Facebook Pixel More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

The more you can learn about photography the better off you will be. Find out everything you can even if it doesn’t seem important to you at the time. The best way to do this is to have a close look at the masters, photographers who molded the photography world as we know it today.

Some of these shooters are still with us and some of them have passed. Whatever the case may be, their legacy remains here to teach us through their experiences. In this installment of the Master’s Series, we’re going to look at two of my personal favorites – David Burnett and Vivian Maier.

David Burnett

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

Image By Eric Smith (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

“He’s been everywhere but only for an hour.” – American Photographer Magazine

David Burnett’s photojournalism career and creative output place him high in the ranking of some of the most influential camera jockeys of the late 20th century. Named one of the 100 most important people in photography by American Photographer Magazine, Dave has photographed it all. From the Vietnam War to the Olympics, from Obama to Bob Marley, his iconic images quite literally empower the viewer’s world to be seen from a different point of view.

Tips from the career of David Burnett

After shooting the world’s beautiful (and sometimes dark) moments of history for the larger part of a half century, Burnett shows us so many ways to improve ourselves as image makers, photographers, and general human beings. Here are a few things you can glean from the career of David Burnett that can help you develop (photo jokes never die) as a photographer no matter what type of photos you make.

See David’s work on his website here.

Go with your gut

So many times we get sidetracked by what is considered normal. As photographers, we rely heavily on the visual influence of other photographers which in turn shapes our own work. That doesn’t mean that we should replicate their work to the letter. Don’t always go with the photographic flow just because that’s what other photographers may be doing.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

So many times you will see David Burnett at sporting events completely separated from the rest of the photo press herd. He shoots what feels right to him, as you should as well. Learn to trust your own artistic instinct. Make your image representations of a mixture of the moment and your own vision regardless of the current photo trends. Don’t be afraid to shoot a scene differently than it has been photographed before. Lay down. Stand on a chair. Shoot weird reflections. Do whatever you have to do to reach that lofty height called individualism. No memorable work has ever been ordinary.

Shun the worship of gear

I’m guilty of this at times. No matter what I do or even how much I might write about not allowing yourself to throw away money on the latest and greatest camera or lens, there’s still a little part of me that loves to read about new cameras and really eyeball that “one lens that could change everything”.

Then there’s Dave – one of the most celebrated photographers of all time, hauling around a 60-year-old Speed Graphic 4×5 with a lens ripped from an aerial reconnaissance camera and a plastic Holga 35mm (considered a toy). While he does shoot digital as well, a large chunk of Burnett’s most enduring photographs was made using film cameras that are essentially antiques and not considered tools of a modern photographic professional.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

The takeaway here is that your gear is just an extension of yourself. Your camera, lens, tripod, are all just tools that perform a job. Don’t let them become something more than they are or even worse, begin to believe you are nothing without the newest piece of camera tech.

Focus (jokes again!) on cultivating your basic skills and creativity using whatever gear you may have and when it’s time, you’ll know when to upgrade. Or in the case of David Burnett, downgrade. Whatever the case may be, use the tools that allow you to produce your work in the way that suits you best.

Give back

It almost feels as if I’ve undersold the importance of David Burnett’s contribution to the world of photography and photojournalism. While his career speaks for itself, there’s one thing that usually isn’t mentioned. That is just how down to Earth, human, and unpretentious Dave has remained despite his success. I’ve been oddly fortunate enough to correspond with him personally on a few occasions over matters photo-related and otherwise (onions?). Each time, I’ve talked to a person and fellow photographer – not David Burnett: Preeminent Photojournalist.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

No matter where your journey takes you as a photographer, always remember that awards or accolades may make you an authority on the photographic medium but they should not make you an elitist. Don’t shy away from sharing your knowledge when it can help someone make better pictures. It can mean a lot. I know it did for me.

Vivian Maier

Vivian, oh dear Vivian. Where to begin? Vivian Maier is something of a paradox. Even now, I’m unsure what personal information about her is fact and what is not. What I do know about is her work and the way it was serendipitously introduced to the world. Vivian Maier was a nanny, an eccentric, and one of the most prolific street photographers of the 20th century. As a child in 1930, she and her mother briefly lived with Jeanne Bertrand, who was an award winning portrait photographer of the early 1900’s. Whether Vivian was taught the craft by Jeanne isn’t certain but it’s quite possible.

Tips from the career of Vivian Maier

Her work was literally stumbled across in a storage unit in 2007. Vivian passed away in near obscurity in 2009 but her photographs continue to inspire and teach us even today. I first learned of Maier’s images through John Maloof’s excellent documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” which is currently on Netflix and really merits a watch if you want to learn more about Vivian Maier and her unbelievable life. Here are some things I learned from one of the best street photographers you’ve never heard of.

There is beauty everywhere

One of the wonderful things about photography is its revealing nature. A photo can portray an otherwise mundane or common scene in a way that shows that there truly is beauty in all things. Some of those things might even be tragic and sad, but the soulful connection and wonderment are there, too. Vivian’s photographs showed not only the scenes of the streets of New York and Chicago, but the unseen emotion to be found there.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

The key to producing a strong photograph anywhere is to learn that there is in fact, meaning in everything. Look for interesting light, interesting people, anything that can bring out the hidden. It’s your job as a photographer to be able to capture those hidden gems into images that can be shared with others. So, if you find yourself in a slump or there seems to just not be anything to shoot, look closer. Find the beauty and make a photo.

Recognize the moment

This echos back to some teachings by the photographic titan, Henri Cartier-Bresson. You can see in some of Maier’s photographs that she waited. She waited until the instant the shutter should be released in order to capture the moment best. This is one of things that makes her photos so powerful.

Whether it was the exact instant the subject’s eyes met hers or when their footsteps were perfectly in sync, the opportune moment was patiently awaited. Also worth mentioning is the unobtrusiveness of Vivian’s technique. Lot’s of her images were made with a 120 Rolleiflex (among others). This type of camera isn’t held up to the photographer’s face but rather cradled below. This made her blend into the scene more and she was able to capture images which were less intruded upon by her presence.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

Work to anticipate photographic moments before they happen. I know, it sounds extremely difficult. But the truth is that the more you practice, the more you shoot, the better you will become at “getting lucky.” You can train yourself to be present in the scene and intuitively recognize when photos will happen. The hard part? Putting in the shooting time to make this kind of skill manifest itself.

It’s okay to be weird

If there’s one thing you can learn about Vivian it’s that she was, for the lack of a better word, weird. Vivian Maier was a weirdo by the common views of her time. She dressed differently, acted differently, and made images that we’re different. In fact, it’s one of the very reasons she’s still being talked about today.

More Lessons from the Photography Masters: David Burnett and Vivian Maier

Even if she didn’t know at the time, her uniqueness would set her apart and lend a fresh perspective to her work and methodology. So, don’t try and hide your weirdness when you photograph things. Be different and celebrate all the little quirks that might make your images completely fresh. Much like the lessons learned from David Burnett, the real breakthroughs in your photography never come from falling into line with accepted norms. Relax, be different.

See her work on the official Vivian Maier Photography site.

Final thoughts

Knowledge is the cornerstone of most anything you will ever undertake. How do you gain knowledge? Well, usually it comes through experience (often mistakes) and it can take a while for us to learn our lessons. As photographers, those giants who came before us offer incredibly valuable teachings. Their lessons are here for us to scoop up if we just take the time to listen. Don’t just study the photographs of the masters but learn how and why they made them.

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Adam Welch
Adam Welch

is a full-time photomaker, author and adventurer. Find him over at aphotographist.com
and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!

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