OpEd: 10 Oeuvres Aspiring Photographers Should Ignore

The other day while reading the internet I came across “The 10 Most Harmful Novels for Aspiring Writers.” I wondered whether there could be a list for photographers as well.  I thought about it and then sent my list to Blake Andrews to see if he wanted to contribute and have some fun with it.

Here are Blake’s five.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snowcapped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.

Henri Cartier Bresson

Cartier Bresson was a genius but also a Pied Piper. He probably did more to narrow the path of street photography than anyone else. Before HCB, street photography was relatively undefined and wide open. Then HCB came along and showed how it was done. You lurk the streets for hours, breathlessly hunting. Finally you alight on the perfect composition but… It’s missing that crucial element. What is it? You can’t decide. The stage is set. You wait until the the right person comes along. How long? Hours? Days? You wait as long as it takes…Then Snap!  Just like that the moment is decided, and unfortunately so are the next 70 years of street photography. Young photographers ever since have tortured themselves waiting forever on picturesque corners for that elusive Decisive Moment, the picture fully formed except for a perfectly postured pedestrian, or maybe just a finger pointing suggestively. Thanks, Henri, but I haven’t got all day. Can I have my life back now?

Robert Frank

Robert Frank was a one-man revolution. Before him pictures for the most part were pretty and clean and pre-visualized, and shot from a tripod. Frank came along and tore a new A-hole in that aesthetic. Fortunately he had something to replace it with: a strong personal vision. Most young photographers who follow in his footsteps don’t. They mistake grain, guts, and verve with substance. Sorry folks, but hitting three out of four doesn’t count. I know it took cajones to shoot that cowboy bar at 1 am pushing your film to 3200, but that doesn’t keep your photo from being boring. Time to shoot something you care about, and don’t try to convince me it’s flags or the underclass.

Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore was the ultimate Nothing photographer. To the untrained eye, or even to the trained one, his photographs seem artless. What’s the subject? Why this scene and not some other? Is this some sort of trick? A test? There’s nothing there. It’s only after repeated viewings that the framing, precision, and subject matter of Shore’s work begin to seem profound. Unfortunately, that’s too late for many young photographers. They’re already off shooting Nothing, hoping to follow Shore’s footsteps. Why, it’s easy. You find a gas station or a parking lot or a wall or something, maybe an antique car. The colors must go together since you found them like that, right? Line them up and…Sorry to disappoint you but you just exposed a big fat 8 x 10 of Nothing.

Nan Goldin

Hey youngsters, just because Nan Goldin is surrounded by glamorous friends leading tragic photogenic lives doesn’t mean your own story is halfway near as interesting. Goldin was in the right place at the right time and was an intuitive genius with the camera. Even when she was in the wrong place at the wrong time she was a genius. Chances are you’re in the wrong place, wrong time, and you’re not a genius, and no amount of postproduction is gonna make your self-inflicted black eye in that snapshot seem like an accident. Get a life and stop your culture slumming, and don’t look now but your MFA is showing.

Here are Bryan’s five.

William Eggleston

William Eggleston is a pioneer of color photography, and a legend. For the last forty years he’s been “at war with the obvious,” working in a “democratic forest” where everything visible is equally viable as subject matter.  Trees, dirt, signs, houses, carpet, red ceilings, naked men, old men with guns, tricycles, etc. Working in this manner, he inspired many photographers to look no further than their immediate surroundings for inspiration.  Then came digital cameras, and then the internet, and then Flickr.  Eggleston may have won the war with the obvious, but now the obvious is getting its revenge in the form of the millions of banal, boring, dull photographs that are being uploaded to the web everyday.  We don’t need to go far to find the ‘democratic forest,’ in fact, we may never be able to escape it.

Ryan McGinley

Ryan McGinley burst onto the scene with his photographs of carefree naked young people frolicking in wide open spaces. Arriving in the post 9/11 world, these photographs showed us that the young were resilient, still seeking, still loving, still experimenting. And damn, were they skinny and white, really skinny and white.  It made me as a photographer want to rent a van, find some skinny pretty friends and just hit the road and live man, just live.  Apparently though, this thought went through just about every young, hip photographer’s mind between the ages of 18-25.  The open road impulse, along with a resurgence of the lo-fi film aesthetic has spawned endless blogs, Tumblrs and Flickr streams dedicated to documenting the carefree existence of pretty naked young people who are too busy dreaming to care how boring they look.

Garry Winogrand

When you think about Garry Winogrand, almost immediately, you think about street photography.  He was the photographer flaneur of the New York street’s in the ’50s and ’60s, who also took his Leica tilt show on the road in the search of the elusive photograph he’d never seen in his viewfinder before.  He was obsessive and devoted, wild and loose with his compositions.  ‘What tilt?’ he would say in jest.  What tilt? No, no, no! Don’t you understand young street photographer that it took him years and years and years to achieve the skill and precision necessary to compose on the fly.  What tilt is not a legitimate rationalization for your own sloppy, poorly composed street photographs.  You only have one choice in this, you must make it your goal to die with more than 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film.

Alec Soth

Lyrical landscapes, deadpan portraits, ironic interiors, melancholia, beard, 8x10s, epic projects.  Thanks Soth, you’ve raised the bar so high I’m afraid all the bearded MFA kids are going to be old and gray before they ever finish their great American photography project.  And really, do you have to be so bloody sardonic about contemporary photography?  Photographers don’t need any help becoming grumpy and skeptical about photography.  How about this, rent a van, buy a Leica M9, invite some 60-something hippies on a road trip to Puerto Vallarta, and document the whole thing on Tumblr. Wait, that’s pretty depressing too. You win Soth.

Diane Arbus

Actually, don’t ignore her work. Absorb it, absorb it all, marvel in her genius and grace.  However, when the word ‘freaks’ enters your consciousness put the book down immediately.  The characeristics that drew Arbus to her subjects aren’t going to be the same for you.  Her famous quote, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them,” applied to a much different time period. Today with cable TV and the internet, we’re to see just about every type of human, in every form imaginable.  What draws photographers to certain people is a mystery. Embrace it, and follow your intuition.

  • tooth

    Funny. In relation to copying and learning I like the Helsinki Bus Station Theory…

  • Ape Hater

    I hate bad satire. And this is bad satire. Here’s a tip for the authors. Stop trying to be funny and irreverent. You suck at it.

  • John Krill

    In the same vein as Ansel Adams add Gene Smith.

  • Dan Smith

    No Robert Mapplethorpe?

  • http://www.th-photo.net/ TimothyHughes

    Surprised not to see Terry Richardson on the list. That one (like the others) almost writes itself. 

  • Email

    You just don’t get it, do you.

  • Armand

    Moral of the story: Don’t try anything, ever.

  • David

    I think you sum up it best with Arbus at the end.  Arbus was attracted to ‘freaks’, you are attracted to Arbus.  And her work was in a totally different time.  Reconstituting and remoulding her artist statements just doesn’t work.

    I’d add The Bechers and Jeff Wall.  Three artists who have very, very extensive critical writing and recognition about their work that is supposedly copied by just using a large format camera, staging a scene to make a tableaux, or photographing something to the order of a squared number, for, wait for it – being put into a grid.

    Is it not just people glossing over the work and doing it themselves?  So many people aspire to be Stephen Shore so they take colourful, but banal pictures.  None of them did the same project on 35mm, hung out with Warhol and had prints bought by Edward Steichen whilst a teenager.

    Rene Descartes phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore i am’  translates pretty easily into ‘I photograph my breakfast, therefore i am Shore’

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GQHEOKH33RIBKPLLU55C3F7FYY William

    I’m not sure how the humor in this is being missed by some people. Please enjoy it on that level because it’s very funny. Look who wrote it.

  • http://www.renovationfinance.co.uk/bridging-loans.asp Bridging Loans

    interesting view points

  • Tony

    Cant believe Cindy Sherman didnt make the list………

  • Robert

    what is BBA and LPV?

  • Robert

    what is BBA and LPV?

  • Richard

    funny that this post is on this site…since seems like bryan formhals prolly did try to be just like all them

  • Aline

    God Bless BBA and LPV!

  • http://edgeofblur.tumblr.com kodiak xyza

    « I know it took cajones to shoot that cowboy bar »
    right! wait, what?
    how does one uses _boxes_ to shoot in a dark cowboy bar?
    it does take some _cojones_ to use cajones at a dark cowboy bar.

    actually, in terms of the article. is it something akin to the idea that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”? obviously, the work from these famous photographers are (arguably) critically appreciated*. it is how people have taken to rever these people beyond the photographers’ abilities that perhaps causes the harm.

    this is not much different than what photography is going through because the internet — all the list of “amazing” and “brilliant” photographers, and the people that follow those list, are more harmful to photography than these photographer’s memes.

    *of course, I mean “critically appreciated” to mean something with heft, rather than internet fame or gravitas. in other words, people with mental/talent cojones to be critical.

  • Roberta Murray

    LOL! Love it! 

  • http://www.tombroadbent.com Tom Broadbent

    At last, some humour. How many photoblogs and photo magazines are there that take every picture, every interview and every possible angle with utter seriousness. As though everything that ends up on these sites will be pored over by photo academics discussing the meaning of photography, the death of photography and the death of photojournalism to boot. Excellent list, made me chuckle…more please! 

  • Bryan Formhals

    Tell them to feel free to submit to LPV! 

  • Ajay Malghan

    This is great, I wish my classmates would read this but they’re too busy trying to get into Fraction.

  • Ajay Malghan

    This is great, I wish my classmates would read this but they’re too busy trying to get into Fraction.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Oh my god you’re an idiot! You have no clue about sarcasm and satire and clearly take shit way too seriously! 

  • David

    Oh my god you’re an idiot! These photographers are greats. They are epic things that must/have gone down in photography’s history for their work, their stories, for good reason. Photography is about discovery, about finding a voice through photographs you create. Let people pretend/think they’re amazing, copying previous peoples’ concepts, they’ll learn from their mistakes, just like in life and they’ll be better for it. This whole article was a simply a bitching session for no good reason!

  • http://twitter.com/Todd_M_Walker Todd M Walker

    Good thing I’m sticking to aping Robert Adams and Frank Gohlke.

  • http://www.timothylogan.co.uk Timothy Logan

    Wow. Now i’m depressed. 

  • ruddles

    and DON’T ignore Weegee

  • Brianluman

    Put down your laptops and pick up a camera. Stop over analyzing it just have fun and make some art. For anyone reading this list and immeditly dismissing the talent of these artists because you don’t want to fit the mold these authors are creating close this page immediatly. Remain inspired. Its ok to try different things even things that have already been done!! Not every photograph is ground breaking.

  • bioy

    Very good writing. Very bad advice.
    You get good by doing bad shit first.

  • http://www.la-ampliadora.blogspot.com La ampliadora

    Funny post. I would like to read more like this!

  • elizabethcatherine

    Ha, it sucks to be a young photographer.

  • Ahhcool

    You should comprise a list of photographers that are okay to rip off

  • Marcelo Montecino

    What about Cyndi Sherman.

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  • Dan

    ah, great post. i like the spirit behind this list.

  • Matthew Smolinsky

    I love disagreeing with the Onion!

    Keep up the hilarity.

    And long live photography… even though it’s dead! :)

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    @Matthew: It’s like disagreeing with an article in The Onion. Do you think we’re honestly telling people not to look at this work?

    There is plenty of room to read between these lines. And one of the reasons we do these kind of posts is because of a certain earnestness photographers have about photography.

  • Matthew Smolinsky

    @Bryan: I get it, though I largely disagree with the basic premise that aspiring photographers should avoid the oeuvres you’ve mentioned. My advice would probably be to look at as much work as possible and decide for themselves.

    On Arbus, I don’t see how she did anything so fundamentally different than Robert Frank or Nan Goldin or even Alec Soth. She didn’t somehow corner the market on integrity and valuable lessons for aspiring artists. I would’t avoid Arbus, but if I avoided the other artists in your list my life and my art would be far less interesting.

    Still, good writing and interesting points.


  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    @Matthew Smolinsky: I chose McGinley because of how influential he’s become in a short time, and with the proliferation of blogs and photography websites you see his style everywhere.

    Friedlander is off limits for me. And Blake said people should copy Arbus, which I agree with, except for the predilection toward ‘freaks’ however we define them these days.

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  • Matthew Smolinsky

    I like both the ‘chutzpah’ of this piece and many of the insights themselves, though I shudder at the idea that we now include Ryan McGinley’s artistic accomplishments with HCB’s and Robert Frank’s. I mean, can we really talk about a Ryan McGinley (or any living, working artist for that matter) oeuvre?

    And then somehow Diane Arbus comes out the lone winner?!

    At least you didn’t say ignore Atget or Walker Evans (or Lartigue), since most if not all of these photographers studied if not imitated those oeuvres!

  • rolo

    Someone(s) think this is a knock on these photographers? Really? The point is SO obvious. These folks found their own way. Stop making someone else’s photos. Make your own.

    Oh yeah, you forgot the “influence” of National Geographic (perfect, and perfectly unmemorable photographs) and the manicured, stock photography aesthetic of the mainstream photography magazines and, well, stock photography itself. There’s no percentage in aspiring to beautiful mediocrity.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    The LPV Roast Of……

    Now taking nominations.

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  • Blake

    Sorry to put the quash on Parr. Maybe we can include him in a sequel? Of course we love all these photographers. This post should be taken as good natured roasting, not harsh criticism.

  • http://www.caryconover.com Cary

    I really enjoyed this post, especially Diane Arbus saying, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Who has the balls to say that today?

    Long story short, I skimmed the headline of this post and somehow missed the words “should ignore.” I thought I was reading a post about about highly influential photographers whose works are often copied by students. For some reason I read this from the bottom up. Then I realized 5 were Bryan’s picks and the other 5 were Blake’s.

    Eventually I got to Blake’s take on HCB and inexplicably the two words “rhinoceroses humping” came to my head.

    I get it. The tenor of Blake’s sentiment is not lost on me.

    But I bristled a bit at the accusation that HCB “probably did more to narrow the path of street photography than anyone else.”

    What does that mean?

    Another: “Young photographers ever since have tortured themselves waiting forever on picturesque corners for that elusive Decisive Moment.”

    What about the not wanting, and the forgetting of oneself? What about the looking inward, the discovery of oneself? The Zen Archer?

    From the Assouline biography: “One evening, when Cartier-Bresson and his Leica were pirouetting between the tables of a fashionable jazz club, Dixieland, the clarinetist leaned over to another member of Ellington’s band, nodded in the photographer’s direction and said, “That cat is to the photo what Louis is to us.”

  • http://waxyphotography.com Waxy

    Ha! Projects was mentioned only twice.. and both in the Soth section. Maybe that’s the point of all of this. :)

    Well done, guys. It gave me some big smiles along the way, especially this:

    “…but I haven’t got all day. Can I have my life back now?”

  • http://www.duranfoto.net Guillermo

    Interesting reading Bryan… but in the Robert Frank section it’s not “cajones”, the right word in spanish is “cojones”

  • Tammy David

    THIS IS TOO FUNNY!! Please make some more. Parr! Nachtwey! Gursky!

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Yes, I had an idea for Friedlander, and Parr was on my original list but Blake axed it.

  • Jonathan Allen

    Funny ;-) There’s the Friedlander one as well, all those chain link fences, shadows and bits of car, poles dividing the frame etc etc. I think I need medication to help me stop me trying to do it. . .

    and the New Topographics that’s getting a bit old ;-) i do that too. .

    and don’t start me on Martin Parr’s influence.. .