Working with legends is a beautiful thing, but it can also screw with your head.
What can we learn from stepping in alongside the giants? So much gorgeous wisdom — work ethic, courage, stamina, perseverance, how to have and hold an opinion, tricks of the trade, identity and empathy … shall I go on?
To work alongside a true legend and—joy of joys—discover mutual empathy will provide massive affirmation: “Ah, I’m not mad to be feeling this after all!”
BUT, it can also massively backfoot you. Damn it.
Recently I found myself in London and back down Old Street again, a number of years since working at Magnum Photos. Far, far (yet only one hundred yards) from that world of stubborn, iron-minded war photgraphers and photography heroes, this was an altogether different kind of shoot. It was a really odd moment, sitting on the steps of the tube station watching my fellow ‘photo-walk’ friends—fun, fashion conscious women—enjoying the clash of funky clothes against bright yellow walls. Happiness in the surface colour of things, new friends chasing common, simple perspectives to unite around. Why was it so hard to relax and just go with this? Issueless – what would those gnarly war-bound photographers make of it all?
My time at Magnum was an incredible couple of years. Many stories I could share, but meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson is what really threw me – I simply had nothing to say while gauping into those watery blue eyes, making contact with the legendary gaze which has discerned some of the most influential images of our time.
That gaze felt like a gun to my fragile opinions, a barrel pointed at my newly awakening sense of social justice. It was also—in the true spirit of Magnum—a cork popping loud on the helpless desire to make thoroughly beautiful images and record life as it explodes.
Cartier-Bresson’s view on, and expression of, the world is utterly compelling and irresistibly persuasive. How do you hold—or even discover—your own in the face of that?
Thankfully people like Bruce Davidson came to the rescue with long, lovely chat, swapping notes about what it feels like to do our work. (Such a sweet, crazy, and exceptionally clever man.) Here’s what it boiled down to:
Stop stalling against the opinion of other people, and just flow. No one sees through your eyes, with your heart and mind behind them. The spark exists. Just shoot.
And this is true whether your tool is a camera or pen, your voice or mind, an axe or a needle or a lathe. How do you find—and hold—your own?
“Go forth on your path, for it exists only through your walking.”
– St. Augustine
My friends, there are brilliant things up ahead. Let the legends challenge and inspire, but we have our own work to do now too.
I paused in Shoreditch that day, thinking about all this, watching those lovely women making friends over photography, opening up, shining little beams of light on each other, and wondering what sort of photograph is valid, has meaning, is true of life. And you know what? Man, woman, war, peace or disruption, I think we just have to get on with it.
Joy so simple.