Tyler’s Tips Episode 12: Study The Masters


Welcome to Tyler’s Tips. Today I’m going to talk about why it’s important to study the work of the great photographers who came before us.

Study the masters. We hear this all the time. Why is that important? I’m going to explore why I think that’s important, through a conversation I had with a friend of mine who came to the studio a few days ago.

My buddy is also a portrait photographer, and when he came we chatted about, as we always do, our businesses and our current work and challenges, and things like that, which is awesome. But the part of this conversation I wanna share with you is we spent a bunch of time talking about our heroes in the art world. We talked about John Singer Sargent, we talked about [Saraya 00:00:51], we talked about Irving Penn.

With portrait photography, it always comes down to Arnold Newman for me. I love Arnold Newman’s work. As we talked quite a bit about Arnold Newman, and we had a book out, we were looking at photos. Of course, we looked at the Stravinsky, and we talked about that. But the part I really want to share with you is we spent quite a bit of time chatting about the portrait that Arnold Newman did of Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute.

That’s this photo, and there’re two reasons I want to talk about this. One, my friend and I had an interesting conversation, we sort of disagree about the photo a little bit, and that’s interesting, but even more important, I want to share with you how it triggered a deep dive for me, to really exploring why this photo works or doesn’t work, and my relationship with it.

So our conversation, my friend feels that this photo doesn’t work all that well as a portrait because it’s so dominated by the architecture and the geometry and that super contrast-y light and shadow. It really overwhelms the man in the photo. Cool photo, maybe not super effective as a portrait.

On the other hand I think this works really well as a portrait because of that interplay between the man, the figure of the man and the architecture, and I think that creates an interesting story. It does certainly diminish the man as the true focal point of the image, but I think it sets up an interesting story.

There’s not a right or wrong with something like that, it’s a subjective reaction that two people have to the same photo. That was an interesting conversation, but what I feel like was more interesting is it triggered a deep dive. I kept thinking about this photo and I thought about, ‘Wow, jeez, Tyler are you wrong about the way you’re thinking about this? Should you reconsider?’

I explored that and I thought about it. I started reading about Jonas Salk, and what I found out is beyond creating the polio vaccine, which we all know he did. He created an entirely new way of making vaccines. Injecting the dead disease itself into the human body to trigger the creation of antibodies so that when the real disease hits, your body is ready for it and can fight it off. That was totally new, nobody had done that before and that subsequently has huge impact on the way vaccines are created to this day. He also created the Salk Institute, which is a whole research facility. It’s incredible what this guy did, but probably most incredible is that he chose not to patent the polio vaccine. He wanted this vaccine to be distributed as quickly and as widely as possible throughout the world because polio primarily impacts children. It kills and cripples children. How awesome is that? That’s amazing.

Anyways, a slight digression, but it will come back to the portrait. I feel like that’s just an awesome thing and we need more humans doing that in our world, that sort of thing. But as it applies to an exploration of the photograph, if we come back to this portrait, it reminded me that one of the ways that Arnold Newman worked, particularly later in his career is he … I think he probably didn’t get this all the time, but he required, if he was gonna do a portrait of someone, he required he would have dinner with this person before the portrait sitting so that he could interact with the person and understand them in a context outside the photograph.

I always thought that was really fascinating, but when I was reading about Jonas Salk and thinking about Arnold Newman, this is all Tyler speculating, I haven’t talked about this with Arnold Newman or anything like that so I don’t really know, but coming back to our portrait, thinking about all those external factors, this … The architecture in this case is the Salk Institute, and yes, the man is diminished in this, and he doesn’t dominate the image. The image is dominated a little bit more by the architecture, but the story here, in my mind, has really become this is the man’s work is more important, his contribution is more important than the man. This speaks to the humble quality of this man’s interaction with his world and his enormous contribution to it. I think that’s a really compelling story and it’s another layer of what makes that photo really compelling to me.

Anyways, an interesting exploration. In the end, does it matter if that photo works or not for me or for my friend? No, not at all. But what’s really valuable is taking the time and digging in and exploring an image or a series of images from a photographer that you love because it will inform your craft as you go forward. You learn so much by digging around and trying to understand the way somebody else created a photo that really compels you. It can inform your work so profoundly, so I encourage you to take a little time.

I love looking at the books, I feel like it’s a great way to sit quietly with the work of somebody else. So look at one of these big beautiful picture books, think about it, find a friend who loves that work too and discuss it. If you disagree, awesome, explore that. Be nice about it, but explore that disagreement, figure out what works, what doesn’t work and at the end of the day I think it’ll really help your photography.

So I hope this helped, I hope this is a useful Tyler’s Tip. As always, if you have any ideas or questions that you’d like me to explore, just leave a comment below or shoot me an email, and I’ll work it into a future Tyler’s Tips episode, and thank you for your time, and I’ll see you on the next one.