Access Not Excess Is The Key To Great Photos
The key to great photography is a great camera, right? Wrong. Legendary photographs are surely made with technical perfection, right? Wrong again. Despite the fact that we see many serious amateurs buy camera after camera – often upselling to the eventual grail-camera – a Leica or Hasselblad – camera gear actually plays a minimal part in great photography. We also see more and more emphasis placed on post production in the era of all things digital, but that too plays but a small part in determining whether or not a photograph will achieve a legacy. So what is the key to a great photograph? The truth is that likely many factors converge to make a photograph iconic. However, if I were to isolate just one, it would be “access”. Access is key.
Let’s conduct a little thought experiment to help establish both what I mean by access and that access really is a critical element of an enduring photograph. Think of a truly great photo, something everyone knows or is familiar with, not just those images us photo junkies know. Let’s examine “Tank Man” by Charlie Cole. You know the image, that color photo of a man, in a white dress shirt and black pants, standing in front of a tank in a row of many tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Cole shot that image with a Nikon F3, not a particularly expensive or complicated camera, and the image itself is certainly less than perfect with its grainy appearance akin to that of television from the same era. What makes that photo a legendary one is the fact that Cole had access to that place at that time. Let’s try another. Remember that iconic 9/11 photograph of “Falling Man” by Richard Drew? He shot that with a Nikon DCS-620 – an early Nikon-Kodak hybrid digital camera. Nothing special then and not even in existence now.
Okay, just the luck of the press photographer you say. Certainly luck, or more precisely, being in the right place at the right time, had a huge impact on the eternal quality of these photographs. Fair enough. However, I’d still argue that both Cole and Drew had to have the “access” to these scenes, luck or not. That aside, let’s try an image from another genre. Surely most everyone now knows some of the more famous images from Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. Those images of Nan lying on the bed in New York City, her boyfriend, Brian, in the foreground taking a drag off a cigarette (“Nan and Brian in Bed, 1982”). Nan used a bunch of relatively cheap cameras to make that series; she never acquired a Leica until well after she was already famous. But she had to have access, in this case to the intimate – and ultimately painfully unique – aspects of her own life. Finally, let’s think about a photograph that is slightly more upbeat and positive – “Kiss in Times Square” by Albert Eisenstaedt (1945). Sure, Eisenstaedt used a Leica IIIa, but he also continued to use that same camera for a whopping five decades! Additionally, the image is powerful but unremarkable, in many ways, from a technical standpoint. Indeed, it is not the camera or any aspect of the processing that made this image a memorable one. No, it is the “access” Eisenstaedt had to this couple in times square at that historically-important moment.
Let’s not beat a dead horse. I think our thought experiment has made the point clear enough – great photographs need great content. This “great content”, most often, is achieved by granting access to the photographer. Whether it be a “behind the scenes pass” to a Hollywood set (think about the photography by actor Jeff Bridges) or something more simple, like a plane ticket to Montreal during the Maple Spring student protests in 2012, the point is that a great photograph needs to have great content. Great content comes from access to a scene, person, event, etc., that, in most cases, many others lack access to. In most situations, perhaps all, this access comes with an investment of some kind. Be it time, money, or more often both, a sacrifice needs to be made. In just a few instances, a photographer may already be, by coincidence, in a place to receive key access. Such was my case in Montreal during the Maple Spring; I lived in an apartment that had a birds eye view of ground zero – College Vieux Montreal.
©Michael Ernest Sweet Untitled,Maple Spring, Montreal
Where does that leave us with the idea of investing money in premium gear or countless hours in front of PhotoShop? Certainly, I’m not suggesting that we all abandon everything but our disposable cameras and cell phones. No, indeed there is a place for both expensive cameras and complex post production in producing great photography. The point, more generally, is that you must first begin with great (and somewhat unique) content – access. Without access to great content, you will merely have a well-processed, tack-sharp, Leica-made (likely good enough) photograph of a flower. But it will still just be a photograph of a flower – an image that will, no doubt struggle to achieve a legacy in today’s aesthetic reality. We can all recall the plethora of photographs in recent years that are noticeable merely because they are so dramatically processed or because they are so tack-sharp at four by six feet. We remark at their splendor, maybe; we stand in awe of their size, perhaps; rarely do we marvel at the actual “content” captured in the frame.
Access takes on yet another dimension when we think of long-term or themed multi-photograph projects. I’ve critiqued many photography portfolios over the years and by far my most common gripe has been the lack of coherency or theme in project-length works. At the risk of sounding bitter, more serious amateurs need to take theme more seriously in their book or project-length works. Too frequently today we see large collections of one-offs thrown together and called a book or an exhibit. Sure, this indeed is a “collection” of what you feel are your best photographs, but there is only so much interest the world can fein in an endless stream of “good single images”. What the viewing public longs for, really, are visual narratives. We want to see a story! So what lies between a great photo story and a mere collection of good “single” images? Access. Let me illustrate this point through the example of Jill Freedman and her multi-decade narrative photography.
Jill Freedman is an amazing documentary photographer who worked, primarily, in the 60s, 70s, alongside many good and even great photographers. So what makes her work truly amazing and so many of her contemporaries merely good? Access. By working hard, using all her resources to secure unique access to an array of situations, Freedman was able to create compelling narratives in her numerous book-length projects. Many photographers have one, two, or maybe a few, photographs like Freedman’s. But it is Freedman who worked diligently to compile book-length after book-length collections of stunning photographs tightly woven together by a compelling and unique narrative. Take her books, Firehouse and Street Cops, in both of these monographs Freedman captures both serious and silly up-close-moments of and among New York’s firemen and police officers. In both cases she was granted unique access to not only the firehouse or precinct, but she was allowed to follow these men (sorry, no women in sight, it was the 60s and 70s) on actual emergency calls. Freedman went into burning buildings and climbed under ladders and on top of fire appliances. She sat in jail cells and in the back of police cruisers – she even fumbled around murder scenes. Her access to these situations was not only incredible, it was truly unique – there were no other lenses trained on these scenes. All of this said, it wasn’t easy. Freedman had to fight for this access and it took incredible amounts of energy and persistence, not the least of which because she was a woman with a camera, itself a rare sight in that era. Yet, as a result of her fight for access, Freedman has generated some of the most compelling photographs of NYC emergency services in that era – photography that has yet to receive its true due.
So where does this leave us? Certainly, I’m not suggesting that all photographers run out and buy a cheap camera and fling themselves into the nearest seedy situation they can find. Although this worked well for Anders Petersen. No, what I am suggesting is that we, serious amateurs, take our eyes of the trees, for just a moment, and take a good look at the forest. What are we creating as a body of work? Are we one-off masters, or are we pursuing some grander vision – some larger, more cohesive body of work? Are we spending all of our time, money, and energy on gear acquisition and fanciful post production, or are we pounding on pavement and doors to get our cameras into the far-flung corners of obscurity? In short, are we pursuing access to great content or great gear? Are we spending our time behind the lens or behind the computer screen?
Returning to that one piece of advice I would offer to make your good photography great – it’s to seek out access, not excess. If you have a $1000 budget, spend $100 on a camera and $900 on going somewhere no one goes. $900 will get you, albeit on a tight budget, from Quebec City to Labrador, for example. Chances are, you won’t stumble over other photographers there! Knock on doors, talk to people, make (not take) their photograph. If you have $10,000 to spend. Go crazy, spend $1000 on a camera (even two) and the rest on travel. Eight or nine thousand dollars will take you to a lot of places where unique access can be found. But keep in mind, travel is not essential. Access can be found in your own town, on your own street, or even in your own home. In fact, it can even be found within yourself – see the brilliant work of Francesca Woodman. By this I mean access can be to a physical place where few people go, yes, or it can be an emotional or mental place that equally as few get to see, as was the case with Woodman and is with others like Sherman. Struggling for access may mean seeking permission to ride with the police, or it may mean waiting behind the lens – finger on the trigger – for countless hours until your subject finally lets their guard down and grants you access.
In the end, the point is this – angle your camera away from the pedestrian, the commonplace, the subjects easily stumbled upon. Look at what others are photographing and don’t make those photographs. Move away from sitting in front of PhotoShop and trying to generate a great photo through great editing. Make great photos by capturing great content. Write letters, make phone calls, make friends and acquaintances, and invest in getting access to go where no one has gone before. It is here that you will find your legacy as a memorable photographer, not in the bottom of a Leica box.