No Shortcuts To Mastery

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Yousuf Karsh spent a lifetime perfecting his portrait lighting techniques. Here are Yousuf and me, graduation day, Dawson Institute of Photography, Montreal—at the beginning of the many hundreds of thousands of frames I have taken since this picture was captured by my dad. 

Photo: Mac Simon

With no real shortcuts to mastery, you can accelerate your progress by simply shooting more. In a future post, I will talk about the importance of technical proficiency to let your creativity soar, but first let’s focus on the idea of doing a volume of work.

The romantic notion of inspiration striking like a bolt of lightning is just that—a romantic notion—and from my experience and research, the great work comes from a hearty work ethic. 

But we passionate photographers shoot because we have to, and it rarely feels like work. The fact is, when we look at masters in the arts, often these are people who have the luxury of working and thinking about their craft 24/7. 

So when inspiration comes, it’s often the result of a percolation of sorts, triggered by whatever it is that fires those particular neurons in the brain. If you’re like most passionate amateurs, you need to get to work making pictures, and good photographic things will happen. 

Chuck Close talks about the process in Andrew Zuckerman’s book, Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another: 

“The advice I like to give to young artists, or really anybody, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens.”    

Chuck Close

I do a street photographer workshop in New York City with Zack Arias and Zack credits the above quote by Mr. Close for literally saving his artistic life. It inspired him to just get going and do a personal portrait project which brought him out of a funk. 

It’s true that those who dedicate themselves to their art full-time, have not only more opportunity to pursue their creative passions, but by thinking about their art all the time, they often come up with a steady stream of ideas that feeds their creative growth, which leads to more and better work.

That said, one of my mentors, documentarian Eugene Richards, told me as a young photographer, “It takes ten years to become a good photographer,” and in retrospect, I agree. Not only do you need to practice and learn from your mistakes, but you also need to accumulate life experience which you can infuse into your vision, communicated by what you point your camera at and how you choose to capture it. Life experience gives you something to say. 

I caught up to Gene at a talk he was doing at the International Center of Photography in conjunction with a beautiful retrospective exhibition of his work. I asked him in looking back at his career in photography, if he felt he was a the height of his photographic powers. He said that yes, all the experience he has accumulated has made it easier to shortcut to the best work. In the visual arts, regardless of your age, the best can be yet to come. 

At a recent workshop I spoke about my meeting with Mr. Karsh, and workshop participant Mike Banks had an even better story. When he was a young student as part of his masters program, students were required to spend a week with a professional. He wanted Richard Avedon. He got Yousuf Karsh. 

He talked about spending time watching and learning and on his last day was told by Mr. Karsh’s assistant that he would be doing the next portrait session. In walked actress Lauren Bacall . Mr. Banks was nervous but he got through the session and later learned that one of his 8×10 View Camera images was one of the three selected from the shoot. 

Mike Banks

It’s an example of getting outside your comfort zone, where the learning begins. 

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