How did you get started in photography?
Like a lot of my friends, I started young. I was 14 years old when I got my hands on a Voigtlander 35mm rangefinder at a neighbour’s yard sale. I was soon spending all my allowance on film and developing, and that eventually led to my first SLR, an old but well-loved Pentax Spotmatic. I had wanted something newer, something with bells and whistles and auto-this and that, but what we could afford was older than that, and I’ll always be grateful that my first cameras were so fully manual and free from distractions.
Does one need to have formal training?
I don’t. My education is in theology and my first career was comedy. I think you’d learn a lot if you went to art school, but like any education, you’d probably spend the rest of your life unlearning it and finding your own way through trial and error. If I went back and did it all over I’d go to business school, or learn to paint or something. I still wouldn’t take photography in school.
What were the main obstacles you faced along your career?
I think I’m still facing the one obstacle that we all face – how to make art that reflects my current vision, and how to find a way to make a living while doing so. We begin asking “what does the market want?” or “what will people pay me for?” and it’s the wrong question. What do you want to make? Do that, then do what the rest of us do and struggle to find a way to make that thing pay. Or find a way to make ends meet without your photography, and make your photographs in the margins, your spare time. But life is too short to make the photographs someone else wants you to make. Make your art. For me that happens more and more as I direct my business to teaching and publishing, and use the time and money that gives me to make photographs for me, not for clients. The best thing most of us can do is start building an audience. Twitter, Facebook, blog, Instagram, G+, whatever it takes, build an audience.
What are the ingredients for success as a photographer?
That’s truly impossible to answer. The more interesting question, and the question that will be more helpful is “what does it mean for you to be successful as a photographer?” Everyone will answer that differently, but you have to answer it before you can ask the first one. For some success is money or popularity, and for others, it’s just the freedom to create their art without anyone calling the shots. Once you know what you want, you’re closer to being able to know what ingredients you need. But I suspect all of them include excellence of craft, a willingness to explore your vision, and perseverance. No one I know finds this easy. It’s not easy work and if you just want to make a living, there are easier ways. A willingness to work your ass off will get you further than relying on your talent to get you discovered.
From reading your books and watching your videos, “vision” seems to be one of your favorite words. Can you explain why?
Photographs are a beautifully subjective thing. They are an interpretation of the world we see and experience. Vision, or intent, matters because it informs all our technical decisions. If you know how you think or feel about something, you can intentionally use technique to create an aesthetic that will reflect that. If you don’t even know what you see, what you think, or feel, I don’t see how you can make meaningful photographs. People aren’t moved because a photograph is sharp, or really big, but because there’s something of the artist within it. If you know what your vision is, and how you want people to see or feel about your photograph, you’re closer to knowing how to make it.
Can you share your views on inspiration and how it comes about?
Inspiration is hard to talk about because people mean different things when they say it. Most seem to mean that they “got a really good idea” as if it came out of nowhere. But ideas don’t come out of nowhere. They come from collecting as many influences as you can and letting your brain put them together. But the brain seems to do that best when we require it to, and that’s why artists – from poets to painters – have long said that inspiration comes from working. Relying on “being inspired” before you get to work is a trap. Get to work. Start making photographs. The inspiration will show up once you’ve started the work, not before. Part of that work is studying your craft, looking at the work of others and learning from it, and being a curious person.
What is your view on post-production? How far should you go?
Go until you’re done. Then stop. I do what I do because I want to make art. I don’t believe art is prescriptive, that there are rules. I have my own way of working and that involves less and less post-production, but I rely on Lightroom to refine my vision in ways the camera can’t. I learned my craft in a wet darkroom as a teenager, so I still dodge and burn, I still add or remove contrast. I still tweak tones and colours. Personally, I’m not a fan of over-worked stuff. If I’m distracted by your artifice, I won’t notice your art.
What advice would you give to someone making a start in photography?
Get a camera. Any camera. But preferably 35mm film, fully manual. Use one lens and black and white film. Spend a year making photographs without digital fuss, without colour, without new shiny gear to distract you. Fall in love with photographs themselves, not the whole confusing photography industry. If you have to buy books for the first year, buy books of photographs from past masters of this art, not how-to books. I write and publish books about photography, and they have their place, but it’s as easy to get distracted by the need for just one more book, when what we should be doing is going out and making photograph after photograph, then studying our work. What works? What doesn’t? What are we drawn to? Fall in love with photographs themselves, not the whole confusing photography industry. And don’t buy into the idea that better, newer, shinier gear, will make better photographs. If you can’t make beautiful work with an old 35mm SLR, you won’t be able to make it with the newest digital gear and lenses with a red band on them.
David duChemin is a world & humanitarian assignment photographer, best-selling author, international workshop leader, and accidental founder of Craft & Vision. When not chasing adventure and looking for beauty, David is based in Vancouver, Canada. His portfolio and blog are at http://davidduchemin.com/, and his publishing company with great photography books is at http://craftandvision.com/.