Photographer Interviews

Great Photographers on How They Make Work That Matters

February 9, 2016

© Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson recently photographed Syrian families in Azraq Camp in Jordan. The beads this woman holds were the only personal item she saved when she fled her home. Johnson says of photographing her subjects, “The only thing I can truly give is my attention, and that’s the most important thing.”  

At PDN, we’ve been fortunate to interview and learn from some of the most accomplished and thoughtful photographers of our time. The ways they have sustained their long and creative careers vary, but when they’ve reflected on how they’ve developed a distinctive way of viewing the world, each described looking inward to understand their motivations and how they relate to their subjects. Here we’ve excerpted some thoughts offered by master photographers. PDN subscribers can log in to PDNOnline to read these and many other interviews in the PDN archive.

Jeff Jacobson on Making Pictures for Yourself
Jeff Jacobson published The Last Roll, his collection of images shot over eight years through a period of personal crisis, in 2013. Jacobson sat down with PDN for interviews about the work, which he shot on Kodachrome, and about his previous books, the evolution of his career, and why he’s preferred to “follow the pictures,” without a preconceived idea of where a project is going. In the three years since we published his interview, Jacobson has been photographing a project on the Keystone XL pipeline and shooting on the campaign trail, but he still follows his instincts.

“Sometimes beauty is a negative connotation in the photography world, certainly in the photojournalism world, it often is.

“I think that when it’s really, really working in photography, there is a creative relationship between form and content….

“I try to teach students very specifically how to get to a good photograph. [Magnum Photographer] David Hurn always said that there are only two questions in photography: Where do you stand, and when do you press the shutter? One’s a question of space, one’s a question of time. It’s a little more complicated than that, but it’s a really good structure. The question of when do you press the shutter is pretty easy. And you know right away. You either did it or you didn’t. But the question of where do you stand becomes a really helpful way to think about it, because people don’t understand when you’re first starting to take pictures, especially working with a small camera, that it’s all about moving. You want to be moving. And you’ve got to know when to move and how to move and where to move.

“But then that question of where do you stand becomes a much broader philosophical question. Where do you stand politically with your work? Where do you stand economically with your photography? Where do you stand in your life vis a vis photography? It’s a structure to help students very physically understand how to get to a picture. And a photograph is just a set of graphics. And I say, for the moment, forget about content, forget about subject matter, we’re just going to talk about photography in a graphic sense. Because when you boil it down, it’s a set of graphics on a piece of paper, or projected on a wall or on a computer screen, whatever. It’s not the world; it’s an abstraction of the world.

“But people don’t learn that. They think subject matter, subject matter, subject matter, and they never understand.”
(See also: “Jeff Jacobson on Beauty, Ambiguity and Mortality”)

Rineke Dijkstra: Seeing is Believing
In the 1990s, Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s large-scale photographs of adolescents on beaches, made in several countries, were celebrated for the respect with which they treated young people at one of the most vulnerable stages in their lives. “I don’t like my work to be voyeuristic,” she told PDN. “I think I found a language, how to show things, that can make you look at things in a slightly different way than what you’re used to.” Her photos of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers, of women shortly after giving birth, of adolescents in a park, all evoke empathy. “You have a lot of preconceptions about a specific group or specific people,” Dijkstra explained, “and I think with photography, you really focus on that person and maybe what you first see is indeed that vulnerability, which I don’t necessarily want to photograph, but which makes them empathetic, makes them accessible somehow, and that’s how you connect, in that vulnerability.”   She also noted, “I’m a person who likes the process of things. I like it when things are not fixed. I don’t like to have preconceived ideas, for instance. Photography helps me with that, because when you make a photograph of somebody you have to open yourself up. If you’re not really interested, you can never make a good portrait. And somehow you start to understand things because you really want to.”

The Unsentimental Education of Lynn Johnson
“Photography is service. I say this work is service,” Lynn Johnson told the audience at her presentation at the National Geographic Magazine Photography Seminar in 2015. During her talk, and in a follow-up interview with PDN, she discussed how she views her role in serving the subjects she photographs.

After shooting for LIFE and National Geographic for years, Johnson decided to return to school to get her master’s. “I had to continue to grow to be capable of telling other people’s stories. And stories I was telling were more and more complex.” It was around that time that Johnson learned to connect on a deep, intense level with her subjects. She explains, “I can never promise [a subject] that our time together will end up on page or screen. I used to feel like I could do that. So I feel like the only thing I can truly give is my attention, and that’s the most important thing,” she says. “When you’re with [someone] by a bedside and their child is dying, it is our human intimacy that will carry the day.”

That intimacy arises from being present, and “listening with every fiber of who you are,” she says. “Listening to their words, looking at their body language, listening to the unspoken message [they’re telling you]. Sitting, watching, meeting their eye. It’s kind of like the devotional center of the work.”

Josef Koudelka on Motivation, Humanity and What Makes a Good Photograph

Before the opening of his retrospective exhibition, “Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2015, the Magnum photographer discussed his perpetual travel and his views on photography with the exhibition’s curators.

“When I travel, I show my pictures to everybody—to see what they like, what they don’t like. A good photograph speaks to many different people for different sorts of reasons. And it depends what sort of lives these people have. What they’ve gone through. It happens very rarely that you see something you can’t forget. That is a good photograph.

“…I think it’s wonderful that everybody can take photographs, just like I think it’s wonderful everybody can write. But there are very few writers and there are very few photographers….Everybody has a camera, everybody can press the button. Everybody has a pencil, everybody can make a signature. But that doesn’t mean there are many great writers and it doesn’t mean there are many great photographers.
“I’ve only said I’m an artist once—when I nearly got into trouble in Algeria [laughs]. If I said I’m a photographer, I would really get into trouble. If you’re an artist, you’re all right….I’m a photographer, that’s all. Like anything else, not all paintings are art. Not all photographs are art. They might be, but it’s not up to me to say.”

Carrie Mae Weems: On Race, Sexuality and Finding Meaningful Work
Artist Carrie Mae Weems discussed her career and her experimentation with multiple media to explore topics of race, gender and power with curator and scholar Deborah Willis on stage at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. When Weems discussed her photographic process, she offered some practical advice.
“I work with a beat up Rollei I traded a car for when I was in college a thousand years ago. I love this thing,” she said. “I’m very interested in the economy of means, in simple things and immediacy and being close to subjects. I’m trying to get away from all the nonsense, all the techno crap, so I can focus on what this is. If you’re true to the moment, and understand your commitment and relationship to it, there’s tremendous wealth in that.”
    Weems stressed the importance of pursuing work that is personally meaningful.  “When young people come to me now and they ask me [for advice] I just keep thinking: Find that thing that you love, find that thing that you are deeply committed to…with the ups and the downs and the bounces, it will take you through, it will save your ass even when you are out on the [farthest] limb. But you have to trust it and you have to know what it is you desire and what it is you are committed to.”

Heroes & Mentors: Jim Goldberg & Todd Hido on Larry Sultan
In 2011, in our “Heroes and Mentors” issue, we published a conversation between photographers Jim Goldberg and Todd Hido about their teacher and mentor, Larry Sultan. Sultan, who taught at California College of Art for 20 years, died in 2009.

Todd Hido: When I was studying with him I was taking these pictures of interiors, and taking landscapes, and photographing some people, and I remember very clearly Larry clueing me into [the idea that] all this stuff was really about me. I was making these pictures of homes, but it was really about my home and my family, and that was something he really encouraged and brought out of me. I always remember Larry saying: “You want to walk up to sentimentality but not become it.” He always had these lines like that.
Jim Goldberg: All three mentors that I’ve had—Larry, John Collier and Robert Frank—all of them are or were people who wanted to look at everything that someone made. They don’t want to just look at what you think is your best picture, they want to see the whole contact sheet, they want to see all the contact sheets, they want to see all the materials, all the writing, everything, because that’s part of what you’re doing and who you are. I’ve certainly embraced that in my teaching and also in my own practice. I can’t just look at students’ work and say oh that’s the best one, I have to see how they’ve choreographed, working through a situation and how they see, how they don’t see, where they should be turning around a little bit and seeing something else. And Larry and all those guys were really good about being clear about how to not just go for the best, but how practice was really important and how practice ensured that the quality would be improved over time.

Heroes & Mentors: Eli Reed and Wayne Lawrence
As part of our “Heroes and Mentors” issue, documentary photographer Wayne Lawrence interviewed Eli Reed. Finding Reed’s book Black in America in a library was a turning point for Lawrence, who became obsessed with Reed’s fellow Magnum photographers and with Gordon Parks, who wrote the book’s introduction.

Eli Reed: One thing I would say to minority photographers: One thing you have to do is not get distracted by the bullshit, by the racism or ageism or any of that crap. If you get deterred from the direction in which you’re going, the other side has already managed to throw you off stride. Over and over again, the best thing is to do the goddamn work.
The dangerous part of being a role model is the expectation. If something you’ve done in the past inspires somebody, that’s great, but the most important thing is not being swayed from what we should be doing next. I try not to spend too much time thinking about the role model thing.

Antoine D’Agata: Photographing Life at Society’s Margins
Antoine D’Agata says he turned to photography not because he wanted to raise awareness about the lives of sex workers or others at the fringes of society, but because he felt life was lived most intensely among them. Photography gave him a reason to be there and enough money to continue traveling. “My point in the end is not to show the viewer or to remind them that that [marginal] life exists. My point is to be alive,” D’Agata says.

“To me all these matters of esthetics, color, blur, techniques, of course I have to take it into consideration, but I don’t really care.” For years he would walk around with black-and-white and color film and shoot both, not “as a function of considering the subject,” but because he wanted “linguistic breaks, which mixing both of them in the same story would create.” His search for freedom also meant freedom from habit. “Every time I feel like I’m getting closed or I’m [becoming] a prisoner of my own habits, I break.”

Emmet Gowin: A Path To Seeing
After more than 40 years of making photos, Emmet Gowin published a retrospective with Fundacion MAPFRE and Aperture foundation in 2013. It included a lecture he gave when he retired from teaching at Princeton in 2009. It looked back to the start of his photography career, and when he found the subject that mattered most to him.
“I’d received my induction papers to go to Vietnam in 1965 … So I packed up my stuff to drive back home to Virginia to argue with the draft board. But before I left I borrowed a view camera from the school…
“These pictures, from 1965 onward, in some way reflect a thought game … [that] began with a thought about how I would love to see more of the world. I would love to travel deeply and widely. And what is the deepest and widest you can travel? It’s to come back to where you already are. And I saw my own circumnavigation of the Earth, in my mind’s eye, and I realized in that moment that nothing would be more dear to me than where I already was.
“…There are things in your life that only you will see, stories that only you will hear. If you don’t tell them or write them down, if you don’t make the picture, these things will not be seen, these things will not be heard.“

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