Note To a Young Photographer

I received a note from a young photographer. She said she’s considering returning to school to get a degree in photography. Did I have any advice for her? Here’s my reply:

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I studied photography in college and learned some valuable things. But the best education is the one I gained in the field.

I’ve always had doubts about the value of photography school. My sense is that there are better—and cheaper—ways to learn and develop your craft. And today a photography degree no longer brings any guarantees or opens any special doors.

In fact, I’ve been saddened by the many requests I’ve received from photographers with degrees from expensive trade schools who want to intern with me. The time for an internship, it seems to me, is before you enroll in a degree program, not after.

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to take 10,000 images before you find yourself as a photographer. And Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says the general consensus is it takes 10,000 hours—about 20 hours a week for 10 years—to develop true mastery in a given field.

Both of these observations hold true whether you’re in school earning a credential or out in the field making pictures. So why not skip the degree?

Most of what you can learn in college, you can also learn just as effectively through books, online courses, and weekend workshops. To say nothing of good mentors.

One more thing. Too many people who go to school think that graduating means they are done with their education. The degree gives them the illusion they know everything they need to know. But we can never stop learning, any more than we can reach the limit of our creative capacities. People who are self-taught seem to understand this intuitively.

My best advice to you is:

  1. Volunteer/intern with an established photographer that you like and respect (or simply ask to follow him or her around in the course of a day’s work)
  2. Start a clippings file (or folder on the computer) with work that inspires you and blows your mind and then try to recreate some of those images in your own style
  3. Share your work with other photographers and solicit constructive feedback (and always take “likes” and other forms of positive feedback on social networks like Facebook and Flickr with a grain of salt)
  4. Spend time every day shooting for no other purpose than to have fun and experiment
Salton-Sea-Pier

A Still Afternoon at the Salton Sea

Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair, Albert Camus once said, because it offers us for a moment the glimpse of an eternity we would like to stretch out over the whole of time. I was remembering the quote last week on a visit to the Salton Sea, a place where beauty and despair always seem to go hand-in-hand.

Once a glittering oasis set against the Chocolate Mountains in southeastern California, the sea has become a stagnant and toxic wasteland in recent years. Restoration proposals abound, but lawmakers have mostly turned their backs on the sea. As it continues to dry up at an alarming rate—a result of geography, climate change, tough economic times, and ongoing water conflicts—time seems to be running out.

The four-minute exposure shown here was taken near Red Hill Marina on the south shore. It’s part of a personal project I’ve been working on documenting the effects of environmental devastation and decline. For more of my photos, see The Salton Sea: A Photoessay.

Aerial of Los Angeles

A Clear Day Over Los Angeles

Someone once quipped that there’s nothing like autumn in Los Angeles when throngs of tourists come to watch the smog change colors. If the line is funny it’s because there’s more than a little truth to it. Smog is what I expected to see some weeks ago when I took to the skies with my pilot friend, Sam, for a daytrip to the Palm Desert. But it was one of those rare mornings when the haze seemed to lift for a few fleeting hours. As you can see in this photo, we flew just north of the city above the San Fernando Valley. Looking south we could see across the entire Los Angeles Basin. Palos Verde and even Catalina Island were clearly visible in the distance. Aerial photos of L.A. are hard to come by — you need a clear day and a good vantage point. On this particular morning, I was lucky to have both.

Icon Magazine

Icon Magazine

Eight of my photos from Burning Man appear in this month’s issue of Icon, the British architecture and design magazine, together with a nicely written piece by Charlie Hailey titled “Burn After Building.” Read more about the issue here. Here’s a preview of the spread:

Aerial View of Black Rock City

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

It’s Nice That

Earlier this week I was interviewed by It’s Nice That about my Burning Man photography. It’s Nice That is a beautiful and well-curated art magazine and website based in London. The interview appeared along with about a dozen of my photographs. Since it was edited for length, I’m including the complete exchange below.

Neverwas Haul - A Photo from Burning Man by Scott London

You’ve been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years. Why do you find it so compelling to document?

Burning Man is one of the most interesting events in the world, in my experience, but also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite an art festival, not quite a desert rave, and not quite a social experiment, but something of all three. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s organized around creativity and self-expression. The idea is to fully immerse and express yourself in some creative capacity — through building installations, making art, playing music, dressing up, walking on stilts, spinning fire, or simply being beautiful. It means that it’s an endlessly fascinating place where you never know what to expect and surprise awaits you at every turn.

The scale and the ephemeral nature of the event must be hard to communicate to people who haven’t been there.

Yes, there is no way to convey the sheer immensity of Burning Man to someone who has never been there. There is also something rather dreamlike and enchanting about the way it rises out of the open desert for a few brief days only to vanish again after the event is over. Toward the end of the week, much of the infrastructure — including the 40-foot effigy from which Burning Man takes its name — goes up in flames.

Have you noticed it changing and evolving over the years?

When the event got its start 25 years ago, it was little more than a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. It moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada some years later but was still relatively small and unstructured. For many participants, the appeal of the desert was that there were no rules. If you wanted to shoot guns, play with fire, or blow up cars, there was no one to stop you. But as the event grew, so did the need for order and safety. Today the event attracts over 50,000 people from all over the world. It’s highly organized and tightly run, and perhaps a little less fun. Old-timers complain that the anarchy and lawlessness of the early days has been lost.

Do you recognise people when you go back each year?

Yes, a lot of people return to Burning Man year after year. I’ve developed some quite special and enduring friendships there. It’s also allowed me to explore the anthropology of the event — the way people’s perspectives change over time. This is reflected in some of my photographs of artists and their installations, for example, which show how their creative vision has evolved and transformed.

Would you describe yourself foremost as a photographer or a journalist/writer?

I would say that my journalism takes different forms depending on the nature of the project. I started my career in radio and still think that’s the best medium for conversation and storytelling. Over time I shifted to print and devoted myself more to writing articles and books. Print excels as a medium for presenting facts, analysis, and ideas. In recent years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of photojournalism. Though I learned photography as a kid and studied it in college, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered how powerful it can be.

Burning Man has helped me in that process. When I first attended the event, I was struck by the sheer inadequacy of words. Photography seemed like a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. Photographs convey but don’t interpret. At their best, they are very intimate. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.