Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Three things to think about from David Bailey

April 6, 2014, 6:49 PM

David-Bailey-Look

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.”

Indeed, it often seems easier to start from scratch, rather than work with something that’s already ‘on the canvas’, done by somebody else, be it a person or ‘nature’. This can be due to objective reasons (poor quality, outdated etc), or due to personal reasons (ego being the usual suspect).

However, I find it much harder to begin from ‘nothing’ rather than start with a defined idea, brief, a pre-existing situation. Christoph Niemann’s illustration about the creative process is one of the best portrayals of the sheer despair a blank piece of paper can fill you with. Excepting a few ‘lucky’ ones (for various reasons), most of us go through this almost daily.

I’ve often thought that, in photography, the work is mostly done by the time you get there. Nature, fate, chance, God, or whatever you call it, has already prepared ‘the scene’, whether it’s done, or being done right in front of your eyes. You just have to frame it, not much else. Of course, framing can be done in so many ways, and it often alters the way the subject is seen. Sometimes it can even change it completely.

“I try to simplify things by just having a white background and no distractions. I don’t care about ‘composition’ or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across … to get something from that person, even if I have to force it out of them by being rude.”

Making people feel something (interest, delight, compassion etc) is the best way to reach them, maybe the only one. It’s very easy to get caught up in details and forget the main thing: if people won’t find it interesting enough to ‘read’ it, consistency, ‘good design’ or any other high standards are worth nothing.

On the other hand, Mr Bailey is just making a point. Many of his photos are fine examples of composition. But that’s just a detail, the cherry on top of an idea that grips your attention in the first place. How many people did you hear saying ‘wow, what a brilliant composition’?

“The pictures don’t get better the longer you’re around the subject. The moment’s the moment. And you don’t want them to get bored with you either, because the magic goes. You have to get the magic quick. If I go to Delhi, I get off the plane and I start photographing, because five days later it all starts to look normal.”

What a brilliant bit: “five days later it all starts to look normal”. Our capacity to adapt quickly helps us in many ways, beginning with survival, but when it comes to creativity, it’s more of a problem. Things that are new, even amazing at one moment, are quickly taken for granted, even invisible. This goes especially for the last ten, fifteen years, with the rise of computers, internet and smartphones. New becomes old so quickly.

I usually get the best ideas in the beginning, thinking and sketching about it before I know too much about the subject. During this period, my mind keeps making connections, some obvious, some surprising, some maybe weird. ‘Five days later’, having gone deeper into the subject, it’s a lot harder to come up with anything unexpected. These ideas might be more relevant, informed, but they’re also less interesting, more fitting for the subject, and more like ‘the others’ (usually the competitors). Of course, the ‘fresh mind’ approach does need a bit of initial knowledge (one of the moments where constant curiosity pays off), just enough to get you going.  Sometimes you realise when you look back that those connections were common sense, in that field or another. But common sense gets left out so often when you get caught up in the brief, or the process.

On the other hand, some ideas you only get in pieces, incomplete. Time often helps, more pieces falling into place, usually if you don’t force it. Leaving them running in the back of your mind is the best thing to do. Most will grow, in time for the current project, or for a future one if not. Some never make it, and you can only hope that somebody else will make them happen at some point.

I know I said three, but here’s one more, to end on an encouraging note:

“I don’t think you’re ever successful. I think if you become successful artistically – as opposed to financially – you might as well stop and play chess, like Marcel Duchamp. There’s no point going on.

I’m distressed every time the contact sheets come back, every time I see the results of a job: I think, ‘My God, after fifty years of mucking about with photography I’m still getting it wrong.’ I get it wrong all the time, and it’s so depressing that I want to keep trying.”

Glad to see that I’m not the only one, endlessly digging in search of gold, feeling like a failure or a fraud most of the time. Judging by how many greats say similar things, it seems that once you stop feeling like this, you’ve lost the spark. Or, in other words, there’s no easy way to do it, it’s all about doing a lot of work. Strive for it to be good, and maybe some will even be great.

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All quotes are from “Bailey Exposed“, a new book edited by Bailey himself. A quick read, with great photos by Bailey, next to quotes from himself and a few others. Another proof that great ideas don’t need hundreds of pages, maybe even the contrary.

The top photo is a crop from Phaidon’s Look monograph of Bailey. Second photo is my own, taken at the National Portrait Gallery, the entrance dominated by one of Bailey’s portraits of Michael Caine. Classic. Worth visiting if you’re in London till June 1.

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