Conceptual Genius or Experimental Master: What Kind of Photographer Are You?

Conceptual Genius or Experimental Master: What Kind of Photographer Are You?

Successful photographers follow one of two paths. Which route are you taking in your photographic journey, that of a conceptual genius or an experimental master?

I’m currently listening to an audiobook of one of the greatest songwriters of our time: Paul Simon. It’s fascinating because, like The Beatles: Get Back movie that I discussed a few months ago, it delves into the creative processes. There are interesting observations about how Simon’s creativity works, and we can draw parallels between his and the career paths of some of the very best photographers. This can lead us to examine our own creative paths.

Early in the audiobook Miracle and Wonder, the authors, Malcolm Gradwell and Bruce Headlam, discuss with Simon the difference between him and Bob Dylan. They conclude Dylan identified himself as being set within the folk tradition. In contrast, although Simon was a fan of that genre, he didn’t consider himself a folk artist. He experimented with its conventions, mixing them with other styles and cultural influences, in much the same way as The Beatles did with their work.

Relating this to photography, many well-known photographers deliberately place themselves in a particular genre. If we consider a type of photography that interests us, specific names will come to mind. Ansel Adams was known for landscapes, the photojournalist Robert Capa for his war photography, while Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work chronicles the 20th century with his social documentary images.

However, although we shoehorn photographers into these categories, if we research some of them, we find that over time, they diversified away from their best-known work. Take Don McCullin as an example. Many will consider him a war photographer. However, checking his entire catalog of work, we find it is far more diverse. He shoots outstanding landscapes ("The Landscape") and hard-hitting social commentary ("In England") and then mixes that commentary with the incredible tribal portraits he shot for his collection "In Africa."

One of my own African portraits shot in Tanzania 20 years ago. These two Maasai teenagers had just undergone the transition to junior Moran, or warriors.

Compare that to the images of one of my other favorite photographers, Annie Leibowitz. Most of her work concentrates on capturing images of the famous. Her photos within that field are diverse, just as Dylan’s work is diverse within the folk and folk-rock traditions. However, there isn’t a noticeable shift from her early work, creative images of well-known people, to her contemporary photography, more creative images of well-known people.

There is no right or wrong here, and this is not a criticism of either approach. However, it is helpful to note the difference and recognize what direction we take in our creativity. Paul Simon has much more freedom in his music, just as Don McCullin has in his photography, the freedom to experiment and mix up different influences. Meanwhile, Leibowitz discovered what she loved shooting and became the absolute master of that.

We are often told that photographers should stick to and perfect a specialism. This advice may be suitable for some, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Creativity is born from taking existing ideas and mixing them in new and hopefully exciting ways. Having a wide range of genres to play with gives a broader scope for our photography. That is an equally valid approach, as specializing is for others.

To illustrate this, let’s take a bird photograph as an elementary example. Conceptual wildlife photographers may photograph it sitting on a twig, flying, performing a courtship ritual, etc. They will then apply those same exacting techniques when shooting the next bird. In contrast, an experimental photographer might make the bird picture an abstract, like the header image of this article, or include it as part of a landscape. Then, they might create other abstracts that do not involve birds at all.

Landscape or a wildlife photograph?

In his 2008 book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Lifecycles of Artistic Creativity, David GW Galenson explores how there are two routes that creators follow. He examines the progress of artists’ careers by gathering data such as the prices paid for paintings and how often they are reproduced in books, and so forth.

Galenson observes that Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, and Alfred Hitchcock were what he calls experimental masters. They developed and improved over time by experimentation, getting better with age.

Meanwhile, others hit their peak early and then declined over their careers. This category included the likes of Vermeer, van Gogh, Picasso, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, and Orson Welles. These were the conceptual geniuses whose work climaxed in their youth.

Paul Simon very much fitted into the former category. His career started by exploring the folk tradition. Yet, even then, he was influenced by his Jewish heritage and the other cultures of his native New York. Rock and roll, doo-wop, country, and different styles of music inspired him. Furthermore, that range of stimuli increased as time passed. The South African sounds mixed with the country and early rock and roll influences of the album Graceland demonstrates this.

I set off to with a long lens to capture images of gulls against the sunset, but the shoot evolved into a landscape image of Warkworth Castle.

Other songwriting musicians, such as David Bowie and Paul McCartney, have followed similar paths in their collaborations and explorations of musical diversity.

Paul McCartney’s late wife, Linda, was an outstanding photographer whose work evolved and changed with experimentation. Just look at the vast difference between her photos of the pop and rock world of the 1960s, her images of horses and nature, her personal Polaroid Diaries, and her collection of Sun Prints. She very much fits into the experimental master category.

I think it is comforting to know that musicians that are 80 — Paul Simon reached that age in October last year, and Paul McCartney will be 80 in June — can still produce exciting and critically acclaimed work well into old age. Meanwhile, other musicians created their best results during their youth and, when on stage, are still only performing those same hits or maybe newer songs that cohere with their established style.

That does not detract from the quality of their music. People like Don McLean or The Rolling Stones, those who peaked early and wrote excellent songs in their prime, still perform those great songs that we enjoy at their concerts. Can the same be said for photographers? Of course, it can.

It's an interesting experiment to take photographers and decide into which of these two categories they fit. For example, compare the complete works over the entire careers of Brian Duffy, David Bailey, Steve McCurry, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Mary McCartney. Into which of the two categories would you place these people, great photographers all?

There is a difference in how the two groups work. For conceptual photographers, the final goal is all-important. They are planners and repeat their work, trying to perfect a technique. They know what they are trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, the experimenters work more freely. The journey is more important to them. They don’t have precise goals; they don’t plan or necessarily even know the outcome. They achieve their results through trial and error, gradually gaining more skills as time passes. They will meet obstacles along the way, but those may send them in a different creative direction altogether.

This shot from many years ago was based upon a Paul Simon song that I used as inspiration.

Of course, we cannot all have the acclaim of the famous photographers I mention in this article. But it is a valuable exercise to discover what kind of photographer you are. Do you get your joy from solely photographing one genre, or do you prefer to experiment with photography and learn what works and what doesn’t? They are equally valid approaches, just different.

There is an essential similarity between the two categories, though, something that is often forgotten in the search for success. Both require effort and persistence. The lucky break that puts them on the path to success comes from hard work, not an expectation of entitlement.

So, which category fits you? Are you a conceptual photographer who meticulously plans everything? Or are you an experimenter that explores different approaches and experiments? Please let me know in the comments.

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19 Comments
Sam Sims's picture

I mostly photograph street photography as I find it the most accessible genre to me although I imagine sone purists would argue my photography isn’t really street photography. I’d love one day to be more experimental but for now I’m just concentrating on trying to capture interesting images that will hopefully define my style. I’d like to know I am capable of creating a satisfying portfolio of work of traditional photographs before delving into any sort of experimentation.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Striving for perfection within a field is absolutely the right thing to do. There's lots to be said in favor of perfecting your techniques in a single genre of photography. Thanks for commenting.

Jacques Cornell's picture

As an event shooter, I enjoy the challenge of making technically excellent images under ever-changing conditions. It's a bit like playing a game, like soccer or billiards, where there's a set of rules (client expectations) and familiar playing field, but an endless variety of situations and the need to make quick decisions.

Tom Reichner's picture

What a great description of conceptual photography!

Jacques Cornell's picture

Actually, I think of it more as craftsmanship than art. There's nothing terribly "conceptual" about capturing someone at a lectern giving a presentation, or a couple of folks talking over drinks. The job/client requirements and goals don't change much. The challenge is in the lighting, framing and timing. Working in a wide variety of venues helps keep it fresh. If you don't live in NYC, you wouldn't believe how many event venues there are here. I've been doing this for 20 years, and at least 50% of my jobs are in venues I've never been in before.

I've really done only one project, a personal one, that I considered "conceptual", and that was a series of landscapes that were basically Rorschach tests about issues other than landscape. Long before I went pro, though, I did give up trying to emulate the commercial images that dominate our culture with trite and disempowering messages.

Sounds high-falutin', but basically I make expected images of folks speaking that make them look good. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff.

Ivor Rackham's picture

It's an interesting distinction you make, Jaques, about craftsmanship and art. I once knew a clock and watchmaker and he described his precision engineering in the same terms. He didn't see that as art either, although I considered his products as works of art. You are absolutely right that there is a distinction in photography between producing photos that meet our clients' expectations and shooting images for ourselves.

ted partrick's picture

You bring a very interesting way to understand motivations and approaches. Am i wrong to think the conceptual photographers are the gatekeepers and the experimenters are the unruly gatecrashers?

Jacques Cornell's picture

Who says you can't be both? Man Ray certainly was.

Tom Reichner's picture

Great point, Jacques. Any time man tries to make categories to fit things into, there are going to be lots of exceptions - lots of things that don't fit neatly into any of the categories. But breaking things down into categories is still useful, as it helps us to organize and direct our thoughts in a way that often opens up insights that we wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Zen philosophy is all about casting off labels and categories to see the essential nature of what is before us. Taoism, similarly, sees constructed rules as the highest level of infidelity to truth. The mental shortcuts that labels and categories comprise bring efficiency to our thinking, but they also blind us to everything these systems fail to account for.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a different way of looking at it, although I don't think the negative connotations that are implied by the term "gatekeepers" necessarily apply as young conceptual prodigies can push the boundaries of a genre. Take Mozart, van Gogh, and The Ramones as examples.

Jaques, there is a distinction between the two types in the career paths they take. I think Man Ray was to photography what Paul Simon is to music. Ray experimented with different aspects of art but having an informal connection to them. He was not permanently shoehorned into Cubism where he started but evolved into Dadaism and surrealism, continuing to expand during his lifetime using different media. I would place him in the Experimental Master category as his career path very much follows that route.

Tom Reichner's picture

What a great article! Thank you, Ivor, for continuing to write about the art of photography, rather than the gear of photography.

Personally, I find myself in both categories. I do a lot of wildlife photography in which I know exactly what I want to accomplish - where I know what I want the photos to be of and what I want them to look like.

But I also do a lot of experimental wildlife photography, where I just kinda fly by the seat of my pants and let a lot of unplanned things happen while shooting a wild animal.

So I guess you could say that I don't fit into either category ... or that I fit into both categories. I guess I just go with the opportunity at hand and try to photograph it the best way I can. Some subjects and conditions lend themselves to the solid scripted type of image- making, while other subjects in other types of conditions lend themselves to non-conventional imagery and experimentation. There's no sense forcing an opportunity into something that it doesn't want to be, so I just kinda "go with it".

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Tom. Professor Galenson's book is a fascinating read based upon a vast set of data he collected illustrating the two distinctive and divergent paths of artists' careers. I don't think he identified anyone as falling into both categories.

It is not a criticism of either approach, just a recognition that there is a difference between the two. He starts by using Picasso and Cezanne to illustrate the difference. Picasso formulated his major new ideas at an early age, whereas Cezanne experimented by trial and error, and his major contributions came late in life.

I see it as a helpful tool to examine, explain, and embrace our career paths, helping us understand why we either stick with one or expand over a wide gamut of different photographic areas and styles.

If you are interested in reading it: https://www.amazon.com/Old-Masters-Young-Geniuses-Creativity-ebook/dp/B0...

Ivor Rackham's picture

I'm going to have to correct myself! I just had an email from the author of the book I referred to, David Galenson, There was a part I missed about some artists being able to change direction and it is possible to move from being on one path onto another. Maybe you fit into both, Tom.

Ivor Rackham's picture

p.s. sadly, far fewer people read the art articles I write than the gear ones. Maybe that is a distinction between two types of people as well.

Chris Jablonski's picture

This may sound banal, Ivor, but when I lament a similar point - all the gear freaks here, and for instance the popularity of stereotypical "heroic" landscapes, compared with something more subtle, and often overlooked, in the same genre - I think of the name of this website. Whom is it going to attract? And there' nothing wrong with that, but it does militate for a technical rather than a creative focus. Many people posting here seem to know litlle about other photographers other than those running the site and featured YouTubers, let alone the history of photography and art more broadly.

Despite this, I have found "my" little corner of like-minded folk, amongst whom we enjoy more free-ranging discussion, broadly about creativity, with occasional references to technique when it might help others to realise their own creative vision. Alan Brown's ICM and "in-the-round" practice permits him to give others useful advice to get going and get some technical stuff under the belt to begin with - as a watercolourist might mention a favourite paper and the reasons for this being the case.

Your articles certainly stir my imagination and creativity (if I have any!), so thank you for writing as you do, Ivor. I'm definitely the conceptual apprentice, but am inspired by Alan and his co-conspirators' experimental striving.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Chris. I think there is nothing wrong with writing or reading articles about equipment as well, but it is apparent from the readership numbers - as a writer, I can view them - those written about gear attract a lot more readers. What can we infer from that? Maybe there are a lot of photographers who already know everything there is to know about composition and creativity. Or maybe they just lack interest in the topic. Or, maybe it is the human condition to be victims of marketing that makes people believe the lie that stuff is all-important and brings happiness.

Chris Jablonski's picture

I don't think it's just the marketing, Ivor. I often think about the fact that painters don't seem to discuss brushes the way photographers discuss their (OK, our!) gear! Maybe it has something to do with the implicitly technical nature of photography.

One of my best mates, who introduced me to photography and is very interested in it, grumbling about the poor quality of photo gear, which never seems good enough, has no idea at all about processing, as I realised when he puzzled over some images at a photographic exhibition we visited, where it was easy to see what the photographer had probably done, in broad terms. We often visit our main art gallery together, and tend to agree on likes & dislikes. It's not as if he's blind to art, yet photography is something quite different to him than it is to me. Maybe others are something like him.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I do agree with you, and wrote an article about that very subject at the end of March. https://fstoppers.com/business/warning-owning-canon-r5-wont-make-success... Because it mentioned gear in the title, it had lots of readers! Thanks for your comments.