Snap judgements: Seven great photographers talk about their craft

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Anybody can take a snapshot – but what makes a truly extraordinary picture? The world's greatest living photographers tell Anne-Celine Jaeger how they craft their genre-defining images...

Rineke Dijkstra

Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer, tends to work in series, concentrating on individual portraits. She focuses on people in a transitional stage of their life, such as women after giving birth and new recruits in 'Israeli Soldiers', of which the image here is part.

What is your aim when taking pictures?

I want to show things you might not see in normal life. I make normal things appear special, but it has to be based on reality.

What equipment do you use?

I use a 4x5-inch field camera with a standard lens and a tripod.The negatives are the size of postcards, which gives you really wonderful sharp detail and contrast. The end result is that your photograph is almost more real than reality.

How do you edit your pictures?

I might leave them for two weeks because you need distance to see properly. It happens to me that I take a picture and I think it doesn't work at all and then I look at it three years later and I think it's a great picture. It's probably linked to having something in mind and being disappointed that your expectations weren't met, then realising later that it was a lucky moment.

What art form does photography come closest to?

Perhaps sculpture. I think it's important that people understand and look at photography in a more abstract way. It's about being able to imagine looking behind the image as if it was three-dimensional.

William Eggleston

Often referred to as the "father of colour photography", Eggleston was already experimenting with colour in the early 1960s, when black-and-white was the norm. He became famous for monumentalising everyday subjects.

How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?

I never know beforehand. Until I see it. It just happens all at once. Even the most uninteresting, ugly or boring places can for an instant become magical to me.

What goes through your mind when you are framing a shot?

I compose very quickly and without thinking, but consciously. I take a picture instantly and never more than one. A long time ago, I would have taken several, but I was wasting a lot of time looking at these damn near identical pictures.

What makes one image stand out more than another?

I don't have favourites. I look at pictures democratically. To me they are all equal. There are still so many pictures that I wish were seen.

When did you first get interested in photography?

A friend made me buy my first camera – a Canon – when I was studying at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1957. I was fascinated immediately. Do you think it's important to be technically proficient? You become technically proficient whether you want to or not, the more you take pictures.

Naomi Harris

In 2000 Harris photographed Haddon Hall, the last hotel in Miami dedicated to senior citizens. Thanks to that project she got her first assignment with The New York Times Magazine and has been working as a documentary photographer ever since.

When did you start taking pictures?

I never really had an interest until I studied printmaking at university. I thought it would be worth taking a photography course. When I saw the contact sheets I thought, "Oh dear, I think this is what I want to do".

How do you get the best out ofyour subjects?

I'm always very honest with the people I photograph. I open up a lot and tell people about my own experiences and answer their questions honestly. I'm asking my subjects for something, so I want to give something in return.

Is it important to be technically proficient?

Yes. Regardless of whether you use lights or not, you should know what the effect would be.

Do you think a photographer needs a philosophy to do good work?

Most good artists are a bit on the crazy side. Most of my photographer friends are either on medication, in therapy or should be. It's the off-kilter quirkiness that allows you to see people in a different way.

What advice would you give to a budding photographer?

Only you can make it happen. Work on your own project when you're not shooting for an assignment. It's not enough to be a talented photographer, you have to be a good business person too.

Boris Mikhailov

Born in the Ukraine in 1938, Mikhailov's photographs demonstrated a satirical criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1970s and 1980s. Following the downfall of the Soviet Union, his focus shifted to capturing the social disintegration.

What attracted you to photography?

A picture I made of a woman holding a cigarette. That was a radical break from the norms: you were only supposed to show Soviet women as an ideal. Photography was where I could express myself as a citizen and a human being.

Did you have access to international photographers' work?

Not really. But I understood after a while that it wasn't important for me to look at. They have a really strong aesthetic,which corresponded to the Western environment. In my life there is dirt, things are broken. I needed to concentrate on what was real.

What do you think about when you are framing a shot?

I don't look in the frame. I look later. First I look in life.

David LaChapelle

Fashion photographer LaChapelle is famous for creating surreal, uncompromisingly original visual worlds, saturated in colour.

To what degree did your mother, who was also an artist, inspire you to become one?

My mother was the first person to introduce me to creativity. My parents didn't have much, but she would decorate the house in the most amazing way at Easter and Christmas. She frequently transformed our house into a wonderland.

Do you think formal education is important?

I think art history is crucial for anyone in the visual arts. You have to understand how ideas evolve.

What makes one image stand out more than another?

Images that stand out are those that haven't been taken just to shock or impress you.

What advice would you give?

Take the pictures you want to take. Don't think about what sells, or what an editor might say. The key is to photograph your obsessions, whether that's old people's hands or skyscrapers.

Do you need a philosophy to do great work?

I don't know. I think you certainly have to think beyond the latest model.

Alec Soth

An avid traveller, Magnum nominee Soth spent three years taking pictures along the Mississippi river with an 8x10 camera. He continues to create images infused with lyricism and melancholy.

How did you get into photography?

I studied painting at high school, but the thing that really got me excited in photography was going to a Joel Sternfeld lecture in college. I'll never forget how he showed an image of his little car in a vast landscape and it was so exciting for me. I thought, "God, I could drive around America".

What do you think when you shoot?

All thoughts leave my head. It's the nine hours of driving around beforehand [when I do my] thinking. And I think right after I've taken the picture how it's going to fit into the series.

What's your theory of photography?

Photography is very related to poetry. It's suggestive and fragmentary and unsatisfying in a lot of ways. It's the art of limitation: framing the world.

Does a photographer actually need a philosophy to do good work?

You need to find your own voice, as corny as it sounds. You need to know the tradition [of photography] and find your little voice in that tradition in order to bring a glimmer of newness to it.

Mary Ellen Mark

A contributing photographer for The New Yorker, Mark achieved worldwide recognition following her 1981 book Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay. Her images often depict people at the edge of society.

How did you develop your own way of seeing?

I don't think you can develop or learn a "way of seeing". It's who you are, how you think and how you create images.

Do you know what you want to say before you take a picture?

I prefer not to think ahead about what I'm going to say; I would rather be surprised and see what my subjects bring to the photograph.

How important is patience in your job?

You have to wait for the right moment. There is so much we see today that is not about the subject but about the clever ideas the photographer might have. Most often the ideas the subjects have are a thousand times better. I was photographing an animal trainer who had a massive ego. He took the trunk of his beloved elephant Shyama and wrapped it around his neck like a necklace. I would never have thought of something that clever.

Do you think that a documentary photograph can ever be objective?

All documentary photographs are subjective. But great photographers are special because of the way they see the world. They have a personal vision.

Extracted from 'Image Makers, Image Takers', by Anne-Celine Jaeger, paperback, £17.95 (Thames & Hudson)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam