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It’s Gotta Speak for Itself

  • “You are not going to be in the room when people look at your pictures. Your picture has to speak for itself.”

I always tell my students, and I really try and hammer the point home, that you are not going to be in the room when people look at your pictures. The picture has to speak for itself. No matter what your experience of that day, no matter what you went through to get that photo, it doesn’t make a bit of difference to someone who’s looking at that photo, unless the photo carries the experience.

For a shot to really work, it’s got to be successful pictorially, informationally, and emotionally. Face it, we’re emotional creatures—we come back with these pictures we took, and we’re like the six-year-old in kindergarten running up to the teacher with our scribbling and saying, “Look what I did! Look what I did!” Just because we’re excited about it, doesn’t mean it’s not scribbling.

So when you’re in the field—think like a photo editor. The best quality a photo editor brings to the table is dispassion. It sounds cruel, but they don’t give a rat’s @$$ if you had a bad day, or the boat capsized, or people were mean to you. All they care about is the picture: does it speak or does it not? If you think like a photo editor, your pictures will get better because you won’t go easy on yourself. You have to be your own toughest critic.

This portrait of Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano has always been one of my favorites. No explanations are needed. The room feels like music.

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