Ideas Are The (Elusive) Gold That Needs Mining

Harvey Stein is a documentary portrait photographer having photographed the people of Coney Island for over 50 years. He’s published, he’s known and his work is collected. In the photographer world, he’s a made man. He may not be a household name with Tom Cruise-like fame, but he’s known among his peers, the best kind of notoriety to have if you ask me.

He’s been interviewed a lot lately on various photography podcasts, like Ibarionex Parello’s The Candid Frame.

That doesn’t mean everything he says I agree with. Or that what is right for one artist is necessarily true for everyone. (As William Goldman famously said about the movie industry: “Nobody knows anything. Nobody has the least idea of what is going to work.”)

Or as I often say, “Whatever works is a good idea.”.

Take this passage.

Now, that may be true for him, but I find it, for me, incorrect. I don’t find photography has gotten more difficult in the 35 years I’ve worked as a professional commercial photographer and photojournalist. I find it simple to compose and make photos.

What’s difficult is finding the ideas. I know how to photograph, I am constantly working on what to photograph.

A songwriter is only as good as their songs. A filmmaker as good as their films. The photographer as good as their photos. They and every other artist are 100% dependent on finding good ideas and making good choices for what to create.

There’s the rub–finding good ideas. What to make?

When a young photographer comes up to me and says they want to make better photos, I tell them to find better things to photograph. Get better access. Go further than most can go.

What SHOULD I photograph?” My response is, “What CAN you photograph?”

Anyone can learn to play like Jimmy Page, and wail his blazing lead guitar licks note for note. Writing that lick, y’know the content–that’s difficult.

Making a great film is the easy part. Knowing which film to make–which script, y’know the content–that’s tough.

Creating photo projects that make you want to keep working, adding more photographs, and that will eventually find an audience–y’know, the content–that’s hard.

We really are only as good as the projects we come up with. I have my Longmont Lake Project that I made last summer that I’m shopping to publishers. I’ve been making the Roy Stryker project for years. I make street photographs and create galleries and exhibit them when I can with the goal of a published book of images one day.

A street photo that wasn’t difficult to make. Just a challenge to find. (After all, right there is our future U.S. President!)

I’ve a 4x4x5 project I made during the summer of the pandemic. My Boulder Parks ’18 project. The Wise Photo Project. And I write these 6×6 Portraits photographic essays on a regular basis. There are others I’ve made over the years besides these. I am always seeking new subjects and ideas.

Are these good ideas? They’re good for me. Satisfying for what I want to make and I’m prolific as a result of my choices.

I, like anyone, have no ability to get the work to take me anywhere other than where I end up. I have no control over the outcome. I can just make the work. That’s all any artist can do.

I can submit the work to publishers. I can talk to gallery owners. I can promote my work and I do. But whether I’ll ever be at the level of a Harvey Stein is very much out of my control.

Unless you’re born into royalty or a celebrity family, all you can do is the work. Do the work and see where it takes you. If you’re discovered, good for you. That’s a great ego boost and you got known for the work you had to make.

Even if you’re never discovered, you can rest assured that you made the work you wanted to make.

The work that is you.

And that’s a win right there. That’s why the artist makes their vision their way. Because that’s all they have control over.

Not for the market.

Not for the likes.

Not the taste of the masses.

For themselves, to fulfill their own creative desires and express themselves as only they can.

That’s a big win!

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