“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
This sage advice is from perhaps the most influential photographer and art philosopher in the history of photography. I see this quote at least once a week on social media, but I only recently began to mull it over in any great depth. Let’s use it as a talking point to discuss artistic development in photography.
Today, it’s not unthinkable to have more than a thousand images stored on a smartphone waiting to be synced. Even before the advent of digital photography, electronic automation made photography so much easier from the days where a photographer was expected to bulk-load his own brass cassettes, eyeball exposure settings and focus.
And yet, Henri Cartier-Bresson was not speaking about honing the craft of technical photography. He chose not to obsess over the technical aspects of his medium. He worked mostly by intuition, capturing the moment, as opposed to the image.
He also famously penned “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept,” so he wasn’t even all that concerned about having the latest, sharpest lenses and nailing the focus. Instead, he saw himself an artist and a storyteller.
Don’t read too much into the number. In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s day, a serious hobbyist probably didn’t expose more than a few rolls in a week. I can only presume that he chose it as a pithy and memorable way to say that it takes a lot of experience to and perseverance to develop an artist’s eye and the rhythm to foresee interesting happenings building and be ready to capture them at the “decisive moment”.
Not everyone will become a great photographer, but the most dedicated skew the odds strongly in their favor.
The automatic features of modern cameras and the instant feedback from digital cameras have made it relatively straightforward for most people to pick up a camera and within a very short time be able to take a consistently sharp, well exposed image.
I find my craft is still improving. Sometimes I think excessive dependence on technology actually atrophied my ability and my interest in improving until I threw my DSLR aside and went back to a manual film rangefinder.
More importantly, now that I have slowed my tempo, am aware that I see and anticipate more, whether I am looking through a viewfinder, or just walking about observing daily life. I frame a scene in my mind’s eye, consider the ideal viewpoint, and enjoying simply viewing the emotion and wonder of it all.
Reading around the subject and viewing others’ art is also highly rewarding. As I start to get past trying to ape the masters, I realise that some opportunities only happen once and that it’s important to find my own voice. By that, I mean my own distinctive style, subject matter and my own take on a scene.
It’s this that will take me years of experience and learning and thought to master. For now, I consider myself a journeyman. That doesn’t mean that one’s early photography cannot be rewarding, or that you cannot produce admirable work till you have done your time.
Looking back on my own images, some of my favourites date back many years ago, before digital cameras made photography quite so cheap and accessible. In those days, my lifetime production would have been less than a thousand photographs. Sometimes, you just get lucky.
Sometimes, I might have a moment of artistic inspiration and only years later look back on the photography with new appreciation. Artistic development happens at a different pace for all of us. Some people are just innately artistic and churn out masterpieces from day one. Others, like me, take years.
It helps to have been raised in the appreciation of the arts, but there is a spark or artistic talent within us all. One thing is for sure: the more I learn about true fundamentals of art, the better I get.
I used to obsess over the science and technique of photography, then formulaic side art, such as composition and color. Now I realize it’s more about what I have to say and way that I choose to say it so that it speaks to my viewer.
About the author: Dan K is a photography enthusiast based in Hong Kong. He’s passionate about collecting film compact cameras. You can find him on Tumblr and on Twitter. This article originally appeared on Japan Camera Hunter.