(All photographs in this article provided by Rinzi Ruiz)
My good friend Nicholas Susatyo recently recommended a book to me: “Zen in the Art of Archery.” In-fact, it was the book that Henri Cartier-Bresson said had the deepest influence in his photography. I have been meaning to read it for a while, so on my flight to Philly I decided to give it a go.
The book is written by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy teacher who went to Japan for several years and learned the art of archery (while teaching philosophy at a Japanese university). He heard about the art of archery, and was fascinated with the zen philosophy which was embedded in the art.
W. Eugene Smith is one of the legends of photography. Although he was notorious for being maniacal, emotionally distant, and unreasonable– he channeled those energies into being one of the best photographers history has ever seen. I consider his approach to be very similar to that of Steve Jobs.
I hope that this article can help you get a better understanding of W. Eugene Smith, his work, and his philosophies of photography– to take your own work to new heights.
In today’s age, we are always obsessed with the concept of “more“. We falsely believe that we need more stuff, more money, more more cameras, more lenses, more megapixels—more, more, more.
In one of my favorite books “Antifragile” (I mention this book in a prior post on the “barbell theory”), the author Nassim Taleb advocates that the secret of health, wisdom, and happiness can be obtained through less, not more. Taleb calls this approach “via negativa” that we should focus on subtraction, not addition in life.
For example, nobody really knows what makes us happy. However, we know what makes us unhappy and miserable. Therefore the key to happiness may not so much be the “pursuit of happiness”– but the “avoidance of unhappiness.” I think the same applies to happiness in street photography — focusing on less, not more.
I have always been drawn to people, especially those who I find are interesting “characters.” I tend to gravitate towards people who have interesting facial expressions, to those with outstanding outfits, or accessories.
Although the majority of the street photography I do is done candidly, I have been drawn towards doing more posed street portraits of people I find interesting. Why? I find it gives me more time to interact with them, learn more about their lives, and also to take more photos of them (with their cooperation).
So once I get my subjects’ attention– how do I direct them and what is some of the psychology that goes behind it? I will share some candid thoughts (pun intended) about my process in terms of directing my subjects when taking portraits of them.
See how you can incorporate the barbell theory to improve your street photography, like these guys pumping iron and getting stronger. Photo by Guy Le Querrec, FRANCE 1979. Copyright: Magnum Photos
One of the most influential books that read in my life is “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb. The book is part philosophy, and part a practical guide on how to live a virtuous life.
One of the central concepts of the book is the “barbell theory.” What is the barbell theory you ask? Well, it is the concept that whenever it comes to things in life– we should approach two extremes (and avoid the boring middle). It is a concept that I have applied to many fields of my life, including street photography. I hope this article can shed a new way on how you see the world, and how you can apply this to your own personal work.
The master William Klein surrounded by students and fans, wanting to learn more about his work. Photograph by Guy Le Querrec. Copyright: Magnum Photos
I recently finished a book titled: “Mastery” by Robert Greene. The book is one of those inspirational books which outlines the stories of many famous masters and how they gained mastery. Although the book was a bit cheesy at times, I still found it to be an uplifting read, filled with interesting anecdotes that definitely gives you a huge kick in the ass to go out and to “discover your life task.”
I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from the book– and how one can plan to use some of the author’s advice to gain mastery in street photography. Certainly following these steps won’t necessarily cause you to gain mastery, but I certainly think it is a great blueprint.
Last November I shot a campaign for Samsung’s NX20 camera using a video camera strapped to my head to record the footage of me shooting street portraits in Chicago with permission. It was a project that was intensive: I shot for 2 days straight from 5am-noon on little sleep.
The thing I loved most about the project is that although I certainly didn’t take photos that made it into my portfolio — it forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and interact with lots of people on the streets in a short period of time. The fact that the video was being played live in Amsterdam while I was shooting did give me healthy pressure which ended up being a great learning experience.