Master Photographers’ Advice for All Creative People

Robert Capa and John Steinbeck, 1948, via Wikimedia Commons



I received a link last week to a 60-page PDF booklet called “Wear Good Shoes: Advice from Magnum Photographers.” It is worth a look.

Magnum is the photographers cooperative founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour. Their identity as a group was meant to be the result of the “combination of mini cameras”—technology had reduced the size of cameras and increased the capabilities of film—and “maxi-minds,” the idea that photographers were an “idiosyncratic mix of reporter and artist…emphasizing not only what is seen but also the way one sees it.”

The co-op intended to “work outside the formulas of magazine photojournalism [because they] believed that photographers had to have a point of view in their imagery that transcended any formulaic recording of contemporary events.”

“[S]ome tell the news step by step in detail as if making an accountant’s statement,” Cartier-Bresson said. “Life isn’t made of stories that you cut into slices like an apple pie.”

The booklet is a marketing tool, as Magnum offers online classes for a fee. But its usefulness lies in how anyone working in process in a creative field—such as writers, who often collaborate with photographers—may find what the photographers say applicable to their own field. It also led me to Magnum’s main site, which has plenty of free material, including a link to a fascinating project called Flow, on various themes, such as, currently, “Looking at Animals.”

The free booklet has five sections: “Learn,” “Vision & Voice,” “Passion,” Consistency,” and “Risk.” Though their subject is photography, the photographers talk about craft in general, cross-pollination with other arts, criticism, originality, and “the exact expression of who you are at a given moment.”

“Get a good pair of walking shoes and…fall in love,” says Abbas. (There is a lot of talk of walking, at the Magnum site, which I too believe in as meditative and observational practice.)

“You should like the process and the subject,” says Alec Soth. “If you are bored or unhappy with your subject it will show up in the pictures. If in your heart of hearts you want to take pictures of kitties, take pictures of kitties.” (People on social media love this statement, though Soth’s heart does not lead him to kitties.)

When I think of process I often think of that line from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Process is devotional—caring for children, cooking family meals, running, improving oneself as a reader (including of life), drafting blog posts—and explanations of it in different fields often sound similar: like hints of salvation.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.