(Above image copyrighted by Albert Watson)
I just finished the behemoth of a biography on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and I gotta say—I am deeply moved. The biography was not only brutally honest, but gave inspirational insights into the thoughts and motivations behind Steve Jobs and Apple.
Although controversial, he made some of the most revolutionary products this generation (the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc) and had the vigor, discipline, and drive to do it.
Whenever I read books, it always helps me inspire in both my personal life and even more—my own photography. Although Steve Jobs was not a photographer (he actually dabbled in the idea of getting Apple more into photography) his vision, drive, and passion are all things we can learn from. For this article I will outline 10 traits of Steve Jobs which I feel could make you a better street photographer.
One of the biggest take-aways from the book was Steve Job’s ability to focus. After he was ousted from Apple and came back, he found Apple suffering horribly because they had no focus. Rather than focusing on a few key products, they were developing a ton of products, a lot which sucked.
When Steve Jobs took control again, his first line of action was to axe all of the unimportant products and focused on the most important products. He went for quality of products, not the quantity of products.
Take the same approach to your street photography. Don’t get distracted—stay focused on your work. For example, if you get a new camera or lens, stick with the same combination for at least a year. That will truly help you understand and master your equipment.
If you are working on a photo-essay or project, don’t jump around too much. Stick to one product and tough it out. There are times that you won’t feel motivated, but don’t bail from your projects too soon.
2. Aim for simplicity
Steve Jobs really believed in the mantra that “Less is more.” I highly agree with this statement. Whenever he worked on an Apple product, rather than thinking about which features he could add he would think about which features he could remove.
For example, when making the iPad he wanted as few buttons on the display as possible, which would help you focus on the screen. The same goes with the original iPod. How could a user quickly access his/her music seamlessly and easily in just three clicks?
The problem I see in the work of many aspiring street photographers is that their images are often too complex or busy. Instead of shooting busy intersections, I would rather advise to look for simple backgrounds. Rather than having 20 people in your photographs, aim for one, two, or three. If I could have my choice, I would focus on 1 or 3 (odd numbers of subjects often works better).
Some of the greatest living street photographers out there such as Alex Webb are able to create visually complex images that work—but he is in a totally different league from most photographers out there. Try to aspire to being able to create complex images, but if you are struggling with your street photography, KISS (keep it simple stupid).
3. Be brutal with yourself
One of the negative things about Steve Jobs was that he always painted things black and white. For example, if he didn’t like a new design—he would either said it’s “fucking ugly” or “the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.” This would often alienate his friends, family, and co-workers.
However in his own words, he didn’t like to “sugar-coat” things. Not only that, but being brutally honest with those around him helped him make some revolutionary changes and lasting impacts.
Take the same mentality with your photography. Although I believe that each photograph out there has a certain level of merit, I feel that ultimately a photograph either “works” or doesn’t work.
I am currently on a quest of not uploading any of my work to social media networks for an entire year, and selecting my best 20 photographs. By having this amount of vigor, I am now looking back at my old photographs and realize that most of them suck. I have probably taken around 5 photographs that I truly think are amazing—but the rest of my images are flawed on one way or another (compositionally or the content).
When it comes to the editing process (choosing your best work, not “Photo-shopping”) be brutal. Either keep a photo or ditch it. Don’t upload your mediocre work to the internet. Only show your best.
4. Constantly reinvent your work
Once you have created a project or series that you are proud of, don’t feel pigeonholed into feeling that you have to constantly do the same thing.
For example, people first considered Apple only as a computer technology. Soon after the iPod, they started reinventing themselves as a music company. Now with iTunes and iCloud, they are more of a marketplace and media hub.
When I first started shooting street photography, I was heavily influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was intrigued by the idea of capturing “The Decisive Moment” and incorporating beauty, geometry, and lines into my images. However one day when I was out shooting, I realized that my old style of street photography was no longer fun. I didn’t enjoy it—and it didn’t give me any more personal satisfaction.
Having my “quarter-life street photography crisis” I went to the web for inspiration. Around that time, I found Bruce Gilden’s street photography clip on YouTube and I was intrigued by his approach and images. I started experimenting, and a lot of people told me that they much preferred my old work, and I should stop my experimentation.
Although I appreciated the advice of the community, I am glad that I didn’t stick to my old style of shooting. I feel with my new style of shooting (getting close and using a flash) I am reinventing myself in terms of my photography, how I see the world, and my images.
Stay consistent with your photography by working on projects for at least a year in duration. But after you are done with certain projects, experiment endlessly.
5. “Stay hungry, stay foolish”
One of the most inspirational quotes I have heard from Steve Jobs was, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” He never settled for the “norm” and did what others were doing—and never took “no” for an answer. When they said it wasn’t possible to do something, he pushed to do it anyways. He kept innovating the iPod to make it smaller, sleeker, faster, and more user-friendly. He kept pushing for the MacBooks to get more powerful, thin, and beautiful. He never took mediocrity for an answer.
Keep the same mentality when it comes to your own street photography. This reminds me of a something I read about Andre Kertesz in his obituary:
‘Mr. Kertesz was known for his drive and enthusiasm. At 90, he produced a portfolio of new pictures and showed it to the photographer Susan May Tell. When she asked him what it was that kept him working, he replied, “I am still hungry.”’
Don’t let the passion die. Always keep your camera by your side, and photograph constantly with your heart.
6. Create a “reality distortion field”
One of the things that Steve Jobs was able to do quite well was to create a “reality distortion field”. This worked in both positive and negative ways for him. For one side, it helped motivate his team to finish projects by certain deadlines (regardless of how “impossible” they seemed). On the other hand, he was able to have people think things his way and manipulate people quite easily. He did this by talking to people passionately and having them see things from his shoes. He talked about his vision relentlessly and had others believe in his mission.
Use this concept in a positive manner and help it get you “in the zone” when shooting street photography and overcome your fears. Don’t let the nay-sayers say that street photography is something that will give you negative responses and that people will punch you in the face. Keep telling yourself that what you are doing is capturing the beauty in everyday life, and what you are doing is a good thing. The more you convince yourself of the positive things you are achieving through street photography, your attitude towards street photography will improve as well—which will make you more confident when shooting in the streets.
Reality is what we make of it. Create a positive reality for yourself.
7. Realize one day you are going to die
When Steve Jobs discovered that he had cancer, he didn’t let it get to him. Rather, it became a motivation for him to achieve all he could with his career before he passed away. Even though at times he was weak and feeble from his chemotherapy, he still mustered the strength to go to board meetings and even Apple product launches. If anyone saw any videos or pictures of him toward the end of his life, you could realize how skinny, weak, and famished he looked.
Realize that one day you will die as well. Who knows when we will die. One day we might get run over by a car, get some sudden illness, or even get struck by lightning. Nothing in life is ever certain.
Think about what images you want to be remembered by when you die. Do you want people to remember you by some simple snapshots that you took? Or do you want people to remember you by images that touched, inspired, and showed them about humanity?
Of course, don’t let this pressure you too much. Also realize that most of the famous photographers who have ever lived aren’t known for more than 10 of their most famous images. Think of Cartier-Bresson, what 10 images do you remember him by? The man jumping over the puddle, the couple kissing at the café, the bicyclist, and so on. Henri Cartier-Bresson shot relentlessly for around 30 years, which means that he created 3 great images every year. Even the famous Magnum photographer Martin Parr says that he shoots 300,000 images a year—and only gets 10 goods images in a year.
Therefore strive for quality, not quantity when it comes to your work. Also think about what 10 images you want to be known for before you die—and let that be your motivating force.
8. Embrace failure
After Steve Jobs built up Apple to be a multi-million dollar company, he got ousted from his own company by the board over disputes on how he was running the company and his own personal visions. Therefore after he got kicked out, he ended up started NeXT—a new computer company which developed a next generation operating system (which was eventually used in OSX), and soon became CEO of Pixar, which turned the small animations studio into a global animation behemoth with huge hits like Toy Story, Cars, and so on.
Eventually Jobs regained control of Apple, but his failure of getting kicked out of his own company helped push him to gain more experience at other companies, and make Apple an even great company.
In street photography you will constantly fail. Whether it comes to missing the decisive moment, getting yelled at for taking a photo of a stranger, or feeling frustrated with your own work.
However failure isn’t something that we should be discouraged by. Rather, let it be the compass which leads you to the right path. If you miss the decisive moment, don’t sulk over it. Rather, learn your camera better and have the right settings—so you don’t miss the decisive moment the next time! If you get yelled at for taking a photo of a stranger, think about how you could have handled the situation better. For example, whether it be spending more time to talk to the person, handing them a business card, or just erasing the memory from your brain (I heard from my good friend Rinzi that if you want to erase bad memories from your brain you replay the memory back in your head, turn it black and white, and play clown music). If you are frustrated with your own work, discover a new project you may be more passionate about- or always look to your friend for advice and encouragement.
Embrace failure, and realize it is one of the most important steps toward greatness.
9. Diversify your experiences
When Steve Jobs was in college, his experiences were very diversified. For example, he was into rock and roll, Zen Buddhism, and even took calligraphy courses. Little did he know at the time, but him taking the calligraphy course would soon inspire him to add beautiful typefaces to the original Mac, which was never done before. The computers during the time just made ugly block-letters. Not only that, but Jobs’ views on Zen Buddhism helped him shape a very streamlined user experience with Apple products. He believed in simplifying things and that “less was more.”
Therefore if you want to become a better street photographer, don’t just shoot street photography and look at only street photography books. Rather, go to modern art museums, paint, draw, study psychology, and so on. I never took a photography course in my life, but studied Sociology when I was a student at UCLA. The things that I learned in Sociology about human interaction, communities, and societies have done wonders for my own street photography—and even how I feel about this blog. I created the blog as a community for discussion, ideas, and debate—and the love of street photography.
Think about how your unique experiences affect or influence your personal voice or style in street photography.
10. “Good artists copy, great artists steal”
If you think about Apple as a company, they didn’t necessarily invent things—rather they took existing concepts, ideas, and products and made them phenomenal. For example, Steve Jobs first had the concept of a visual-based operating system from Xerox—with a system they called the “Xerox PARC”. Steve Jobs essentially took the same concept and created the original Mac – with improvements and his own vision. Steve Jobs even said once, “Picasso had a saying—‘good artists copy, great artists steal’—and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”
I don’t believe that any “new ideas” exist. Rather, they are all a culmination of inspiration that we get from other places – but we imbue and combine them to make a unique idea.
Therefore if you see a photographer whose style you admire, or see a photography book that inspires you—don’t feel bad for stealing an idea or concept. The way I see it, even if you tried to copy the style of a certain photographer—you will never do it like him/her but will have your own variation inevitably.
Lately my style of shooting street photography with a flash has been heavily influenced by the work of Bruce Gilden, Weegee, Mark Cohen, William Klein, Charlie Kirk, and Dirty Harrry. Although my approach and technique is similar to most of these photographers, the resulting images are unique and different – because I am not them and I see the world in a different way.
Be shameless about telling others where you draw inspiration from. After all, we all inspired by the world around us—therefore we are all in-a-sense, copycats.
RIP Steve Jobs. Although you were incredibly controversial and sometimes a massive prick, you helped inspire the world and envision it a different way. You never took “no” for an answer, and always strove for greatness. And of course without you, I would not be typing up this blog entry on my MacBook Air (best laptop ever).
For more inspiration from Steve Jobs, read the article: “How to Innovate in Your Photography“