I share with you an article I recently wrote for The Camera Store in Calgary, Alberta…
A wonderful theory was recently brought to my attention and I share it with you because I believe the ideas presented set the foundation for a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography. During a good discussion in one of my photography circles about personal work and finding your own vision in photography, someone referenced Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s Helsinki Bus Station Theory. The Helsinki what? I was intrigued.
Finnish-American photographer, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, gave a commencement speech at the New England School of Photography in June 2004 and in that speech he introduced the graduating students to a bus station in Helsinki and his theory of how to be the caretakers of their vision. The bus station, according to Minkkinen, can be seen as a metaphor for creative continuity in a life-long journey in photography. The following is an excerpt from Minkkinen’s speech. Your bus is ready for boarding…
“Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19. Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity. Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21. You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on. Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done. So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane. You spend three years at it and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann? So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform.
This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus.”(1)
It is simple. Stay on the bus! That’s great advice. It’s great advice if you are a graduate about to embark on a career in photography. It’s equally great advice if you are a hobbyist who simply finds joy in creative expression with a camera. Stay on the bus.
Cameras are everywhere these days. The sheer volume of images being made and shared daily is mind boggling. Social media and photography sharing sites can be great ways to connect with people who share a passion but they can also cause photographers to ring the bell, get off their bus and take a cab back to the station. If exposure to the photographs created and shared on a daily basis results in copying the work of other photographers and telling their stories instead of your own, you fall into a trap and never give yourself the chance to find your own voice. If you are to have a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography I truly believe you must stay on your bus. In the early stages of our journey in photography we are greatly influenced (let’s be honest – most of us copy) the work of photographers we admire. As we gain experience and confidence and find our own creative voice we eventually leave the city center and end up on our own bus routes. That’s when we produce work which is different not because we are trying to be but because we actually are all different. We have different backgrounds and different personalities. When we invest ourselves into our work we create our most interesting photographs. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your work to that of other photographers. They are on their journey. You are on yours. A journey requires personal investment and it takes time. According to Malcolm Gladwell, getting good at something takes 10,000 hours.(2) Minkkinen’s message to the graduating students back in 2004 was not that putting in the time and staying on the bus guarantees you success. His message was that getting off repeatedly and taking a cab back to the station ensures you never get anywhere.
A friend of mine who is a wonderful portrait photographer once gave me this great advice – “Everybody has a story. The first thing we should do as photographers is listen.” He was talking about making a connection with the person you are photographing. His advice also applies to making personal work, work with vision. If you are to have a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography, it’s important to listen to yourself. Trust your gut. Create from within. Yes it’s important to learn various aspects of the craft from those who are more experienced but what we say and how we choose to say it needs to come from within. You have a story to tell. Tell the world your story, not somebody else’s.
I’ll end this article with these words by Arno Rafael Minkkinen, “We don’t have to be number one in this world. We only have to be number one to ourselves. There is a special peace that comes with such humility.” Stay on your bus folks and enjoy the ride.
If you are interested in working on the storytelling qualities in your photography, in a supportive atmosphere, where you will be encouraged to create personal work, then consider joining Royce Howland and myself for our photography workshop in the Cypress Hills, September 5-10, 2014. The purpose of the workshop is to help participants set creative goals, and provide frameworks for improving their photography with a specific focus on visual storytelling. We’ll use seminars, field exercises and image portfolio review sessions to achieve these goals. With a small group, two instructors who work well together, and an intensive event plan, the group will be able to put a concentrated focus on creative development. Workshop details can be found here.
Royce Howland and I will also be giving a presentation on July 19th from 1:00–4:00 pm titled “Telling Storied with Your Travel Photography” at The Camera Store presentation facility, Unit 210, 3060 9th Street SE Calgary. Come on out for a talk about visual storytelling on your travels. You can register for the talk via this link.
(1) Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s commencement speech delivered at the New England School of Photography in June 2004
(2) Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008
I was recently contacted by the field trip coordinator of the Foothills Camera Club, Dana Naldrett, to see if I would be interested in meeting up with some of the club’s members and spending a day photographing Edmonton. Dana had bought my eBook, Photographing Edmonton, and there were members of the club who were interested in making the trip up Highway 2 and seeing some of the locations mentioned in my book. Last Saturday I met up with 5 members from the Foothills Camera Club and we had a great day photographing Alberta’s capital. We toured the downtown core where everyone had the chance to photograph city hall, the weekend downtown market, Churchill Square, the Art Gallery of Alberta and Grant MacEwan. Some of the group then made it over to the Alberta Legislature and enjoyed people photography along Whyte Avenue. Others explored the pyramid architecture that is the Muttart Conservatory.
I always enjoy meeting folks in the Alberta photo community and I had a fun day creating some new images too.
You can purchase my eBook Photographing Edmonton at http://blog.petercarroll.ca/?p=6042
Details about one on one instruction and how to book a session can be found on my website (www.PeterCarroll.ca).
Here’s one from the Grant MacEwan downtown campus which I created on the group outing. I have to give a tip of the hat to Marty Scrosese and his DP for the movie Hugo. How they chose to frame the clock in that film influenced how I interpreted this scene…
This one is from the Art Gallery of Alberta. The AGA, recently redesigned by LA architect Randall Stout, is a fun addition to the downtown Edmonton scene. It’s so cool it has three suns…
And another unusual perspective image from the AGA…
Hear ye! Hear ye!
There’s a photography gear sale and IRIS fundraiser going on!
Sunday May 18
10:00 am – 2:00 pm
Lofts on the Bow
44077 George Fox Trail
Great deals on quality gear including digital camera bodies, pro lenses, studio lighting modifiers, camera bags, prints, filters, books, photography accessories and much much more.
Unfortunately I am unable to personally be at the event but fellow IRIS members have very kindly offered to sell my gear at a table for me. Here’s a list of what I’ll have for sale on Sunday…
1. Lightrein 60cm (24”) octo softbox and Lighttools 40 degree egg grate
2. Lastolite “Joe McNally” 24”x24” Ezybox Hotshoe Softbox
3. Lowepro Nature Trekker All Weather
4. Tamrac Adventure 9 photo/computer backpack
5. Singh Ray circular polarizing filter (sprocket mount) for Cokin P holder
6. Singh Ray Galen Rowell neutral density 2G-SS filter for Cokin P holder
7. Singh Ray Galen Rowell neutral density 3G-SS filter for Cokin P holder
8. Westcott 43“ Collapsible white w/ black removeable cover umbrella
9. Westcott 43” Collapsible soft silver umbrella
10. Joby GorillaPod
11. Opus monopod OT-S10M
12. Roots photo/computer backpack
13. Beauty dish (Bowens mount + speedlight adapter) with grid and white diffuser sock
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of shooting corporate headshots for 16 employees of the Westin hotel in Edmonton. The friendliness and professionalism of everyone involved in the shoot made my job easy. A company’s greatest asset is its people. The Westin hotel in Edmonton has the excellent reputation it does for superior service because of its people. Here are a few sample portraits from the session…
A few weeks ago I instructed at The IRIS Photographic Society of Alberta “Fun with Cameras” workshop at the Chartwell Wild Rose retirement facility in Edmonton. We put cameras in the hands of the seniors there and helped them to creatively express their world in photographs. If you go to the link below you’ll see some behind the scenes photos of me working with one of the residents and a gallery of photographs which the seniors created at the workshop. Photography is fun for all ages.
On March 13 I visited the Chartwell Wild Rose retirement residence, along with Kerry Smith, for an IRIS workshop. The aim of the workshop was to put cameras in the hands of the residents and enable them to creatively express themselves and share how they see the world around them in photographs. It was a fun day for everyone and they created wonderful work. The residents were the photographers on this project but when the scene in the photo above developed, as one gentleman was playing his guitar for me, and I just happened to have the shutter release cable in my hand… well… you don’t let such moments pass without pressing the button.
I share with you an article I wrote recently for The Camera Store newsletter…
There’s a story that when Michelangelo was asked how he created his incredible masterpiece David he responded that he saw David in the marble and just had to cut away everything that didn’t look like David. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, I love the idea behind it. A photographer has some different challenges to a sculptor but the goal is the same – effective expression. As photographers, we are visual storytellers. The first step in effectively telling a story within the frame is figuring out the essence of what will be the photograph. Michelangelo presented the essence of David… nothing more and nothing less. I like to think of essence as the heart of the matter. If you meet me in the field you might very well hear me humming a little of Don Henley’s song “The Heart of the Matter” as I am composing a photograph.
If we are to capture the essence of the subject matter we must begin with careful observation. We have five senses and good seeing is of course a huge part of making engaging photographs but we should connect with our subject matter with all our senses whenever possible. If creating travel photographs, taste the local food. If creating landscape photographs, smell the scent of the pine trees. If creating architecture photographs, feel the materials used in the construction. If creating family portraits, listen to the family stories and get insight into the personalities. Observations made from information gathered from as many of our senses as possible will reveal the essence of the subject matter. Once we know the essence, we see the statue waiting to be released from the marble.
When we identify what the essence of the subject matter is for us, we then need to decide how best to express it in a photograph. We need to appreciate natural design and use our knowledge of the principles of visual design to compose a photograph which communicates a clear story to the viewer. Lens choices, camera settings, accessories, point of view, post processing etc. are the tools in our photography toolbox. The story we want to tell drives the choice of which tools we decide to use and how we go about using them. One of the most common suggestions to photographers new to the craft is to get closer to their subject. The reason for the suggestion is to help the photographer more clearly communicate the essence of the photograph. The author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” So the challenge to the photographer is to arrange the building blocks of the scene and eliminate all that is unnecessary to communicating the essence, the heart of the matter, to the viewer. If he or she is able to do that, then a clear story is told and the aim of effective expression is achieved.
It is important to recognize that essence is subjective. It’s not universal. My story will be different from yours. I think that’s not only something to be appreciated but something to be truly embraced when we go about creating photographs. The people in our lives, the communities where we live, the places we visit, and the experiences we have along the way are all threads that make up a rich life tapestry. All of it influences how we see the world around us. Tapping into that unique life experience and telling personal stories is how great photographers have always gone about creating a body of work which communicates their story of the world around them and in which a personal style reveals itself.
In this age of digital photography and social media, so many photographers succumb to the temptation to copy the work of others in the hope their work will get recognition and receive hollow accolades. The truth is that placing your tripod in the exact same spot as another photographer or copying a post processing style doesn’t allow you to tell a story much different from what has already been told. Digital photography has brought about an exponential rise in the number of photographs being created. It is said that more than 400 billion photos are taken now each year. Over 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. About 10% of all the photos ever taken have been taken in the last 12 months. Those numbers are mind blowing! We are surrounded by images on a daily basis, however much of it doesn’t register. It’s white noise. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process for many of us at the beginning of the journey in photography but if we are to develop as photographers, we need to then go beyond copying and make a commitment to ourselves to tell personal stories in our own voice. Viewers become jaded by the same visual stories over and over. They crave fresh interpretations of life. Personal and creative work stands out.
When I am creating photographs these days, I sometimes think of the television commercial which I saw last year during one of the major PGA golf tournaments. It was a commercial where Arnold Palmer was expressing his belief there is no one perfect swing which is necessary to copy for success. In the commercial, Mr. Palmer says, “Swing your swing. Not some idea of a swing. Not a swing you saw on TV. Not that swing you wish you had. No… swing your swing… capable of greatness… prized only by you… perfect in its imperfection. Swing your swing… I know I did.” I don’t think Mr. Palmer’s message was do whatever you want and par will come to you. For sure there are fundamentals to learn in golf and there is constant learning and finessing on the road to a low handicap. You won’t find many pro instructors teaching students to copy all the parts of an Arnold Palmer swing but the results that swing gave Mr. Palmer are there in the history books. Photography is no different. It’s essential to know the fundamentals of the craft and to know all aspects of your equipment but with all of that knowledge it’s vitally important to shoot your shot. Not someone else’s. Not one you saw on social media. Not one you saw your favourite photographer share in a recent book or blog post. Shoot your shot. It’s good to be inspired and get the creative energy flowing by looking at and appreciating the work of other photographers but in the end shoot your shot. Tell your story. Capture what you see as the essence of your subject matter. And like Michelangelo release the sculpture from the marble.
If you want to take your photography to the next level and work on capturing the essence of subject matter and telling visual stories, then consider joining myself and Royce Howland for a photography masterclass – “Storytelling in the Cypress Hills” running September 5-10, 2014. The purpose of the masterclass is to help participants set creative goals, and provide frameworks for improving their photography with a specific focus on visual storytelling. We’ll use seminars, field exercises and image portfolio review sessions to achieve these goals. With a small group, two instructors who work well together, and an intensive event plan, the group will be able to put a concentrated focus on creative development. Workshop details can be found at here