Kill Your Master in Photography

Busan, 2013

Busan, 2013

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you a letter on the concept of “killing the masters of photography”. It is kind of a Buddhist philosophy, as well as a philosophy I gained from Seneca, my stoic philosophy hero and mentor.

So I was talking to Pooria, one of the students from my Seattle street photography workshop. He asked me, “Eric, I see all these famous photos from the masters, and I don’t ‘get them’. What do others see which I don’t see?”

To be frank, there are a lot of “master” street photographers whose work I don’t really understand or “get”. But then again, my preferences sometimes obstruct my vision. For example, I absolutely hate the taste of cucumbers and pickles, and I have no idea why others like the taste. But in reality, there are millions of others who like cucumbers and pickles.

Cindy hates mint ice cream, but I personally love it. Does that make anyone who likes mint ice cream a fool? No. It just means that people have differences in terms of taste and preferences.

So for example, when I look at a lot of photos in galleries, modern art museums, or the work of the masters, there are a lot of work which isn’t of my taste. But does that mean those photos are no good? Absolutely not. It just means that it isn’t my taste.

For example, one photographer who I really didn’t understand or “get” was William Eggleston. A lot of famous photographers I knew who shot color praised the man. I looked at his work, and thought it was just boring and mundane snapshots. I didn’t “get it”. I hadn’t drunk the “Kool Aid” that everyone else did. I hadn’t fallen victim to the “emperors new clothes” syndrome.

But then I started to research Eggleston in trying to understand why others like his work. I then discovered the historical significance of his work; how he was one of the first to innovate in color photography, how he tried to make photography more democratic by photographing boring and mundane things (that was his point), and how he happened to get a controversial show at the New York museum of modern art.

So what I discovered was that great art isn’t always about the image or the art in itself. Much of it involves the historical context (for example, Daido Moriyama was also one of the first pioneers of high contrast and gritty black and white shots), much of it is the connections that a certain photographer had with a famous curator or gallery owner, and much of it had to do with luck (being born in the right time at the right place).

So friend, trust me, sometimes I look at the work of famous contemporary and master photographers and I feel indignant and outraged that they’re so famous, rich and successful, even though I think their work is “not that great”. But then again, that is a useless waste of energy. Rather than complaining and moaning about the success of other artists, I should just go out and create the work that I find personally meaningful, and what I think is great art.

It is like complaining that McDonald’s food isn’t good for you. No matter how much you complain, McDonald’s isn’t going anywhere. One thing I am guilty of is making fun of Starbucks coffee and how bad it tastes. But honestly, if it wasn’t for Starbucks, all of us in America would still be drinking Folgers or Nescafé instant coffee, or drinking trucker gas station coffee. Rather than being a coffee snob (which I am), I should let others enjoy their coffee (wherever they get it from), and for me to just enjoy where I get coffee (currently at Cafe Vita or Stumptown in Seattle, or at the local roasters in Berkeley). What gives me the right to look down on the preferences of others? I’m not any more “enlightened” than anybody else out there. I need to respect the preferences of others, and not be so judgmental.

Once again to bring this back to photography, let us not be jealous, judgmental, envious, or petty about the work of others. Let others do the work that makes them happy, and don’t feel indignant if they become rich, famous, or successful. To be frank, whenever we feel indignant or upset about the success of others, it is a reflection of our own insecurities rather than a reflection of the other.

For example for me, whenever I am upset that the work of another is “overrated”, I am actually thinking to myself, “Wow I can’t believe that hack job got a gallery showing at that fancy gallery. My work is so much better than his, why didn’t I get an exhibition showing here? The gallery owner obviously has no taste. The artist obviously kissed a lot of ass to get his work showed here.”

You can see that my negative, jealous, and petty thoughts arise from my own insecurity.

Have your own exhibition

Another piece of advice I gave Pooria is this: Take 10 months off from uploading your photos to the Internet, and after the end of the 10 months, choose your best 10 photos, and have a small exhibition. Invite some friends, bring some $2 bottles of Trader Joes wine, some nice goat cheese and crackers, print your photos on mpix.com or Costco, get some cheap IKEA or Target frames, invite some close friends, family, and other photographers, and have a good old time.

For a space, just rent a cheap exhibition space for a week or a month. No need to kiss ass and get a fancy show at a high end gallery. If your point of exhibiting your work is to share it in physical form, no need to have it in a “prestigious” location. Otherwise it is about your own vanity and ego; not about the art.

I know this challenge is hard friend, but I tried it out, and trust me, it was incredibly liberating. I’ve also waited a full year before processing 164 rolls of color film, which was a great experience for my patience and work as a photographer. There is nothing more peaceful than not having yourself held hostage to the opinion of random strangers on Instagram and social media, holding your sense of self-worth hostage by the number of “likes” or comments you get.

I mentioned this before but at the end of the day, just choose 2 other good friends you trust to judge your work. If your two friends like your work, and you like your work, the work is good. That’s it. Don’t try to get the opinions of 1000’s of people on social media, as they don’t know you as well as your good friends. Don’t taint your inner vision. Listen to your own voice, and create work that isn’t for the masses; but for yourself and a few close friends.

Killing the masters

Lastly, realize that the masters of photography are simply our guides, not our “masters”. You don’t want to be a slave to a master for the rest of your life.

Renaissance painters had a master and a teacher for a long time during their apprenticeship, but once they learned what they needed to learn, they had to break the umbilical cord from their master. Then they were able to go off, and cultivate their own vision.

So gain the necessary inspiration you need to gain from one master photographer you like and admire. Read all their interviews, look at all their work, buy all their books, and truly get inside their mind. Once you’ve learned everything you needed to learn from that master photographer, set sail, say goodbye, and don’t look back.

Currently the photographer who I would consider my “master” is Josef Koudelka. He inspires me with his lifestyle, his not giving a damn about what others think of him, and living a life and making photos true to himself. I admire his work, but I know that I can’t just treat all his words and work as holy; he has created great work in his lifetime, but I need to follow my own path. I don’t want to just copy him, I want to make photos that I feel is true to myself (which I think the moment is color street portraits). In that sense, I’m starting to gain more inspiration from Richard Avedon, the master portrait photographer.

There was a Buddhist story of a man who made a raft to cross the other side of the river. Once he crossed the river with the raft, he continued to walk round the other side with a raft on his head. Others looked at him confused and asked, “Why do you still have that raft on your head?”

That is kind of like us; when we become too attached to our masters, our learning, our education, our learning, our philosophies, whatever– we aren’t able to truly liberate ourselves.

So long story short, look at the “masters” of photography as helpful guides, but learn that after a while, you need to “kill” them and move on, follow your own voice, to pave your own path.

So friend, always stay strong, be confident, listen to the opinion of those close to you, disregard the noise of social media, and make photos which make your heart sing. Enjoy the process, detach yourself from the results, and don’t forget to have fun. After all, life is short. Why add extra stress to your life in photography?

Shoot as if everyday were your last, enjoy your coffee, photobooks, and live an artistic and creative life without regrets.

Love always,
Eric

This blog post was originally published on Eric Kim’s blog. It is being syndicated here with permission.