A Letter to Young Photographers

A Letter to Young Photographers

jeff in louisville

I was in my mid 20’s in 1994 when my future wife and I made a film- on film. We couldn’t find anyone interested in helping us to distribute it so we threw a projector and our 16mm print in a van and toured it around showing it mostly in rock clubs. That got real boring real quick. When you’re in a band each night offers up the opportunity for creativity, for reacting to the situation you are given. If you show a film it’s like re-living groundhog day; now matter what you do the film is not gonna change. To make our travels more bearable we created an improv band called “drop ceiling” (see bottom for a video of a train ride from NY to NC featuring a live Drop Ceiling performance ) and one of our motto’s was “daring to suck”. Even in an improv band it was too easy to fall back into familiar patterns and tropes, so we had to work hard to try new things, and just as often as not, they did suck. However, when they worked it was often magical. If you ever want to develop your own vision and your own style it can really help if you are willing to sometimes really suck.

astor placesm

My next piece of advice would be to shoot everything. It’s a lot easier to wade through images later on then it is to go back in time and capture something that no longer exists. I’ve recently been going back through pictures that I shot 25 years ago and struggling with the fact that in some cases I only shot five or six images of a band. Half the time I got at least one good shot, and sometimes I got none. Whats interesting now though is that the images that didn’t seem so good back then feel wildly important now. I’m also frustrated that I didn’t shoot more mundane images. I think I was trying a little too hard to have every image “say something”. What that “something” is I’m not sure, but with some hindsight I probably would have shot more than I did when I was starting out. Cost and time were certainly a factor, but I also wasn’t sure what it was I was looking for.


At some point you’ll develop a sense of what it is you’re looking for, and you’ll start to shoot less, and with more focus. For now though, shoot a lot and then spend time with your images trying to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to share them with others but do so without the expectation of praise or affirmation. The key it to listen to feedback without immediately responding to it nor internalizing it. Over the last few years I have been posting a steady stream of images to instagram. I appreciate it when people like certain images. Sometimes it baffles me why they like one image more than others. Even though I have been making images for 30 years I’m still interested in how and what people respond to. This doesn’t mean that I try to shoot images based on what people are looking for, but instead that it helps me to understand what other people are seeing. In some sense all work is about communication and I want to know what’s coming across.

dad mom me

Respect what others have to say about your photographs but don’t respect it more than your own feelings and impulses. Look at as many photographs by as many photographers as you can. Think about what you like about them and what you don’t like and go back to the ones that you don’t like to see what you might learn. Just because you don’t understand the work doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there. Don’t be afraid of being derivative of people you like; that’s how you learn. We weren’t born knowing how to talk but learn to speak by hearing other voices. Eventually, if we’re lucky, we find our own voice. I believe that I was too resistant to other influences and that slowed me down. Still these influences worked their way into my process and the mash up of many different voices helped me to find my own. I took three photo classes in college and I got a lot from all of them. Mostly I learned how to listen to criticism without reacting and I learned to listen more carefully when people were talking about the work itself, and what they saw in it, rather than what they liked or didn’t like. Mostly though, I spent several hours a week at a photo book store called “A photographer’s place”. I browsed all the books I could find. This was before the internet existed so the way to experience work was in books, or in galleries. Galleries made me uncomfortable though and I preferred books. Flipping through all of these books made me more appreciative of photographs as part of a whole, that weren’t about a single image, but instead how the work held together- and how the order and the layout of a book was as important to the story as anything else.

pg 2 steve and marge

pg 7 future exhibit

Photographs, like most art, gain more meaning over time. This is why it’s so important to shoot a lot and put much of it away for the future. Think of it as an investment. I’m 46 years old now and I started making photographs when I was 15. That’s a little bit over 30 years. What I’ve come to see is that people’s memories of the past kind of reset at around 25 years. At this point the images take on a meaning that no one could’ve predicted. They have a history and emotional impact that is not easy to describe. I think that this effect is even more profound for images that are more observant than they are shaped. When I shot my mall project in 1989 very few people could see any value in it all. I was astoundingly fortunate to have a teacher who encouraged and supported me. If not I probably wouldn’t have driven across the country shooting in malls. Those images have an air of amateurism. I shot with a crappy camera and I was a somewhat shy 20 year old. I went out as a hidden observer and mostly shot from the hip. I was inspired by Gary Winnogrand but I didn’t want to be him. I purposefully shot in color because the mall was so much about color, but also because I didn’t want to be seen as ripping off either him or Robert Frank. I loved William Eggleston too, and the way color made his work. I didn’t want to shoot like Eggleston though. Is the work derivative? It certainly is. However, 25 years later that hardly matters. What does matter is that the work is connecting with people in a very deep way.


On one level I did trust my vision back in 1989 – but I didn’t trust myself enough to argue that point. At the same time, the work needed time to grow into itself. I don’t think that this means that the work lacks vision, but instead that, that vision needed time to come into focus. I’m finding that the same is true of a lot of the music related work that I did in the 90’s. It’s now about 25 years old and it too is coming into focus. [update- from 2018- the second and third sleepyhead album- and that film half-cocked are getting a second life- drawing room records is releasing those albums with a booklet of photos- and we scanned Half-Cocked in HD and will be getting it out] We can look at it nostalgia, but I think it’s something different than that. 25 years is about the time that it takes for our memories to move from being connected to our present consciousness to a different set of memory banks. When those banks are triggered we are struck by how different things have become. This is not a scientific understanding mind you, just a way of trying to put words to a feeling. These older images feel different and they affect us in a different way emotionally. It’s important to understand this because we aren’t just making images for now, but even more for the future.


I shot a lot of things that were mundane, or felt mundane. I rarely printed these at the time as I only had the resources to make one or two prints per roll, but they’ve been aging nicely and it’s been powerful to go through them and find things that work. The most random and mundane images trigger memories that we didn’t even know we had. They spark feelings in ways that more controlled images do not. So as you go forward; trust yourself, be willing to make mistakes, and shoot a lot of things that feel unimportant. It is only later that we can see the value in these moments, but I promise you the value is there.

dad outside

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