What makes a photographer?

First passage. From my theatre work in the 1980's. Carol La Chapelle performing with the La Chapelle-Douglas Dance Company performing at the Little Carib Theatre under hardware store spotlights. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Too many of today’s young photographers rashly begin defining their careers far too narrowly just a few years after picking up a camera for the first time.

We have portrait photographers, landscape photographers, fashion photographers, glamour photographers, retouch artists and wedding specialists in what seems to be a mad rush to replicate popular styles and “looks” – a term that simply screams fashionable and commensurately ephemeral.

The end result is a landscape of photographs, particularly online, which offers an abundance of images but a dreary lack of diversity.
As soon as someone hits on a new combination of capture, toning and filtering that seems attractive, dozens, then hundreds of otherwise sensible people jump all over it, first dissecting it, then posting how-to’s on it, and then, finally, replicating it until it becomes unbearable.

I’m certainly not immune to the phenomenon. When I first began taking photographs, I was shooting a lot of black and white film. I was using it because it was cheaper than shooting colour and I could more readily access the kind of processing equipment necessary to make images at my own pace.

There was a much bigger market for black and white photography then. Newspapers, to which I contributed directly and on behalf of PR clients didn’t reproduce colour very often so grayscale wasn’t a style, it was the norm.

I had a real fascination with local theatre, and looked to the work of practitioners like Derek Gay, who produced dense rich blacks in his prints that often eluded me and Jerry Llewelyn, who went at his work with admirable vigour and enthusiasm.

My style, if such a thing might be said of the work, was defined by the weak garden floodlamps in black painted KLIM tins at the Little Carib. I’d shoot Tri-X souped in
Diafine, a violently aggressive push developer and hope something interesting would happen in a bright part of the stage.

Along the way, I began taking portraits for some of these theatre companies, particularly for the productions of Helen Camps and working with a very crude lighting kit based on
Sunpak 611 potato masher flashes, I began my work in portraiture.
I managed to get some basic portraits done using general principles but soon became bored with just getting some decent, if straightforward headshots done (one of those is the
cover of a recent book by Joanne Kilgour).

So I began following the work of Annie Liebovitz, then doing remarkable work at Rolling Stone. By following, I mean heavily influenced by. By heavily influenced, I mean outright cloning within the limitations of my equipment. Then I found Arnold Newman. And
Irving Penn. And Avedon. And Gregory Heisler. And Dean Collins.

There was so much work being done in so many different styles that my own approach ended up being hewn out of the many ways of approaching portraiture that pulled me in so many different directions.

Even so, my work falls into three broad categories, the first ten spent mostly with black and white and shooting theatre, the second fifteen spent mostly in active journalism, when I also messed around with editorial management and commercial work and got my introduction to the potential of digital imaging. Then there's the third ten, which I’m deeply into now, which is all digital, baby.

That experience is why I don’t understand shooting digital colour and knocking it down to black and white for a look. Why bother? You’ll never truly replicate FP4 processed in HC110, so why not embrace the specific look that digital sensors bring to the table?

There is, I think, a very real and palpable difference between being influenced by a way of seeing or a point of view which is liberating and becoming consumed by the strictures of a technique or a process, which is ultimately quite limiting.

Each of these phases of my career was a mix of circumstances, opportunity, tools available and the possibilities that ensued from that mix.
Along the way, I’ve tried on a lot of suits. Some of them, like Ansel Adams’ were too big for me, some, like Penn’s, were too awesome (I’m finally reading his book
Passage now, fifteen years after I bought it, because I wasn’t ready before) and some, like Liebovitz’s were ultimately too specific and mannered for my taste.

I am the photographer I am today because of an eclectic mid of influences that were neither stylish nor fashionable at the time I discovered them.
It’s kind of tragic, I think, to see young photographers locking themselves into stylistic tics like HDR and bokeh-chasing before they’ve even begun to figure out why they are taking photographs in the first place.

Hundreds of thousands of photographs and 35 years later, I’m able to look back on all those old contacts and sheets of slides and begin to see the tiny steps I took along the way to finding myself as a photographer. Along the way, I shot stuff for money, I shot stuff because I thought it was clever, and I shot stuff because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Some of the photographs exploded. Some of them took a long, slow road to recognition and some of them are perfectly awful and you’ll never see them, thank yew very much.
Sometimes photographers will ask me what they should be doing. This question confuses me. It’s kind of like a pannist asking me what to play or a painter asking what to paint.

The only correct answer, of course, is to create what’s in your heart, and you can only do that if you fill it with inspiration. That kind of means filling your head with images of all kinds, regardless of what you think you’re going to be doing with a camera.

That’s probably a good way to get started, I think... by learning the common language of images and all the nuances and ways they bring visual understanding.
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