Visual Culture

7 Masters on How to Be a Photographer

Jacqui Palumbo
Oct 23, 2018 8:35PM

It’s easy to find practical instruction on how to take a good photograph. More abstruse, though, is the notion of how to become an artist with an eye for stirring, evocative images; someone who understands the relationship between the image and its viewer. Author Henry Carroll has published prolifically on the formal and technical considerations of the medium (his ongoing book series is straightforwardly titled Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs). But his latest endeavor is a volume that compiles the musings of great photographers that, together, dissect the often instinctual and ineffable practice of making powerful images.

The artists in the 2018 book Photographers on Photography: How the Masters See, Think & Shoot provide pithy insight on their approaches (Lars Tunbjörk: “I try to take photos like an alien”); the nature of images (Garry Winogrand: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts”); and counterintuitive truths (Olivia Bee: “It’s way more important to know how to take a picture than use a camera”).

Carroll doesn’t limit himself to the great historical figures of photography, but rather assembles a cast of emerging, mid-career, and past image-makers, using his own definition of what makes a master. “It’s easier to use the word ‘master’ in relation to dead photographers because their work is complete, and books and museums constantly tell us they are masters,” he wrote via email to Artsy. “[It’s] a bit more subjective when it comes to contemporary photographers.” For him, he explained, “it comes down to someone’s deep awareness of their own practice and the presence of a distinctive voice.”

Below, we share excerpts from Carroll’s book that delve into the minds of seven great photographers.

“A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.” – Ansel Adams

Born: 1902 / Nationality: American / Genre: Landscape

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives (Records of the National Park Service).


For Ansel Adams, a physical photograph, like a painting, should be regarded as an art object of supreme craftsmanship in its own right. The difference between photographs and paintings, however, is that we tend to instinctively look “at”photographs for what they depict. In effect, it’s very easy for them to simply become stand-ins for the actual subject or take on the role of an invisible vessel.

Adams overcame this through sheer technical mastery. He used the sharpest lenses, he waited days for the light to be just right, he invented the “zone system” to calculate the optimal exposure, and his rigorous darkroom methods created prints of supreme tonal range. Fascinatingly, this obsessive pursuit of clarity and detail resulted in physical photographs that didn’t just rival the beauty of nature—they beat it. In the case of this, one of his most iconic photographs of Snake River, the precise composition, textural sky, and control over tones create a highly seductive and romanticized version of reality. Never mind the hand of God—when we look “into” this photograph, we are presented with the hand of Ansel Adams.

“Photos don’t get better when they’re bigger.” – Hellen van Meene

Born: 1972 / Nationality: Dutch / Genre: Portraiture

Size has a profound impact on how we relate to photographs. After everything is done, the same photograph can be printed so small that it fits into a wallet or so big that it fills an entire wall. How, then, do photographers know how big or small to print their pictures? Hellen van Meene reminds us that a photograph’s size is an extension of its concept.

Influenced by the “quietness” of Dutch painting, van Meene uses natural light and domestic settings to photograph adolescent girls who appear lost in thought. She then prints her photographs small (around 11 inches) because she wants to draw us in; she wants us to physically stand closer; she wants us to have a private encounter so that we feel the introspection of her subjects. If her photographs were larger, we would interact with them very differently. We would need to stand back, it would be hard to take everything in all at once and the viewing experience would likely be shared with others; the physical photographs themselves would conflict with the subject matter and the meaning or mood the photographer is trying to convey.

“I take photographs not only with my eyes, but with my entire body.” – Daidō Moriyama

Born: 1938 / Nationality: Japanese / Genre: Street

Daido Moryama, Record No.6, 2000. Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation.

Street photographers like Daidō Moriyama “feel” what they are seeing. This feeling doesn’t just come from sight: It comes from an awareness of what all their senses are telling them. Like this stray dog with which he so identifies, Moriyama wanders streets with no fixed destination. Armed only with his compact camera, he is guided by smells and sounds, as well as by his eyes.

He’ll find himself off the main drags and down back alleys scavenging for moments to satisfy his visual hunger. All that matters is to point and shoot. The cleanness of the kill—focus, exposure, composition—are unimportant. By adopting such a multi-sensory approach, Moriyama manages to immerse himself in the psyche of the streets to capture viscerally raw pictures that expose the churning underbelly of Japan’s most kinetic cities.

“It’s not that I don’t care about content, but content is not the only way a photograph has meaning.” – James Welling

Born: 1951 / Nationality: American / Genre: Fine art

James Welling, # 5 (Degradé), 2001. © James Welling. Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

James Welling
ITR 1, 2001
Vivian Horan Fine Art

Because James Welling’s work is a photograph, we expect it to show us something literal. We can’t help but see a horizon line separating land from sky. With that yellowy green and plum purple, perhaps it’s a lush Tuscan field under a blazing sunset. Perhaps that wisp of grey is the sunlight reflecting off the distant ocean.

Welling’s photograph is, in fact, of nothing. The product of light projected through coloured filters directly onto photosensitive paper, this is a one-off photograph. It is not made from a negative or digital file, there is no frozen moment, no direct trace from the world and no subject; it is without content. While captured light is still its main ingredient, here Welling creates something entirely abstract that breaks photography from its representative responsibilities and temporal ties. In so doing, he causes us to reconsider what we have come to demand from photography—subject matter—and challenges the notion that a photograph has to be “of” anything at all.

“There are no rules. But sometimes you need parameters.” – Todd Hido

Born: 1968 / Nationality: American / Genre: Landscape, portraiture, interiors

Todd Hido, Untitled, #6405-8, 2007. © Todd Hido.

Here Todd Hido reminds us that too much creative freedom can lead to incoherence, while too tight a brief can be stifling. For his “Landscape”series, Hido made painterly photographs of beautifully bleak roadside scenes shot through the misty windows of his car. Photographing through the moisture blurs the boundary between what’s near and far, between what’s inside and outside. The glass acts as both a window and a screen, creating images layered with metaphorical clarity and confusion.

Hido decided that he would always shoot from the car, it would always be during winter and the locations would always be nondescript. Other elements such as the time of day, subject matter, color palette and weather conditions were left open. Those formed his “parameters”—tight enough to focus his creativity, loose enough to allow for unexpected encounters.

“As a brown person, as a brown artist, your work is political. Whether you like it or not.” – Wendy Red Star

Born: 1981 / Nationality: American / Genre: Fine art

Wendy Red Star
Spring (The Four Seasons series), 2006
Haw Contemporary

Wendy Red Star makes work about her Native American ancestors, the Crow, and how they have been represented in the past by 19th-century colonial photographers and more recently on TV and in Hollywood films. Here Red Star constructs a scene that places her in nature, yet the humorously artificial set-up references the ridiculous notion so often played out in mainstream media that Native Americans belong to the wild more so than to humanity.

Rather than being overtly political, Red Star sees her work as simply reflecting on who she is and the facets of her own cultural identity. It’s no different to any other photographer making work informed by who they are. The issue is, however, that photography’s long-established history would have us believe that it’s an art form predominantly practiced and appreciated by white people. They have become the default image makers so anyone outside of that status quo, no matter what their work may be about, is, to a certain extent, regarded as unusual or “political.” And this is not solely an issue for non-white artists. You could easily substitute the word “brown” in Red Star’s statement for “lesbian,” “Muslim,” “disabled” or even “female.” Yet one thing you could not substitute it for is “white,” “straight” or “male.”

“If I don’t kill you, I can’t move on.” – Ishiuchi Miyako

Born: 1947 / Nationality: Japanese / Genre: Reportage, still life

Ishiuchi Miyako, #98 from the series ‘Yokosuka Story’, 1996-97. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya.

Following the Second World War, the US built a naval base in the Japanese town of Yokosuka. With such a large foreign military presence, Western ideals and exploits soon overpowered a traditional way of life and Yokosuka descended into a state of debauchery and sexual violence. Around ten years after she fled, Ishiuchi Miyako returned with her camera and photographed the murky alleyways and vulnerable women to create a portrait of a place overshadowed by an ominous, often unseen presence.

Photography was a way for Ishiuchi to reconcile her feelings towards Yokosuka, a place that had inflicted so much trauma on her in the past. But it was also a means of retaliation, because there is a certain violence imbedded in the act of photography, too.

“Shoot” a picture, “fire” the shutter, “capture” the subject, “load” the film. Peel back photography’s innocuous mask and underneath you will find an art form pulsating with aggression. This violence goes beyond mere terminology. The concentrated act of looking that photography so demands is, in itself, aggressive. We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone’s prolonged gaze—we become their prey. Conversely, we all know what it feels like to spy on someone from afar—we become the hunter.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.

Excerpted from Photographers on Photography by Henry Carroll Copyright © 2018 by Henry Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.