Artists and photographers often talk about being inspired by other artists, usually in terms of an artist's body or work or a specific book. I had a moment like that in 1988 when I bought a Ralph Gibson book called "Tropism" at the Walker Art Center bookshop. I had taken various art and photography classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and had been exposed to the usual Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Klein, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, etc that are discussed in photography classes. I opened the book "Tropism" and suddenly I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up as the wave of excitement washed over me. The tightly composed, minimalist, high contrast B&W images reverberated with me in a way that nothing else had.
I was already shooting with a 50mm lens. I didn't feel like I was doing anything compelling with it, but I stuck it out, trying to improve. After seeing the Gibson book, I suddenly saw the 50mm as a very exciting option, in stark contrast to it's reputation as a "normal" (and therefore, unexciting) lens. Seeing Ralph's work opened my eyes to the possibilities with this lens, and while I lived in a very different world that Gibson's NYC photographs, I started getting closer to my subjects and composing to crop out extraneous and non-essential visual components. Being exposed to what was possible transformed this seemingly bland lens into an exciting tool of limitless possibilities.
In the mid 1980s, film cameras (we just called them "cameras" at the time) were either sold as bodies or with the 50mm lens as kits. When I bought my first camera at age 15, the Minolta X-700, I bought the 50mm f1.7 with it using the money from my first paycheck ever.
My first photographs, of course, were breathtakingly bad. I stuck with it, eventually shooting for my high school newspaper, yearbook and every chance I could get with my normal life. I carried a camera everywhere with me, a practice I still continue to this day despite shooting most photographs with my iPhone 7 Plus.
Because I wasn't yet moved by my own photographs, I naively assumed that the real problem was the 50mm lens. I loved cinematography and noticed that most images, particularly in Kubrick's movies, were taken with wide angle lenses and to a lesser degree, telephoto lenses. I didn't think I'd ever get where I wanted to be with a 50mm lens. This would later prove to be false, but that was my thinking at the time. It's a common misconception: new equipment and new lenses almost never inspire new work or new ways of seeing. One exception was the Hasselblad XPAN, a panoramic film camera that yields 65mm x 24mm negatives on 35mm film, but that's a story for another time.
Enter the 28mm lens. My first successful image with this focal length was also the first image I ever sold.
Anyway, back to our story.
I was repeatedly seeing Garry Winogrand's work in various books (keep in mind, there was no internet to Google search) and knew he worked primarily with a 28mm. His work, at the time, looked messy and sloppy to me, devoid of compositional purpose. Some of this was my own way of processing that it was simply too much information for me. I was attracted to the minimal, clean, simple compositions I had seen in "Tropism."
Many years later, on another visit to an art exhibit and another trip to the Walker Art Center bookshop, I stumbled across a book called "1964" by Garry Winogrand. First of all, it had a beautiful, clean, vibrant, cold-tone color cover with a family seemingly picnicking in space (White Sands, New Mexico) that grabbed me immediately. I had no idea who they were or why they were in the middle of nowhere, but I couldn't stop looking at it. I didn't even notice the name "Winogrand" because I was so captivated by the photograph. It contains nearly 200 photographs, but I excitedly thumbed through it and bought their only copy, based mostly on the cover. I still have that book to this day.
This is not only one of the best books of photography I have to this day, but the cover image alone has deeply imprinted in my brain and affected the way I see the world. I think of the image often and some of it's compositional elements have snuck their way into my own work.
As always, I look forward to the next book or image to do that. Just like music, there is a feeling that comes from a photograph where all notes hit in the right place and you suddenly feel like the world is a wonderful place.
In the Outerfocus podcast I do weekly with UK photographer Ian Weldon, I ask each guest what photography book they bought first or what book changed the way they look at photography. What book was the most important to the way you see the world?
To listen to the podcast, follow this link or look up Outerfocus on iTunes. We also have links to the books Ian, myself and the guest photographers have recommended during the podcast.
The image below wasn't my first published image, but I was surprised that it was a contest winning image in the 2004 PDN "Top Knots" wedding contest. Also taken with a 28mm lens on film, lit only with sparklers.
This article was also published at outerfocuspodcast.com