I had the fortune to sit down recently with London-based photographer Ivan Weiss, whom I consider one of the great portrait artists of our time. Weiss’ unique body of work has been featured by Canon UK, Affinity Photo, Vogue, BBC, and Forbes, among others, and he also leads the Portrait Track in Peter Hurley’s Headshot Crew, where he mentors other photographers. Our conversation focused on the illusion of originality in art, mentorship, and why you need to “stay on the bus” in order to reach your full potential.
Finding Your Own Voice
One of the greatest challenges for artists in any field is the process of finding our own voice, creating work that is instantly recognizable as our own. Most artists will struggle with this at varies stages in their career, and, as Weiss explained, the process in creating our own aesthetic can seem counterintuitive. Yet, the process is necessary and begins with identifying a style that strongly speaks to us on an intrinsic level.
Weiss began our interview by discussing one of his greatest influences, Dan Winters, whose work he discovered by reading Wired Magazine. Even before Weiss knew the photos were Winters' work, the images spoke strongly to him. It wasn’t until later that he made the connection between Winters the photographer and the Wired images, realizing that he was drawn to the work before he even began his career as a photographer. Later on, while on holiday in Italy, Weiss visited the Uffizi Gallery, where he decided to spend some time studying the portraits of a few lesser-known Renaissance artists. Upon viewing portraits created by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Weiss noticed many similarities between the paintings and Winters’ portraits. At this point, he began to understand that originality is more complex than it seems on the surface, and, as he dug deeper into the history of the dell’Altissimo paintings, he discovered that even these were copies of a previous painter’s style. It was then that Weiss had a realization regarding originality and emulating the work of others:
He elaborated on this concept by comparing architectural photography to portrait photography. When one photographs a building, Weiss said, one is capturing someone else’s creation, which inherently defies the concept of originality, since the image we created is a copy of the architect’s building. As a portrait artist, he realized that photographing people is, in fact, very similar, in the sense that you, as the photographer, have no claim over the unique face you are capturing. You did not create the face, and ultimately your image inherently is a kind of copy, so, in this sense, we are all just copying.
You realize, at that point, we’re all frauds in that sense, but it doesn’t actually matter. It matters the way you feel about it. I don’t set out to copy Dan Winters but I consumed so much of his work that a lot of his visual touchstones come naturally with me.
You realize that there is no such thing, in one sense, as being original, but, on the other hand, there is the way that I see something, and the way that I decide to present it, and the moment I decide to click the shutter. That’s the thing that’s of value.
Viewed in this way, being, or becoming, original, does not seem like such an impossible task, although Weiss doesn’t pull punches when he discusses the amount of work involved in the process, simply encouraging those who are struggling to “make more pictures.” More on that later.
Stay on the Bus
The concept of staying on the bus comes from a 2004 graduation speech by photographer Arno Minkkinen, and it was expounded upon by writer Oliver Burkeman. According to the theory, the secret to finding your unique path and success boils down to the Helsinki Bus Station. Although all lines from the terminal begin by making identical stops exiting the city, soon, there are many different paths to choose from, representing the multiple paths we can take as artists. Unfortunately, after spending some time on a specific route, we realize, or perhaps others painfully tell us, that we are just copies of another artist who has been down this route before. Frustrated, we take a cab back to the station and start again at the terminal, effectively from scratch. Two years later, we are right at a similar stop as before, again feeling like a copy of someone else. Minkkinen’s solution to this is to simply “stay on the f-ing bus!” It is only by staying on the bus that you will explore Helsinki’s varied and divergent bus routes, ultimately discovering roads less travelled. In other words, by staying committed to the path, eventually your work will be the realization of your singular vision.
In Weiss’ view, staying on the bus is the key to discovering your creative voice. An important part of the process is not being afraid to copy the work of another artist, as long as their style speaks strongly to you. He believes that our tastes are not something we can intellectually make a decision about, but “they are just the things that come out of you spontaneously.” Although we can make a conscious decision to try to copy another photographer, it’s only through practice and repetition that we can create work that realizes our own tastes. In other words, as Weiss says, “you realize it looking backwards.”
Although it might seem counterintuitive to those who have not been on the bus for long, he further believes that purposely trying to be different is a mistake. “It’s not about consciously trying to be different. When people consciously try to be different, it always comes across as kind of phony, it’s like novelty stuff.” In his own journey, being inspired by Winters, Weiss discovered that, “[Winters’] style, or bits of it, just kind of came out of me and I wasn’t aware where they were coming from.”
Go and Make Some Pictures
Before this begins to seem too much like an existential journey, it’s important to note that the only way to get to this ideal is by putting in a lot of work photographing, studying, and mentoring. As I mentioned already, Weiss encourages us to simply take more pictures. And this sounds easy enough, but it is truly the essence of what we need to do in order to reach our full potential as artists. When he admonishes us to take more pictures, he is telling us to put in the needed work, although he prefers to avoid the term, “doing the work,” since he feels that our work as photographers should spring from a place of passion and love. The “work” is therefore not drudgery or something to dread, but something to welcome at each turn. Weiss adds: “Your technician has to be good enough to follow the rules, but then if your artist decides not to, that’s also okay,” reminding us that technical proficiency is a necessary part of the process. In other words, you can’t cut corners.
Our conversation eventually turned towards the subject of mentorship, which Weiss deeply believes is an invaluable part of fast-tracking our growth as portrait artists. Although many photographers play it close to the chest when it comes to sharing their techniques, he believes that, “Mentorship works for the person being mentored and also for the mentor,” and encourages photographers to seek out mentorships. If you have access to a person whose work you like, and you can study with them directly, that’s the fastest and most certain way to grow.
Weiss cites headshot master Peter Hurley as his mentor. On mentoring with Hurley, he says: “the more time I spend replicating Peter’s style, the more it becomes me.” For Weiss, Hurley represents the ideal of what a mentor should be, since he is an open book when it comes to his process, from the equipment he uses, to coaching, to camera settings, and business strategies. Naturally, this is Weiss’ philosophy as a mentor too, simply saying: “I don’t think having secrets is a good way to go about things.”
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I have had the fortune to mentor with Ivan Weiss myself, and I consider him to be the greatest influence on my portrait photography. I can attest to the fact that he shares from a place of passion and joy, and his endless pursuit of the perfect portrait is inspiring as well as infectious. I think he summed up our conversation best when he told me:
There’s no problem that can’t be solved by going and making some pictures. If you’re down on motivation, if you’re stuck creatively, if you need to develop technically, go and make some pictures.
Images used with permission.