Insights: 5 Photography tips gleaned from a Minor White interview

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[4] months before Minor White passed away in 1976 he was interviewed by Barnaby Conrad in his house in Arlington, Massachusetts. In this interview a few things jumped at me, and here is some tips that he gave away that I know for a fact work because I checked them out myself or know them to be true beforehand. Enjoy.

1) Practice photography without a camera

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For as long as I can remember, I used to take mental pictures. These are etched in my mind, before I even knew what a camera was, I have mental pictures of me playing, my grandmother, etc. Some people take mental pictures intuitively, 24-7, I'm like that, but if you don't take mental pictures, take this tip from Minor White to heart and do so. After all, if operating a camera takes practice, what about Vision?

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Copyright Minor White Estate

It's easy and can be done anywhere. I'm a Starbucks right now, a guy is reading a Newspaper in front of me, he glances, BAM! I See the picture, right there, black and white, a great portrait, his beard looks good in Black and white, ooooh the light shining on his face!!!…but it's all in my mind, I can't show you anything. It's this kind of mental stretching that prepares you for when a killer picture presents itself in front of you and you have a camera in your hands.

2) It's all been done before: focus on the heart

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Photographers, they are in the millions around the world, and everything has probably been done before and photographed before. Quite the scary tough, because in my view art should be expressive and unique. But like Minor said, each photograph can still be powerful provided that we are close to out work, the heart of the photographer needs to shine trough. It's the heart that matters, because if you think about it, we all have the same world, the same mass produced cameras, the same places, the same software to share.

3) Meditate before photographing

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I deal with lots of crap, everybody does. My list is long and probably so is yours. Taking pictures is about aligning the photographer's eye, heart and mind. Guess what clouds this alignment? Gear, having the wrong heart…or simply letting stuff get to you. With all due respect to Minor White, he could not imagine how life would become so stressful in a matter of decades. I check my heart rate from time to time: “Prehypertension”. Great. I'm not even close to 50!!!  We all deal with stuff and we tend to bring that with us when going out to shoot. It clouds the alignment of the eye, heart and mind. And seriously, it's like driving when thinking about something else: You are there without being there.

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Copyright Minor White Estate

Minor White preaches Meditation to be focused, in the present, to clear the head, the heart and the mind. In other words, Meditate simply means keep the crap you deal with at home, when you go out to shoot, shoot. All I can say is Amen. I wake up early, have to take care of my kiddo to let the wife sleep, work, work, work, take care of the kiddo again….with a routine like this, it forced me to have a sort of photographic retreat, hence what I like to say: “Shooting time is YOUR time”. Not a dad, not a husband, not a Magazine maker, Not a wedding photographer, I'm just a dude with a camera. It's me, my camera in the streets.

I did the retreat part way before reading Minor White but he got me thinking about something I do without realizing it: I shut off everything before shooting. In my opinion this is to each his own to get to the creative photographic zone. Minor White liked to be involved in the environment, I like to listen to music. When I put my headphones on and I go out to shoot, I'm in the zone, things pop out at me. If I don't put some music on, my mind will eventually race trough thoughts and I will forget about photography. Listening to music, clearing your mind, or meditating makes your get in touch with your heart. When the mind is shut off, the heart speaks, hopefully through the images.

Here's the kind of music I listen to:

4) Appreciate Happy Accidents

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I LOVE Happy accidents, it's when you plan something and it didn't turn out the way you wanted but for the better. That happened all the time for me in Graphic Design, but also in Photography. Mostly all of the time I feel like a cheat, but after reading the interview with Minor White, I am always reminded of his words when they come.

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Yup that's the attitude. I call it pure providence but whether you consider it luck or otherwise: Accept happy accidents graciously. A gift is a gift!! Photography, beyond the intent and science also has to do with luck or providence. You had to be at the right place at the right time to take any picture…..I used to feel like a cheat when I got great pictures that I didn't really anticipate, I believed I was more a lucky dude than a photographer, but luck is also part of the game I believe. Now when I get a happy accident, it's thank you, I graciously accept that photographic gift!!!

4) Plan your work and work your plan
(The great saying above is from my Inspired Eye partner Don‘s grandfather)

Let me to introduce you to two photographers: Mr Fool and Mr Wise. Both started their photographic career the same way, they said “Today I'm a photographer”. Mr Wise planned out his career plan while Mr Fool didn't. Mr Fool is now paying his dues and could have been way further in his photographic career. I'm Mister fool, Minor White is Mr Wise:

 

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I could have done way more career wise if I had a plan and worked it out, but I nonetheless gained invaluable insights and experience during that time that I believe makes me stronger. Notice the wisdom here: 5 years. It's a highly realistic time frame. It's not 3 months, one year, it's 5 years. Enough time to work hard yet not burning yourself out. I pretty much crashed myself for years without a plan, and I have pretty much nothing to show but the experience. I didn't need Minor White to tell me I needed a plan (figured that out by myself 🙂 ) but reading about him planning solidified the fact that talent is not enough. Go to SoHo in Manhattan and see some good artistic talent being wasted in the streets. Minor White put his finger on what I believe is the success recipe (No guarantees of course): Planning, Diligence, Hard Work, Talent.

– Planning: Go to a a foreign country and try to figure out where you are without an X on a map. You don't know where you are, where you are going without a plan. There some things I could have accomplished sooner if I had a plan. Minor White reached his goals quickly because he knew what he wanted. Mr Wise indeed.

– Diligence and Hard work: A map will get you nowhere, your feet and your determination will. After the plan, Minor White executed it, a plan that stays a plan is worthless in my opinion. Take all the plans to end world hunger for example. Diligence is simply hacking at it everyday, shooting, learning, working, whatever….and keeping at it. An example of diligence is this blog: I might not be the best blogger out there, but nobody will ever question how much I hack away at it.

– Talent: That's the part where your own sauce comes in. If Minor White sucked, you can be sure he wouldn't have made it. He had to be good beforehand.

Whether you want to be a fine art photographer, or a pro, what worked for Minor White is to Plan his work for 5 years, and Work his plan for 5 years. Don't be like Mr Fool folks!

Conclusion
I think the best advice is simply something that confirms something you already knew. You know, but needed someone else to confirm, or put it in better words than you can. These tips from Minor White helped me and I am sure they can for you too. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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7 thoughts on “Insights: 5 Photography tips gleaned from a Minor White interview”

  1. Olivier, while I appreciate the reference to Minor, I must bring to your attention the following issue. This Starbucks coffee thing … it’ll never fly.
    Real shooters don’t drink dead, burnt coffee. Real shooters don’t frequent coffee shops where Kona is a premium markup and the staff doesn’t know where it comes from an no it’s not California or London.

    Don’t take my word, talk to Minor. Just dial 1-800-Hea-ven.
    When the GOOD LORD answers, ask for Minor White.
    If you get thru great, if not….it’s because you frequent Starbucks.

    1. really REAL photographers drink BUSTELO. Everything else is for wimps. Minor White had a stash….you know….cuz he and I are REALEST shooters.
      What am I saying, I should promote a Haitian brand….Really realest REAL shooters drink Rebo coffee. Someone switched Minor’s coffee to Rebo coffee, he just believed it was Bustelo. He even slipped some Rebo coffee in them prints, look close you’ll see…

  2. Olivier yet another great post. I agree with all those tips. I make a lot of mental pictures. Like, all the time. And I don’t give a damn something’s been done a million times as long as I want to take my own shot at it. Etc. Reading your is very inspirational. As ever.

  3. Jeffrey K. Edwards

    Olivier – thanks for sharing these insights from Minor White! Each one strikes home for me as well, but the catch is remembering them and seeing the way forward…

  4. Good post. The meditation thing is so very true. Meditation is basically being aware of the present moment. For a streetshooter it should be obvious what the advantage of roaming the streets in such a state of mind is. If my mind is elsewhere, I am missing many photos. However it is not an easy habit to develop.. Those who do, are on a good way to making good photos.

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