How to take great pictures: six acclaimed photographers share their secrets
Lesson one: Joel Meyerowitz
Anticipate a moment
World-renowned street photographer Joel Meyerowitz (born 1938) began taking photos of urban life in his home town of New York in the 1960s and was highly influential in changing attitudes to colour photography.
One of the great joys of being on the street is staying alert to the unexpected. As a young kid I grew up in the Bronx, in a real tough, working-class neighbourhood, and my father, who was a street-smart New Yorker and an athletic man (a professional boxer, in fact), taught me how to protect myself so I wouldn’t get hurt in street rumbles. He showed me how to bob and weave and to feint – to encourage someone to look elsewhere – so I could throw a shot.
My father also taught me to look at life happening in front of me. He would often whisper, “Joel, look at that”, or “watch this”. And wherever he pointed, something would happen. Somebody would slip on a banana skin, or bump into a pole or stop and have a conversation with someone and then they’d wrestle each other a little. He always seemed to have an idea of what might happen, and by pointing it out to me, he taught me to read the street.
In a way, being a photographer came very naturally to me, from a childhood awareness of having to look out for myself and an understanding that the world repeats itself over and over again.
People have always walked into doors, fallen off steps, fought, made eye contact or gestures of anger or love. Humans do the same things all the time. If you understand that, you can watch the world with a sense of the possibility that these things are going to happen. You can almost predict movements, gestures and actions. That way, you’re ready to step into the right space at the right moment.
With this image, I was walking down a street in New York and saw a big puff of steam from an underground vent. Part of what is inspiring about photography every day is the moment something signals you. In this case it was a puff of steam, but it could be as simple as the way a truck comes past, or someone wearing a crazy outfit; anything that says, “Hello, I’m talking to you.” When you receive a signal, pay attention. Paying attention is the basic act of photography.
I saw that puff of steam and moved toward it because to me it was a screen in the middle of the street on to which people’s shadows were being projected. Just as I walked up to it, a couple wearing matching camel-coloured coats appeared. Then two other people in coats of the same colour came into view; imprinted on their backs were people’s shadows. This all happened in a split second, the time it takes for a photograph to come into being.
This picture has a kind of “twinning” quality, a kind of serendipity. Nothing major is happening, but the fact that these two small incidents appeared together, literally in a puff of smoke, is like a magician’s trick. Poof! Now you see it. And then it’s gone!
Lesson two: Rineke Dijkstra
Trust in the power of chance
An honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, Rineke Dijkstra (born 1959) is a Dutch photographer acclaimed for her striking portraits, often of young people.
Photography to me has always been about observing, but you cannot come up with everything yourself. It’s not in the nature of it: you have to allow chance to do its work in your process. I say this as someone who uses an old 4×5 inch analogue camera, who spends a lot of time working on the composition and the light and the colours, who likes to control what she can control. That tension between what you can and cannot control ultimately determines the power of the image.
Parque de la Ciutadela, Barcelona, June 4, 2005 came about by chance. I’d decided to take horizontal photographs for a change as I’ve done so many verticals, and there I was in the park, composing a shot. Then I looked up and saw this little girl. The expression she has in the final portrait is the one I first saw when I saw her: it’s all strength and directness: “What is that woman doing?” I immediately realised the situation had potential, her look, the lake, but I hadn’t specifically noticed the way the orange in her outfit works with the colour of the water. Or the string of her shorts, which seems to hang there with the same determination. And I’d only been vaguely aware of the position of the boat in the background. Still, I was very concentrated and got into this flow. I believe when you do so, you intuitively make the right decisions.
My most famous picture is probably the girl in the green bathing suit (Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26 1992), and this involved chance. Her pose echoing the Botticelli painting of Venus was an accident, but I wonder if I was recognising something vague in my memory, something I trusted. Similarly, in the first of my series of portraits of Almerisa, a Bosnian refugee, I hadn’t noticed her shoes didn’t fit, because I was more focused on her pose and her expression. Those details are what tell the subject’s stories. It’s OK that they’re not always in your control. Somewhere between the pose and what’s natural comes the thing that works. Interview by Jude Rogers
Lesson three: Ellen von Unwerth
Have as much fun as possible
An award-winning German fashion and celebrity photographer, Von Unwerth (born 1954) helped launch Claudia Schiffer’s career in 1989 and has since shot stars from Beyonce to David Bowie.
I like to make people larger than life in photographs, to make them look like superheroes. I love exaggerating things – the styling, the makeup – but the most important thing of all is to get them having fun. Getting somebody’s personality out of them is much more important to a photograph than their physique. Try and make someone feel a bit badass and expressive. Play around!
You can tell the models are having fun in this photograph: their expressions are charming but intriguing. I often do a little script for fashion shoots too, and give people roles to play, so it’s not just a pretty picture, but what they’re doing has some story behind it. But it’s also OK to let go and be spontaneous in the moment. I love the happy accident of the beach car in the background in this photograph. Someone looking in, going, “Hmm, what are they doing?” I had no idea it was there! I really embrace those moments.
It’s also important to not take yourself seriously as a photographer. I don’t. I play loud music. Try to get people to forget about posing. If it gets hard for some people, a little champagne works wonders! I like people to feel powerful but in a playful way, for them to feel emancipated but still sensual, and for that to come through in the photograph. I think you see that in the photographs of Claudia Schiffer I did for Guess, and David Bowie and Kate Moss [for a Q magazine cover in 2003].
Also: light is very important. Never get someone standing under those terrible ceiling lights. And I recommend taking 10 photographs a day of something beautiful. That trains your eye. JR
For more than three decades, the Ghanaian-Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur (born 1964) has documented the lives of black people from across the African diaspora. Last year she had solo shows at the South London Gallery in London, where she is based, and at the Brooklyn Museum.
I often get asked how I get my pictures, and the most straightforward answer is, by being open about what I want and approaching people directly: not to try to catch a moment, but to be there when the moment happens. Being visible doesn’t mean you necessarily corrupt the situation. On the street I like to take people’s presence as they present themselves, and for me that is about me being also present.
This picture was taken in Trafalgar Square in June, when Black Lives Matter protesters were attacked by people allegedly protecting monuments. I’ve been working on a piece connected with the demonstrations so have been going to a lot of them. This was quite interesting because I didn’t actually expect to take pictures, but suddenly it erupted and became quite emotional. The woman was a mother and was talking about being ready to protect her son. I didn’t take her name, as for me she represented something I have seen over and over – black women protecting their sons, like the young man in the background.
I think what I like is that it shows her passion. There are intimate spaces in public places, and this is an intimate recording of a public event. As she was talking I was getting closer and closer. She allowed me to move. I wanted the passion and I also wanted the man listening. It was this image of an elder speaking and younger ones behind her.
I get asked a lot whether I’m a street photographer and I say I’m not really, I’m just using the street as a studio, approaching it in terms of what the background is, what the light is like and where I should be. I shoot on film, and it’s expensive, so I don’t waste it. In this case there’s just the one shot. I don’t arrange my pictures but I’ve learned to arrange how I move to get what I want. Interview by Claire Armitstead
Lesson five: Nick Waplington
Become really familiar with the landscape – and don’t rush
British art photographer Nick Waplington (born 1965) is known for his depictions of working-class life, urban landscapes and collaborations with the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
When you know a landscape well, you pay attention to how it changes: how the light is more neutral at midday, how a sunny day gives a more orange tone, and how people might fit into that.
Build up a list of places where you think there’s a possibility of a good landscape photo, and keep going back to them. Then when you’re in the landscape you’ve chosen, take your time. I have practical reasons for doing this: I use a Victorian wooden, large-format camera on a tripod, and the film costs GBP30 to GBP40 a sheet. I’m quite happy to sit and watch. It’s a nice way to spend a day.
When I took the Princess Diana and the Kaleidoscope Skulls pictures at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert in Nevada in 1997, I had been there all day in the baking heat [Waplington gives his photographs titles later: these images were taken the day Diana died]. Back then, the festival was quite radical and spectacular and weird. I spent all day by an ice sculpture, watching people coming by. I only took two shots, and that’s OK.
I also used to go back to London Fields in Hackney regularly on Sunday afternoons – the local squatters used to meet on the edge of the cricket field there, and I loved the light. I made Fairies: London Fields after seeing these two little girls playing there, and I photoshopped them so they repeat, as they reminded me of those Victorian fairy pictures [the Cottingley Fairies].
I’m also taking the last picture of my parents’ greenhouse in their garden soon as my mother is moving out of the house – then I’m taking the greenhouse. I’m going to put it on the roof of my London studio. Familiar landscapes keep giving you new ideas. They’re always changing. JR
Lesson six: Nadav Kander
Remain immersed in yourself and your process
Winner of the outstanding contribution to photography prize at the 2019 Sony world photography awards, Nadav Kander (born 1961) is a celebrated portrait and landscape photographer based in London.
This lesson is in direct response to digital work nowadays, and applies to those beginning the practice of photography. If a student comes to me and says how did you form your language, how did you form and sharpen your voice? I’d say remain heightened while you photograph. If you keep flipping the camera over to look at the screen on the back, as soon as you start to get a good result you’ll lose your connection: you lose that angst and the will to do the best you can.
When I began photographing Tricky I started quite plain, probably with quite interesting lighting, but with him looking towards me, or looking away. Something about looking deeply at him, and staying with him, made me realise – and I don’t think I could have verbalised it at the time – that this is a man who likes to remain apart, quite hidden and complex and subtle, and that adding complexity with shadows, shrouding and disguising him, might result in something really emblematic of him.
Two nights later I saw him perform live for the first time, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and sure enough there was tons of smoke on the stage and very little lighting. He was just there in the smoke and was quite tortured. And I thought my god, the way that I’ve shown him and the way that he is on stage, felt exactly the same. It wasn’t thought of beforehand but happened because I could remain concentrated. Had I looked at my screen after the first few pictures, which were also used and very nice, I don’t think I would have got there.
It’s exactly the same with a landscape or a still life. It’s like one of those dreams where you wake up in the morning and wonder where those amazing thoughts came from. Well, it came from your subconscious and that is what I wish to tap into and rely on. I want things to come up as if from nowhere – those are more truthful by far than my thinking brain. CA
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