In The Great LIFE Photographers, one of my very favorite photography books, the most compelling images for me are those that feature people. Former LIFE photographer John Loengard opened his introduction to the book by writing, “Photographers working for LIFE like to photograph the world around them, especially the people in it and what those people do.”
Alfred Eisenstaedt, who Loengard called “the dean of LIFE photographers, if we had a dean,” famously said, “It’s more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
In their brief bio that appears with the section on Eisenstaedt’s work in The Great LIFE Photographers, the book’s editors glowingly wrote:
Eisenstaedt never lost his childlike interest in things and people, in what made them what they were. He would put his subjects at ease, then get up close and take a few pictures—he didn’t need roll after roll—then it was on to the next person, the next happening, tirelessly pursuing the heart of the matter that he saw so easily and wanted very much for us to see too.
Eisenstaedt joined LIFE in 1963 as one of the magazine’s four original staff photographers, and he stayed there until 1972. His work is first rate, as one can plainly see in this collection of his photography from Paris in 1963, for example.
What I’ve read about taking pictures of people is by no means limited to The Great LIFE Photographers. I have several books on my shelf that offer tips and advice on how to make candid images of people effectively. Time and again I’ve read how important it is to establish relationships with people in order to win their trust and get good people shots.
I am indeed a great admirer of people photography.
But I have a confession: I’ve never been much of a people person.
Is it possible to have an interest in people photography without being a people person?
Maybe this is a matter of me being an admirer of something I’m not good at. I enjoy listening to beautiful classical piano without being much of a pianist myself. I appreciate a good painting without being anything remotely resembling a fine art painter.
At bottom, though, I’ve always been more comfortable flying under the radar and working behind the scenes.
Does that mean I can’t do meaningful photography involving people? Does that mean that my shyness is something I need to overcome?
I don’t think so. One thing I’ve been doing lately in my street photography is setting people in context of their surroundings, using a variety of techniques to blur out or otherwise obscure their faces, and so forth. I like a lot of photographs I’ve taken along these lines.
The Great LIFE Photographers also has a section on Andreas Feininger, who shot for LIFE magazine as a staff photographer from 1943 to 1962. The book’s editors introduced him this way: “LIFE’s photographers were known for their images of people, but Feininger was a profound exception.” He was “not at all a people-person,” and with a “chilly single-mindedness” he preferred to work “without any interference.” To be sure, he demonstrated a mastery of photography both in a technical and a compositional sense. But he was simply not like most of his colleagues at LIFE.
If the quality of his photography isn’t reason enough, I love Feininger’s work all the more because of his personal character, which I can completely relate with.
In his 1965 book The Complete Photographer, Feininger articulated his own approach to photography (pp. 325-326):
To me, photography is a mirror of life and any photograph worth looking at must be a reflection of life, of reality, of nature, of people, of the work of man, from art to war. I have no use for “arty” pictures nor for pictures that are stilted, posed, or faked. My approach is intellectual rather than emotional and I feel more closely related to the viewpoint of the scientist than to that of the artist. In consequence, I am more interested in facts than feelings, and clarity of rendition is important in my photographs. I have occasionally been criticized (unjustly, I feel) for being unemotional, cerebral, and cold.
Whatever my shortcomings, I have learned to accept them because I have found through experience that it is impossible to change basic traits. Instead, I try to make the best of what I am, to express myself through my pictures as precisely as possible, and to use my camera to give people new insight into some of the endlessly varying aspects of our world.
Later (p. 330), Feininger wrote:
The artistic growth of any creative person follows a definite pattern which is based upon his character, temperament, interest, sensitivity, and taste. To fine one’s own pattern is the first step in becoming an original photographer.
Originality is the sum total of one’s traits. These traits must be consciously recognized, accepted, and utilized to best advantage. They cannot be changed, although they can be suppressed. One must try to make the best of his abilities.
Feininger advised his reader not to join a stylistic movement or a school of thought. You can be influenced by others, but don’t give up your right to say what you want to say through your photography. Instead, develop whatever style distinguishes your work from that of others. “A personal style evolves from the photographer’s personality. A man who is very orderly [a man like Feininger himself?] will express this orderliness in the form of precision in his pictures.”
When I first read all this, I took it to heart immediately. It was a crystalizing moment for me, actually.
Rather than act like someone I’m not, a more constructive and effective thing for me to do is to embrace my personality traits in a positive way and to use those traits to say something original through my photography.
I believe there is a deepening sense of loneliness that characterizes modern life. Rather than help cultivate a sense of connectedness, we’ve allowed social media in particular to intensify our disconnection with each other.
Part of what I like to reflect candidly and at a distance in my photography is that increasing sense of disconnection. Time and again I’ve read that one needs to get close to his subject in order to be an effective people photographer. This may be true for a given purpose. But the sense of distance I typically maintain in my photography is a very intentional element.
I still love revisiting the superb people photography that’s in The Great LIFE Photographers, and I am continuously drawn to the work of more modern photographers who have mastered a genre that I myself am not temperamentally well suited to pursue.
But when I am out and about with my camera, the images I tend to make are those that are true to my own personality and that express my own experience. What I pursue, in other words, is a very different kind of people photography than the type that I often admire.