After 10 years of shooting street photography, one thing I’m starting to realize is that I’m becoming a bit complacent with my work. I have a few projects behind me which I think are quite strong, and I think haven’t pushed myself hard enough to innovate in my work. I need to push my limits, and I want this letter to be a call for you to push your limits too.
You have no limits
“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” – Bruce Lee
One of my passions is powerlifting. What has amazed me is how I’ve been able to push my limits (slowly but almost nonstop) for almost 8 years. I remember when it came to doing the deadlift, I started at 135 pounds, and eventually by adding 2.5-5 pounds every week, I was able to max out (at my highest point) at 430 pounds.
Mind you, I’m a pretty skinny and scrawny looking Asian kid. But I’ve found that powerlifting (rather than just showing machismo and bravado) was more of a mental exercise; kind of a meditative-zen experience for me. I would always try to push my limits, and found out that I never had any limits (unless they were self-imposed).
I think artistically and creatively we also have no limits. There are no limits, only plateaus as Bruce Lee wrote. But we need to push past these limits, break these plateaus, and constantly grow (slowly but surely) over the years.
What makes me sad is how so many of the masters have faltered to hitting limits and plateaus. For example, even the epic Henri Cartier-Bresson quit photography after about 30 years of shooting and retired to painting and drawing. Josef Koudelka theorizes because HCB just kept doing the same thing (shooting black and white, 50mm and Leica, “decisive moments”) that he got bored, and stopped innovating.
However Josef Koudelka shifted from shooting his “Gypsies” project on a film SLR and 25mm lens, to using a Leica and 35/50mm for his “Exiles” project, then eventually shooting panoramics on a panoramic camera. Nowadays apparently he is using a special custom digital Leica S-camera converted to black and white only, to shoot panoramics.
Switch it up
Personally, I’ve hit a lot of walls in my photography. I started off shooting black and white “decisive moment” photos like Henri Cartier Bresson, and eventually got bored with it. I then got inspired by Bruce Gilden, who would get really close and shoot with a flash. I then got inspired in color by Martin Parr and started to shoot color and flash. Then I got inspired by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, and started to shoot “still life” and “urban landscape” photography.
Then I got more interested in “street portraits,” via Richard Avedon. I also then shifted and started to shoot more “personal photography” (intimate photos of Cindy, inspired by my friend Josh White). Nowadays I’m shooting more black and white up-close street portraits with a flash, 28mm, macro, on my Ricoh GR.
I do believe it is important to stay consistent in your photography, but then again it is important to switch things up. How do we balance the two?
The best advice I’ve gotten was to treat yourself like a movie director. You work on different movies or films (projects), and each project has a certain artistic vision, camera, tool, and approach. Then you need to continue to evolve your vision, and push your artistry forward.
I think passion is the lifeblood of the photographer and artist. When our passion dries up, we need to reevaluate our relationship with photography, and ask ourselves why we make photos, and the philosophical underpinnings behind our work.
For me, if I asked myself the question: “Eric, why do you make photos?” I would answer, “I want to make connections with other people, over making photos.” I think this is what draws me towards shooting “street portraits”– it is an approach which allows me to connect with strangers I meet on the streets. I find myself more interested in asking for permission and interacting with my subjects, rather than just shooting candids.
Of course, this is different for everyone. I think photography is all about finding your unique voice in photography and life. There is nobody like you, with your unique vision, and your unique life experiences. While it is good to draw inspiration from others who are like-minded like you, there is only one of you in the world. So why follow others? Follow your own vision, and stay true to yourself.
Constantly push yourself forward, evolve, and push your limits. Continue to stay curious, find motivation within, create connections with other artists, and push yourself to your maximum.
Seize or photograph the day, you got this.
Sunday, April 24, 2016