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Inspirational Photographers of the Past

In the years I’ve focused my photography around creative portraiture, I have times when I feel like I’m full of ideas and purpose; I also have times where I’m not sure who or what I want to shoot. Big concepts or spontaneous stuff with no production? Can I do concepts with friends and family or do I really need the professional agency types to fulfill a vision? It’s in these moments of uncertainty that I turn to some of the great model photographers of the past, piece out how they approached their craft, and see what lessons I can glean.

Man Ray (1890 – 1976)

Man Ray, the American ex-patriot living in Paris in the early 20th century, is usually my first touchstone. He was a key figure in the scene around the Surrealists and Dadaists, and worked with the kind of bohemian indie model/actress that I myself tend to shoot today. Most notable of these was his assistant and lover Lee Miller, who began her career being pulled from walking in front of a car by Condé Nast. Miller would go on to acclaim as a war and fashion photographer in her later life, but in those early days in Paris, she lent her skills and extraordinarily long neck to Man Ray’s experimental images that involved in-camera and in-darkroom effects like solarization and compositing. Man Ray is proof that special effects can have soul, and that photography can do far more than illustrate reality.

Lee Miller by Man Ray

Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004)

Richard Avedon illustrates a different kind of photographer – one born in a world of professionalism, with deviations into reportage and a fashion approach to a particular class of people. His notable muse was Audrey Hepburn, to the point that a film, “Funny Face,” was made illustrating their relationship. Many of Avedon’s Audrey photos are classically beautiful, but sometimes they would get as downright strange as Man Ray.

Avedon’s stated aesthetic was of presenting “the thing itself,” with the twist being how that personage would interact with Avedon and his camera – how heavy on-set conversations would lead to emotional expressions the precise moment Avedon chose to depress the shutter. His major deviation from the world of Cher, the Beatles, Twiggy and the rest came with his exploration of carny culture in the American West; it’s a powerful reminder that if the vision of the artist is strong enough, it can be translated to a wider variety of people.

Cher by Richard Avedon

Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925 – 1972)

The last set of photographers I look at are the ones who involve next to no production in their work. There’s optometrist/artist Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Sally Mann, who largely worked with their own non-professional families to make incredibly deep and thought-provoking pieces.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971)

We have the groundbreaking documentary artists Diane Arbus and Roger Ballen, who turned their cameras towards marginalized communities in harsh, challenging ways.

Diane Arbus

As a strong believer that all the bells and whistles of photography – gear and studios and styling – slow down and often get in the way of great work, I’ve found myself gravitating to this “me and my camera with whatever is around me” aesthetic that we all started out with. But that’s today. Next week I could feel like a bit more like Avedon, and then the week later I get an opportunity to work with some phenomenal indie model straight out of Dada-ism. The longer I do this, the more all the approaches overlap and blend in a new formula.

David Miller

David Miller of Primordial Creative studio was born in 1977 in Omaha, NE. He graduated with his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University in 2006, creating portrait series that reflected both the hyperkinetic films, games and comics of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as more humanist documentary work with Indigenous communities in America and Australia. After ASU he became a teaching artist as well as exhibing around the Southwest/ West Coast and been published in numerous magazines such as Orion, View Camera, B+W/ Color, and others. In 2014 he was named as one of the top 100 Creatives of Arizona by New Times Magazine. He currently lives in Chandler with wife Vesna and 2 children, Patrick and Magdalena.

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