In the past, through articles and emails and speeches, most notably in the recent talk I gave at the Out Of Chicago Photography Conference, whose recording you can find here, I mentioned the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, first introduced by Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen.
The theory is a metaphor of the life of an artist and of a photographer in particular. The moral of the story is that, if you find something that inspires you and if you want to pursue a specific genre of photography, you should stick to it. You should not jump off the bus, metaphorically speaking, and pursue different avenues just because people tell you that what you’ve been doing has already been done by others.
To quote Minkkinen:
“Stay on the bus. Stay on the f**king bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.[..] Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it. Your vision takes off.”
I use this quote in the emails I send to my subscribers (click here if you want to get them too) and a few days ago I received a reply from one of my readers, Bob, who wrote:
“I loved the “Helsinki” article. Is it possible to ride on more than one bus at a time, or more accurately, one big bus and a few minivans? In the 70’s, the Sierra Club published reduced format paperback versions of their magnificent color monographs. I was of course overwhelmed by the Ansel Adams photos, but was moved and inspired by the work of Elliot Porter. While I love travel and travel photography, my greatest love and greatest frustration is photographing the “intimate landscape” in the footsteps of Porter. I recently found his two large-format books at a used book store and instinctively bought them. My big bus is “intimate landscapes”, and my minivans are travel and street photography.”
So here’s my reply to Bob.
Yes, you can ride more than one bus at a time. It is OK to pursue different interests and practice different genres at the same time. Artists are supposed to be curious, multifarious and omnivorous.
Look at Picasso. He went through several phases or periods in his artistic development. First he had a “blue period”, then a “rose period”, followed by an “African” period, then he invented cubism, rediscovered classicism, and dabbled with surrealism.
The question you have to ask yourself is not whether it is OK to pursue multiple genres at a time. The question is: What do I want to be known for?
You can certainly do intimate landscapes, travel, and street photography all at the same time, but what image of yourself do you want to project to the outside world? Is it that of the intimate landscape photographer or that of the street and travel photographer?
Another thing to keep in mind is that people are going to put you in a box, whether you like it or not. You can, however, control what box they will put you in.
When Picasso started doing cubism, he consciously chose to do cubist paintings and put himself into that box, for a few years. Nobody could have put him inside the impressionist box. He also did classical paintings at the same time, but cubism was what he was known for and what made Picasso the greatest artist of the 20th century.
If somebody, like Picasso, is known for multiple things, it’s because they focused on one of those things at a time, and on other things at different times in their lives.
If you want to become known in multiple fields or genres, focus on one for a number of years. Stay on that bus. Become known for that one thing and get a following in that field before you try to become known for something else.
I would very much like to know your opinion about this, my dear reader. It’s OK if you disagree, and I will appreciate any kind of feedback you can give via the comments section below.
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