Photography and the Art of Discipline

Posted by Jerry Avenaim on January 4, 2010 – 11:34 am
fashion photographers

Polaroid (type 59) shot for Italian Vogue 1987 © Jerry Avenaim

“Jerry Avenaim’s images of supermodels and celebrities have captivated readers of almost every major magazine. Combining mastery of lighting techniques, the ability to guide his subjects to the limits of their expressiveness, endless energy, and abundant chutzpah, the L.A.-based shooter has attracted so much press coverage that when we asked him to dig deeper into some of the famous stories about his career, he replied. ‘I don’t know what else I can add. If you dig any deeper, I’ll be buried.’” -Excerpt from American Photo Interview by Mark Lapin.

During this interview I surprised myself, realizing what I could have witnessed firsthand during my years in photography world. This decade has seen a great evolution in how we create photographs, most notably film vs. digital. Photographers state they are “going back to film” while others sing the praises of digital and what can be done in post production. At times I feel like I am straddling the 38th parallel in this debate because I am, and always will be, a double agent.

To this day, I don’t regret stepping forward into digital. Nor do I lament not being able to step back into film, because I still have a variety of equipment to choose from in both avenues of image capture. Each camera I own is a tool, one that serves a purpose of capturing what I’m trying to convey in my photographs. By having all of these options at my disposal I am never compromising my photography, or my vision, by restrictions inherent to technology or available films.

In the end, the image is not determined by the equipment used but by the person who was using that equipment.  If given a pinhole camera, many photographers I know would be able to make a photographic essay shooting with only that. Of course, knowing your equipment and maximizing its potential is what will make you the photographer you are, not a visit to the camera shop and buying the most megapixels or the top shelf films.

fashion photography

Polaroid (type 55 negative) shot for Italian Vogue 1987 © Jerry Avenaim

I started shooting large format at a very early stage in my career. This gave me the discipline that I feel photography requires. To study my subject, compose my image, and when the moment comes, to capture it. This practice has carried over into every format and medium I shoot today.  The patience, precision-all my images were born from mastering the properties of large format film cameras.  By today’s standards a large format camera is neither portable nor frugal, but to me the discipline I learned from using it is priceless and I carry it with me everywhere.

However that’s just me, many photographers, it seems, were out sick and missed the class on discipline and patience. In my fashion photography workshops I see photographers use what I affectionately call the “spray and pray” method of shooting which is simply holding down the shutter on their camera and PRAY a good shot comes out.  Many forget there is a person on the other side of their lens and to make a great photograph both sides need to work together.  A photographer can’t simply accept what is in front of them and take a  picture, that’s not being a photographer, that’s not even being a photo journalist, that’s paparazzi at best.  There is a very different feeling in hoping one shot out of 10 is the one you want as opposed to knowing the one shot you took is exactly what you wanted.

los angeles fashion photographers

Polaroid 8x10 (type 84 and 89) shot for L'uomo Vogue 2003 © Jerry Avenaim

Digital technology has really increased “spray and pray” shooting, and many forget that the original purpose of digital technology was to eliminate the limited exposures presented by rolls of film.  Today, digital photography is much more than just “film-less shooting.” It has changed photography for the better in so many ways that I would need another blog (with sequels) to detail how.  The only downside I can really acknowledge is that I feel digital-only photographers have not learned the discipline of photography like I did with my first steps in large format.

Go out and take pictures of anything, as many shots as you want, just don’t shoot longer than 5-10 minutes.  Next pick up your digital camera and disable your LCD screen by covering it with a piece of 2 inch paper tape (this is LCD safe) and prepare to take the same images again.  However, this time, instead of limiting your time shooting we are now limiting your images- do not shoot more than 10 – 15 images (up to 30 if you were shooting medium format), but take all of the time in the world.  And finally, do not look at them until you go home or to your studio (you could even wait a day). Treat those files as though they were film.

With only so many chances, each shot is now more valuable than the last. Odds are, moving forward, you’re not going to just push the shutter without thinking first.  Engage your subject and instruct them on posing; convey the expressions you like.  You can’t wait for them to naturally give you that spray and pray shot, after all, you now only have 10 to 30 shots at most.  Was it a landscape? Has the lighting changed or will it be changing?  Will the patience and discipline of waiting a few minutes or even over an hour present the golden hour light and make the image that much better?

Having the knowledge and the equipment is a valued attribute in the photographic community. However, it is all nothing without patience and discipline.  A photograph is made by what is on both sides of the lens, and in a photographic world full of quantity it is wise to distinguish yourself by the quality of your images.

Happy shooting!

Jerry Avenaim

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30 Responds so far- Add one»

  1. 1. Jeff Berlin Said:

    Great post Jerry. As someone who has almost had to be dragged into the digital world, who also shot large format for Italian Vogue ;-),and still shoots film when he can, I think you’ve nailed on the head the difference between photographers who came up during the analog days and inherently understand the discipline of the single frame, and those weaned on megapixels who, well, weren’t, and don’t.

    See you soon my friend, and well said!

    Jeff

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    Thanks Jeff. I have always appreciated your work and friendship over the years. Looking back, it almost seemed easier to go Milan and shoot for Vogue rather than it is today – having a digital camera and a web site 🙁

    I’ve always said the two are both a blessing and a curse!

    Jerry

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  2. 2. Jeff Berlin Said:

    Thanks Jerry, and likewise for sure!

    I think you might be onto another topic for this blog, as you and I both know, it’s a very different world now shooting for magazines.

    I can only imagine what it’s like now — going to Milan or Paris like we did back in the day and knocking on Vogue’s door. Can you imagine Franca Sozzani or Ariella Goggi saying back then, Send me your link and we’ll take a look.

    How many of us would have even made it to Milan had that been the case? Technology’s definitely been a double-edged sword for photography, or that’s what it seems to me at least.

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    Being one of the greats of the era, I would love to see you write that Jeff. You shot more Vogue et al than I did. As I recall you also shot some heavy ad campaigns for Revlon and the like.

    My readers would love to hear some of your thoughts I’m sure!

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    Jeff Berlin Reply:

    Jerry, You’re too kind considering I’ve always looked at your work as an example of what to aspire to, even back in days of Milan and Paris.

    I appreciate the offer to expand on my thoughts and I’ll have a piece for you shortly.

    Great Meetup the other night, by the way.

    Jeff

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  3. 3. Greg Piche Said:

    Excellent article Jerry. And I couldn’t agree more with you. While I’ve only shot with a large format a couple times it was an immensely time consuming experience and I had to make sure everything was just right before I even dreamt of shooting the shot. And even then I just was praying something was gonna work. And then, removing the negatives from the glass plates in that light tent…what a pain! But what a pleasure when I got back a usable image or two.

    Today, with digital, I often find myself not taking the time to really be as thorough as I should be. That’s definitely the curse of technology. I can get a ton of images, all for “free”, but what’s the use if they’re all mediocre at best?

    And I’d second Jeff’s comment about the digital age being a double-edged sword. Technology has broken down the barrier to entry and the markets are now so saturated that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for photographers to really make a living shooting. I know quite a few who have taken up second jobs – or who are wishing they had.

    As for my role in all this? I’ll just keep doing my thing that I love and, god-willing, keep the job I use to pay for the thing I love doing. ; )

    Happy New Year!

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    I appreciate your comments Greg… From looking at your work over the past few years, I can see it’s pretty deliberate. No spray and pray there.

    That said, next time you do go out and shoot, use a smaller card. don’t bring a second one, and cover your LCD screen with black paper tape.

    I’d love to see you try this. You may surprise both of us!

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  4. 4. Zoe Wiseman Said:

    “spray & pray” otherwise known as the turkey shoot. thanks for bringing that up. as a photographer, who shoots film, it’s just a waste for me… and when I was modeling and a photographer would start doing that to me, I would stop modeling and beg the photographer to slow down because I could imagine in my head all the really horrible images that were going to come out of that shoot because he just wasn’t connecting with me at all. One time I was transitioning between poses and he shot the transition, which was a nice shot of an unattractive butt pinch. And this was an assignment from my agent! I thought for sure the mag would have hired someone who had worked with models before. I can only hope that all those spray shots are buried somewhere deep in the depths of film hell. LOL

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    The ‘turkey shoot’ I like that Zoe! It’s much like those ‘shoot out’ workshops I’ve seen put together. Dear lord, what would they do if all they had was a Mamyia RZ and three rolls of film? I bet that full day ‘turkey shoot’ would only last an hour or so 😉

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  5. 5. Gerry Hanan Said:

    Completely Deadly article Jerry 🙂 I am the first to admit, when I first started pursuing photography, I wasn’t well grounded in every technical aspect of the equipment and I was not well versed in composition etc As a result, I shot in a manner similar to the appropriately named spray & pray method. Very soon, I noticed that while there were moments when my camera, the model and I had an appointment with destiny and a decent shot came out, I was unable to reproduce the results the next time I shot because I hadn’t planned for it in the first place. I remember you talking about this very topic in on of your seminars over 4 years ago when you talked about the discipline involved in shooting large format and looking at the subject upside down etc. While I am not completely out of the woods yet, I did adopt your guidance and as a result I saw a dramatic increase in the number of usable images per hour. My next step in increasing that number, and thank you for sharing this one, will be to place the paper tape over the LCD. My current style, is to shoot less and pray more 🙂

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    It’s an interesting thing Gerry. When I look at your photos, I can tell which were hurried and which you took your time. Those great images are very deliberate, they are no accident. Keep going in that direction friend, much like life, timing is everything!

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  6. 6. Ryan Hackett Said:

    As a student not too long ago I was overwhelmed with excitement everytime I would enter the lab. I just couldn’t wait to see what I had created and to look forward to the next step of entering the darkroom and beginning the printing stage. That excitement of chemicals, darkrooms and negatives on a lightbox is part of the reason I got into photography in the first place back in high school. During my few years in college years later I was introduced to large format photography and fell in love with every aspect of it, then I finished college very excited to work with all these new cameras and… digital had taken over!!! Here I was having to learn an entire new medium. I love digital but still appreciate and miss the excitement and hands on that film brought me. Working with Jerry has been a blessing because I was able to learn digital for all the good that it does while also understanding the importance of film to a photographer. Starting my career during this transition has and will continue to be extremely difficult, and as long as we all incorporate a little of what you speak of in this blog I truly believe that the little techniques we carry over from the film days will help us stand apart from the modern day digital photographer. Thanks Jerry for all the continued guidance and support, it’s knowledge like this that I learn from you everyday and will follow with me throughout my career. Cheers!

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    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    I’m thrilled you started with film at school Ryan. It’s what made you a great assistant and great photographer. I’ve seen you notice details that even I’ve missed during a shoot… (Albeit easier when you’re standing off to the side when I’m shooting) 😉

    Have a great shoot this weekend in Vegas! And I’m sure your career will be a great one!

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  7. 7. Gary Nylander Said:

    Good blog post, Jerry, I shoot both film and digital, but I’m glad for my film background, it has given me a solid foundation to work from.

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  8. 8. Dan Wagner Said:

    Dear Jerry,

    Every so often one boots up the computer, performs their morning web-site perambulations, and is rewarded with something unexpected, and sincere like your blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to communicate.

    In 2002 one of my bread-and-butter clients informed me they would no longer accept film. I went from shooting three sheets of perfection on 4×5 or 8×10, and developing only one, to shooting with a 6mp Fuji S2.

    With sheet film I might push or pull 1/4 stop, and I would color correct with .25 CC filters. There’s magic in that. It’s strange, but on some level I don’t feel like a real photographer unless I’m under a dark cloth.

    I’m amazed that ad agencies no longer appreciate correcting for converging lines. Oh well. Composing upside down and backwards on the 8×10 ground glass while clients looked on was fun.

    I don’t think following the spray and pray pseudo-technique is bad when covering events, or when it’s a part of the process with moving a subject towards the shot you really want to take. But of course, as a crutch, it will turn one into a photo-zombie.

    By coincidence I purchased a Rolleiflex TLR last night, and Avedon’s 1950’s meter, a Norwood Director B, for the purpose of revisiting my roots. I wrote about it on my own blog which I’d be honored if you visited. Included in the blog entry are links to a spectacular blog written by one of Avedon’s former assistants, Earl Steinbicker.

    In closing, Jerry, you’re work is really wonderful.

    Best regards,
    Dan Wagner

    [Reply]

    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    Dan- Your comments are greatly appreciated. And I look forward to checking out your blog.

    I’m really thrilled with your Rolleiflex purchase as I have one of Dicks from the 1980’s. A spectacular 2.8F that is still pristine.

    I can also see I’m going to have to write about Earl and his experiences as I have had my own.

    In good health,
    Jerry Avenaim

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  9. 9. Dan Wagner Said:

    …”I have one of Dicks from the 1980’s. A spectacular 2.8F that is still pristine.” Is this one that Avedon once used? If yes, paint me green:)

    I wanted to get a 2.8F but the 3.5F that came along was too nice and affordable to resist. I’m planning on developing the negatives myself, and perhaps scanning them if that method yields good results, and if I’m able to locate an appropriate scanner.

    Did you have any Avedon related experiences or annecdotes? I see you worked for Patrick Demarchelier — I bet that was interesting.

    [Reply]

  10. 10. Jared Said:

    I liked your comment ‘spray and shoot’ for that’s what I found I was doing. Shoot a ton and pick out the best, but what about the personality on the other in the center of the shots – in the speed of the shooting it is quite easy to forget them. This, I found, is what always happened to me when I got busy and interested. This was when I bought a Minolta 5D; I felt some kind of incompleteness affecting me and it was the inevitable that I should turn to something else. I remembered that as a boy I had played about with 116 film and on old bellows job and they came out right. Then one evening out at a Boys Brigade jamboree, I saw for sale an old cardboard box camera in an old straw board box. It had a shutter made from cardboard and one inserted the film, 3 x 5″, put on the lid and to shoot you pulled out a bead from the side of the box that was attached to an elastic band. It worked with the the tiny lens held open for nearly a full minute.

    It was the slowness, the patience I had to muster in order to do it when my blood was pushing, pushing me to hurry it up. I held and got the shot. I remembered this experience and went back to it determined to bring that simple but complex feeling back to me.
    I am not a trained photographer, but I feel I see something different in your shots, some extra touch of empathy. Your 1st photograph with the girl placed against a pale blue ground and the softened but detailed hair and eyes touched me. I though she was placed a fraction too near the ground. Light blue appeared an unlikely choice though I had to look much more closely. It was good because I had to go back to it.

    Then, your 2nd shot with the hands framing the face slightly soft focused was also very interesting, but all the same, different and planned. I couldn’t quite follow the symbolism in your third shot of the two guys in big suits, tall hats and wearing rather comic expressions. Lots of contrast here, nearly every gray that one could imagine. Were these fellows a bit absent minded that day leaving their sub-machine guns at home and taking up a compass and throwing down the carpenters’ square as a challenge to the public. I felt here, that everything had been planned. I might not understand the picture, but I could see what qualities made it.

    One other thing about No 1; your model suited that treatment. That light soft mottled blue suited her and certainly brought out her own pale prettiness. I hope you don’t mind my cheek. I have just remembered that I haven’t joined the forum yet as there was a problem in signing in and also I am such a novice still.

    These qualities that you outline your article around are exactly what made me buy a Sinar Norma having only read about what that camera was within the previous quarter of an hour. I join to learn and will need a lot of luck and good wishes. I loved the shots and the sentiment that fueled the article.

    Jared.

    [Reply]

  11. 11. Dan Wagner Said:

    I have Nikon digital equipment D3 lenses etc and use these for paying jobs. For myself, I have Rolleiflexes, Leica M3, Fuji 690 and 645 cameras, Nikon scanner, Phototherm film processor. Film is much more fun and satisfying. I’m doing a lot of black and white and really enjoy it. D3 is great for assignment workflow. Photographers whose careers spanned the best years of working with film were very fortunate. New photographers today have no idea of what they’ve missed — THE CRAFT.

    [Reply]

  12. 12. Acrylic Prints Said:

    This post was VERY helpful to me. I’ve really tried to slow down but as someone who’s learned on digital I find I shoot way more exposures then I should.

    [Reply]

  13. 13. Natalie Minh Said:

    Amazing article Jerry. Your point is absolutely correct that today, digital photography is much more than just “film-less shooting.” This is like an eye opener for most of the photographers who are doing the same thing.

    Kind Regards,
    Natalie Minh

    [Reply]

  14. 14. andrew Said:

    im looking into photography as i want to start selling photo canvas prints ,, does anyone have any tips.

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  15. 15. Gay Said:

    Just want to say your article is as surprising.
    The clarity in your post is simply excellent and i can assume you are an expert on this subject.
    Fine with your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post.
    Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.

    [Reply]

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