Loading Selected Work...
Menu

a Magnum of advice

Image Courtesy of Jeffrey George Hladun ©

One of the highlights of my week at the Magnum workshop were the lectures by each of the six Magnum photographers. I took some notes but I never made a video recording of the presentations. When Saturday night rolled around, I decided to use my iPhone to record the question and answer session by five of the Magnum photographers (unfortunately David Alan Harvey had to leave early). As hard as I’ve tried, I can’t process the iPhone video to a point where I am satisfied with it enough to post it up on my blog. Clearly I won’t be one of the photographers who shoot video as well. Instead I will post the audio from the interview here–a very big thank you must go to Flemming Bo for helping me extract the audio. A transcript of the audio is included below. Thank you also to Jeff Hladhun, another workshop participant who provided the photograph from the evening above.

Magnum Q&A Toronto 2011 recorded by SabrinaHenry

MAGNUM Q&A TRANSCRIPT

Q: One main question is just simply, it’s a trying field, it’s a very self-education field, when you are really down and you are really trying to figure out how to keep going, what drives you?

Larry Towell: Like I said last night–if you saw my presentation–there are only a few things that motivate me when I go and take photographs. Sometimes it’s curiosity. Sometimes it’s love and sometimes it’s anger. And if you were there last night you know I started out discussing Afghanistan because I’d just come back and I was kinda motivated originally by curiosity. But as with most conflicts that I go look at, I find that it’s very different than what I was told and I started that, way back in the days of Ronald Reagan in Central America when I didn’t believe a word that he said. Like I said last night, if the politicians’ lips are moving, you know they’re lying. So that’s all I’m going to say right now and maybe we’ll just pass it on to Bruce.

Bruce Gilden: What was the question again? Oh no, I have an answer for it. What motivated me? I always was an outsider-type and I think that was very good for my photography because…I started taking pictures in 1967 and I had no aptitude for photography but I just fell in love with it and I was a pretty good athlete so my style evolved according to who I was and…I always use negative energy to be a positive for me, ok. And for me, by being an outsider allowed me to develop my own vision. Look there are no geniuses in photography, ok. I do what I do well alright. There are other people who do what they do well and I think if you know yourself, you know if it’s time to go forward or to pack it in. Some people just don’t have the aptitude for photography but you know, you have to struggle, you have to suffer, and I don’t mean you have to beat yourself…you know, your head into the wall but you have to feel and…sorry Eli

Eli Reed: I look at it this way sometimes people say that they’re bored and I don’t remember who said it before but if you’re bored then you’re boring. You’re not really looking around that’s along (unintelligible) avenue….it’s never boring. I mean there’s not enough hours in the day. A few minutes will…at one point we were discussing–myself and my group–about Henri Cartier-Bresson and his central feeling for his photographs. They’re very central. It’s about life, about energy, and how the hell can you not be inspired by that? I’m inspired by all these guys up here who at different points…I saw their work and it really amazed me. I loved Larry’s presentation and I loved this guy here Bruce’s presentation, Bruno and our mad man over here. I’ll make this quick. What I’m saying is that all these people up here have a certain kind of energy and belief in what they’re doing and if you don’t have that, you might as well do something else–I think.

Bruno Barbey: This is going to be very short. I guess it’s a matter of curiosity, of what is around you but Chien-Chi will formalize it much better…

Chien-Chi Chang: (rings bell)

Q: How do you know when a project is complete?

Larry Towell: My feeling when a project…I know when a project is complete when it tells me that it’s complete. So I tend to work on things five, ten…usually around ten years. Every time I make a trip–I make a first trip–from that trip I make a book dummy. I look at the book dummy and I say, does the place call me back? If it calls me back, I continue to work. I keep editing and at some day, it’s usually…the process itself of actually working on the dummy or the project–whatever it may be–it will tell you when it’s done. It could be…I’ve done books in 10 days and in 7 days I did a book…(unintelligible) on Katrina, one was seven days, one was ten days and most of them are about ten years but generally they speak back to you.

Bruce Gilden: I don’t do a book dummy but you know if I feel it, I continue and then when I stop feeling it or if I feel it’s time to move on then it’s complete. Look it will never be complete but there’s a time that comes when that little person inside you says that’s enough. And you know, then you’re done.

Eli Reed: I worked for newspapers and so I was used to having to get into something really quickly and do it. I was pretty good at doing that and when I did my Black America book, it took 6 years to do it, basically. And it came up 1989 was the first deadline, was the deadline–not the first–was the deadline. It came and passed. And Tim Morris said (unintelligible)…”ok but I know you are going to come up with something good” and I finally finished and the book was published in 1997. And it was worth the wait as far as I was concerned, internally, you know. That’s the way it went.

Bruno Barbey: There were some projects, like book projects, which was for 30 years over. Some people do a book in one week, it all depends. Personally indeed, I always have a feeling I can do better and better. Indeed there is a time when a deadline is coming so that’s it.

Chien-Chi Chang: What was the question….it’s kind of like going to the bathroom.

Bruce Gilden: See you have to forgive Chien-Chi. He grew up with no bathroom.

Larry Towell: I told him he was cut off before he even came in tonight but not that he even listened…are there any other questions?

Q: In a time when everybody has a camera, how would you recommend people who are in this generation or people now trying to make it as a photographer, any recommendations for moving forward when you have a lot more competition?

Larry Towell: Everybody heard that question? Nowadays when everybody is taking pictures, how do you become a photographer when everyone else is a photographer. This is…those of you who I said we have thirty seconds each, because obviously that’s a long, long conversation.

Bruce Gilden: I think it’s a short conversation because if you don’t know the answer to that question, I think maybe you are in the wrong field.

Larry Towell: No the answer was when we talked about..when we started, when I gave my first presentation, it’s about voice, finding your voice. In terms of marketing, that’s a business thing you’ve got to figure out but as…

Bruce Gilden: You’ve had your 15 seconds…

Larry Towell: No, I only had 10 seconds, Bruce, I’m sorry…so it’s about that. It’s about finding your voice in that field and then after that we don’t know what the future holds.

Bruce Gilden: No wait one second…

Larry Towell: No seriously…

Bruce Gilden: He was more than 10 seconds…

Larry Towell: No I wasn’t

Bruce Gilden: Anyway I’m being brusque with you, maybe unfairly, but I am actually being quite truthful with you.

Q: I’m playing Devil’s Advocate because I just want to know…it’s very different when you started taking pictures…

Bruce Gilden: No, no, it’s not! It’s the same because if you go back to the early 20th century when Kodak first made their cameras, it was for everyone. It wasn’t a rich man’s, you know, field–photography. So it’s always been the same, it’s just faster, ok? I think you have to slow down yourself to your pace and look out there and you’ll see. If you think you have something to say and you, like Larry said, have a voice then it will be fine. If not, then, you know, maybe it is time to move on and switch.

Eli Reed: Basically you have to do it for yourself. That’s what it comes down to. Finding a voice, that’s one way of looking at it. If you don’t do it for yourself then why? I mean I don’t really care–to tell you the truth–about working. I mean nothing really has changed. I was the worst freelancer in the world because I really didn’t care about so much about…I care about doing some work that meant something for me. That’s what it comes down to.

Bruno Barbey: Thank you Eli. I think you formalized very well. Thank you.

Chien-Chi Chang: (rings bell)

Larry Towell: Next question…

Chien-Chi Chang: (rings two bells)

Larry Towell: We have time for one last question and then we have to let the crowds pour in to see your work…one more question.

Q: What is the difference between a voice and an aesthetic style?

Larry Towell: Oh that’s too academic. Actually it’s the same answer so it doesn’t matter. The reason that was sort of part of our discussion I was using a term called “style” and one of my students said no it’s about “voice”. It’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter. Well we have one more question because it’s all the same. Something that’s not quite so academic. Anybody? Or shall we let the doors open?

Larry Towell: Anyway thank you very much for coming. I think this show is fantastic. I had a compliment. Yesterday one of my students said “this was the best week of my life”. It doesn’t get any better than that. So I hope that it was as meaningful to you as it was to us. So thank you for coming.

Some end notes…

Just a couple of things to put the Q&A session into perspective for you…Chien-Chi Chang had delivered his lecture the night before and rumour has it that he gets a bit anxious talking in front of crowds so he had something to help with his nerves. He had a little less of that something during this session 🙂 And yes I was the student in Larry’s class who brought up the topic of Voice. In my next post, I am going to challenge the answer to the last question a little bit. In the meantime I hope you enjoyed this Q&A session. I found it very informative and learned even more as I transcribed it but that’s for another post down the road.

Oh wait a minute…I just realized that I have something to giveaway on my blog and this is as good a time as any. I picked up this DVD entitled “Indecisive Moments” by Larry Towell. I will pick a random number from any comments below and send it to that person as a thank you for stopping by my blog.

Share

26 Comments

  1. Domestic Executive
    May 28, 2011

    Sabrina, thanks so much going to all the effort to put this post together. I know that I shall listen to is again. Always interesting to see what drives people’s motivation and way of working.

    Yesterday I was at a coaching workshop (I’m a leadership performance coach) and was being coached by a colleague as a real play exercise on the topic of how to find my photographic voice. It was an amazing experience to really talk about what matters to me in taking photographs – long story short – with the help of a coach I clarified what I intend my voice to be. Now the challenge of course is actually speaking with it photographically.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      I’d be really interested to hear more about your experience yesterday, Julie. I know that the AHA moment of discovery is very powerful and it can propel us forward on our adventure in a way that nothing else quite can.

  2. Rafael
    May 28, 2011

    Great post! Thank you for sharing! What a great workshop this one must have been! Will follow your nice blog from now on! Thanks to the iPad app Zite that pointed me in your direction!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      Thanks and welcome Rafael. It was a fabulous workshop and one I think serious photographers should think about attending in the future. I guess I should also thank Zite for picking up the feed on this post 🙂

  3. Eli R.
    May 28, 2011

    Oh you should have been on the course with Bob Sacha these days in Oslo. With me! I know EVERYTHING about sound now 🙂

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      I wish I could have been, Eli. Well at least now I know I can call you up too if I need to get some sound (and video), right?

  4. Chris Plante
    May 28, 2011

    Good work, Sabrina. Good questions and insightful answers. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      Thanks Chris!

  5. Sharon Barnes
    May 28, 2011

    That was amazing Sabrina, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      You’re welcome Sharon 🙂

  6. Iza
    May 28, 2011

    Thanks for sharing that, Sabrina. I think it is very informative, although I am having hard time deciding if those photographers have harsh sense of humor or are cynics. I will probably need to read itnfew more times and think it through.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 28, 2011

      I know what you mean, Iza. I think it is helpful to listen to the recording as well as read the transcript. They have a rapport with each other that comes from working together that may not come across even in the audio. I don’t think they are cynics so much as they all hold strong opinions.

  7. Charlene
    May 29, 2011

    I would have guessed you being the “voice” commenter if you haven’t fronted up to it at the end of the post. I had to laugh at Chien Chi’s answers – the same way I did when I attended one of his lectures here last year. He’s a man of few words, but they definitely are entertaining when they are heard 😀 “It’s like going to the bathroom.” GOLD. You can’t say he doesn’t KISS.

    I have to agree with Larry about the academic-ness of voice and style – you know my dislike of terminology – but for me, the heart of the argument with these terms comes down to, simply put, as my head can’t engage with this right now: the look of a body of work (what images look like, and how they look at the world) and its substance (the heart of what/why it is looking, engaging with the subject). All established photographers do eventually develop both, and trying to tease one from the other is not always easy as they both become very tightly integrated because of their source: the same Human Being.

    My 0.02. Haven’t listened to the sound clip as am not somewhere where I can at the moment. But I enjoyed reading the transcript, so thank you for posting that. It’s a rather pleasant bonus 🙂

    Did you get a business card from Larry btw?

    Reply
  8. Flemming Bo Jensen
    May 29, 2011

    I am always happy to help Sabrina, glad it worked out so everyone can hear this. I feel priviliged to also have the video and see the banter that happens between these great people. This is very cool, and it is really funny to hear and see Chien-Chi 😀

    I agree with Larry – and C – on the terminology and it becoming too academic. Sometimes it feels like too much time is spent splitting hairs on words on something that is itself visual and challenging to put into words. That does not mean we should not try to put it into words, just that I feel the discussions over these words sometimes becomes like Larry puts it perfectly…too academic, it’s the same thing 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this and typing the transcript!

    Reply
  9. Rayk
    May 29, 2011

    Charlene and Flemming I totally disagree on the academic of voice and style.
    To keep it short you may be able to copy my style but without being me there is no way to copy my voice and the way I say things.
    For a longer explanation you’ll have to wait on Sabrina’s report from ART.

    Reply
    • Charlene
      May 30, 2011

      Hmmm, i dunno Ray. A lot of it is semantics. Reminds me too much of school. Teachers *shudders*

      But yes, I shall keep an open mind and await this ART report, for which I am still very much wishing to witness in person.

    • Ray K
      May 30, 2011

      Charlene
      Heifer and a Bull are both cows but are very different. Isn’t semantics at all.
      As for voice and style one you can copy the other you can’t that moves it out of the realm of semantics.

    • Sabrina
      May 30, 2011

      OK guys…I think you are both right (she says with her HR hat on…)

      Words matter. The problem here is that it isn’t clear why and I will try to explain in my next post why it matters to me. We are listening to a 10 minute Q&A session here and in reality, we had a much longer conversation about this in the class time. I don’t believe it is an accident that Voice became a term used by Larry and by some of the other Magnum photographers during this session.

      Charlene, what I think you are saying is that in the end, we should just go out and make photographs and not get stuck on the definition of words. With that I agree and if I am not mistaken, Ray would agree with that. We shall see!

    • Charlene
      May 30, 2011

      Ever the diplomat Sabrina 😉

      Ray,
      They are important differences, I agree. I think, I’m thinking along the same lines you are on this, just coming at it from a different perspective. I’m looking at it from the end point – while i do agree voice and style are 2 different cows (one clonable and the other not), the end product is a unique thing, no matter how many different individuals there are trying do the same thing. So I guess for me, it is inevitable that some of voice comes over into style, and vice versa as far as I have observed.

      And yes, shoot-edit-shoot-edit and maybe, one day, make a worthy book like Men At Sea / Satellites 😉

    • Rayk
      May 30, 2011

      Charlene
      Wish I could buy you a plane ticket 🙂

    • Charlene
      May 31, 2011

      Make sure you buy a Lotto ticket Ray, I’ve got 3 going at the moment. Might be able to make ART in time, if the gods are kind 🙂

  10. Flemming Bo Jensen
    May 30, 2011

    I agree that words matter a lot. Look at my blog, a lot of words in every post, I go on and on 🙂 Perhaps it’s the word voice I find out of place, but will be great to learn more about the term. I have more than one style so I see your point.

    I look forward to reading about ART, really wish I could be there!!!!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      May 30, 2011

      YES!!!!!!

      I want to look at all your images and know immediately “That’s a Flemming Bo” no matter the style.

  11. anita
    May 30, 2011

    such an interesting discussion. Thanks for taking the trouble to post this, Sabrina. I’m looking forward to your next post. 😉

    Reply
  12. Julie Yan
    May 31, 2011

    Hi Sabrina! How are you? I LOVE your comments about the Magnum Workshop. And love the quote by Larry! I miss our little group! Hope you’re doing well! I attached my blog link above. I’m not on Twitter because I keep forgetting my password and it doesn’t let me re-set. So think for now I will just stick with the blog, Linked In, Facebook, and that Open-i. Anyway fantastic job on recording the Q&A session. Do you still want copies of the dogs that I shot when I was looking for cyclists?

    Reply
  13. Maureen Murphy
    June 4, 2011

    Thanks Sabrina for this post – I copied it to read on the plane and am looking forward to the continuing discussion on the Magnum learnings. I took photos of dogs in France – not up to your standards but some cute doggie faces. Also lots of shoes – the French women are so daring to walk on cobblestone streets with killer heels.
    Maureen

    Reply

Leave a Reply