Conceptual Genius or Experimental Master: What Kind of Photographer Are You?

Successful photographers follow one of two paths. Which route are you taking in your photographic journey, that of a conceptual genius or an experimental master?

I’m currently listening to an audiobook of one of the greatest songwriters of our time: Paul Simon. It’s fascinating because, like The Beatles: Get Back movie that I discussed a few months ago, it delves into the creative processes. There are interesting observations about how Simon’s creativity works, and we can draw parallels between his and the career paths of some of the very best photographers. This can lead us to examine our own creative paths.

Early in the audiobook Miracle and Wonder, the authors, Malcolm Gradwell and Bruce Headlam, discuss with Simon the difference between him and Bob Dylan. They conclude Dylan identified himself as being set within the folk tradition. In contrast, although Simon was a fan of that genre, he didn’t consider himself a folk artist. He experimented with its conventions, mixing them with other styles and cultural influences, in much the same way as The Beatles did with their work.

Relating this to photography, many well-known photographers deliberately place themselves in a particular genre. If we consider a type of photography that interests us, specific names will come to mind. Ansel Adams was known for landscapes, the photojournalist Robert Capa for his war photography, while Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work chronicles the 20th century with his social documentary images.

However, although we shoehorn photographers into these categories, if we research some of them, we find that over time, they diversified away from their best-known work. Take Don McCullin as an example. Many will consider him a war photographer. However, checking his entire catalog of work, we find it is far more diverse. He shoots outstanding landscapes (“The Landscape”) and hard-hitting social commentary (“In England”) and then mixes that commentary with the incredible tribal portraits he shot for his collection “In Africa.”

Compare that to the images of one of my other favorite photographers, Annie Leibowitz. Most of her work concentrates on capturing images of the famous. Her photos within that field are diverse, just as Dylan’s work is diverse within the folk and folk-rock traditions. However, there isn’t a noticeable shift from her early work, creative images of well-known people, to her contemporary photography, more creative images of well-known people.

There is no right or wrong here, and this is not a criticism of either approach. However, it is helpful to note the difference and recognize what direction we take in our creativity. Paul Simon has much more freedom in his music, just as Don McCullin has in his photography, the freedom to experiment and mix up different influences. Meanwhile, Leibowitz discovered what she loved shooting and became the absolute master of that.

We are often told that photographers should stick to and perfect a specialism. This advice may be suitable for some, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Creativity is born from taking existing ideas and mixing them in new and hopefully exciting ways. Having a wide range of genres to play with gives a broader scope for our photography. That is an equally valid approach, as specializing is for others.

To illustrate this, let’s take a bird photograph as an elementary example. Conceptual wildlife photographers may photograph it sitting on a twig, flying, performing a courtship ritual, etc. They will then apply those same exacting techniques when shooting the next bird. In contrast, an experimental photographer might make the bird picture an abstract, like the header image of this article, or include it as part of a landscape. Then, they might create other abstracts that do not involve birds at all.

In his 2008 book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Lifecycles of Artistic Creativity, David GW Galenson explores how there are two routes that creators follow. He examines the progress of artists’ careers by gathering data such as the prices paid for paintings and how often they are reproduced in books, and so forth.

Galenson observes that Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, and Alfred Hitchcock were what he calls experimental masters. They developed and improved over time by experimentation, getting better with age.

Meanwhile, others hit their peak early and then declined over their careers. This category included the likes of Vermeer, van Gogh, Picasso, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, and Orson Welles. These were the conceptual geniuses whose work climaxed in their youth.

Paul Simon very much fitted into the former category. His career started by exploring the folk tradition. Yet, even then, he was influenced by his Jewish heritage and the other cultures of his native New York. Rock and roll, doo-wop, country, and different styles of music inspired him. Furthermore, that range of stimuli increased as time passed. The South African sounds mixed with the country and early rock and roll influences of the album Graceland demonstrates this.

Other songwriting musicians, such as David Bowie and Paul McCartney, have followed similar paths in their collaborations and explorations of musical diversity.

Paul McCartney’s late wife, Linda, was an outstanding photographer whose work evolved and changed with experimentation. Just look at the vast difference between her photos of the pop and rock world of the 1960s, her images of horses and nature, her personal Polaroid Diaries, and her collection of Sun Prints. She very much fits into the experimental master category.

I think it is comforting to know that musicians that are 80 — Paul Simon reached that age in October last year, and Paul McCartney will be 80 in June — can still produce exciting and critically acclaimed work well into old age. Meanwhile, other musicians created their best results during their youth and, when on stage, are still only performing those same hits or maybe newer songs that cohere with their established style.

That does not detract from the quality of their music. People like Don McLean or The Rolling Stones, those who peaked early and wrote excellent songs in their prime, still perform those great songs that we enjoy at their concerts. Can the same be said for photographers? Of course, it can.

It’s an interesting experiment to take photographers and decide into which of these two categories they fit. For example, compare the complete works over the entire careers of Brian Duffy, David Bailey, Steve McCurry, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Mary McCartney. Into which of the two categories would you place these people, great photographers all?

There is a difference in how the two groups work. For conceptual photographers, the final goal is all-important. They are planners and repeat their work, trying to perfect a technique. They know what they are trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, the experimenters work more freely. The journey is more important to them. They don’t have precise goals; they don’t plan or necessarily even know the outcome. They achieve their results through trial and error, gradually gaining more skills as time passes. They will meet obstacles along the way, but those may send them in a different creative direction altogether.

Of course, we cannot all have the acclaim of the famous photographers I mention in this article. But it is a valuable exercise to discover what kind of photographer you are. Do you get your joy from photographing one genre, or do you prefer to experiment with photography and learn what works and what doesn’t? They are equally valid approaches, just different.

There is an essential similarity between the two categories, though, something that is often forgotten in the search for success. Both require effort and persistence. The lucky break that puts them on the path to success comes from hard work, not an expectation of entitlement.

So, which category fits you? Are you a conceptual photographer who meticulously plans everything? Or are you an experimenter that explores different approaches and experiments? Please let me know in the comments.

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