I want to write this article on a photographer, blogger, and overall cool guy — Blake Andrews.
I first saw Blake’s work on the In-Public website, and was amazed by his surrealistic street photography— and his sharp eyes for shapes, forms, and visual elements.
If you have ever been on his blog: “B”— you can see he has one of the most unique voices in the photography community. He is outspoken, speaks his mind, and delivers quality photography commentary/interviews/book recommendations— with a fun style. He is one of the few (if only) bloggers I know who speaks without a censor— and truly speaks his heart. There are few people out there with as much courage as he does.
Not only that, but he has been shooting for 20+ years, and is constantly pushing the boundaries of “street photography”. Based on a recent video interview and other interviews I have read about him online, here are some lessons I’ve learned from him:
1. Always be shooting
I don’t think there are any other street photographers (shooting film) whom are prolific as Blake. In the interview I did with him recently, he told me the longest period of time he has gone without shooting was probably 1–2 days (max). He always has a camera with him, and photographs constantly.
The only other photographer (who possibly might have shot more) was Garry Winogrand— who famously passed away with hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film.
I sometimes have an issue of staying inspired when it comes to my photography. I have a hard time pushing myself to shoot everyday— so I asked Blake for some advice. The advice he gave me:
“If you walk for 2 hours somewhere, you will always at least take 1–2 interesting photographs.”
I think that is great advice. I sometimes bemoan the fact that nothing is interesting— and I have no motivation to shoot. But the reality is that if you spend enough time in public places and walking around— you will always find something interesting to photograph.
2. You can always make interesting photographs (regardless of where you live)
Not only that, but Blake has also inspired me by making me realize— you can make interesting photographs (regardless of where you live).
Blake currently lives in Eugene, Oregon— which isn’t exactly the most “popping” place for street photography. However he is able to find interesting scenes regardless. He photographs his children, nature, macro things, and other things that interest him.
It is his constant curiosity of life that keeps him going.
3. Be part of a community
Another lesson I’ve learned from him is that he is very active in several photography groups based in Portland. He goes there at least 2–3 times a month, and it gives him the chance to print his work, share his work, and get feedback/critique from his work.
I think that being a part of a community is one of the best ways to stay inspired with your work. You have motivation to share and display your work, and also get honest feedback and critique which helps you grow and evolve.
4. Shoot first, ask questions later
Another lesson I learned from Blake is that when he’s out shooting on the streets, he doesn’t over-analyze his scenes. He just shoots instinctively, and then edits his shots afterwards.
This is a great lesson for me— because sometimes when I’m shooting on the streets, I over-analyze what I see in front of me, and just end up taking no shots at all.
Blake shared the importance of using your “right brain while shooting, left brain when looking over contact sheets.”
So when you’re shooting on the streets, just focus on getting the shots. Shoot from the gut and from your instincts. Only when you go home and finally have time to sit down with your images— then you can start to more analytically analyze and edit your images.
5. Reality is stronger than imagination
Another point that Blake touched upon is the fact that “reality is stronger than imagination” — meaning, sometimes the things we see in the “real world” is more interesting and magical than what we can imagine.
I think as street photographers we can all relate to this. When I’m shooting on the streets, a lot of the things I see I couldn’t even make up. I don’t really have a strong sense of imagination— but I think I have a good eye for spotting interesting things I see in the streets.
Another aspect of the “reality is stronger than imagination” part I like is that it proves how amazing and a wonderful place the world is. There are endless things to discover, explore, and see. As a street photographer, we have so much “content” in the real world to capture in our images.
So whenever we don’t feel inspired— always remind yourself that there are so many interesting things to shoot. If you think your environment is “boring” — it is probably because you aren’t looking hard enough.
6. Spend more time shooting (less time online)
I asked Blake what advice he would give to aspiring street photographers. He said that most street photographers would benefit from spending more time shooting, and spending less time online.
Of course this sounds like obvious advice, but it is a great reminder. I personally find myself getting into creative ruts when I spend too much time on the Internet— looking at photos on Flickr, websites, and social media. However the more time I spend exploring the streets— I never have a hard time finding something interesting.
So while it is good that you constantly educate and learn about photography— at the end of the day, your time is best spent shooting. If I could give a breakdown, I would say try to spend your time this way: 80% on the streets, and 20% educating yourself. There is no shortcut for time spent on the streets.
7. Get closer
Another solid piece of advice from Blake is beginner street photographers should get closer.
At the recent street photography workshop he taught alongside Matt Stuart from In-Public in Los Angeles, they gave the students an assignment of standing at a busy street corner for an hour, and just photographing whatever entered their frame.
The common mistake? Most of the students didn’t get close enough to their subjects.
A quote from Blake:
“Bystanders will quickly forget you, but a good photo lasts forever.”
So while it is true that you might get some people to get pissed off at you (for a little while) — the photo you capture will be forever.
So don’t worry so much about upsetting people or getting yelled at. That is a small price to pay for creating a beautiful image.
8. Camera in hand always unless asleep in bed
This is another good “guiding principle” from Blake Andrews— “Camera in hand always unless asleep in bed.”
Blake always has a camera closely— and he is a compulsive shooter. I feel my problem is that I don’t shoot enough, and I certainly don’t have my camera in my hand enough.
I personally do find the more I have my camera around my neck or in my hand, the more photographic opportunities I see. When my camera is hidden in my bag, I rarely see photographs.
Be curious and open to anything in the world. There are always great photos to be taken.
9. The grid project
An interesting project Blake Andrews has worked on is the “Portland Grid Project” in which he scoured almost every mile of Portland, photographing each section (a “grid”) and confining himself to those locations.
This assignment allowed him to get to know Portland really well— but also forced him to try to make interesting photographs in each part of the city.
I feel this is a great assignment to do in your own city. See how your city looks like on a map, and try to cut it up into little squares or grids. And everyday, try to shoot a different part of the grid— and then at the end, you will have a beautiful mosaic of your entire city (in grid format).
I also believe that having a constraint in terms of space helps you be more creative. Not only that, but this assignment will help you seek out places in your own city that you normally don’t go to.
10. Have fun
The biggest takeaway and sense I get from Blake is how he has a lot of fun with what he does. He doesn’t take himself too seriously— and he shoots out of compulsion, curiosity, and fun— rather than trying to impress others.
He has amassed a huge archive and body of work in the last 20+ years, and he is constantly pushing the definition of “street photography”. If you look at his In-Public portfolio, his tastes are very eclectic. He doesn’t want to just fit inside the box of traditional “street photography” — he is always curious of experimenting and pushing the box.
For example, he has recently been experimenting a lot with color photography— especially shooting on an Instax wide camera (also with a macro adapter). This has helped him see and discover the world in a different way.
With his blog “B” — he writes whatever interests him, and doesn’t try to “pander” to his audience. He doesn’t take himself too seriously— and shows great enthusiasm in his photography, writing, and his commentaries.
Blake Andrews’ Guiding Principles
This is a list of guiding principles that Blake wrote in the past, which is always good inspiration for me. He says he doesn’t care too much about the film vs digital debate anymore– but still this is a great list:
- Camera in hand always unless asleep in bed
Film is cheap
2a. Digital looks cheap
- Reality is stronger than imagination
Form subjugates essence, yet requires it
Bystanders will quickly forget you, but a good photo lasts forever
Light should illuminate the subject matter but not be the subject matter.
6a. Don’t fight light. You will always lose
- Use right brain when shooting, left brain when looking over contact sheets. Paraphrased, this becomes…
Shoot first, ask questions later
Here are some photography books that Blake recommended in the interview I did with him:
- “Songbook” – Alec Soth
- “Canadian pictures” – Viktor Kolar
- First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography: Selections from the Allan Chasanoff Collection
Anyways, Blake is an awesome dude. I will have the video interview with him up pretty soon, but in the meanwhile— I recommend you check out his work and his sites:
You can also see my interview with Blake in 2011 here.
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