. Just get to the heart of a story. Just do one thing!”
On creating a title
When creating titles for his books, David Alan Harvey gains inspiration from literature. For example, he got his title: “Divided soul” from a book he read.
Another strategy is to write down keywords (cultural or literary-based). For example: Passion, blood, machismo. Stuff your brain with keywords, and suddenly good titles will go into your brain, and come to you like a flash of insight. It isn’t a linear process. And it is really important to have a good title.
He also gave us the advice that when working on a project (of let’s say 50 images) – the first 10 photos are easy. The last 40 are really hard– as you are competing with the first 10 images. A lot of images will replace the first 10 images.
Also he said: “Photos now need to be very sophisticated, so to just have a book of strong single images isn’t enough.”
15. On technology (shooting on iPhones)
David Alan Harvey is quite progressive when it comes to technology and photography. For example for his “Based on a true story” book in Rio – he shot it on a Leica M9, Panasonic GF–1, and even an iPhone. The tool doesn’t really matter to him much.
This is what he said about the benefits of shooting with a phone:
“Sooner or later, we will all take photos with the phone (think about the new iPhone 6 coming out). It is a part of your body. You turn it on quickly. The quality is good, you can’t tell the difference once you get it printed it in a magazine. Only problems with phones are that you can’t get a shallow depth-of-field. But you can use a DSLR for low depth-of-field photos. With a phone, there is a certain type of looseness you have. If everyone shot with phones, we would all get better. You can dance with your phone. The phone is good to work with.”
He also describes the experience shooting on a phone:
“You can use the phone like an 8×10 view camera– like looking through a ground glass. I don’t use the viewfinder much anymore (I prefer live view). There’s no machine in-between when taking photos with a phone. If I could choose my ideal setup, I would use a digital Leica (because it is simple and has very few dials) and a phone for everything else. I would also stick with my Mamiya 7 and Bessa for film. I would put my other cameras somewhere else.”
It honestly doesn’t matter what tool you use in street photography. Just use whatever works for you.
I personally like to shoot film because it gives me a peace of mind, I like the aesthetic, I like how it costs money (it makes me more serious when shooting), I like how I don’t have to worry about constantly upgrading my camera, how I don’t need batteries (besides the meter), how I can’t chimp when taking photos, and the excitement I get when sending in my film.
However I also been shooting a lot on my smartphone a lot– using the VSCO app to process my photos (I like the analogue preset) – and sharing it directly on Instagram. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell the difference between photos on my phone processed in VSCO with my Portra 400 photos shot on my Leica MP. But I still prefer the Leica when I need to shoot quickly on the streets (the phone is a bit slow, but ideal for portraits and urban landscapes).
I have personally seen a lot of street photographers who only use iPhones who are damn good. They get good quickly, because they always have their phone with them and are always shooting. I like the work of Oggsie and Misho Baranovic, Koci Hernandez, and a lot of guys part of the “Tiny Collective”.
If you shoot on the iPhone, I also recommend the “Pro camera” application– which allows you to pre-focus and manually adjust exposure on-the-fly, which is ideal for street photography.
So go sell your Leica, and go buy an iPhone 6 for your street photography.
Tips and Quotes from David Alan Harvey
Below are some tips from David Alan Harvey that didn’t quite fit into the above points:
- “When you see a particular situation that is interesting, find the right position and angle– and keep working that angle. Don’t move your feet too much.”
- “If you don’t take your work seriously, nobody will.”
- “Be elitist with the art crowd (charge them a lot of money), and give away your work for free to school kids.”
- “Make prints and put them on the wall when editing and sequencing.”
- “Don’t tell the back story of photos, there is no need to explain.”
- “When I’m out shooting, I talk to myself, or sing to myself. I listen to songs in my head when shooting.”
- “Don’t be too tight. Make more edgy photos.”
- “Reduce a subject until it is digestible.”
- “Easy is hard. It is hard to get to easy.”
- “Keep it simple.”
Books by David Alan Harvey
Below are my favorite books from David Alan Harvey (which I recommend you pick up).
1. Divided Soul
I think this is his best body of work– get it if you can.
One of the most innovative and edgy photo books I have seen. Not all the photos in the book are the strongest single images David has shot– but as a piece of art, it is wonderful.
Learn from the masters
You are what you eat. If you look at the work of the greats, you will subliminally become great yourself. Keep learning from the masters below:
- Alec Soth
- Alex Webb
- Anders Petersen
- Andre Kertesz
- Bruce Davidson
- Bruce Gilden
- Constantine Manos
- Daido Moriyama
- David Alan Harvey
- David Hurn
- Diane Arbus
- Elliott Erwitt
- Eugene Atget
- Eugene Smith
- Garry Winogrand
- Helen Levitt
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Jacob Aue Sobol
- Jeff Mermelstein
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Joel Sternfeld
- Josef Koudelka
- Lee Friedlander
- Magnum Contact Sheets
- Magnum Photographers
- Mark Cohen
- Martin Parr
- Richard Kalvar
- Robert Capa
- Robert Frank
- Saul Leiter
- Stephen Shore
- The History of Street Photography
- Tony Ray-Jones
- Trent Parke
- Vivian Maier
- Walker Evans
- William Eggleston
- William Klein
- Zoe Strauss