Photography Lessons From Reid Callanan, Cristina De Middel, Todd Hido and Others


The assignments, exercises, and advice shared by photographers, educators, editors, curators and others in The Photographer’s Playbook, out this month from Aperture, are as fascinating, stimulating, fun and various as the medium of photography itself. Edited by photographers Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern, the book includes entries written by 307 people from all walks of photography. “We were curious about other photographers’ experiences of learning, and so we started asking around, and that’s how this book was born,” write the editors in their introduction. Photographers at all stages of their careers will find challenges to enjoy and think about in the book. Below are some of our favorites.

Shelby Lee Adams: Find Your Reflection
If you’re having difficulty finding a natural or intuitive expression in a portrait session or having trouble identifying with the person you’re photographing, look into their eyes carefully and see if you can find your own reflection there. Discover yourself looking at you. Then, ask your subject to look into your camera lens and find their own reflection, and be prepared to make the portrait. In that singular moment, people are less focused on projecting an image of themselves for the camera and are more looking to find themselves.

Richard Barnes: Collaborating Across Disciplines
In my class “Subverting the Document,” we examine the nineteenth century not only through technology, in which the invention of photography was a major development, but also through the social sciences (anthropology, psychology, evolution, criminology and eugenics). We discuss the interaction between photographers, criminologists, social scientists, etc.

The nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are full of these collaborations. Charles Darwin, for example, collaborated with the photographer Oscar Rejlander on his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and Nadar’s brother, Adrien [Tournachon], also a photographer, worked with the noted neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne on his book The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy. Photography played a crucial role, not only in documenting new ideas in the social sciences of the nineteenth century, but also in developing and furthering the disciplines mentioned above.

Your assignment is to find a collaborator—for example, a forensic scientist, or someone else working in a field that is foreign to you—and offer your services as a photographer.

Write about your interaction even if it leads to rejection. When you do find someone to work with, create a portfolio of images based on the experience.

Eric William Carroll: Chicken
Choose a person, preferably a stranger, to make a portrait of. After securing their permission, begin photographing them. Ask them to try a few poses, move the camera around, suggest a different location. Never stop photographing. If/when the subject becomes visibly irritated, snap the shutter at an even faster pace. Fake technical problems to prolong the session for as long as possible. The only rule is that you cannot choose to stop photographing—the subject must [tell] you that they no longer wish to have any more pictures made. Bonus points for those who get a model release signed post-shoot. (Inspired by Jim Goldberg)

Reid Callanan: Cameras Don’t Take Pictures
Of all the workshops that I’ve taught, my favorite is called “Cameras Don’t Take Pictures.” In this class, we examine where our images come from, because they certainly don’t come from our cameras. What we find out very quickly is that our photographs come from our imaginations, our curiosity, our questions, our hearts, our memories, our dreams and from all of the different things that make us human.

A few assignments I give to help speed this process along are:
1. The camera is blind and it doesn’t understand mood. Make an image with your camera of a mood.
2. Make a portrait of something you love. Now make a portrait of something you hate.
3. Recreate a dream in a sequence of ten images.
4. Create an image you don’t understand and create an image that asks a question.
5. Make images where the subject is on the edge of the frame and then make images where the subject is outside the frame.

Todd Hido: Expose Yourself
Expose yourself to a different environment. Go on an overnight trip, preferably two nights, to somewhere that you don’t normally go. Obviously the whole goal is to photograph there, and you should take as many pictures as you can. Notice how much more you’re responding to, and the details you’re seeing that you walk by every day in your normal daily life. Notice that it’s like somebody opened your eyes. This is the most tried-and-true method of finding things that you like to photograph.

It’s worked for photographers for years and years. My favorite and most effective thing to do in my work process is to get an airplane ticket to a city that I’ve not yet visited, rent a car and drive around for two days to shoot—with no hotel reservation, no plan to meet anybody, nothing set in stone. Everything is left to spontaneity, except for my return ticket home.

Cristina De Middel: The De Middel Three-Step Guide to Photographic Storytelling
1. Watch your favorite movie again. Without leaving your city, try to tell the same story in 20 images. Sci-fi and old classics are welcome, whereas romantic comedies are not really recommended (even if it is your secret favorite).

2. Read your favorite book again. Without leaving your neighborhood, try to tell the same story in 20 images. You can try to work with what you remember of the book if you don’t want to read it again (but would it really be your favorite book then?).

3. Listen to your favorite song again (if you’re not listening to it now). Without leaving your house, try to tell the same story in 20 images. I personally find it a bit difficult to work with hardcore metal songs in this exercise, but any music style is welcome. If you want to go pro, try “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Queen.

In the first step, you will be making a translation from one language to another with the help of a visual reference, as well as an emotional link to a story you are familiar with. The second step eliminates the visual reference and forces you to create your own, still keeping the story structure and the description of places and characters which you might find helpful. The last step forces you to decode a story (if any) and interpret it with just acoustic information or stimulus ... don’t forget the chorus!

Needless to say, you are free to use your own archive of images and the infinite resources on the Internet to tell your stories, but I strongly encourage you to go out and shoot. It is way more fun! You will have passed the test if you can show the series to your mother or friend and they can guess which movie, book, or song you are picturing.

Sara Terry: Composing in Color
For a color photographer, learning how to compose in color is as important as learning to compose with elements of ratio, framing,
lines, etc. I got a great tip from a fellow photographer when I was just beginning about sensitizing your eye to color composition. Here it is:

Walk down the street (without a camera) and choose a color—a specific color—that you see in something around you: a street sign, someone’s shoes, a mailbox, whatever draws your eye. Then look for that exact color in other places as you continue to walk down the street. If you chose mint green, make sure you’re looking for mint green—not apple green, or forest green, or khaki green. Mint green. After you’ve searched for your chosen color for a few blocks, move on to another color. This is a great way to train your eye to see color and to recognize it within the context of a broader canvas of activity.

I also came up with my own color exercise that I’ve found useful. You can do this while you’re walking, but I think it’s easier to do when sitting. Say, for example, you’re having coffee with a friend. While you’re talking, or listening, pick out the repetition of color in front of you, around you, behind your friend. If your friend’s coffee cup is red, for example, you might notice that the person at the next table has a red bag, or that the woman at the counter behind your friend has red nail polish, or that the sign pointing to the bathroom is in red, or that someone has thrown a red ball through the air. When I do this, I try to let my eyes become like the lens of a camera. I kind of flatten the scene out into a 180-degree plane, picking up everything in the frame, without concentrating on any one thing—and then I “look” at what I’m seeing, letting my mind’s eye bounce around the frame that my physical eye is recording.

Neither of these exercises involves taking a photo as part of the assignment. These are mental exercises that you can do anytime, anywhere. I still play with them both frequently, almost as a matter of habit. Over time you’ll find that this color play takes hold subconsciously—you’ll see it emerging in your photographs, as specific spots of color begin to provide a subtle composition in your work, moving the viewer’s eye around the image that you’ve made.

Donald Weber: Empathy and a Full Stomach
As a photographer, I am terribly nervous. I am especially nervous around people, and find it generally terrifying to go speak with somebody I do not know. However, my career really depends on making connections with people, so I have had to figure out ways to make myself, and my subjects, comfortable.

Not such an easy task, but there are ways to cope with a debilitating fear. I’ve discovered that we’re both (photographer and subject) looking to make a connection, to find a commonality that we share, allowing a fleeting moment of understanding.

Often, I have been invited back to somebody’s home, place of business, wherever they feel most safe and comfortable. Here, our friendship of a few hours begins. If you can listen, deepest revelations can be shared. Many moments with total strangers have revealed much more about both of us than I have had with friends and even family; for some reason, a camera allows me to fall into a world of vulnerability. The further I am away from my own sense of reality, the more I am willing to share and let go. Same with the subjects I have photographed. With our vulnerability, comes trust. And with trust, comes access.

There are times when I spend just a few minutes with a subject, other times days, and even years. But generally, it is over a meal where we form our photographic bond. And over food is when conversation happens. It’s the usual things we all share in common—friends, family, our countries, bizarre political behavior of countries’ leaders, etc. Mutual recognition, a desire to check for similarities. Are they like me? Am I like them?

Sometimes I take a photo, mostly I just eat. At the end of the day, I know my photographs will be good, not because of their technical or artistic brilliance, but because our mutual vulnerabilities have allowed us to make a genuine connection, however fleeting. I often wonder if a subjects thinks, “Will he remember my soup? Our coffee together or that cup of tea? Will he remember this?”

And this is what I share with my students: If you have genuinely connected with a subject, they will want this to last. Frankly, it is not about the composition of the image, but the composition of empathy. If you have empathy, you have photographs.

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© Holly Andres
PDN July 2014



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