Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Photographers Who Inspire Me

Last week I was invited to participate in a photographer's discussion about inspiration, hosted by Carbone Smolan Agency. The purpose was to create a new Canon app for the iPhone (I use Nikon, so I went just to sabotage the event). There were about twelve photographers, and we each presented one photograph for the discussion. The first image came up and my jaw fell to the floor. It is part of a famous series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, shot by David Burnett. I have spent years absolutely loving and envying David's photography.

I was still reeling from the fact that I was on a panel with David Burnett, and then I was blown away yet again by the next photograph. This stunning image is by Doug Menuez. It's featured in his photography book, "Heaven, Earth, Tequila." It depicts an ancient tequila making ritual in Mexico. Naked men stand in vats of agave to help the fermenting process (I never liked tequila anyway, but now I'm over it for sure. Can they make margaritas with Jameson?).

So David was no accident - this was definitely a room full of pros. Another image came from Michael Yamashita for a feature on Marco Polo in National Geographic. Michael has been shooting with Geographic for over 30 years!

At this point I realized I was surrounded by the very photographers I've always wanted to emulate. The question for the panel was, "What inspires you?" And I wanted to shout out, "You do!"

This sounds cheesy, but about twelve years ago I was on the top of a mountain, looking out over the horizon. I took out my point and shoot camera and realized I didn't know how to photograph the landscape. I decided to take a photography class so next time I'd know what film to use. I bought a cheap Pentax and asked my neighbor, Mrs. M., to pose for me. When I saw the image magically appear in the developing solution in the darkroom, I was hooked. I had found my passion.

As a young, untrained photographer with no idea what I was doing, photography magazines became my education. I would walk around NYC and try to copy what I'd seen featured on those pages. I never succeeded, but knowing their artistry existed kept me hopeful. I envied photographers like David, Doug and Michael. They were traveling the world, photographing the most important events and the most celebrated people. I had a crappy little Pentax and a lot of desire. I had no voice, no understanding of the craft, no technical skills, but I kept shooting. When I was discouraged, I would break out a magazine and feel inspired again. Slowly I began to find my voice and my confidence. The past decade has been a blur of activity and accomplishments, but sometimes I still feel like I'm walking around the city with my Pentax and no clue. That's how I felt as I sat with these great artists who I still hesitate to call my peers. And then it was my turn to present a photograph. As I began to speak, softly at first, they leaned forward and listened.

Please do yourself a favor and visit the websites of these three photography icons. They've generously lent their images for this blog, but there is so much more stunning work to see.