What Can “The Boss” Teach You About Photography?

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Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, Book and CD Cover Image (c) Frank Stefanko. Image used with permission of the photographer.

Bruce Springsteen’s biography Born to Run is not only an extraordinary look at the life of one of the biggest rock legends of our time but also provides some amazing insights into what it takes to become truly great at your art. If one word stands out that describes the life of Springsteen it’s “disciplined”. To some, the term “disciplined artist” is probably a bit of an oxymoron. After all, surely the whole point about art is it thrives on creative chaos, drug and alcohol fuelled jamming sessions and wanton disregard for authority?

Whilst Springsteen’s early life may have been chaotic (he completed high school but felt so uncomfortable that he skipped his own graduation ceremony and only briefly attended college) he was hugely disciplined and driven in the way he moulded himself and his band to become the long lived success story that is Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band. He eschewed all forms of drugs and alcohol whilst his peers were not only partaking heavily in such substances but also dying from their use. Instead, Springsteen concentrated on that thing he realised he was destined to do – create one of the greatest and long lived rock bands of all time whose influence has become so big even President Obama said at one of his fundraisers in 2008 “The reason I’m running for president is because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen.”

Here are a few observations from Springsteen’s biography that I think any artist could take on board as a way of improving their artistic skills.

Bruce never did any formal education in music or writing

We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school

from ‘No Surrender’ on Born in the USA, 1984

Springsteen left college with few formal qualifications, convinced his mum to fund half the payment on his first guitar and taught himself how to “make it talk”. He learned his craft the hard way by working the clubs and down-and-out bars of  New Jersey, making the odd trip to Manhattan and San Francisco to ‘prove’ he could gain recognition outside his home turf (he couldn’t, at least not at first, but didn’t give up). He did this for almost ten years until he met the record producer John Hammond and signed his first contract with Columbia records. Greetings from Asbury Park, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and finally Born to Run were the fruits of that first recording contract and what eventually launched the band (and brand) onto the worlds stage.

Formal education is a great thing but it’s not for everyone. Today with so much information literally a mouse-click away we can all get hold of the kind of education material that, even a few years ago, would have cost a fortune or been inaccessible to most people. Learning the theory is one thing but going out and doing it is quite another. Photography is no different and indeed a great case in point. Sure, learn the theory but then really learn the craft by going out there and taking pictures.

Bruce did the work

I’m working on a dream
Though sometimes it feels so far away
I’m working on a dream
And I know it will be mine someday

from ‘Working on a Dream’ on Working on a Dream, 2007

Very early on in his life Bruce realised that music was his vocation but the only way he was going to make it was to really work at it. In the late 60’s and early 70’s there were no end of young men who could play a mean six string and who had ambitions for greatness but the vast majority of them dropped by the wayside. Bruce realised that sure, he could play the guitar but was not up there with the greats, he could sing but his voice was not the best in the world but what he could do was write great songs. This is what eventually made him and his band unique – the ability to play, sing and write and to deliver these things through the lineup of players Bruce finally put together as his E Street Band. These were Garry Tallent on bass, Danny “the Phantom” Federici on organ, Steve “Little Steven Van Zandt on guitar, Max “the Mighty Max” Weinberg on drums, “Professor” Roy Bittan on piano and of course the mighty Clarence Clemons, “the Big Man” on sax. This, whilst not the original band lineup, was the one that delivered some of the greatest live shows in the history of rock performances.

Doing the work is probably the hardest thing for an artist. In his book The War of Art Steven Pressfield refers to the thing that prevents the majority of us from being really great as “resistance”. He says:

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate , falsify, seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form as that’s what it takes to deceive you. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”

Photography, like any art form, is prone to the protean influences of resistance. Why go out there and shoot when you can stay at home read books, watch YouTube videos or follow peoples blogs. The hard stuff is motivating your self to do the work otherwise, to put it bluntly, you’ll always suck at photography. Bruce understood this about music.

Bruce never gave up

We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat baby no surrender

from ‘No Surrender’ on Born in the USA, 1984

Like all artists when they are looking for a style Springsteen went through a number of band names and lineups until he settled on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. During this time he was playing at every dodgy bar and two-bit venue he and his band could get into. Sometimes the band members outnumbered the audience but he never gave up. He eventually worked out what his style of music was and honed that to perfection by not only writing and playing great music but creating songs that really spoke to his audience because they were instilled with life experiences that directly related to their own lives.

When trying to find your own particular style in photography you’ll almost certainly start out by copying the great masters but eventually, if you stick at it, you’ll create something that is unique to you and that speaks to your audience. This won’t happen overnight or even, for most of us, in several years. Don’t surrender though, keep trying and eventually you’ll get there.

Bruce mastered his equipment

Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk

from ‘Thunder Road’ on Born to Run, 1975

You don’t get to be a great musician unless you put in the hours to really master your instrument. And so it is with photography. The temptation today is to change your camera every 6 months when the latest and greatest model comes out. Worse is to change your brand of camera which means you need to learn a whole different menu structure and where all the important buttons are. It’s far more important to really maser last years camera model than to be forever showing off the latest feature laden beast that has just been released. Manufacturers will always be wanting to make you feel that your current camera is inadequate in some way and that if you upgrade you’ll immediately start taking better images. Ignore them, use what you have and really make that thing “talk”.

Bruce eventually found his own unique voice

And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money
Tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
Because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance

from ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, 1973

In his early days Bruce, like many artists before him, was influenced by the greats of his era: Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie to name a few. Ultimately however he found his own unique voice telling the story of the working class people who he grew up with working in dead end jobs and were drafted into the Vietnam war. His music and his lyrics speak to his audience because it is instilled with his life experiences that at some level relate to most of our own experiences. As Bruce says:

“This was my place, my moment, my opportunity for my voice, no matter how faint, to be heard.”

As a photographer you need to find your own unique style of telling stories through your images. It’s fine to learn from the greats just as Bruce did but ultimately you need to go your own way and find your own style otherwise you’ll always be following in their tracks rather than forging your own way.

Epilogue – Frank Stefanko

I’d like to give a massive thanks to the photographer Frank Stefanko for letting me use his image of Bruce Springsteen for this post. This is also the image that adorns the cover to the book Born to Run. Frank said of this image in his email giving me permission for it’s use:

“My feeling as to the popularity of this photograph, that was taken during the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ shooting sessions, is due to the fact that it evokes the feeling of Bruce’s ‘Thunder Road’. In that song he sings…..’My car’s outside if your ready to take that long walk, from your front porch to my front seat….the door’s open, but the ride it ain’t free.'”

In the book Bruce tells of the time he first met Frank on the recommendation of Patti Smith whom Frank had photographed at the beginning of her career.

“He worked a day job at a local meat packing plant and continued to practice his craft in his spare time. I stood against some flowery wallpaper in Frank and his wife’s bedroom, looked straight into the camera, gave him my best ‘troubled young man’ and he did the rest. One of these photos ended up on the cover of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.”

I see this as a nice little epilogue to this post as it beautifully illustrates its intent. You don’t need flashy gear or to be a full-time photographer to create great and iconic images. You just need dedication, creativity and be prepared to “do the work”.

Thanks to both Bruce Springsteen and Frank Stefanko making this post possible.

 

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