On Searching for the Maximum

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

Read as a Google Doc.

“Over the last 10 years, what has interested me in taking photographs is the maximum — the maximum that exists in a situation and the maximum I can produce from it.” – Josef Koudelka

I just finished the second day of my workshop here in Stockholm, and after an epic Chinese dinner with the students with good laughs and recollections from the day, I dragged my exhausted body back to the home of my buddy Brian Sparks.

Brian Sparks is an enabler; he has one of the most comprehensive photography book collections out of all my friends, and he always inspires me with his wide breadth of knowledge, photography, and innovation.

In the evening, we were hanging out, and watching “Chef’s Table” — a series on Netflix about chefs and their “success stories.” Most of them started from humble backgrounds, worked their way to the top, and I saw that a lot of their success came from the fact that at a certain point, they didn’t give a flying fuck about what others thought about their food. They started to only make food that made them happy, rather than trying to make food that pleased a large audience.

While we were chilling on his couch, Brian brought over a retrospective of Josef Koudelka’s work– which was shown in Turkey in 2008. There were some excellent essays on Koudelka, his life, and his work– and this is one excerpt from a quote that Koudelka said, which hugely inspired me:

“Over the last 10 years, what has interested me in taking photographs is the maximum — the maximum that exists in a situation and the maximum I can produce from it. Sometimes I may achieve this goal immediately, but usually, for one reason or another, I am just not able to make the most out of a situation and so I have to photograph it time after time until I succeed. This repeated effort also helps to reassure me that I have in fact achieved the maximum.” – Josef Koudelka, 1981

Koudelka is the photographer whose life philosophy and imagery has inspired me the most. He is truly the photographer who doesn’t care about what others think about him and his work, he is only interested in achieving his own personal maximum. He wants to push his limits. He wants to see the maximum he can achieve from the places that he sees, the scenes he encounters, and the maximum of his photographic opportunity.

Koudelka admits that he isn’t always able to achieve this maximum, but that he always pushes forward. He therefore has to “photograph it time after time” until he succeeds. He isn’t afraid to fail. In-fact, everytime he fails, he gets up and continue to push for the maximum. He can only rest at peace if he knew that he gave it his entire soul, body, and mind.

I once read something like, “Never half-ass anything; only full-ass it.”

Another quote from some ancient Roman philosophy went something along the lines of: “Either do something well, or don’t do it at all.”

My problem i that I often half-ass things. I am a pretty lazy guy, and I have troubles pushing my boundaries and limits. I think in my photography one of my insecurities is that I am just repeating myself. But after reading this quote from Koudelka, it has given me so much inspiration to continue to push forward– and search for my own personal maximum. The maximum that I can achieve in my lifetime; whether that be photography, writing, or my personal relationships.

When Koudelka was a kid, he was obsessed with airplanes. He played with toy airplanes, then started to build his own models, and then to the point that he made small functioning planes with motors. His goal in life was then to become an aeronautical engineer. But then at a certain point, he hit a limit– and he knew that he had to change course in his life, to further push and see what his maximum in life truly was:

“I have always been interested to find what I am able to do the best. After 7 years of being an engineer, I realized I had reached my limit, that I couldn’t go further. To continue would have only meant waiting for death, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to die at the age of 30. That was one of the reasons I quit that profession.”

The part where Koudelka says that he wanted to avoid death really struck a chord with me. I think the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people follow their passions in life and then simply find that they hit a dead end, and then emotionally and creatively they die inside. Koudelka said “fuck that” and decided to pursue another interest which was growing for him at the moment, which was photography:

“In the meantime, my interest in photography was growing. I decided to find out what I could do with photography. I tried, and I liked I haven’t yet gone to the end, there is still something more that I can do.”

It is incredible that Koudelka is now 77 years old, and he still hasn’t found “the end” yet. He still says that “here is something more that I can do.”

It is sad, even some of the most famous photographers in history like Henri Cartier-Bresson gave up photography after several decades. But Koudelka kept going.

Koudelka also had a theory; the reason why Cartier-Bresson quit photography was that Cartier-Bresson put too many limits on himself. Cartier-Bresson only shot with a Leica and 50mm and black and white film his entire life, and never really changed how he shot or his subject matter. Koudelka surmised that Cartier-Bresson hit his “maximum”, and simply decided to retire and give up.

But Koudelka kept growing, kept evolving.

Koudelka started off his main work shooting his “Gypsies” project on an SLR and 25mm lens. After a decade of shooting with that lens, he found that he was “repeating himself” — and he wasn’t interested in that. He then decided to pick up a Leica and a (not as wide) lens and traveled and just shot photos of anything he encountered during his travels. Even later on his career, he picked up a panoramic camera and started to shoot landscapes.

“I want to find my limits, to see how far I can go.” – Josef Koudelka

So as a concluding thought, think about yourself and your personal limits. Have you ever hit a brick wall in your photography, where you have achieved your personal maximum? Or is it simply an excuse? What is holding you back? Is it time, money, family, kids, your job, or something else?

Is it your external conditions in life which hold you back, or your own creativity and inner-will?

How bad do you want it? How bad do you want to make photographs that push your personal boundaries? Is it really your gear which is holding you back, or the fact that you waste too much time watching Netflix, and not enough time to go out and shoot?

Personally, I make shitloads of excuses when I don’t feel inspired. But at the end of the day, that is an excuse. I say to myself, “Oh, my street portraits would be so much more interesting if I shot with a medium format camera, or if I lived in San Francisco.”

But that is all bullshit. I need to take this advice from Koudelka; to keep pushing myself until I have found my personal limit. To find the maximum. To subtract all the bullshit from my life, and then make some time and whitespace to focus on what is truly important to me; reading, writing, and photography.

I have no idea what my maximum is, I haven’t achieved it yet. Have you?

Don’t settle. Keep hustling until you find your maximum.


Sunday, August 30, 9:13am. Stockholm.


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