I wanted to write you a personal letter on innovation. Not to say that I am the most innovative person (I’m not), but in the hope that I can hash out some of my personal thoughts on creativity, pushing boundaries, which I hope can ultimately help you too, my dear friend.
I just finished re-reading the excellent biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. If you can own just one book on innovation and inspiration, this is the book to get friend. So let me map out some of the lessons I’ve learned from the book, and the life and philosophies of Steve Jobs:
Chapter 1: Don’t give a fuck what others think
This is probably the #1 lesson I’ve learned from Steve Jobs. In today’s world, we are all a bunch of pussies that are afraid to stick out neck out for what we believe in. We are afraid of being judged, of being criticized, and being mocked and ridiculed.
In Steve’s life, he was always an outsider and a rebel. Starting off from childhood, he was adopted which meant that he already felt insecure about being “abandoned” as a child. Furthermore, when he went to college, he wa part of the “hippie” generation which was all about “tuning in and dropping out”. Steve put all conventions to the curb. He refused to shower like a “normal human being”, he refused to wear shoes (he would walk around barefoot, even when working at Atari), and he never sugar coated anything he said (would either call people geniuses or “fucking idiots”).
Now Steve Jobs wasn’t remembered to be the nicest guy in the world. But for me, it wasn’t him being an asshole for the sake of it. At the end of the day, the man had no filter. He said things exactly how he saw it, and he even said that his job wasn’t to sugarcoat what he said. If he thought something was shitty, he would call it “shit”. If he thought that something was the best thing since sliced bread, he would let others know that as well.
Don’t get me wrong friend, it is so fucking hard to stay true to yourself, and not give a shit about what others think. Even as I’m writing this, I’m secretly afraid that someone will say, “Oh no, there Eric goes cursing again. He’s such an inconsiderate asshole who isn’t eloquent enough with his words and has to resort to lowly cursing to get his point across”.
But what Steve taught me is that I need to stay true to who I am.
Growing up, I had friends who were gang affiliated, friends who sold drugs, friends who stole and robbed people, and a lot of my friends (or people I knew) were thugs and low lives. I grew up cursing like a sailor, and had to stay on my toes just to survive (or at least not get beat up by the other kids). Growing up was tough, but one of the things that hasn’t left me is my penchant for cursing. It’s just part of my vocabulary, and when I speak to my friends in real life, I curse too (albeit more than necessary), so why should I censor myself and my “true voice”?
Anyways, let me ask you a question: if you asked people what they wanted, or asked people for their opinion, what would you think people would tell you? Would people tell you fresh new and innovative ideas that would drive your creativity forward?
I highly doubt it. You need to listen to your own heart, your own instincts, your own gut intuition.
There is a saying that Steve shared which was, “If Henry Ford asked people what they wanted, they would just ask for a faster horse.” Similarly, if Steve Jobs asked people what they wanted, they would just ask for a faster PC (God, do you remember how fucking horrible those old desktop computers used to be, weighing about 2 tons, having to lug around the tower, and more?) I doubt if it wasn’t for Steve Jobs and Apple, the trend for computers to become light, thin, and sexy wouldn’t have ever taken off.
Let me bring up an example. Steve Jobs always hated the traditional “smartphone” of his time (before the iPhone was invented). Do you remember those things? Those weird windows Palm Pilots and whatnot. And the blackberries where the Internet looked like shit. Or the razor phone which looked slim and sexy, but didn’t have things like touchscreen, pinch to zoom, and smooth scrolling.
If Steve asked people what kind of phone they wanted, they would have just said a thinner razor phone, a more powerful windows phone, or something else. The genius of Steve was that he totally disregarded “focus groups”, and followed his own intuition instead (a good “zen” or “Taoist” philosophy). He decided to create a new phone from the bottom-up, combining the best of the iPod touch and the components of a phone.
Another thing I wanted to share regarding innovation: Steve was first concerned that the iPhone would “cannibalize” the sales of the other products. After all, why would people buy an iPod touch if they had an iPhone?
But friend, you need to not let your own self-interest get in the way when you’re trying to innovate. Sometimes a lot of us get scared for our own self preservation (and whether we can pay the rent) that gets in the way of us creating innovations that can help society and humanity as a whole. So if you end up creating something that might personally hurt you, know that in the long-run, it will actually help you.
So anyways the truth is the iPhone did cannibalize the sales of the iPod touch. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. The iPod touch is now a relic of technology (when is the last time you ever seen anyone with one of those?) By intentionally cannibalizing past products, Steve was able to help drive Apple forward with innovation, and to continue to make great products which help society.
Let me bring you a personal example: I do a lot of street photography workshops, and in the workshops I give lectures. The lectures are a distillation of all the things I’ve learned about street photography over the 8 years that I’ve been shooting the genre.
In general, I would always give the same lecture over and over again, and one day I thought to myself: “What if I just pre-recorded this lecture, so the students could listen to the presentation before they came to class, so we could spend more of the workshop time discussing and interacting, rather than just listening to a lecture?”
Therefore I did that. And it made life a lot easier for me and for the students.
Take it a step further: I then wondered to myself, “I’m sure there are so many other people out there who want access to this information, why not just share it online on YouTube for others to see and consume for free?”
Before I did that, I consulted some of my friends. They thought I was crazy. They told me, “No, Eric, don’t do that. You’ve put so much time and effort into putting these things together. You need people to value your work and your time. You can’t just give it away for free. And also, fewer people might attend your workshops, and the students who do attend your workshops might feel cheated.”
My friend did have salient points, but I realized that I needed to disregard my own greedy and selfish needs, and to focus on helping others, the photographic society and world as a whole. So essentially I “cannibalized” myself by putting out the lectures online for free, with the risk that there might be some personal harm done to me.
The funny thing? This strategy ended up helping me in the long run.
Many of these lectures have now been watched tens of thousands of times, and even one of the lectures I’ve given on street photography and composition have led to private 1:1 students who told me, “Eric, I first found out about you on YouTube through your excellent video lecture on composition. I trust you. Can you help me improve my composition in my street photography?” And these students pay really well.
So know that when it comes to innovation, don’t be afraid of fucking yourself over. Ask yourself, “Will this help or benefit society as a whole?” Who gives a shit if it might harm us. As the stoic philosopher (and Roman emperor) Marcus Aurelius said, “What is good for the beehive is good for the bee.” As human beings, we are just like bees, and the world is our beehive. Who gives a shit if one bee dies, as long as everyone else benefits?
One person I don’t want to emulate is Bill Gates. To me he is the best “anti-role model” in terms of innovation. When he designed basic, he would constantly criticize the hacker community for “stealing” his code. The irony? He “stole” thousands of hours of programming time on the Harvard computers by hacking into them to create the code which would eventually become Microsoft. Sure now he is doing a lot of great charity work (I highly respect him for that), but we need to do the exact opposite in terms of innovation. We can’t close down borders, we need to keep them open.
Chapter 2: Embrace the “open-source” philosophy
Let me digress for a moment. Even though Steve Jobs was very anti open-source (he believed in closed systems) I do believe that one of the greatest things that leads to innovation is the concept of “open source”.
The concept comes from the old hacker and programming communities which believe that information, data, and knowledge should be open and free. As human beings, we thrive on information and knowledge. Education is a tool which can empower an individual to build great things in society. So why hold it back?
When I was a kid, I could never afford any software. I couldn’t afford Microsoft windows, I couldn’t afford photoshop, I couldn’t afford Visual Basic to learn programming, or Microsoft word to type out essays. I pirated all the software I needed through the early days of AOL and “server” chat rooms, where you can download them for free, illegally, via bots. I even remember that one day AOL called my mom (I was 12 years old at the time) telling her that I was doing illegal activities online. They then shut down the account, but funny enough— it was quite easy to open up another account (with one of those free “1,000 hours of aol for free” CD’s.
But anyways, I do understand that people need to make a living, and if programmers never got paid, how could they create great software that could benefit society? My idea would be something like this: if you’re under the age of 18 years old (or anything younger than a university student), companies provide you with software for free to create cool shit. But once you “grow up” and get a job making $40,000 a year at a company, then you must start paying for the software. This way it is a win/win situation: the younger kids have access to the software to build cool shit that will help society as a whole, and then eventually once they use those tools to get jobs, they could then reinvest their money into the company. Everyone wins, especially society.
And honestly, do you need to pay people money for them to be innovative and do great things? I think not.
For example, I have never been paid a dime (okay maybe some money) for writing these books, articles, and videos. But that isn’t what drives me. What drives me to write all of this is to help others, and to help society. I could care less if I worked as an uber driver or a barista, and just made enough money to pay the rent, and used all of my free time to create things that I was passionate about, and which I felt would help others.
If you look at all the contributors and editors to Wikipedia, do they get paid a wage? No. In fact, I think if you started to pay them, it would corrupt their work and cause them to do it for the wrong reasons.
Let me give you an example: let’s say that you asked your friend to help move out of your old apartment and into a new apartment across town. You and your friend have been friends since childhood, and he is more than glad to help. He brings his truck, you both load up your ikea furniture and couch, and then drive to the new apartment. You guys enjoy a nice beer and pizza at the end of the day, and when your friend is about to leave, you give him $100 for his help and support.
How would your friend respond?
I’m pretty sure he would be like, “Dude, what the fuck? Why did you give me money? You didn’t need to pay me.”
You might retort by saying, “Yeah of course not, but I want to respect your time, effort, and energy. After all, time is money. If you kept doing this for free, you wouldn’t be able to pay your rent.”
I’m sure then your friend would give you a really confused “what the fuck?” look and absolutely refuse the money (if you were really good friends). Then I think this encounter would actually ruin (or at least harm) your friendship.
Why? Your friend helped you because he loved and cared about you, not because he wanted money. By paying him for his “services” and help, you essentially made his generous act worthless.
So similarly, a lot of these Wikipedia editors and contributors do what they do because they love society and their fellow man. The same goes with programmers who produce “open source software” in their free time, like those who programmed “Linux” (free open source operating system that can replace windows), or “Open office” (free alternative to microsoft word). Even better yet, all of the software that Microsoft used to charge you for, you can access it for free via “Google docs, Google sheets, and Google slides”. These are the great people and companies that are driving forward innovation in the world, and helping humankind as a whole.
This is what also inspired me to approach an “open-source photography” philosophy; where I will never charge for any sort of educational material online (all my books, articles, videos, Lightroom presets, photos) are available to download for free.
Chapter 3: Don’t separate the hardware from the software
One of the biggest “aha” moments I got from Steve Jobs in terms of innovation is how he decided for Apple to be really great, they needed to marry the hardware and the software. They couldn’t be separated or fragmented, like how Microsoft would make the operating system, and then simply have other manufacturers make the computer hardware. What ended up happening was that some of the computers were unreliable, would crash, and the user experience would be fragmented.
“Nature loves simplicity and unity.” – Kepler
The biggest inspiration that Steve Jobs got in terms of marrying hardware and software was from Alan Kay, a visionary and scientist who worked for the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center. Known as Xerox PARC, it was one of the first sprawling grounds for new digital ideas since 1970 (you can say it was one of the most innovative places before Apple).
Anyways, these are the two maxims that Alan Kay shared which deeply influenced Steve Jobs:
- “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
- “People who are serious about software should make their own hardware.”
The way I was able to open up my eyes in terms of innovation (at least in terms of photography) was this: as a photographer if you truly want to innovate, you can’t separate your “hardware” (photos) from the “software” (how you present your work). For example, a lot of photographers only wear one hat, and only take photos (and let others do all the editing, the design work, and the book-making). But the truly great and innovative photographers are the ones who have been able to do all the work themselves, such as William Klein who has done all the shooting, design, editing, layout, and publishing of his photography books.
Similarly for me, I’m starting to realize that if I want to innovate, I need complete control over the entire production, editing, and publishing process. Now this can still be open and free (once it is completed) and it is still going to be “open source” (people can modify my end product however they would like), but the point is this: don’t cede control over your photographic process to anybody else, but yourself.
Chapter 4: “Great artists steal”
For some reason there is some aversion that human beings have in terms of “copying”, especially in today’s society. And especially in photography.
So many photographers nowadays are criticized for simply copying those who came before them. If you see a color photo depicting luxury and extravagance shot on a flash, a person might say “Oh, you’re just copying Martin Parr”. If you shoot a gritty black and white photo that is blurry, a person might say, “Oh, you’re just copying Daido Moriyama”. Or if you shoot street photography with a flash a person might say, “Oh, you’re just copying Bruce Gilden.” But the fact that a lot of these people ignore is that in order to innovate and make things better, it is about taking what has already been done before, and building upon it. Therefore to a certain extent, you need to “copy” and “steal” from the masters who have come before you.
Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but what is more important in innovation is execution.
Steve Jobs said this about stealing ideas:
“Picasso had a saying— ’good artists copy, great artists steal’— and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”
So if you see a good idea in photography that inspires you, be shameless and steal the idea. But see how you can build upon it, and do it a bit differently.
For example, one of my favorite projects is “Subway” by Bruce Davidson. Sometimes I know photographers who want to do a similar project on the subway. What a shitty teacher will say is this: “Don’t do that, it has already been done before.” What a great teacher would say is this: “A similar project has already done before. Study the project before you, and see how you can build upon it, and make it even greater.”
Don’t settle to just steal ideas and not build upon it. That is useless.
For example, Steve Jobs stole the idea of having a graphic user interface from Xerox, but he just made it better. The concept of a digital MP3 player already existed before the iPod, but he just made the iPod far better (by cutting extraneous features, and focusing on minimalism and simplicity). Personal computers already existed, but we’re ugly, clunky, and difficult to use. With the Mac, he made it user friendly, and simple to use. The concept of a music store already existed, but Steve brought it online digitally, and made the iTunes Store and revolutionized the entire music industry. The concept of a “tablet” has been around since the time of Moses (the 10 commandments were etched in a stone tablet), but it was Steve Jobs who pushed for the iPad.
All good ideas come from somewhere, and all good ideas are the common property of mankind. If an idea has the opportunity to push the human race forward, why not use that idea, regardless who it came from?
Furthermore, all ideas are stolen from somewhere else, or inspired by someone else, if you look far back enough. Bruce Gilden was probably inspired by Weegee who shot with a flash before and inspired of close-up shooting from Lisette Model, Henri Cartier-Bresson was inspired by painters, Stephen Shore was inspired by William Eggleston, Anders Peterson was inspired by Daido Moriyama.
Rather than being selfish and greedy with our ideas, why not keep them open and free?
In this festival of life, let us pick and choose any source of inspiration we come across. If you’re in a meadow, would you feel greedy taking some apples here, some peaches there, some potatoes in the ground, and the leaves from the tree? No. So why feel guilty about taking inspiration from the other great photographers who came before you?
Chapter 5: Don’t make shitty stuff
One of the big inspirations that I got from Steve Jobs is that he was a perfectionist; he had a low-tolerance allergy to what he believed to be “shitty” things.
For example, he was frustrated by all of the products that existed around him. He was frustrated by the lack of elegance and simplicity in personal computers, music players, phones, stores, digital hubs, and user experience. His frustration is what drove him to create great things.
I think in our photography, the best way to get inspired is to look at weak photos and think to ourselves, “These are the types of photos that I don’t want to shoot.” Let us avoid taking the photos that we dislike.
So think about the types of photography that you dislike. You dislike it when people are sloppy with their photos, when they have really loose edits, when their post processing is all over the place, or if their projects have a lack of focus. The simple thing to do is do the exact opposite of what others do (which turns us off).
So for example, I think one of the main problems photographers make is that they show too much of their work, before letting their photos “marinate” and sit for a long time before sharing it. So rather than me just criticizing others, I can decide not to show a lot of my photos, and only show my best.
Similarly, I have found that social media is more of a burden, then of help in terms of helping me create personally meaningful photographic projects. Therefore by keeping more of my work offline, I have been able to pave new ground, to innovate and try out new things (without the risk of being judged negatively on the Internet), and for spending more time getting honest feedback and critique in-person.
Sometimes in life, your best teachers are “anti” role models. And sometimes how you can be innovative is to avoid being boring.
So what are some things you should avoid to be innovative with your photography? Just don’t make your photos boring and uninteresting.
To take it back to technology, I think that Microsoft Windows is okay, but overall a horrible user experience compared to Mac OS. To me, Windows (especially Windows 8) is a nightmare. I’ve been using computers my entire life, and even I had a hard time figuring out how to use it, let alone trying to teach me 59-year-old mom. Not only that, but it was clunky, it wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t intuitive at all.
Steve Jobs had a huge distaste for what he thought were mediocre products. He looked down upon Microsoft, because he knew that they were focused first on business and making money, rather than making great products that could benefit humanity.
So when it came to innovating products, he would always ask, “How can we make this better?” and “What are some superfluous or extraneous or unnecessary things we can cut out?” One of the biggest geniuses is that he made it a point to only have one home button for the iPhone and iPad, whereas all the other manufacturers were adding tons of unnecessary buttons which just added unnecessary clutter (like Android phones and devices).
Ultimately at the end of the day, your own personal taste matters the most. What do you consider “shitty”, and what do you consider “great?” Don’t make anything that you aren’t proud of, and don’t share photos online that you think is “shitty”. Sure we all love getting lots of likes and comments on photos, but don’t share photos online just for the sake of “feeding the beast.” Only share what you believe is your best art, and bury the rest.
Chapter 6: Don’t get distracted
Another thing I learned from Steve is the importance of focus, namely, to not get distracted.
In today’s world, we have so many distractions. Our phones are constantly pinging and going off, we are constantly getting new notifications, our phones are vibrating and buzzing, we are getting text messages, little hearts on our Instagram photos, emails, phone calls, sounds coming from the television, sensationalist news from newspapers and the media, and other things trying to fight for our attention.
Therefore in order to fight this battle against noise and distraction, we try to install new “productivity” apps that promise us focus and efficiency.
But if you really want to focus, you can’t force yourself to “focus”. As humans, we are hard-wired to be risk averse, and to be sensitive to outside stimuli which we think might be a threat. Therefore in order to focus, you must ruthlessly eliminate and filter our distractions.
I find it personally very difficult to focus. I’m like a pigeon that whenever I see something shiny, I immediately drop what in doing and go get distracted by that piece of aluminum foil.
Also for a long time, I always tried to find that one “golden bullet” or that one magical app that would solve all of my productivity and efficiency problems. Everyday I would cruise the App Store, trying to find that “new new thing” that would change my life.
But being inspired by Nassim Taleb in his book “Antifragile”, I have been trying to live a more “via negativa” approach in which I’m trying to eliminate (rather than add) to my life. Subtract in my photography and life, rather than add.
Therefore the best thing I’ve done for my focus is this: everyday uninstalling one app from my phone (or my iPad, which I’m currently using to type this out).
It’s hard to edit down. But now on my smartphone, the only “apps” I have left remaining is my text messaging apps, chrome, Google maps, and that’s about it. I’ve gotten rid of Evernote (which has inspired me to write down more handwritten notes), I’ve gotten rid of email (so I don’t get distracted and check it every 10 minutes), I’ve uninstalled all social media apps (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter), and even Spotify (I love music but I’m starting to realize that without having sound constantly bombard my ears, I can finally hear the birds chirp, and my own mind speak).
Therefore by filtering out all my distractions, I can finally focus on what’s important to me: writing. Even for me at the end of the day, writing is more important than photography. By eliminating ruthlessly, and by taking away from the extraneous, then you can really focus on one thing really really well, rather than doing a lot of stuff mediocrely.
Even a better tip if you want to be really focused when doing your creative work: turn off your phone (yes, turn it all the way off), turn off your wifi (or better yet, use a notepad), and do your creative work.
When it comes to photography, don’t let yourself get distracted. If you want to really break new ground in your work, filter out all the noise and bullshit from your mind. I dare you to (for just a month) uninstall all the social media and sharing apps from your phone, and try to abstain from uploading photos for a month as well. Keep your work offline, still shoot constantly, and when it comes to getting feedback on your work, visit a friend at a cafe, sit down for a coffee, show him or her some prints (or on your laptop, iPad, whatever) and have them “brutally critique” your work.
Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of benefits of sharing your work online, and many great communities and support you can get. But the problem is once again; at the end of the day, social media is like a drug, worse than crack cocaine, that distracts you from focusing on long-term and meaningful projects. Social media forces you to worry about the day-to-day side of things, in which you’re more worried if that one shot you just uploaded got a load of likes, rather than creating a “body of work” that is powerful and strong.
Friend, I know it’s scary and difficult– but start to try to eliminate more things in your life to be more creative.
For example, don’t shoot both color and black and white. Eliminate one of them, and just stick with one. This will help you get less distracted, and help you build a stronger vision.
Don’t pursue all those 5 projects you have rolling around in your mind. Eliminate all the superfluous projects (or the ones that you aren’t as passionate about) and focus on that one project which really matters to you.
Eliminate all those extra cameras and lenses you have, until you are left with one camera, and one lens. I recently donated all of my cameras to my friends, and am currently just shooting with a Ricoh GR with an integrated 28mm lens (and JPEG black and white). Therefore I have no other distractions holding me back, and no excuses about my gear. I learn to innovate by being “creatively constrained” by my equipment.
Take it a step further: don’t get distracted by going to so many different places to photograph. The worst photographers are the ones that are constantly traveling around the world; because they are forever photographic tourists, rather than getting to know one place very very well. If you don’t travel much, just stick in one neighborhood, and get to know and photograph that neighborhood very very well.
How else can you make better photos? Eliminate distracting elements from the edges of the frame and the background. I can honestly say that 80% of photos can be dramatically improved by just removing distractions in a photograph. Statues are carved by elimination. The same should be for photos; what you decide to leave out of the frame is more important than what you decide to leave in the frame. Similarly in a relationship, what you decide not to tell your spouse is more important than what you decide to tell your spouse. And if you want to be healthy, what you decide not to eat in your diet (shitty fast food) is more important than adding “healthy” foods in your diet (like blueberries). No amount of blueberries will offset the negative effects of eating a triple bacon cheeseburger and fries to your diet.
Even in photographic projects, the photos you decide not to include in your project is more important than the photos you decide to include in your project. A common mistake that a lot of photographers make is that their books are too big, too heavy, and include too many weak photos. I ascribe to the Todd Hido school of photography in which says that his photos are “all killer, no filler.”
Even be selective of the number of projects you show. For example, I used to have about 8 projects on my website, but now I have edited it down to what I think are my best 3 projects. Similarly, my Flickr used to be cluttered with all of these random photos. Now I’ve boiled down the photos to what I think are my essential photos (at the moment), my color digital street portraits.
So once again, think about how you can eliminate clutter, distractions, and noise from your life and photography in order to innovative.
Chapter 7: Embrace “creative constraints”
Okay friend, you might be thinking to yourself or to me, “But Eric, won’t subtracting all of these things just limit me? What if I want to buy a new camera, a new lens, pursue a new project, that will really liberate and set me free?”
You do have a valid point. There are times in which stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying things new are helpful. But what I would recommend is trying to add these “creative constraints” on you for a certain period of time, before you decide to go off and try something new. A good period of time I have found is one year.
So if you want to be more innovative in your photography, try to stick with one project for an entire year, and shoot nothing else. This will help force you to find interesting things within the project, and to push hard to pave new ground. If you stick with only one camera and one lens for a year, then it will force you to truly extract all of the abilities of your camera and get to know it like the back of your hand, before moving onto the “next thing”.
For example, the best thing that has happened for my creativity is getting my laptop stolen two months ago in Paris. At first I was frustrated; I wondered how I would ever get any writing or work done without a laptop.
However what ended up happening surprised me: I started to do more writing on my phone, and found that it opened up new avenues for me. Instead of having to be a slave to a desk when I wrote, I could now write when I was standing in line at the grocery store, when I was waiting for the bus, when I was stuck on a crowded subway train, or when I was lying in bed. I would have never discovered how much flexibility writing on a smartphone could be. Ironically enough, I actually discovered I was just as fast (if not faster) writing (or “texting”) on my phone instead of using a physical keyboard.
After a while I wanted a laptop, so I ended up getting a cheap 300 euro Windows 8 laptop tablet at the store. Now while I did mention how much I disliked using Windows 8, I actually discovered that I was blue to boot google chrome as an operating system, so essentially I had a “chrome book” in which I could do all of my work in the “cloud” via Google docs, Google sheets, and Google slides. When in the past I used to use “iA writer” on my MacBook Air, I learned the benefits of using google docs (I was able to share my articles easier, and also encourage collaborative editing). Instead of using Apple keynote for my presentations, I learned to use Google slides, which allowed me to quickly share my presentation slides on the Internet via social media. I would have never learned how awesome these google products were if it wasn’t for getting my apple laptop stolen.
At the moment I’m back home in Berkeley, and I donated the windows 8 tablet to a friend who is going to give it to a child in need (developing country) where they can use it to learn programming. So without a “laptop/tablet device” I realized that I had an iPad Air lying around at home that I didn’t use in forever. So now I am using it as my main device, using it to write, blog, edit my photos, and everything else. I’m staring to use my smartphone less and less now, and by not using my smartphone and Evernote as much for note taking, I’m starting to use paper notebooks to jot down ideas, which has been better for my creativity.
That is just one of the many ways that having a “creative constraint” of not having the best technology can have. Let’s say you have a cheap digital camera, that can force you to only shoot in good light (instead of depending on high-ISO technology of high-end digital cameras). Let’s say you shoot film, it forces you to be more thoughtful when you’re shooting (instead of digital, which can make you lazy). If you shoot with a rangefinder, your minimum focusing distance is only .7 meters (this can inspire you to make better composition and framing given your limitations). But on the other hand, if you shoot with a smartphone, the image quality might not be the best, but you are able to close-focus ridiculously close. With every “downside” there is always an upside.
Let’s say you live in a boring ass town. This can force you to be more innovative and make strong images of boring things (like what William Eggleston did). What you can even do is create a “creative constraint” and decide to only shoot within a 1-mile radius from your house, and do a project on that. It will really help push your creative limits with that boundary.
Let’s say your limitation is either time or money. Think: how can I use my lack of time or money to help me be more creative in my photography?
If you’re broke, you can learn how to best use the equipment you have to make great photos (instead if you were rich, and dependent on buying new camera for inspiration, which never leads to better photos).
If you’re time-poor and always busy, then it can be a benefit in the sense that you’d not piss away your time. Rather, you extract out every second and minute from your free time, and shoot like there’s no tomorrow. You will shoot with a extreme sense of purpose and focus, and ultimately be more creative than if you had all the free time in the world. In fact, one of the worst things for creativity is having too much free time (you get lazy, complacent, and there is no sense of urgency).
Let’s say you don’t have enough photobooks for inspiration. See them online for free on the Magnum Photos website (or visit a local bookstore or library). Or let’s say you have about 5 photobooks in your home, get to know those 5 books inside and out (instead of having 500 books you’re only mildly acquainted with).
So embrace these “creative constraints”. Never complain that you don’t have enough money, time, talent, that you live in a boring place, or whatever. Use the best what life has already given to you, and innovate.
Never forget the ancient quote: “Hunger breeds sophistication.” Hunger indeed is the mother of all innovation.
Chapter 8: Don’t make it complicated
The beauty of Apple products and the philosophy is the minimalism and simplicity. Apple products are intuitive. Even a baby can learn how to use an iPad before he or she learns how to talk. Compare that to trying to teach my mom how to use a windows 8 tablet.
For some reason, photographers try to make their work too complicated. They try out all these fancy lighting setups, they try to use all these fancy cameras and lenses, and all these fancy techniques. But the best photos are the ones that are simple, clean, minimalist, and to the point.
One of the best portrait photographers is Richard Avedon, who made his entire career of shooting black and white portraits of people against white backdrops. The reason he favored white backdrops is that it took away all the extraneous distractions from the background, and helped the viewer focus on the main subject.
If you look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, his black and white street photos are elegant and minimalist, with lovely geometry and mostly single characters.
Chapter 9: Don’t settle for less than “perfect”
One of the traits of Steve Jobs was that he was a perfectionist. He never settled for what he thought was anything less than perfect.
Even when he was designing the first Macintosh, he would agonize over the shade of grey. When he was helping Jony Ive design the size of the iPad, he would agonize over hundreds of iterations of designs, dimensions, and sizes for the screen. I even heard a story from a friend who works at Apple (who used to work with Steve) in which he asked her to re-arrange the header of the Apple.com website by one or two pixels.
Being a perfectionist comes with a lot of downsides, of course. Sometimes when you’re too much of a perfectionist, you fall into “paralysis by analysis” – in which you overly analyze all the same details, that you never end up accomplishing or doing anything. This happens to a lot of photographers; they try to plan and come up with the perfect photographic project, but they get so caught up in the details that they never pursue their projects.
Which brings us to the next point:
Chapter 10: Remember that “real artists ship”
Walter Isaacson said something along the lines of: “Without execution, ideas are just phantoms.”
It doesn’t matter how good your idea is. If you don’t ship your idea (execute your idea), you will never contribute anything to humanity.
Something we want to avoid is getting too caught up in the small pointless details which obstruct us in executing our artistic vision.
For example, if you want to pursue a photographic project, don’t get too caught up in the details of what camera to use, what film to use, whether to shoot it in color or black and white, when you should shoot it, how you can raise funds on Kickstarter for the book, whether others will find the project interesting or worthwhile, or how long you will work on the project.
These details will figure themselves out when you just execute the project; aka, just going out and shooting the project.
A lot of great photographers talk about their projects in hindsight. Hindsight is 20/20, meaning, it is always easy to look back at your successes and simply share a story or narrative which cleanly weaves together all the actions they did to get to their endpoint.
Chapter 11: Innovation through chance and circumstance
However in reality, creativity and innovation is much more messy than that. A lot of mistakes have to be made to further your artistic vision. And a lot of it is chance and circumstance.
For example, Daido Moriyama didn’t go out and set forth to create a revolutionary new style of out-of-focus, gritty, black-and-white “bure-boke” style with a cheap point-and-shoot camera (the film Ricoh GR compact camera). Rather, I believe Daido was having personal problems with drugs and alcohol, and a friend of his just gave him a Ricoh GR1 as a present, to just go out and make photos for fun. Daido then learned the beauty of using a cheap compact camera to fuck all other sorts of conventions of the time (using large-format, medium-format, or Leica cameras with sharp lenses). So he did the exact opposite of what everyone did; he took photos with poor composition, tilted frames, and harnessed his emotions and heart into his photos.
William Eggleston never had an idea that he would become one of the “revolutionaries” in color photography. At his time, color photography was considered vulgar and simply for amateurs. He (like all the other diligent photographers starting off) started off by aping Henri Cartier-Bresson, shooting with a film Leica and black-and-white film, trying to capture beautiful “decisive moments.” However Eggleston was born in a boring town (Memphis in America), and not in Paris (like HCB). Therefore because of Eggleston’s circumstance of living in a boring place, he learned to make do by trying to extract the maximum amount of creativity in his boring town. Therefore he started a revolution in “democratic photography”, where it was fine (and “artistic”) to photograph boring, common-place objects, places, and things. He also picked up color photography along the way.
During Eggleston’s time, he was reviled and hated by all his contemporaries. Eggleston showed some of his color work to the famous New York Museum of Modern Art curator and director, John Szarkowski. John happened to like his work, and gave Eggleston a solo exhibition, one of the first photographic exhibitions in color.
When it first showed, people were seriously pissed off. They thought it was “shit”, that it didn’t deserve to be on the walls of the NY MOMA, and he was criticized by all the “serious” art magazines and newspapers of his time. However as time went on, people started to appreciate the genius of Eggleston– which was trying to capture “the beauty in the mundane.”
And honestly, a lot of innovation happens due to the luck of what time in history you are born, and the circumstances of where you are born. Bill Gates would have never started Microsoft if he wasn’t born at the boom of the tech age (neither Steve Jobs). Henri Cartier-Bresson wouldn’t have become famous in his photography, if he hadn’t been born in a generation where the first 35mm Leica was invented (which allowed photographers to easily roam and take photos really quickly). Eggleston would have never been one of the innovators of color photography, had he had been born a few decades earlier (when color photography didn’t even exist).
Even for me, I would be an absolute nobody if the internet didn’t exist. My mom always reminds me, “Eric, you’re so lucky and fortunate to do what you do. If you were born in my time (before the internet existed), there is no way you could have spread your knowledge, information, and message with the world.”
Not to say that I am someone of importance, but the fact of the matter is that the internet and social media has given me the ability to have a platform to share ideas, which I hope, can empower photographers and you, my fellow friend, and to the rest of humanity.
So don’t complain that you weren’t born 50 years earlier, where everyone wore top-hats, and everything looked so much more “romantic.” In-fact, everyone who was born 50 years ago wouldn’t have batted an eye at a woman wearing a huge flowing dress with a ridiculous hat, or a man with a monocle and top-hat. To them, that was common. Reading a newspaper at a French cafe with a coffee? As common to them as we see someone looking at an iPhone at a Starbucks.
So realize that the best moment for you, my friend, to innovative is RIGHT NOW. Don’t lament the fact that you were born in the “wrong” generation. You were born in the perfect generation.
You have all the tools at your disposal. You have the collective knowledge of all humankind at your fingertips (the internet), you have the best photographic technology history has ever seen (high-end digital cameras that can shoot at ISO 64,000+), access to online communities where you can share your work with potentially millions of people, and basic health and sanitation and necessities of life which mean you don’t have to work to survive– you have tons of time to pursue your artistic endeavors.
Yet we all complain about not having enough time either, but I do believe that having a little bit of time can be good for our creativity and innovation. The less free time you have, the more intensely you work, and the greater your hustle.
Even though you might complain that you have an older DSLR, or that you can’t shoot above ISO 3,200 without noise, realize that your camera blows any other camera out of the water from even 20 years ago. Realize that all the early color photographers had to shoot with Kodachrome color film which was only limited to a maximum of ISO 64. Think about Ansel Adams and all the other photographers that have come before us who were burdened by carrying around a fucking huge and heavy-ass large-format 8×10 camera (some modern photographers still shoot with it, with great results, like past work by Alec Soth). We complain that our DSLR’s are too big and clunky– let us try to hike around for a few hours with an 8×10 camera, and let us realize that we have nothing to complain about.
And don’t get me wrong friend, I bitch and moan all the time that I don’t have “good enough” equipment, that the place that I live is too boring, and that I wish I picked up photography sooner. I complain that I am not innovative and creative enough, that I don’t have any good ideas, and that my lack of photographic schooling holds me back.
But I need to stop complaining, and just go out and shoot. I need to stop thinking about all the negatives that hold me back, and rather think about all the positives and opportunities that I have.
No matter how bad we have it, as long as we have our vision, we should consider ourselves blessed. Apparently there are even some blind photographers out there, who have friends and assistants helping them out. If a blind photographer can make meaningful images, why can’t we?
Chapter 12: Don’t taint your inner-vision
If you want to be truly innovative in your photography, you need to take the feedback and critique of others with a grain of salt.
For example, if you tried to do something that the world has never seen before, of course people are going to be skeptical and think it will fail.
For example, one of the things about Steve Jobs is that he never hired focus groups. He believed that people didn’t know what they wanted or thought was beautiful, until they saw it. He often quoted Henry Ford who said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
If you have a great vision for your photography or any other creative endeavor, don’t let your inner-vision be tainted by the feedback of others. In-fact, nowadays I am quite dubious of even pitching project ideas to teachers, friends, or other photographers. More important is to go out, shoot the project, and learn along the way (by yourself) whether the project works or not. Then once you have some images you have captured in this project, then show the images to some fellow peers to get some direction and feedback.
But I know this is difficult my friend. How can you balance feedback from others, and not tainting your inner-vision?
For me, I think it is important to make an inner-circle of about 3 people you trust: one person who is a loved one who is also creative and isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings (for a lot of photographers, it is a husband, wife, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend). Secondly, get another person who is a photographer or creative person you admire. Thirdly, the last person you need to trust is yourself. After all, if you yourself aren’t pleased by your photos, why are you taking photos for?
Apparently this is what Josef Koudelka does. He has his inner-circle. If two of his closest confidants think that his work is strong, and he thinks the work is strong, the work is strong, period.
The problem with “crowd-sourcing” or getting too many opinions from too many random people is this: most people don’t know what good art is. It sounds elitist, but it is true; if people knew what good food or coffee was, they wouldn’t be at McDonalds nor would they go to Starbucks (okay I admit I go to Starbucks as well at times, but their coffee pales in comparisons to more artisanal cafe’s).
My friend Charlie Kirk calls most of the photography out there as “IKEA photography.” What does that mean? Well, have you ever been to an IKEA before and seen the photographic selection there? They are all nice photos that your mom would like, and offend nobody. You see pretty silhouettes, landscapes of Paris, boring and standard stuff like that. Sure they are “pretty”, but they don’t inspire. They don’t provoke. They don’t shock. They don’t tug at your heartstrings. They aren’t memorable.
Great photography needs to do the opposite; it needs to be unique, fresh, revolutionary, edgy, sharp, rough around the edges, provocative, and impactful.
If you take a black-and-white photo of a man jumping over a puddle with a red umbrella and upload it to Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram, of course you will get hundreds of likes/favorites. But is that a great photograph? Sure it is a nice photograph, but it is a cliche. It has already been done thousands of times before. It isn’t innovative. It isn’t pushing the boundaries of photography forward.
So be highly selective of who your inner-circle is; and ask them to brutally criticize and analyze your work. But make sure that these people are on your own team, and also share your inner-vision.
No man is his own island, we always need to collaborate with others to push the boundaries of our photography and art forward. But just be selective who those people are.
Chapter 13: Don’t rush yourself
Great things and great innovations take a long time.
One photographer who I highly admire is Trent Parke. He is one of the hardest-working photographers out there, and has revolutionized black-and-white photography by pushing the limits of 35mm film (and recently large-format black-and-white film) to the edges.
The interesting thing to note is that each of his major projects has taken him 5 years–10 years. He is also a perfectionist in his work, and doesn’t settle for less. He isn’t interested in repeating himself.
So when he first created his first series in 35mm black-and-white-film (“Minutes to Midnight” being one of his greatest), he got bored and moved onto medium-format color film (check out the “Christmas Tree Bucket”). Soon after extracting the limits of that medium, he moved onto large-format black-and-white (“The Black Rose” being his recent work).
He never stops hustling, but the big takeaway point is this: he wasn’t rushed, he took his time, and didn’t settle.
Any great piece of work takes a long time. You can’t expect a redwood tree to grow to great heights in just one year. It takes decades, centuries, sometimes even thousands of years.
So as a general rule think this: if you want to create a truly great and innovative body of work in photography, expect it to take at least 5 years. Preferably 10 years.
Of course it doesn’t always have to take you that long to create a truly great and innovative body of work. However I think by over-shooting the period of time that it will take you, this will help you not rush the process, to really delve into the details, and not make mediocre work that you might publish too quickly.
Chapter 14: Disconnect from social media
The irony of social media is that it promised to be beneficial to us photographers, and it has been (with a lot of hidden downsides). There are lots of great online photographic communities, critique and comment sites and groups, and other educational resources to learn photography.
However at the end of the day, almost all great and innovative photography is done offline, not online.
Why is that?
With innovation, there is a deep need for in-person (in the flesh) collaboration and communication. Sure Skype is nice and all, but there is nothing that can beat sitting next to someone and having them critique your work in-person, pointing to the flaws of your photos, pointing out the strengths, and telling you verbally what you can work on.
In Apple’s design study, Jony Ive and his team are absolutely brutal and honest with one another. And another key thing? They don’t do their work remotely via Skype. They need to be there, in-the-flesh with one another. They print out ideas on paper, they sketch ideas on paper, they model things on the computer, and print them out, and create dummy models they can critique as a community, standing next one another and pointing out strengths and flaws.
Almost all of the innovative street photographers in history have had a strong in-person community (or at least a few friends who shared common interests). For example, Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz were good friends, who would shoot street photography together nearly everyday on the streets of NYC. Apparently Josef Koudelka and Henri Cartier-Bresson shared a strong bond; and they both challenged one another in their photography. In 1938, when Walker Evans did his candid NYC subway portrait series with a hidden camera, Helen Levitt also helped him out and gave him support, in the belief that if he had someone else with him, he would be less noticed.
I am a big believer in the positive aspects of social media, the biggest one being that it can act as a bridge from the online to the offline. Meaning, you can use social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to find people on the internet you admire and connect with. And then you try to use email, text messaging, whatever to organize a meeting in real life. Then that is when the true collaboration and innovation begins– when you start mixing ideas, contributing project ideas to one another, and giving each other morale and creative support.
Social media pales in comparison to this. Sure you can upload a photo to Instagram and use the number of “likes” you get on your image as a general gauge if the shot is “good” or not. But once again remember, 99.9% of the people on the internet don’t have good taste (imagine all the 13-year old teenage girls on Instagram who like cat photos and cappucino photos liking your shot). Who would you rather have give you honest feedback and critique on your work; a close photography friend whose work you admire and trust, or thousands of strangers online who you have no idea what their photographic interests or backgrounds are?
Another downside to social media; it makes you obsess too much about the single image, rather than the project as a whole. I know for me personally I found Instagram highly addictive (worse than crack cocaine), and I would be more obsessed about whether a single image would get a lot of likes/comments– rather than thinking about my project as a whole. Instagram and social media make you obsess about the day-to-day of photography, and make you forget to take a long-term view and perspective.
Once again, if a great photographic project can take anywhere from 5–10 years, Instagram makes you think only in terms of days or weeks.
Another important aspect of innovation that we mentioned earlier is to eliminate distractions at all costs. Steve Jobs was so focused on his projects at Apple, he intentionally ignored everything else (emails, paying suppliers, and other “important” stuff). But his focus was so laser-like, that he learned to eschew everything which wasn’t essential.
Another benefit I have discovered along the way is to shoot film; because it helps you slow down, to think long-term, as it takes a lot longer for you to get your film developed.
Furthermore, it is easier to shoot a long-term project for 5–10 years on a film camera, as you don’t have to worry about constantly upgrading your camera or lens, or sensor. The film that you shoot with will be more or less the same over that long period of time, and you will have a consistent “look” in your project as a whole.
Chapter 15: Eliminate the extraneous
The photos you decide not to show are more important than the photos you decide to show in your photography. Why is that? You are only as good as your weakest photo. Less is more. By having fewer poor photos, you really let the strong ones shine.
The most difficult thing of creating a truly great photographic project is to leave out the weak photos that you might have some sort of emotional attachment to. You might have a vivid memory of having taken a certain shot, for example, you might have had a great interaction with a stranger who told you their life story. But in reality, the photograph might not be very strong, but you let your emotions of the event fool you into thinking that it is a strong shot.
So if you want to truly innovate in your photography, you need to be absolutely ruthless in your editing (removing of your bad images).
Whenever I meet a friend or photographers who I trust and ask them to get feedback on my projects, I show them a large edit of around 30–40 images. I then ask them to be brutally honest and “kill my babies.” I don’t ask them which photos they like, rather, I ask them which photos I should remove or kill.
One important thing I found out is this: Most people disagree which shots are the strongest in your series, but most people will agree which of your shots are the weakest. Meaning, people are better at spotting weak photos than spotting good photos.
Steve Jobs applied a similar methodology at Apple. Rather than asking the engineers and designers what features to add to their new products, he was always asking them what extraneous features they could eliminate or subtract.
For example, when he designed the original iPod (the one with the scrolling wheel), he tried to get his team to figure out a way in which the user was able to access every item in the menu with 3 clicks or fewer.
With all Apple products, he constantly wanted to subtract size and weight. This is what led to innovations such as the Macbook Air (which was pretty fucking amazing that it could fit into the sleeve of a manila envelope, no other laptop was even half as thin at the time).
For a while, Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple, and when he got kicked out of the company, the company went to shit. They started to create far too many products, there wasn’t enough focus, and the products the people at Apple were making sucked.
However once Steve Jobs came back, he was ruthless in eliminating the extraneous. For example, at the time Apple had 350 product lines. He cut that down to 10, and focused only a few machines and tried to make them perfect.
One great quote from Steve Jobs on innovation and cutting out the extraneous:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on, but that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
Even some advice Steve Jobs gave to Nike CEO Mark Parker was this:
“Nike makes some of the best products in the world. Products that you lust after. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”
Easier said than done, but once again, innovation is saying “no” to bad ideas, and to just getting rid of “crappy stuff.” By eliminating the unnecessary, the superfluous, and the bad– you are left with the “good stuff.”
One thing that I personally try to do is to limit my photographic portfolio to just 3 projects. Why is this? Because less is more. People are busy, they don’t have the time to see 10 mediocre projects. I would rather focus all my time and energy into a few projects, and do them really well.
One of the biggest reasons I got inspired to do this was from studying the work of Josef Koudelka. The man has been shooting for over 50 years, yet he has only really focused on 3 main projects in his lifetime: “Gypsies”, “Exiles”, and his more recent panoramic work (“Chaos” and other work). Each of his projects is a masterpiece, and each photograph in the book is purposeful, strong on its own, and yet work as a series. I would rather be like Koudelka in which I have 3 strong bodies of work, rather than Martin Parr who produces a lot of work (only a few projects which are memorable, my favorite being “The Last Resort”.
So going back to my previous point; I only show 3 projects on my website at a time. If I want to add another project, I need to figure out another project to remove from the site. This helps me stay focused, and to keep the weak photos of mine out of the public view.
Recently, I have also removed all of my old photos from my Flickr, to only focus on my new work: up-and-close color “street portraits” shot on a digital Ricoh GR. At the moment I only have my 5 strongest street portraits on Flickr, and probably plan on limiting it to only about 10 shots in the long run. Once again, I want to show less; not more. If another shot is stronger than the previous shots, I will remove the previous weaker images.
I know friend, it is hard to eliminate our beloved old photos. But in order to move forward, you can’t look backwards. Be ruthless; kill your old work, and look forward. Don’t be burdened or held back by your old work, and know that your photos are not your babies. They are just photos. They have no feelings. They don’t feel offended if you decide to remove them from the public’s view.
A pro-tip: if there are photos on your Flickr that you no longer like (yet you want to keep them for personal reasons), just mark them to “private”. But be warned, you will lose all your precious “favorites” (which actually is a quite refreshing experience).
Chapter 16: Never sugarcoat things
One of the main criticisms Steve Jobs got during his lifetime was for being an “asshole.” He hurt a lot of feelings of close friends, family, and colleagues at Apple and other companies. He would call a lot of people “shitheads”, call people’s work “shit”, “crappy”, and would relentlessly berate people.
Of course that is done to the extreme; I think you should always treat other human beings (like human beings), with love, empathy, compassion, and heart. But at the same time, you don’t want to sugar-coat feedback or critique, you need to be brutally honest.
In order to innovate, you also need to be brutally honest with yourself and your photographic abilities. If you want to truly become a great photographer, or create truly great or innovative work, you can’t beat around the bush when critiquing your work. You need to be brutally honest. Not only that, but you need to ask your fellow peers to be brutally honest as well, so you don’t create mediocre work.
Chapter 17: Push your limits to the maximum
To push myself in my work, I always ask myself: “Is this work as good as the work of Magnum photographers?” Or when looking at my images and judging them, I ask myself, “If Josef Koudelka looked at my work, how would he critique my work, and would he think it is good or not? What would he tell me was weak, what could use improvement, and what he possibly liked?” I use this as a barometer to better critically judge myself.
This is why it is also important to study the work of the masters of photography who have come before you. We can easily look at their photobooks, and learn from their successes after decades of work (you can see a list of inspirational photobooks I recommend here). We can study the work of the masters, and use it as a barometer to compare our work to. If our work isn’t as good (or doesn’t surpass) the work of the masters who have come before us, we aren’t innovating. We are merely imitating, or making shittier work than has already been done before.
If your goal as a photographer is to just make photos that please yourself, that is totally cool. There is no need to compete or compare yourself to others. But if your goal as a photographer is to push the limits and boundaries of photography, to drive innovation in photography, and to inspire other photographers around the world to find their limits, then you need to compare yourself with the work of the masters, be truly honest with yourself, and don’t settle for anything less than what has been done before. You need to search for the maximum.
This is what Josef Koudelka has said about trying to push the limits of photography (and himself) in 1981:
“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.”
So never settle for less; always push yourself. See what your limits are, and try to achieve the “maximum” of your abilities.
Chapter 18: Never stop evolving
Charles Darwin calls it “survival of the fittest” – the concept that in biology, creatures that fail to constantly evolve and change will eventually die off.
This is what helped us human beings become great. We came into this world, furless, tiny, and quite useless compared to other animals. We couldn’t run fast, we weren’t very strong– but our strengths were that we could communicate, we could coordinate, we had hands, we could walk on our two legs, and we had vast intelligence. This is what helped us conquer the world.
But as humans, we evolved from a “lower” species, and it is through our evolution of our bodies, our sight, hearing, and minds were we able to become great.
Apply the same reasoning to your photography and creative abilities as well. Never stop innovating, never stop creating, and never stop evolving. Don’t just keep doing the same shit, and falling into complacency.
One lesson I learned from Josef Koudelka is that he never stopped evolving. He did most of his early “Gypsies” work on a film SLR and 25mm lens. But after a while, he felt he was repeating himself, so he ditched that setup and picked up a Leica, 35mm and 50mm lens, and just started to travel and take photos along his journeys. Soon that bored him, and he decided to take on a panoramic camera and shoot epic landscapes of whatever interested him.
Apparently one of the theories that Koudelka has (in terms of why Henri Cartier-Bresson quit photography) is because Cartier-Bresson stopped evolving. He kept shooting the same photos over and over again, with his Leica and 50mm lens. Koudelka surmised that Cartier-Bresson simply got bored of photography and capturing “decisive moments.” That is why Cartier-Bresson (towards the end of his life) put down his camera, and committed himself to painting and drawing.
When Steve Jobs was still around, he had a burning desire, hunger, and thirst to constantly innovate, to never stand still, and to push the limits of technology and the humanities to the maximum.
For every Apple product out there, “good” wasn’t “good” enough. He wanted every new version to be better, to be more advanced, lighter, more sleek, faster, easier to use, and a step forward in terms of evolution.
For example, every new generation of the iPhone was a step forward, all the way from the original iPhone to the iPhone 4s (last iPhone that got released before Steve Jobs died). Each permutation was slightly better, which was quite amazing because the device didn’t change at all in terms of the size or overall functions. But it was the subtle differences; the evolution from the plastic clamshell to the flat aluminum. Small advances in the camera, the weight and the size, as well as the hardware. The improvements in the software which made it more user-friendly. The improvements to the screen (the “retina screen” technology) which made images and text sharper. The innovations of the iPhone drove forward the entire mobile smartphone market.
So in your photography, don’t be satisfied with just doing the same thing over and over again. Realize that as a biological creature (and a creative person), you need to constantly evolve to survive, and to thrive.
You can evolve in many different ways in your photography. You can evolve by making your photos more sophisticated, by switching mediums (shooting in film instead of digital, shooting medium-format instead of 35mm) or by switching subject-matter and the projects you work on. The only requirement is this: make sure that every new project you work on is slightly better and more innovative than the project you worked on before. You’re only as good as your last project, and you’re only as good as your last photo.
This is also a saying they have in the movie industry for directors: “You’re only as good as your last film.”
Every new creation you make doesn’t have to be the most ground-breaking thing since sliced bread. But try to aim for subtle and gradual improvements. Evolution happens gradually– you won’t have an animal growing 10 feet taller in one generation. Each generation of animal which evolves grows slightly bigger, becomes slightly smarter, slightly stronger, and slightly more aware. The same thing is in technology: advancements tend to be quite gradual (think about “Moore’s law” in which the power of technology tends to double approximately every two years).
Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming to think that you need to constantly evolve and grow. But to make life a bit easier on you, let me propose this one golden rule of innovation: the 1% principle.
The concept of the 1% principle is this: simply try to grow by 1% everyday. Or perhaps that can be 1% every week, or month– whatever suits you the best. I prefer the 1% daily model because it is more tangible, and it is uncertain that you will live another day (who knows if you will die in a car crash tomorrow by a drunk driver).
If you grow by 1% everyday, without fail, you will double your ability in only 69 days, which is only 2.5 months.
Of course we cannot quantitatively rate that our photography has gotten “twice” as good– but the point is that small habits and improvements will stack up and have “compounding gains.”
One of my favorite quotes from Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”
So never stop hustling, evolving, and pushing your limits. Never stop evolving, or risk dying creatively.
Chapter 19: Don’t be afraid to alienate your audience
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby
As human beings, we all want to be liked and loved. I know that one of my personal flaws is that I want everybody to like me. I mean everybody. If I upset or alienate even one person, it causes me a lot of grief and anxiety. After all, I don’t want anyone to feel alienated, I want everyone to feel included.
However the matter of the fact is that if you try to please everybody, you will please nobody. No matter how great you are, you will always piss off somebody, or have someone who doesn’t like you.
As great as the Beatles were, not everybody liked their music. As loving as Gandhi, Socrates, and Jesus were, they had “haters” (and were killed for their beliefs).
Bob Dylan, a musician that Steve Jobs admired greatly, alienated a lot of his fans when he switched from acoustic to electric guitar. He would sometimes even get boo’d offstage by his “fans” because they loved listening to his “old stuff”, rather than his “new stuff.”
Don’t try to please everybody, and don’t be afraid to alienate others.
When I started shooting street photography, I copied the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and tried to make pretty “decisive moment” black-and-white photos of people walking by interesting backgrounds. In the beginning, it was a lot of fun. A lot of people liked my work and my style.
But as time went on, this type of street photography started to bore the hell out of me. Seeking a new change, I came upon the work of Bruce Gilden, and was quite shocked how he shot street photography with a flash and up-close. But it intrigued me, so I decided to copy him instead.
When I started to shoot street photography with a flash, it opened up a whole new world to me. I loved the new look of my images, and was excited by photography again.
But the problem is that I started to alienate a lot of my viewers. A lot of people told me, “Eric, quit trying to copy Bruce Gilden. Your work is shit compared to his, just go back to your old stuff.”
Don’t get me wrong; that hurt a lot. I lost a lot of confidence when I heard negative feedback like that. In-fact, after I uploaded a video of me shooting street photography with a flash in Hollywood, I got so depressed by all of the negative comments and feedback that I put down my camera for a month and didn’t take any photos.
However I am glad that I experimented, pushed myself out of my boundaries, and did work that was personally meaningful or interesting to me. Sure I did end up alienating a lot of people; but that will happen when you continue to grow and evolve as a person.
Don’t be chained by your past work or accomplishments. Everyday you wake up, you are a new person. You are reborn. Try to embrace “beginner’s mind” or “child’s mind”, where every time you pursue a new creative pursuit, you start with a blank slate. You aren’t held back by any sort of prejudices, any sort of theory, or expectations. You simply explore the world like you did for the first time, without any limits.
If anything, the more people you alienate with your photography, the more innovative you probably are with your photography.
The worst thing you can be as a photographer or an artist is to be boring. I would rather look at work that pisses me off and is vulgar to me, rather than photos that just bore me.
So seek not to be boring in your photography. Excite, arouse, and perhaps even try to piss off your viewers. Don’t do it intentionally, but just prevent yourself from creating “meh” or so-so work that doesn’t provoke.
The more innovative you are with your photography, the more people you are going to alienate, because people hate change. There is something called the “complacency bias” or the “status quo bias” in which human beings like to stay consistent and keep doing the same thing over and over again. Change is hard. Change is scary. But without changing, we can never grow and push innovation forward.
Chapter 20: Don’t stop moving
“The rolling stone gathers no moss.” – Publilius Syrus
That quote from Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus is probably the most compact and apt phrase in terms of how to be innovative in our photography and creative abilities.
The concept is this: if you keep on moving forward, and keep rolling, you will never become stagnant and gather moss. It is kind of like a car; if you let a car sit in the garage for a year without turning it on, the battery will die, and some of the components might not work as well. So every once in a while, you need to turn on the car (to prevent it from dying).
Can you imagine if you went a day, or even an hour or a minute without breathing? Would you continue to live? No you wouldn’t.
So if you want to continue to live and thrive as a photographer, you must never stop moving. You must never stop shooting. Otherwise you will die inside.
Now every shot you take doesn’t need to be a work of art. In-fact, street photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography. Even Alex Webb said that, “99.9% of street photography is failure.” But the more times you fail, the more chances you will have to succeed. The more time you swing your bat, the more chances you will have to hit a home run. The more penalty kicks you have in soccer (or “football” as it should correctly be called) the more likely you are to score a goal.
Chapter 21: Don’t let your equipment be an excuse
One of the biggest excuses I make in my photography is that “I don’t feel inspired”. Whenever I feel uninspired, I want to go out and buy new cameras, new lenses, and new equipment to try to “reinspire” myself.
But that is bullshit. It never helps. It just means that I spend more money, have fewer 0’s in my bank account, because no matter how good my camera or equipment is, I will never be satisfied. There is always better gear out there, and I will always make the excuse that my gear is my limiting factor (not my own creative abilities).
Why is it that we always seek to upgrade our equipment, rather than using the equipment we have more effectively?
Apparently there was a story I got from Roman philosopher Seneca (over 2,000 years ago) who said that a really great sailor could sail well, even with a small and cheap boat. Another story: a truly great sculptor could make a great statue regardless of what kind of material you give him (wood, silver, bronze, gold, marble, or plain stone).
Similarly, if you’re a truly great photographer, you can innovate and make great art regardless of what camera you have. Some of the greatest street photographers I know only use iPhones. Some of the shittiest photographers I know use high-end digital Leica’s.
The tool doesn’t make the photographer.
Enough is never enough. In psychology they call this the “hedonic treadmill” – in which we always try to “upgrade” our material possessions, our lifestyles, our cars, our bank accounts, and other things in life, seeking more and more happiness. The problem? Once we “upgrade” our material possessions or lifestyles, it becomes the new “norm”, and we get used to it. Then we seek to get even more. We need to learn to be grateful for what we have.
For example, I started with a Canon point-and-shoot digital camera. Soon it wasn’t good enough, so I told myself I “needed” a DSLR to be truly great. I got a Canon Rebel XT (350D). Then I realized I “needed” a lens which can create “bokeh” (so I got a 50mm f/1.8). I then realized that I “needed” a zoom lens, so I got a Sigma 18–200mm lens (quite possibly the worst lens I ever used in my life). It wasn’t sharp enough, so I upgraded to a Canon 70–200 f/4. I then realized that I “needed” a full-frame camera (because all the nerds on the gear forums told me that you shouldn’t use L lenses on non-full-frame cameras). Therefore I got a Canon 5D, thinking that all my life’s problems would be over once I had a full-frame camera.
My zoom lenses weren’t sharp enough, so I “needed” a prime lens. I got a 35mm f/2. It wasn’t wide enough. I got a 24mm f/2.8. Too wide. I got a 105mm macro Sigma lens. Too close. Then I realized the Canon 5D was too heavy and “restrictive.” So I lusted after a Leica M9. I daydreamed of how I could sell off my car, take out loans, and possibly sell my left kidney for one. After getting a full-time job after graduating college, getting laid off, and getting a bonus from my job (and help from my mom), I got an M9 and 35mm f/1.4 lens. I was overjoyed for the first 2 months, but after a while, it became “whatever.” It soon collected dust on the shelf, and I got a Leica M6 from my friend Todd, and I ended up selling the M9 and upgrading to a Leica MP. I gave the M6 to my friend Bill as a present, and I sold off the 35mm f/1.4 lens for a newer 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens. After two years I started to lust for a new digital Leica (the new Leica Monochrom), but I realized that this bullshit had to stop. At the moment, I locked away my Leica MP and lens into a drawer, and am just picking up a simple camera (digital Ricoh GR) and sticking with that.
So sorry for detracting from what I was sharing with you friend, but anyways, GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is a bitch, and gets the best of us. We’ve all been through it, and honestly, I don’t think there is a cure. We will constantly be bombarded by advertisements and the camera industry to constantly upgrade our cameras, that our work isn’t good enough (without buying that new lens), and that we need more megapixels, more image stabilization, sharper lenses, faster autofocus, and all that other bullshit.
The secret is to realize that the equipment we have is sufficient, was 100x better than the master photographers had before us, and that we need to stop looking to upgrade our equipment, and to simply use the equipment we have right now to the fullest extent. And also another thing to realize: most cameras are more similar than dissimilar (yet advertisements stress the differences, rather than the similarities).
The only limitation we have in innovation in our photography is our own creative minds.
I still suffer from “GAS” (I constantly have to cleanse myself from wanting to buy new shit), but this is one motto that has helped me overcome this lust:
Photography books aren’t cheap, but they’re certainly a lot cheaper than buying new gear. And not only that, but they will inspire you far more than buying a new camera.
Also consider in buying education, not gear. Start attending a local photography class, workshop, or find a teacher that you can do photographic lessons 1:1 via Skype. Pay money to attend portfolio reviews, to travel to places you want to photograph, and to invest in experiences that will help you grow as a photographer.
Spending money on cameras is always the worst investment you can make with your money. If I could offer a beginner photographer any advice it would be this: “Just use the camera you already own. If you don’t own a camera, I recommend investing in a digital Ricoh GR, which is probably the best bang-for-the-buck digital camera out there.
Also remember that at the end of the day, spending money on physical things (like cameras or gear) will never buy you happiness. Investing money in experiences is always the best use of your money, and can ultimately “buy you happiness”.
Chapter 22: Don’t die
“If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” – Steve Jobs
The last point on innovation and photography I want to bring up to you is to not die.
I once read a statistic that 99.9% of blogs aren’t updated after the first month. I’ve been blogging quite consistently for the last 9 years, and I can say, to consistently blog and not die is one of the most difficult things. After all, you’re not always inspired. But I think deep down inside, you still have something to say.
I find it ironic that people are hungry everyday, they eat everyday, they drink everyday, they shit everyday, and they talk everyday, yet we have a difficult time to write (and photograph) everyday.
For me, one of the ways I overcome the obstacle to writing everyday is to know that not everything I write has to be good. At the end of the day, I write for myself. Writing is almost a form of meditation; it helps me hash out my thoughts, it helps clear my mind, and helps articulate what is going on in my brain. This takes a lot of pressure off of me to make everything I write a piece of “art”.
The same thing applies in my photography. I know that 99.9% of the photos I take will be shitty. But that isn’t the point of photography. To make photographs is to capture what you find interesting, no matter how boring or mundane it may be. So I give myself permission to not always make good photos, but to keep the process alive and joyful.
So to “not die” in photography is to essentially never die creatively, never die by stopping taking photos, and not die by becoming discouraged.
Speaking of becoming discouraged, it is quite easy to in today’s world. We are constantly bombarded by images of other photographers who constantly produce great work. We feel our work sucks in comparison to theirs, so we simply want to give up. But the problem is that the great work we see online is usually the accumulation of several years from that photographer. But what we only see is the final outcome.
Ironically the best way I have been able to stay inspired in my photography is to spend less time on the Internet, and more time focusing on my own photography, challenging myself, and talking to a few friends who I trust and admire. I often directly message photos that I’m not sure about to my friend Josh White, who will be honest what he thinks about the shot.
“Not dying” in photography means to never stop being creative. You don’t need to shoot everyday, but I think you should never stop taking forward steps in your creativity. This means, one day you can shoot. The other day you can edit your work. The next day you can get your work critiqued. The next day you might go out and shoot again, perhaps this time with a friend. Perhaps the next day you don’t want to do anything photographic, you just might want to watch a movie or read a book (this can ultimately help you be more creative as well). Remember that taking breaks and resting is also an important part of the creative process, that will propel you forward.
Once again, remember what Steve Jobs has taught us: try to be reborn everyday as a photographer. Always experiment, try out new things, and don’t let anything hold you back. Keep your mind open like “child’s mind” or “beginners mind”, like they say in Zen Buddhism. Otherwise once you fall too deeply into rigid structures and theories, your mind and creativity calcifies and becomes inflexible. Then you start dying.
Conclusion: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech
“Memento mori” is the Latin phrase: “Remember, you have to die”.
I always think about this phrase, whenever I wake up in the morning, or whenever I go to sleep at night.
Many think that Steve Jobs passing at age 56 was untimely and a shame. But the way I see it, his constant thinking of death is what helped him never waste a day of his life, and make a meaningful change in the world. If he didn’t get cancer, he might not have had the same sense of urgency and hustle, had he known he would have lived to be much longer.
Friend, know that your life is short and limited. Everyday which passes is just another day closer to death. Time is the ultimate non renewable resource we have in life. No matter how rich, famous, or influential we are, we can never “add” another year to our life, nor can we escape death.
So what is holding you back from innovating in your photography and life? Don’t let others expectations hold you back. Don’t let a demanding boss force you to put in extra hours at work. Don’t let distractions and social media keep you away from pursuing your photographic projects which bring joy and happiness to your life.
To live a life true to yourself is one of the difficult things in life, and also one of the biggest regrets of the dying. So don’t live your life according to what others expect from you. Have the courage to listen to your inner voice, and fuck what everyone else thinks or says.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Know that you can change the world with your photography. As long as you create a photographic project which influences or inspires even one individual, you have done your job as a photographer.
Stay foolish, know that impossible is nothing. Human beings are the most innovative and creative creatures which have ever walked on the face of the earth. There are no limits to our imagination. The only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves.
So friend, go forth and create beautiful art which is personally meaningful to you. Make a change in the world with your photography, and know that you have all the blessings, skills, and talents necessary to do so.
You got this shit!
6:23pm, Monday, September 14, 2015 @ Allegro coffee roasters in Berkeley.
To learn more about innovation, I highly recommend you reading “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. This book will seriously change your life.
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