Lewis Blackwell on great photography: Photowisdom

It’s not just about have that special ‘eye’ for seeing things. Knowing yourself, having your inspiration sorted and managing your social skills may be at least as important says Lewis Blackwell in this interview about his latest book;  Photowisdom: Great Photographers On Their Art.

In my interview with Lewis he talks about what makes good photographers great and shares his personal highlights from the talks with the photographers that share their stories in the book.

Photowisdom features commentaries from original interviews with world-leading photographers alongside exquisite reproductions of key images chosen by the artists themselves.The result is an unprecedented collection of 200 images showcasing each master photographer’s work and their unique voice. Featured photographers include Steve Bloom, Albert Watson, Stephen Shore, Tim Flach, David Goldblatt, Joel Meyerowitz, Chuck CloseDavid LaChapelle and Nadav Kander.

The book will support a project with award-winning charity PhotoVoice to help children in rural Afghanistan express their concerns, and grasp opportunities through photography.

What do you believe makes a good photographer great?

Having something different to say that is important to other people, and not just for one day, or one issue of a magazine, but is of a lasting value… and being able to say it in a unique and remarkable visual way. That could be documenting, or could be pure invention. But you must take your images to a place that has not been achieved before and yet is relevant to our social and artistic development.

Is there a particular reason for selecting this specific  group of photographers for this book?

I wanted photographers that could represent the range of photography – art, photojournalism, conceptual, portraiture, etc. And I wanted individuals with substantial experience, but not always of the older generation. And I wanted it to be very diverse in cultural origin. I achieved some of these objectives better than others. And, of course, I would love to do another book with yet more photographers… there are more out there I admire!

Do you feel that most of the photographers in the book and in your network are self-taught or is there a solid basis of training at the foundation of great photography? 

You can be self-taught – the technology is certainly not so demanding that you couldn’t master it by a fair bit of trial and error and by assisting.  But that is not the same as being uneducated… one way or other, a great photographer has a great knowledge of the medium. Stephen Shore, for example, an icon of photography and for many years now an academic, was pretty much a self-taught child prodigy, emerging from the darkroom to go and hang out with Warhol at The Factory as a teenager. He is incredibly learned around the history and theory of photography.

Elliott Erwitt picked up a camera in his tender years and took pictures, made friends and money with it, took some more and kept on going. David Doubilet loved scuba diving perhaps first and foremost, and so he took pictures to record what he saw from the age of 12 – now he has a remarkable, pioneering, archive of underwater photography; Howard Schatz trained and for many years worked as a retinal physician and then one year his part-time passion of photography took the lead. The evidence suggests that whether you have a conventional college education or not, you must be on a constant programme of education, of self-improvement, of asking new challenging questions of yourself.

How did the story for the book unfold? Did you start with one interview or did you work from a masterplan or vision from the start?

A bit of both – there was an initial list. But as interviews took place this evolved the prioritising of who might best add something to the mix in the later interviews that were done.

Do luck and circumstances play a role in some of the stories?

Luck and circumstance explains great parts of all of our lives. Perhaps what makes for the most outstanding achievements are where people work hardest to overcome the random nature of things, who, in a way, make their own luck just a little. That certainly unites the participants in Photowisdom – they get themselves into the situations where interesting images can happen, and they are skilled to take advantage of those situations.

Do you have any personal favourite photographs in Photowisdom? And if you do, can you describe what draws you to these pictures?

Obviously I stand fully behind anything in the book, but my favourites just now are those photographers I knew less about before doing the project, or those who were the most enjoyable to interview.  It is invidious to pick out names because I appreciate all the participants but here are three examples, just to be specific.

Arno Rafael Minkkinen was a charming man to talk with and impresses for his single-minded pursuit of something very personal over so many years;

Ami Vitale, one of the youngest in the book, impresses as a photojournalist who bravely carves a lone trajectory, making stunning images while inquiring into difficult subjects.

David Goldblatt couples a searing documentary vision with an artist’s sensibility to make pictures that amuse at the same time as they horrify. All are, notably, non-commercial in their pursuits.

Then there are 47 other favourites…

I’ve heard from several photographers that art has been an influence. Steve Bloom, in your interview with him, says Picasso taught him to be less inhibited in his photographic seeing. Do you think it’s important for photographers to appreciate and understand art?

It is hard to imagine a great photographer not having a strong appreciation of art. I have never come across one. You might be a little naïve of art history, but you have to be passionately interested in visual depiction and so inevitably you will draw ideas from any fine art you view.

What was the most surprising quote a photographer gave you about his work?

These questions are getting very hard. Again, so many answers are possible. So just one example, which you might struggle to understand why I was surprised, but I was:

Massimo Vitali unlocked a lot of understanding for me of his work, of his famous ongoing series of beach images, when he explained that he was inspired to start the work by wanting to see and record in some way the people – his fellow Italians – who had voted Silvio Berlusconi into power. That was back in 1995 and Berlusconi is the prime minister today, even less fit for such an office than we might have thought then! 

Everything is political, we know, but suddenly this remarkable series of large-format images of crowded beaches became for me an even more searing statement of the human condition, of the human animal. Look at the scenes – their multiple tableaux of families, lovers, children, workers, pensioners, etc. – and you see yourself a little differently. With Massimo’s explanation, I was all the more critical and yet in empathy with the people portrayed.

Has the career of most photographers been linear or is it generally more eratic?

I think there is much that is linear – you need to work at it in various ways as I have said before. But then often comes that opportunity, that breakthrough idea or commission or experience, that takes the work on to another level. And then it can go the other way; work can dry up, inspiration can be blocked, or even a great piece of work can be ahead of its time.

Is there a single overriding message from the photographers you spoke to for Photowisdom?

One message? Beware: this occupation eats your soul!

Actually there are many key messages that can be found across the great photographers interviewed in Photowisdom. I will shrink it to three.

Firstly, you need to know yourself, know your own unique qualities enough to make a difference in what images you set out to create.

Secondly, having got the inspiration sorted, you are going to need to add the 99 per cent of perspiration… it is clear that if you want to have more than the odd lucky good picture, you are going to have work ceaselessly to invent and reinvent your work.

Thirdly, it really helps to have some social skills – you might not actually be a very nice person, but as you are usually dealing with people as subjects or as commissioners of the images, you will succeed more if you can charm your way into the opportunities. I think that final point will be debated, but I am sure that the photographers whose careers last maintain that ability to arrive in situations that give photo opportunities.  I have known very talented photographers who are crippled by their incompetence in relating to other people. The Photowisdom participants displayed a very wide range of sophisticated communication and interaction skills – not necessarily charming, but effective.

Finally, one thing I haven’t mentioned is the visual talent, that special ‘eye’ for seeing things. Of course, that is important – but some very good photographers get away without having the most outstanding eye and compensate with the other three factors. They learn, borrow and synthesise aspects of what they don’t have through hard work.

I should also emphasise that it doesn’t require any great genius to state these messages – the genius comes in how you apply yourself to the insights. And that is what all my interviewees in various ways have done or are doing.

Lewis Blackwell; was for many years the group creative director of Getty Images, where he led a transformation in the qualities and range of stock photography; prior to that he was the Editor and Publisher of Creative Review magazine. He is the editor-at-large for the publishers PQ Blackwell, where he has several other titles in development. One book attracting wide interest is his Life&Love of Trees. His other activities include strategic leadership for several commercial and non-profit organisations.   lewis.blackwell@gmail.com

Photowisdom is available at Chronicle ($50,-/£35,-). Support your local independent bookshop… or you can buy it at Amazon with a special saving.

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

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