Amid Billions of Photographs, Where Are the Visionaries?

I’m an optimist. An encourager. I want to be a positive force in others’ lives. I believe we can do anything we set out to do if we’re willing to do the work.

I am known to encourage young photographers that they can, too, as long as they stick to their own vision. I wrote a note recently to a young woman I photographed while visiting the east coast. She was working at Luminary Coffee in Lambertville New Jersey and was ‘luminous’ in the light streaming into the coffeeshop that morning. I knew I had to photograph her with my Leica M2, a 35mm f3.5 Elmar and Ilford HP5+ film. Later, she sent me a link to her work: EmilyGass.com.

Here’s what I wrote her:

I like your work a lot. You have a good sense of light and composition. My favorite is the black and white at the top of the page.

Here’s your photo from my Leica. You’re quite ‘luminous’ in that light and there’s a great catchlight in your eyes.

“A camera is a great way to meet people like I met you–it gives you license to talk to anyone. 

“From your blog, I see you were destined to be a photographer, and so you are! Never stop making photos and follow that passion. It is a very generous medium and affords lots of opportunities to those who keep true to their vision. Don’t copy anyone. The world needs your work, not your impersonation of someone else’s. And if you don’t make your work your way, the world will be worse off. It will have missed out on the way you see. So make it!

“All the best to you. Keep me posted when you’re working in NY or LA or wherever your career takes you. Maybe someday we’ll be working on the same assignment and I’ll look over and say, ‘Hey, it’s you!'”

I meant every word of that. Because there are enough naysayers telling us we can’t do something. Who needs more of that? We do need each other’s own vision.

It’s difficult today in today’s photographic world to learn who we are as photographers when we are seeing and showing work in a system of Likes and Thumbs-ups. When we see hundreds of photographs a day, we can’t help but be influenced by what we’re seeing. But if a lot of people are liking a lot of the most cliche work, doesn’t it stand to reason that more people will lean toward similar work as that’s what people respond to, that they like? And that we’ll get more cliche work?

It’s not easy to be Bob Dylan, to create an original voice but that’s what we need from all artists. What’s your story, how do you see the world differently than most and how can you use that in the way you make photographs? This is how I photograph the people who are most important in my world–I use digital for street work and film for family and friends plus some portraits of people I meet.

Here is a portrait of my partner MaryLee in New York to perform her show off-Broadway last week, and it’s relevant because she’s sitting at Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village in New York City, just a few doors away from Cafe Wha? where Dylan got his start and a coffeeshop he and many other musicians certainly got their morning joe while penning song lyrics.

There are photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman who create images out of their own imagination. There are documentary street photographers like Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, and Vivian Maier showing us how they see life on the streets.

Each one of those photographers has made choices and developed a style that’s their own.

Now it’s our turn.

We’re better when we’re working together and supporting each other. But that doesn’t mean liking everything that someone creates just because we like them. (Which is really what most Likes and Thumbs-Ups are when you think about it.)

Good photographers are good editors. Social media is a platform without curation which is both a good thing (we can all post as much as we want) and also a bad thing (we can all post too much). The fact that there are billions of photographs uploaded every day makes it more difficult to find the truly great ones. Of which we all have some but work that faces the risk of being discounted in the glut of work that is the web, lost forever by a too-quick swipe.

Not every photograph we make is going to be good. Which is the reason for my last two posts, Wanna See Some Bad Street Photography and Wanna See Some Good Street Photography? I want to encourage all, but to learn to see what’s good we need to see some bad to see the difference.

How can you see dark if you don’t have a light reference? How can you feel cold if you don’t know what warm is?

There’s an old saying in music that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Otherwise, we’re just practicing the same mistakes over and over. And in a photographic world full of mediocre to average work–which is to be expected with such a quantity of photographs being shared–it’s easy to emulate what is given accolades by other up-and-coming photographers despite whether it truly is good. The photographers with the highest number of subscribers or followers are often the best marketers first, photographers second. There’s a reason they’re called influencers. Not necessarily artists, but they have influence.

So, be ourselves. Make the work we like. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like my work. My answer is always, “Well, that’s okay. Not everyone is going to like everything we do. But I like it, that’s why I put it out. Hopefully, you find other work you do like.” The way I see it, everyone doesn’t like the movie Casablanca, which is obviously the best movie ever made. That’s okay. We can’t all like the same things, that would make us boring people.

The most important thing is that we please ourselves, then we’re making the work we were born to make. Then I get to see the world from your point of view–I see who you are and how you see, which may be completely different than how I see. When we are true to ourselves, eventually people will be attracted to our work, and it’s the kind we can make over and over because it’s who we are.

It’s work we can’t not do. No one has to push a creative person to create. They can’t be stopped. They don’t wait for inspiration because it never shows up around before we get started. The muse exists but she has to find us working.

Get to work! Or don’t. Alternatively, get to living and take a camera with you, ready and set. You don’t have to always be working at photography. It can be a lifestyle. Sometimes life’s little moments happen in front of you when you’re parked a block away and walking to get coffee. Like this sweet moment that happened exactly that way.

You can do it. You can do anything you set out to do. If you truly want it, nothing will stop you and you’ll do the work. If you find you’re not doing the work, that’s telling you that you really don’t want to do that. Find something that no one has to talk you into. Find that thing that you can do all day effortlessly, then do that.

You can see more of the work that I like, that defines how I see and that I have online via links at my Linktree: https://linktr.ee/KennethWajda.

Make great art. Here’s to good light!

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