Guy Tal • What Makes A Great Photographer?

Stop chasing after things already photographed and challenge yourself to see like nobody else has seen before you. If you do, you will have earned well-deserved greatness and gratitude

In his last interview, shortly before his death, Ansel Adams was asked whether he thought Edward Steichen – another formidable figure in the history of photography – was a ‘great photographer.’ Adams responded: “No. He was at one time, he did some beautiful things. And then he became trapped in the commercial New York milieu, in the advertising world.”

Steichen’s image ‘The Pond – Moonlight’ is among the most expensive photographs ever sold, at nearly $3,000,000. By comparison, the most anyone has ever paid for an Ansel Adams print is around $610,000. Both sales occurred in 2006, when both men were long deceased, although it is worth mentioning that the two had long been at odds when they were alive.

Two interesting questions arising from Adams’ answer are these: was he correct in saying that Steichen was not deserving of being considered a great photographer because he ‘sold out’ to commercial interests? And, if a photographer who is widely regarded as being among the most important figures in the evolution of photography as art is not considered a great one, then who is?

The disassociation between commercial value and the significance of a work of art is not a new thing. Philosopher Bertrand Russell opined, “In a thoroughly commercialized society, an artist is respected if he makes money, and because he makes money, but there is no genuine respect for the works of art by which his money has been made.” Considering the subjective nature of the monetary value of art, it would be futile to debate this aspect further, and so I will focus on the second question: what makes a great photographer, independent of what their work sells for?

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Certainly there is no small degree of subjectivity here, too, and to confuse things further, the term ‘photographer’ is also ambiguous. A photographer can be considered to be someone who simply excels in the use of photographic equipment and processes. Considering that today’s cameras are smarter than ever and can perform on our behalf many of the tasks that previously required great knowledge and skill, the distinction of a great photographer, as measured by the technical qualities of their work, is ultimately not much to brag about. It’s fair to say that, by this measure, there are millions of good – even great – photographers in the world at this very moment. Similarly, the fact that someone could afford to travel to well-known locations, or to photograph things in serendipitous circumstances that have to do more with luck than any quality of the photographer, also make for poor foundations for greatness.

And so I propose that the greatness of a photographer ultimately comes down to this: the degree and consistency with which a photographer is able to conceive meaningful work that nobody else has, or could. This is because, sooner or later, someone will photograph just about any objectively worthy subject, but it requires a great mind to make worthwhile images that simply would not exist if it were not for that person.

If you aspire for greatness, and if you agree with my premise here, then it is incumbent upon you to cultivate the uniqueness of your mind and your work. Stop chasing after things already photographed by others and challenge yourself to see like nobody else has seen before you. If you do, you will have earned well-deserved greatness and gratitude, even if you never sell a single image.

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About Author

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I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

4 Comments

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    I am a creative person , I strive to leave manmade objects out of the picture , (cept ruins / relics of the past ) . I draw , sketch , draft (electro – mech engineering DRAFTING , + architectural history , + architectural design , sciences (zoology+ botanical) . I have shot weddings //people ask “is that digital” , Phtography has been a passion since 1968 ( kodak brownie/canon AE1/Minolta +bellows( 3bodies + 7 minolta lenses . NOW 6D, 7D(x2),A7r ++more long zoom + superzoom bridge cameras . With phones ; I feel people shoot their lives . “I shoot with quality and the purpose ( would I hang this on my wall ) ” .

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    I have subscribed to two photography magazines for twenty plus years. Having read two of the articles in the last newsletter I feel as though I have been reminded why I love photography. Learning to see in a unique way and having the courage to say “ Please look at what I can do.” has given me a boost to do what I believe will give me great satisfaction. Thank you and I will anticipate each new issue.

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    Cool read,I’m a newbie to photography but already producing some cool images.im not afraid to take on the world with my images.then if it’s about art then it’s about images.i have nothing against people who can photoshop their way to an image. Me I just like capturing unique moments.im content with my work an where it’s going but I also like to eat lol.

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