Six Photographers That Inspire Me

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No artist of any kind can truly say that all of their inspiration comes from outside of their area of interest.  Photographers, for example, can’t help but to be inspired by other photographers.  Perhaps one is inspired by the photographs themselves, or perhaps inspiration comes from a respected photographer’s process or workflow.  Maybe it’s not about their photography, rather it’s the way they carry themselves or present themselves.  I could present to you an endless list of photographers that could be an inspiration.  But I don’t think that paints the picture as well as if I were to isolate one set of influences.  And so I am simply going to outline a list of photographers – some well known, some not so much – who inspire me.  While you read, think about who inspires you…you’ll have your turn at the end of the article.

Joe McNally

It’s hard to pay attention to the photography scene these days without coming across the great Joe McNally at least once in a while.  Joe has done it all, lived it all and has completed more components of any photographer’s bucket list than any other living photographer these days.  He was a staff photographer at LIFE Magazine (a publication known for it’s top notch photography), and has contributed to all the most well known publications:  TIME Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and so on.  He’s even contributed to National Geographic for over 23 years.  He was voted as one of the 30 most influential photographers by Photo District News, listed among the 100 most important people in the world of photography by American Photo and was featured as a Nikon Legend Behind The Lens.  As for awards, there are too many to count.  And don’t forget that he’s shot everyone under the sun from high profile athletes to primitive cultures to movie stars and some of the most influential people on the planet.  He even shot the Muppets.  Among all of this, it would be easy to admire Joe and his work simply for what it is.

I do love his work and his style, and his experiences of course.  But that’s not the primary reason I respect and admire Joe McNally.  It’s because he’s just such a down-to-earth guy who truly loves what he does.  If you’ve ever seen him present in person, or even on a video, you know what I mean.  He’s charismatic, he’s comfortable and he’s pretty silly.  He doesn’t let his experiences, his awards or his extensive history in the field go to his head.  He’s just shooting, talking and having fun.  The first time I saw him live was at the PDN Photo Plus Expo in New York.  It was a crazy day with thousands of people – a large chunk of which were sitting in to view his Nikon educational session.  He always draws a crowd.  He went over on time answering questions, and even when he was done I was able to corner him to ask him a question (and get an autograph – I’m a geek, what can I say).  I’m a nobody, but he still took a few short minutes to answer my question and pointed me to a specific article that would help me further.  What a nice guy.  Joe McNally is inspiring in so many ways.

Best way to follow Joe McNally is on his personal website where you will find stories, new experiments and some great wisdom.  It’s also probably worth buying a couple of his books.

David Hobby (aka:  Strobist)

David Hobby is a newspaper staff photographer turned private business owner.  Somewhere along the lines, he decided to start talking about his experience and passing on his wisdom in the form of a blog known as Strobist. His site is as humble as he is, and you won’t find any crazy code or flashy web design there.  What you will find is a lot of great wisdom and ideas that won’t break the bank.  David is a working man himself, and he knows what it’s like to have tight budgets.  So he’s not going to try to convince you that you’ll need top end gear all the time.  In fact, the popularity of his site has actually created a shortage of used classic Nikon flashes, and he’s endorsed and helped to crowd-source the LumoPro LP160 – a no-frills and economical, but powerful and customizable flash.  From David, you will not only learn how to use a strobe, but you will also learn a lot of wisdom for carrying yourself as a photographer – professional or otherwise.  You may even learn how to deal with the police.   It’s really his philosophy that I find inspiring:  Keep it simple.  Considering I’ve learned more from David Hobby than any other photographer over the last two years, he’s definitely someone that I find to be inspiring.

If you haven’t already bookmarked Hobby’s website as the definitive resource for lighting, you should head on over to Strobist and move it to the top of your list.

Peter West Carey

Peter West Carey and I have never really met face to face, but I consider him a friend and a strong influence in this world of photography.  In my opinion, he has all of his priorities in the right order:  His Daughter, Travel, then Photography.  Sometimes, I feel that he almost lives a bohemian lifestyle, but that doesn’t really matter as it all makes him quite happy.  I’ll call it Zen.  Every once in a while, you’ll read about Peter’s next journey to Africa or up into the Himalayas or some other foreign country to share in their culture.  Chances are, he got there through some sort of favor, some sort of trade of services or as part of some crowd-funded project that he will inevitably turn around into an educational project to further introduce students (children) to other cultures through his photography.  It’s a life of passion and dedication.  I admire Peter not necessarily because of his photography – though it stands up well on its own and he truly has some fantastic photos of so many places.  I admire him because he uses photography in a way that so few ever have the opportunity to do:  His real passion is to make the world a better place and uses photography only as a tool.  I guess my point is that there are so many days where I let other aspects of my life get in the way of what makes me happy (because I let it, of course) and it’s usually Peter’s words that kick my ass back into gear and help me to realize what really matters in life.  Because, it seems, when everything else in your life is so well balanced, your photography follows suit.

For a sampling of his works, and to follow up on his projects and wisdom, visit Peter West Carey’s website.

Brian Day

I was introduced to Brian through his contributions to our Flickr group.  I quickly became a fan of his style.  A lot of what Brian was doing early on was self portraiture in and around his hometown of Detroit.  His Tim Traveler series (also on flickr), for example, is a series of self portraits, most with a contrast between him as the subject – often dressed to the nines with a dark suit, fedora and a briefcase – and his worn out and often dilapidated surroundings.  And rarely would you ever get a clear shot of his face.  Brian has since expanded his repetoir to include some of the most fantastic street photography with some of the best black and white conversions I have seen in a long while.  His style hearkens back to Henri Cartier Bresson or Garry Winogrand.  His style is so unique and so vivid that I can easily pick his photos out of a whole mess of other current photos on Flickr or on 500px.  I admire Brian for the fact there is barely a line between his photojournalistic style and art.  Photojournalism has certainly taken a strong turn in the most recent decade where the art seems to be secondary.  But Brian is clearly influenced by the greats and he takes it very seriously…and it shows.

There are three ways that you can track Brian effectively:  On Flickr, on 500px and at his personal website.

Zack Arias

Zack Arias is a bit of a rising star.  Not that he’ll admit it, not that he believes he deserves the recognition.  Recently, Complex Magazine listed Arias as one of the top 50 current street photographers.  He responded with a humble blog post that, in so many words, said thank you, but also pointed out a number of people he felt should be on the list.  If you listen to the twitter buzz about Arias, you’ll find that many either love him or hate him.  Love him because he’s approachable, fun and humble.  Those that hate him feel that his photography doesn’t live up to his recognition.  I disagree with the haters…I think that Zack’s style – especially his street photography – is very editorial in nature.  Woven into the black and white tones and personalities that he captures with his camera is often a statement.  Sometimes it’s political, most of the time is cultural.  As for me…I love and am inspired by Zack Arias and his work because he is so very human.  He’s opinionated, and he’ll spout out every once in a while on Twitter about something (or someone) that bothers him.  And whether you disagree or agree, you can tell that he is very passionate about his beliefs.  Furthermore, his opinions are rooted in something real, something tangible.  I have a lot of respect for that.  I believe that the haters really dislike his work because he makes it so easy.  I believe that photography is truly second nature to Arias.  But no one can ever doubt his passion.  The business nearly destroyed his life, but he rebuilt it and grew larger and stronger.  A weaker man would have given up.

Zack Arias’s personal website is a great place to start.  But if you really want to see his most passionate works, including his street photography, you should check out his 500px account.

Brad Trent

I learned of Brad Trent’s work through David Hobby who introduced his readers to Trent’s work simply because his lighting style is incredible.  Surreal even.  Brad Trent is a small operation, and he is not as widely appreciated or recognized as he deserves.  His style, particularly his lighting, is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.  One might say he over-lights, but his portraits are dramatic and almost cartoon like in their style.  There is rarely a place on this planet, natural or man made, that could duplicate his use of light.  Shadows become the paint and definition across an otherwise flat canvas.  The lines of the subjects face are blended in a manner that highlights the wisdom and respect that created such creases.  But the thing I really admire about Trent’s work is that he often tears back the curtain and reveals exactly how he works.  Even during his formal portrait sessions – which are usually on assignment – Trent will take a moment or two to move his camera back and actually include his setup in the shot.  Every light, every sandbag, every bit of gaffers tape and the wires and stands are all in the shot.  You truly see the exact setup he used.  He refers to these as Artificial Portraits, but don’t let the name fool you…they are very real and very honest.

Brad Trent’s personal website is a window into the great work that he has done, including the Artificial Portraits.  You should also follow his blog, Damn Ugly Photography, which peels back the curtain even further and tells you about his thought process on many great assignments.

Final Thoughts

You may find it odd that I am inspired by so many people with styles not like my own.  I am not a portrait photographer like Brad Trent, nor am I a travel photographer like Peter West Carey (and my destinations are certainly not as exciting).  But that doesn’t mean that I – or anyone – can’t be inspired by someone that is on a different path than your own.  You’ll notice that I admire all of these photographers in part because of the way they carry themselves.  The one thing that can be said about each and every one of these people is that they are humble, personable and respectable.  If photography were as popular as Soccer or American Football, these would be your heros.  These are the guys who you would want your kids to look up to.  Because photography is more than just the finished product…it’s the way you carry yourself and the way you think.  And so while I don’t often get the opportunity to do much commercial photography like McNally, I can learn a lot from the way he thinks and adapt it to my own needs.

Your Turn

And now it’s your turn.  Who inspires you?  Pick one (or more) photographers that inspire you and describe them in the comments below.  Provide a link, if possible, and tell us a little about why you have such respect for that person.  The photographer doesn’t need to be well known…as I have hopefully proven many times, you can easily be inspired by anyone.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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