What Is Your Passion? Finding Your Photographic Style

"Migrant Mother" by Dorthea Lange

“Migrant Mother” by Dorthea Lange – Lange was passionate about the human spirit…and in turn she became known for it. Her photojournalism during the Great Depression helped to illustrate this troubling time, and her works will forever be part of American history books.

When it comes to photography, I have met a lot of photographers that just get by with their technical knowledge alone.  They are masters of the details…knowing what lens to use, how to set up for the shot, what settings and so on.  I admire their technical knowledge and I will admit that sometimes I wish I knew as much as they do.  But there’s a difference between those photographers and myself:  Passion.  It’s not the passion for photography that they lack (they certainly have that, as do I), but passion for something else.  We’re going to talk a little today about having other interests and other passions not explicitly linked to photography, per-se.  It’s a topic I’ve touched on lightly before, but I cannot stress the point enough:  A great photographer has passion to record and promote something other than the photography itself.  As such, the photography – the camera – is merely a tool for communicating your message.

Considering Great Photographers

Let’s take a look at a handful of great photographers.  We’re not going to consider the ones that we all know simply because we are also photographers.  Gregory Heislers, Stanley Forman, Kevin Carter and Robert Capa – to name a few – are all fantastic photographers deserving some acclaim within the community, but they won’t help to prove my point.  Let’s talk household names, photographers that even non-photographers know, like Ansel Adams or Dorthea Lange or Annie Liebovitz.  What do they all have in common?  Passion for a very specific topic that has little or nothing to do with photography itself.  Each has used the camera as a tool in the same way that Norman Rockwell used his paint brush.  Like Rockwell, these photographers are not celebrated exclusively for their abilities in the medium.  They are celebrated for their works and the impact that they had.

Ansel Adams’s passion was the National Parks.  He did work outside of that, but where he thrived was when capturing the great parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite.  The bulk of his work was created in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, yet to this day his photographs stand as icons representing the National Park Service.  One could argue that he single handedly created a national love for the parks, and it is because of his works – his passion – that millions will flock to the parks each and every year.

Dorthea Lange is known by many for her photojournalism during the great depression.  In fact, I’m not sure there is a person alive, high school age and above, who hasn’t seen her photo, Migrant Mother, which is possibly one of the most iconic photos of all time.  She started as a studio photographer (though very few know of these works) and took to the streets once the Great Depression hit.  Documenting the struggle of Americans during this period in our history, he works have long since been used as a model of photojournalism for a good cause.  Lange’s passion was the human spirit – in good health and in bad – and her photography grew as her eyes grew to recognize heart-felt and powerful scenes and moments.

Annie Liebovitz, a much more current photographer, is known for her portraits of pop-icons.  She’s photographed everyone that was somebody in pop-culture from John Lenon to Demi Moore to John Belushi.  She’s even photographed the Queen of England.  Liebovitz is almost a pop-icon herself, another photographer that is known to people outside of the profession.  Clearly, her passions lie in the world of fashion and pop-culture, and she’s great at what she does.  This has afforded her the ability some fantastic opportunities to work with some of the most famous people in the world, and she grows her passion and her skills.

In each of these cases, their passions show through in their works.  And in every case, it is their passion that is celebrated more than the medium they use.  You could probably go up to anyone on the street and ask them what they know about any of these photographers.  I’d be willing to bet that most people would at least be able to identify the works of these great photographers.  But I’ll bet you any sum of money that you wouldn’t be able to find anyone that could tell you what camera any of these photographers used.  I would guess that most photographers wouldn’t even know the camera that Dorthea Lange used.  But that’s sort-of the point, isn’t it?  Does the camera really matter more than the subject?  Not at all.  The subject matter is what truly matters, and the photographer’s passion for that subject is – first and foremost – the most important aspect of any of their photographic works.

The Takeaway

Now I’m not saying that you should go out and find some very specific subject material that you should photograph exclusively.  However, I do believe that you need to figure out what your passion outside of photography is and take advantage of that.  If you’re passionate about baseball, I would ask why you aren’t bringing your camera to the baseball games.  If architecture is your thing, why aren’t you spending more time in the city?  I realize that there are always compromises and real-world issues that prevent you from capitalizing on your passions, but you should be doing everything that you can to explore these passions to the best of your abilities.  A photographer passionate about travel better have a deep purse, or they should at least be willing to sacrifice some comforts along the way.  I know one photographer who has done exactly that:  His home is modest and he lives a relatively simple life, but he will couch surf and trade services for travel tickets on a regular basis.  Why?  Because he knows that getting to his destination by any means is only part of the story (and it’s a good story at that).  And once he’s there, he’s in his element and can explore his passions.  And his best works are the direct result of some of these situations where he begged and borrowed time.  And while he may not have the most current phone or the latest gadgets (even his camera lenses can be considered dated), but his passion shows through in his works.

Your Turn…

So what is stopping you from exploring your passions?  Figure it out, and find a way to get there.  For without a passion, you will never be a great photographer.  So lets get started.  What is your passion?  What is something you like to shoot?  Better yet:  What is something you wish you would shoot more often?


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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