PERSISTENCE AS A KEY TO TAKING INCREDIBLE PHOTOGRAPHS
My attention was grabbed by a number of aspects of the short article (copied below) by Jake Rutherford in a recent internet posting by National Geographic.
Firstly, his use of post-it notes to highlight images in books is one that I will be adopting more frequently as a reminder and as a means of accessing particular images more quickly. I also liked his description of the critique of his work by his muse and mentor, Norman Mauskopf, and the fact that he would compare examples of Rutherford’s work with that of acclaimed masters in order to banish complacency.
More significantly, I was drawn to his comments about the way that he perceives that Mauskopf achieves the images that inspire him so much. Key to this is Mauskopf’s persistence in returning again and again to a subject to extract the essence of it and to allow the subject time to fully reveal itself. As Rutherford states ‘Norman……… lingers on his projects, indulging his sense of the decisive moment and a perspective on humanity that is only achieved with ample time spent.‘ I particularly like the phrase that he follows with, ‘It is an insight sustained by an honest, mystical mixture of curiosity and persistence.’
Rutherford sums up by suggesting that whilst many photographers can take wonderful photographs through luck and / or technical skill, ‘what makes good photographs incredible is persistence, showing up again and again and again. And again.’
I am aware that I have a tendency to take a rather opportunistic approach to my photography, preferring to go out and see what is there in the moment rather than taking the time to really get to the heart of the subject and give it time to speak to me. This might result in a few good images as a result of luck rather than judgement, but Rutherford reminds me that the regular creation of truly great photographs requires persistence and a willingness / desire to immerse oneself in the subject for as long as it takes.
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POST-ITS AND PRAISE : A PHOTOGRAPHER’S ODE TO HIS UNSUNG HERO
Author: – Jake Rutherford
I am in the habit of marking my photography books with yellow and pink Post-it notes, flagging the images that I find most influential for my own work. Yellow means good, pink means best. Most of the Post-its are in books by Norman Mauskopf—a black-and-white documentary photographer I assisted during his workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have since developed a friendship with.
The author’s signed personal copy of Norman Mauskopf’s photography book A Time Not Here.
Influence is a mighty thing, particularly in photography. It shapes our eyes, creates awareness of overlooked moments, and develops our definition of justice and sense of timing. Influence, it seems, is a core tenet to our identity.
For me that foundational inspiration has been Norman’s inky monochrome photos, which have resonated within my own work since I flipped through his shimmering pages on a plastic table in Santa Fe five years ago. His images inspired my naive ambition that one could actually be a documentary photographer—that there even was such a thing. From him I learned about the greats, like Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand. So let this essay serve as my ode to Norman—I’ve realized how important his influence is, and I need to share it.
From the book A Time Not Here
Norman is tall and lean, always speaking slowly and grinning slyly. He’s won multiple awards for his work and has been included in various solo and group exhibitions, twice at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France—but you wouldn’t know it by his unassuming nature, not unless you had Googled him. He makes his own prints, preferring to feel his own darkroom-crafted concoction of chemicals, rather than the keys of a keyboard, on his fingertips.
And he’s direct. Occasionally he’s demolished me with a fiercely honest rebuke of my subpar work; however, he’ll dole out a compliment when it is worthy. But, even then, he’s followed his compliment by emailing me a photo, similar to mine, shot by a legendary photographer, just to put me in my place. It’s his way of making me a stronger photographer.
From the book Dark Horses
As for Norman’s work itself, he lingers on his projects, indulging his sense of the decisive moment and a perspective on humanity that is only achieved with ample time spent. It is an insight sustained by an honest, mystical mixture of curiosity and persistence. Fueled by a genuine interest, his projects are active for years, with some coverage spread over the majority of a decade. It creates a consistency throughout Norman’s portfolio.
From the book A Time Not Here
In A Time Not Here, he explores the African-American musical and spiritual life in the Mississippi Delta. I can feel the damp, tilled rows of the empty field, the bass of rhythm and blues animating dancers at a midnight club, the water weight of soaked baptismal robes, the heat of a solemn midday funeral, the casket being lowered into the dirt. I can hear the sermon songs; I don’t hear Norman. The moments are timeless. Perhaps because for Norman time wasn’t a concern, being an un-rushed fly on the wall.
From the book Descendants
It’s rather self-evident that Norman haunts my own photographs, although my skill isn’t as refined. If not in the images, it’s his voice that is in my mistakes—all those trips I cut prematurely, or moments I abandoned before they came into bloom. Now I force myself to stay still when I’m grabbed by a scene, to sit until the image reveals itself on its own schedule. Perhaps I’ll need to return the next season or on a cloudy day or at dusk. I must learn to linger, like a wallflower on prom night, to elevate a good photo into a great photo.
From the book Rodeo
During my time at National Geographic, I have become aware that many photographers can make wonderful photographs. Sometimes luck throws you a bone and it’s easy, sometimes it’s a technical and challenging image. But what makes good photographs incredible is persistence, showing up again and again and again. And again.
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Norman Mauskopf currently lives in Santa Fe and has published four books. His latest book, shot over a decade, is Descendents, which focuses on the diverse Hispanic community of northern New Mexico.
Jake Rutherford is a National Geographic photo coordinator and native Texan. He has taught photography in New Mexico, owned a video production house, managed brands at a design firm, and watched Battlestar Galactica three times over. If he were granted one wish, it would be to time travel with a camera in hand.
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