How to Spot a Highly Evolved Photographer
Disclaimer: All images are copyright to their respective owners.
Words: Haris Babic
Photographers are found in abundance. Exceptional ones, though are extremely rare. Even in the most respected organizations, few can captivate the viewer by evoking wonder, curiosity, and inspiration. Only a handful of highly evolved photographers can capture imagery with the potency and emotion that wins Pulitzers.
I’m constantly tuning my receptivity to human emotion. My excitement for photography is deeply rooted in desire to be emotionally captivated. Many photographers employ plenty of hacks and are able to cobble together striking imagery. Only a precious few, however, know how to set pictures on fire and make meaning resonate.
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson “Man Cycling Down Street”, Hyeres, France, 1932
“Quality … has to do with intention.”
– Elliott Erwitt
Elliot Erwitt “Eiffel Tower”, Paris, 1989
They’re a different breed: I call them elite photographers.
This is good news for you. The rarity of exceptional photographers means that by having the right skills it’s easy to stand out from the herd.
So unusual is this level of ability that once you acquire it, editors and publishers of big newspapers and online magazines will sniff you out a mile off. They’ll compete for you.
The Art of Storytelling
You see, the average photographer knows how to assemble composition—to tell a story by stringing together basic elements and building blocks of photography, lines, shape/form, space, texture, and color, to give the viewers some kind of idea of what the picture is saying.
Free at last’ – ‘I have a dream’ . March on Washington, 1963
An elite photographer creates compelling perspectives around those elements, evoking powerful sense and emotion to the elements being captured. The cognitive and emotional impact on a viewer is completely different.
Irving Penn, Salvador Dali
“A good photograph is one that communicate a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
– Irving Penn
Philippe Halsman, Salvador Dali (1954)
“To me the face – the eyes, the expression of the mouth – is the thing that reflects character. It is the only part of the body that permits us to see the inner person!”
– Philippe Halsman
Elite photographers have further distinctive traits. They know how to express emotion, feelings and meanings around a photo without extraneous elements, so that their intended emotions come through and are immediately and perfectly understood.
Vincent Peters, Amber Valletta
Sometimes elite photographers may disregard some of these principles. They do this deliberately and intuitively, and are usually lead by empathy and compassion. They possess a profound understanding of how to move the viewer by evoking human emotion. Most of these iconic captures have been replicated over and over simply because they elicit an emotional response.
They know how to capture the moment and drama of any situation.
“I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers, or remain in their hearts.”
– Annie Leibovitz
Left: Bob Adelman “Small boy sitting on steps of home”, Bedford Stuyvesant 1963
Right: Dorothea Lange ‘Migrant Mother’
Art Kane’s famous photo of jazz greats, titled “Harlem 1958”; Photograph by Art Kane
Helmut Newton, Yves Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” for French Vogue, 1975
“The desire to discover, the desire to move, to capture the flavor, three concepts that describe the art of photography.”
– Helmut Newton
Under controlled circumstances they have a clear intention and they understand how to position their subjects and create nuances in their expression to reveal the true significance of the message they are looking to portray. And they know how to steer clear of weak elements and expressions that dull their imagery.
On top of that, they understand how to capture the grace and elegance of their intended subject. Only a handful of professional photographers can do all of that. There are some who hit upon the formula by accident but, lacking a full comprehension of what they’ve achieved, find themselves unable to repeat their success reliably.
Irving Penn, Shalom Harlow for US Vogue, April 1996.
“What I really try to do is photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity.”
– Irving Penn
Whether you’re a working photographer aspiring to become more senior, or a newbie eager to get noticed by an editor, by actively learning these principles and applying them in your photography, you will begin to notice progress very quickly and you’ll discover powerful ideas that will propel you into the extremely small world of elite photographers.