In the first installment of our special Magnum photographers Q&A, Elliott Erwitt, Chris Steele-Perkins and Ian Berry tell us about how they got into photography, their favourite camera and their advice for those starting out in the game…
Which shot are you most proud of?
Elliott Erwitt: Difficult to select a photo out of a 60 year inventory. I am proud of any picture that communicates and is a result of something seen and not constructed.
Chris Steele-Perkins: This is a question I get asked a lot, but do not have an answer for as I like different photos for different reasons – some are graphically successful, others have a lot of emotional content and all sorts of combinations. What is your favourite food…?
Ian Berry: The next one or I wouldn’t still be a photographer.
When did you realise you had an eye for photography – and how did you develop it?
EE: Eye is only part of photography – heart and mind are almost as important. In developing one’s “eye”, I think the most useful thing is to look at every kind of visual manifestation: other photographers’ work, movies, drawings, representational painting.
CSP: At university. Developed it by looking at a lot of great photos and a lot of other great visual art too, and most particularly by taking a lot of photos and trying to be really critical about them. You should be your own toughest critic.
IB: When working as a young photographer and having joined Magnum, I was able to study the contact sheets of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud.
Do you make a distinction between photojournalism and art?
EE: If you are good enough, maybe it’s art. But don't crown yourself as artist. That should be other people’s judgment. Art photography is usually a device to give importance to mediocrity.
CSP: No. Art means something different to every person on the planet. It certainly does not mean what a few critics would like to say it is.
IB: Photojournalism can be art and art photography can be crap – why make a distinction?
Why do you prefer the still image over the moving image?
EE: I do not prefer stills to movies or movies to stills. It is the content that counts and the ability of the work to communicate.
CSP: I don’t prefer it, but it is my practice. I spend more time looking at moving images, but I enjoy making still ones. In that sense a successful still image is closer to poetry as it is highly distilled.
IB: [You’re making] an assumption – but for me one has control of the final still photograph whereas in video the sound is as important as the image and [it’s] impractical to control both at the same time.
What’s your favourite camera?
EE: For walking around: a film Leica. For professional work: whatever camera is appropriate to the job.
CSP: Varies with the time and need.
IB: Leica M3.
Now newspapers publish photos shot on iPhones and developed with apps such as Hipstamatic. Is this march of technology something you embrace?
EE: It is unlikely that a casual picture, taken with such equipment, is more than a useful or pleasant record – something like a visual notebook. But it could happen that a real picture could emerge. To me, a real picture is something interesting, well presented [through] composition, and that was seen uniquely.
IB: One is obliged to embrace technology, even if then to ignore it.
What advice would you give to a photographer starting out?
EE: Take pictures and don't worry about art. If you wish to be a professional and [you] love photography, save time and effort for personal work. If you are an amateur, don't get seduced by the relative ease of getting images in the current digital age. As a professional, you will have a hard road to succeed because of a crowded field. You will need a host of non-photographic business and personal qualities. If you do it just for fun: lucky you. Photography is surely one of the most wonderful hobbies.
CSP: Work hard and work on projects that mean something to you personally – don’t worry about seasonal trends.
IB: Develop an eye and then work like hell!
Read Magnum photographers on their craft part two.
Main image: © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
Second image: © Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos
Third image: © Ian Berry / Magnum Photos
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