I'm taking a second to reflect on the lessons I learned from working with the legendary Art Streiber. Part one in the series is the benefits of preparation.
To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.
I’m probably not the first person to say that to you. Nor the last. If you’re like most people, your immediate reaction upon hearing such a familiar trope is likely a carefully disguised eyeroll followed by a polite society-dictated smile and nod.
Like most of life’s major virtues, preparation is one of those concepts we understand, until the day we actually understand. An abstract conceit until the day its validity is put the the test and we come back pass or fail.
In a profession where our name and reputation, not to mention potentially hundreds of thousands of our client’s dollars, are on the line every time we arrive on set, the costs of failure can be catastrophic. Maybe less than a doctor stepping into an operating room, or a lawyer arguing to save her client from the death penalty, but in our relative world of artistic endeavor, our success still relies on our ability to maintain a consistent pulse.
So how do you maintain consistent results in a craft that is so heavily defined by the elusive artistic inspiration? By being prepared.
My own awakening to the true value of preparation came in my time doing an internship with celebrity photographer Art Streiber, one of the most inspired and successful photographers of the last quarter century.
At the time, I had been shooting for several years already. Had an exhibition or two under my belt. A number of publications. A portfolio strong enough to impress my friends and maybe one or two people without a vested interest in raising my self confidence.
Cocky enough to think I knew it all. But not so far gone as to overlook the tremendous opportunity for growth afforded by such an apprenticeship. And boy oh boy did I have a lot to learn.
I learned far too many lessons to summarize them in a single essay, so today I'll just focus on the first and most important. Preparation.
Upon arriving at Art’s studio for the first time, I was immediately struck by the realization that this space looked far bigger on the outside than on the inside. As it turns out, this optical illusion was not so much the result of a silver tongued relator, but instead due to the massive file cabinets and gorilla-sized stacks of magazine that lined the walls, encroaching inwards towards the vacant center like python squeezing its prey.
But before I could rejoice in the short-lived belief that one of my photographic heroes was also a fellow hoarder, I was tasked with the job of maintaining this ever growing tribute to fallen timber. Upon closer inspection, I realized that these filing cabinets were filled to the brim with reference imagery. Printouts of imagery and inspiration. The stacks of magazines weren’t randomly placed for redundant insulation, but were rather recent issues of seemingly every publication known to man.
If you know anything of Art’s work, it won’t surprise you to learn that the vast majority of these magazines also included Art’s own imagery nestled within their interior, with more than a few covers scattered throughout the bunch.
But this physical ode to editorial was not there as some sort of overindulgent shrine to one’s own personal glory. Instead, these were there for research. They were present to help the artist prepare. Each publication has its own style and editorial content. A lesser photographer would just say “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” A master photographer says “I’ll be prepared before I ever arrive.”
Never was this more present than in the reference files. It’s a question not often asked but one worth a moment to ponder. Where do the inspired find their inspiration? From one glimpse into the top drawer I could see that Art’s own inspiration could come in the form of anything from an old movie still to an discarded advertisement. From an iconic portrait to a lesser known documentary image lost to time.
Of course, Art is no imitator, he’s a creator. These materials were only jumping off points for his own personal sense of style. From the aged brown texture of the cutouts, it was evident that many of them hadn’t been used in a while. But they were there. They had been seen. And when he needed to reference an image either in his own head, or to show to a client when developing a concept, he knew exactly where to go.
I took a great many lessons away from my days living among those mountains of ink and creativity. And the benefit of preparation was just one that allowed me to leapfrog my photography to a whole new level.
Next week, I will have an extensive article on how I translated Art's process into my own preparation. In the meantime, enjoy a moment, or an afternoon, checking out Art's amazing work and take a moment to consider how you prepare for photographic success.