Your First 10,000 Photographs May Include Some of Your Best

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Your First 10,000 Photographs May Include Some of Your Best by Dan K
After a recent comment on this site, Dan K has been kind enough to share with us his thoughts on one of the most well known, perhaps overused and possibly misquoted photography quotes of all time. Over to you Dan.

“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 synched. 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 favour.

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 colour, now I realise it’s more about what I have to say and way that I choose to say it so that it speaks to my viewer.

Please let us know your thoughts on this topic in the comments below and tell us how your art has grown since you took up photography.

You can follow Dan on his social networks. He always has something interesting to say about photography and cameras.

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He was also on ‘In your bag’

Photos and text © Dan K. All rights reserved.

JCH

13 Responses to Your First 10,000 Photographs May Include Some of Your Best

Sandy blair June 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Good article. I believe all HN was saying was you have to work at it, whoever you are. For most, the early work may contain some good stuff, but unless you are super talented it may be more about luck than design.

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Oral-B June 10, 2013 at 8:04 pm

One shouldn’t read too much in Cartier-Bresson’s quotes… after all, some of his most memorable pictures, like “Hyères” and “Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare”, were taken in 1932, his first year as a serious photographer, and only a few months after he got his first Leica. Certainly he hadn’t shot 10,000 photographs by then :)

Great article, as always.

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Carmina Rodríguez June 10, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Very interesenting reading. Agreed with Oral-B. I actually think that most of HCB’s best photographs were made in the 30s, during the his firts years as a photographer.

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    ZDP-189 June 10, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    Then maybe he should have written “Your first year’s photos are the best, before inspiration dries up.” I’d like to think not.

    Reply
      Carmina Rodríguez June 12, 2013 at 7:04 am

      I hope not too. But particularly in HCB’s case I think it was like this. IMHO his best works are those made in Spain during the civil war and others made during 30s and 40s.

      I guess that usually it’s the opposite and one gets better with time and experiencie. Let’s hope :)

      Reply
Brett Higham June 11, 2013 at 6:35 am

Nice article… I’ve found myself lately taking quite a bit of issue with the quotes from the masters that just seem to get over used.

Nice to see someone else doesn’t take them at face value either. Refreshing article. Would love to hear some more refutations of some of these quotes. While they are nice to read it should be noted there are no absolutes.

Thanks,
-Brett

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Clifford Cooper June 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm

I wish I could count how many photos I have taken. When I look back I normally hate the majority of my older stuff. But then again I didn’t find a focus until recently. Great blog post love the last paragraph as well! I wish I could meet some of you guys in HK! It would be nice to link up with similar people and grab a brew.

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Mockstarphotog June 21, 2013 at 12:13 am

This is an interesting thought. I think some consideration must be given to how easy it is today to create an image vs. the way it was back in film days. For those of that started in film, there was much more to the process and most of us acutely appreciated the cost of film/developing, so a lot more care and time was put into those images. Thinking back, I remember feeling really excited and inspired by my work back then, though if I look at it now, I’m appalled by how bad it was (and some of that just had to do with my age and what I thought was interesting as a teen.)

I think there’s some truth in the thought that your early work tends to rely more on instinct. Even though I was aware of the technical back then, I know a lot more now and have a lot more stuff to ponder when I put the camera to my eye, and that can lead to work that’s less spontaneous. Sometimes I wish I could just clear my mind of all that stuff.

When I photographed my first wedding, I hadn’t really touched a camera seriously in years – I only agreed to shoot the wedding because the bride swore she wasn’t going to hire anyone if I didn’t do it. And to this day, some of the images from that wedding are my favorites, and they were shot with a crappy 40D and a plastic nifty-fifty. I had unlimited access, the “clients” were close family friends I had known for years, so I basically had carte blanche – and I had never shot a wedding before and didn’t know the rules. That work was all observation and instinct and I caught some great moments. The feeling I got photographing it is what got me hooked on weddings. My work is a million times stronger now, and I have an embarrassing assortment of gear. (Seriously, I have so much high quality gear that I feel funny when people ask what’s in my bag, because literally EVERYTHING is in it and I feel like a jerk.) But lugging all that crap around means there’s less time for instinct, and more time fumbling with your kit. More sweating and less observing. I’ve found recently that I spent most of the day shooting at 35mm and with the new 100mm macro. I’m seriously thinking of leaving everything else in the car at my next wedding and seeing how it goes.

But anyway, my original thought was that it’s so easy to take photos now, between our phones, our dSLRs, our always improving cheap point-and-shoots, and the fantastic new mirrorless systems out there. I think the temptation to run-and-gun is powerful and there’s the thought that if the first photo isn’t perfect, we can always chimp and shoot some more. For people starting with digital, maybe your first 100,000 photos are your worst? I feel like the urge to document has become stronger than the urge to storytell. When you had 12 frames, you felt an urgency to consider what you could do with them and how to make a narrative out of it. Now it’s document, document, document, and who cares if it’s perfect because you will take more, more, more. I think for new photographers who started in digital this manner of working can be crippling and stunt their growth.

By the same token, someone that works methodically and with purpose maybe needs much less than 10,000 shots to hone their craft, with the instant feedback digital offers. I guess it really depends on the photographer.

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