Words and Images by Dave Brosha
As far as photography terms goes, the word generalist is about as unsexy as it comes. Professional Adventure Photographer: now that’s a label with some real-life “ooh” and “aah” factor. Boudoir Photographer: instant visions of scantily-clad people very comfortable in their skin. Even Industrial Photographer brings visions of football-field size shiny processing plants, being able to wear a safety harness while shooting off some elevated platform or heading into the deeps of the Earth, photographing underground mining with a hard hat and a cap-lamp. That’s some cool photography, right there. Right?
Generalist? What’s that? That sounds boring. That just means you haven’t taken the time to really learn one kind of photography, right?
For the record, what you’re about to read is a defence of being a generalist. From a proud generalist who wouldn’t have it any other way.
When people ask me what it is that I do, I often pause before I answer and consider “should I give them the short answer or should I give them the real rundown?” The short answer depends on who is asking. If I think they are most interested in the outdoors, I’ll tell them that I’m variably a Landscape Photographer, a Wildlife Photographer, an Adventure Photographer, an Astro Photography, or some combination of the four. If the person before me looks like they like people (or more specifically, if they appear to not look very outdoorsy…yes, a stereotype, my bad) my answer is that I’m a Portrait Photographer, a Wedding Photographer, a Fashion Photographer, or a Studio Photographer. Remember, this is just for the short answer. For the long answer, I can see eyes droop and general confusion set in—and then the inevitable look that says something to the effect of “oh, so you’re not really a photographer then?” Because who shoots everything? Right?
One of the most-repeated mantras in photography circles is on the theme of “Figure out what you truly love shooting and stick to that—don’t spread yourself thin. Shoot that thing you love again and again and you’ve eventually become good at it. Better to be a master of something rather than a jack of all trades, master of none.” Generally speaking, this is good advice. Chances are of all the vast variety of photographic genres out there that the average shooter attempts, you’re not going to fall in love with all of them. One of the biggest mistakes people make in pursuing their photographer dreams, either as a business or even as hoppyist, is continuing to shoot genres of photography that they’re not passionate about. It shows in their work, and in their general attitude. As general life advice, you don’t want a wedding photographer who hates weddings shooting your wedding.
But what if when you are “figuring out what you truly love to shoot” you come to the realization that you….love shooting many things?” This was my “problem”, almost right from the start.
I started innocently enough, on the “correct” path of picking essentially one genre. High on inspiration from the late, great American outdoor photographer Galen Rowell, landscape and nature photography was my first passion. I was living in the Arctic and the tundra, sea ice, polarbears, and canyons of Cornwallis Island was all I needed to keep me interested as a photographer.
Within two to three years, though, I took a step I never thought I would take: I said “yes” when a husband and wife asked me to take photos of them as a couple: sunny day photos at the park. I went, nervous and certain I would hate it. To my surprise, I didn’t. Fast-forward a few more years passed by and I found myself not only shooting hundreds of family portraits, I started photographing weddings, doing editorial work for a local magazine with more of a photojournalism vibe, got heavy into astro photography, and discovered the creative portraiture of Annie Leibowitz and Joe McNally. Oh, and then I got hooked on black and white photography, dabbled in architecture photography, and started photographing paintings for area artists for print replications.
In short, I got hooked, quickly, on a multitude of genres and over the next 7 or 8 years, photographed most of these genres intensively. When I wasn’t working in my studio as a full- time photographer, I was in the field shooting personal projects, or at home with my family where I still most often had my camera in hand. Photography was, and is, my addiction—but photography as a singular word. Not as a breakdown of genres; not as a neatly packed box.
At the same time I was shooting everything, I continued to read again and again about how what I was doing was wrong. Professionals left, right, and centre were preaching that the only way to become “known” and to become talented was to specialize. In blogs, in online discussion forums, and in books, this was the message I received repeatedly. I’ll be honest: it gave me a bit of a professional identity crisis. I went through a long period where I was sort of embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t have a “thing”, but, instead, had many things. Even in my own growing circle of photographer friends, I found that identity crisis repeat itself, over and over. My landscape friends would introduce me as their “portrait photographer” friend. My portrait friends would introduce me as “the guy who loves Astro”. I wanted to just belong, with any of them.
Every time I tried to narrow my focus, however, I felt a sadness creep into my psyche. I’d try to stick to exclusively portraiture and then I’d see a sliver of magic light while walking in the woods and feel my landscape soul sing. I’d go on a hardcore nature photography spell until I stumbled upon a face with endless personality and before I knew it I’d have a portrait session set up. Finally, I just looked long and hard at what I was as a photographer, and why I loved photography, and had a grand revelation: I got great happiness out of all forms of photography, so why wouldn’t I stay true to that? Why should I change who I am in order to follow a path that someone else dictated? Why should I give up on happiness for the chance of being “known?” I didn’t get into photography to be known…I got into photography because the creative process gives me immense personal satisfaction. Photography, to me, is an outlet, it’s therapy, it’s connections…it’s happiness. I finally gave myself an ultimatum: stick to what you love, or don’t do it.
So, then, I’m going to say it. I’m a generalist. Proudly. Stating that makes me really happy. My name is Dave, and I like making images.
Being a generalist has not only let me stay happy within photography, I think despite the advice that you can’t really learn photography without specializing—it has immensely helped my craft. I’ve brought my love of landscape photography into my portrait photography, and merged thetwo: environmental, outdoor portraits are now one of my most-loved things to photograph. Bringing a history of hundreds of family portrait shoots into an industrial location has allowed me to be far more effective photographing sometimes rough-and-tumble workers who want nothing to do with getting their photos taken. Hey, if I can get a stubborn two year-old to laugh, I’m not going to let a serious-minded underground miner get in the way of a great expression. My experience looking for lines and contrast and perfection in nature has helped me see architectural photography in a new light; my experience in lighting for my creative portraiture has allowed me to be way more comfortable in using light fast and effectively in weddings. Becoming a stronger photographer, to me, is about trying your best not to be stumped in any given situation and to muster up a creative, unique take on a subject: having a multitude of tools in your tool-belt to call upon can only be a good thing. The lessons I’ve learned in my various genres has allowed me to me more creative across-the-board.
The interesting thing I’ve discovered as I’ve shared my own journey over the years with different photography groups, and in different photography circles, is how many people relate; how many people feel liberated knowing that there’s others out there, too, that share their passion for “everything”. The vast majority of photographers aren’t out there seeking to be known, or to even make a living from photography: they’re simply out there to create and discover and have fun. If that means changing their subject—changing their focus—every week…well, so be it. I say, bring it on. There should be more focus on fun and enjoyment in photography.
So go out there and shoot everything, but only if you love everything. Experts be damned.
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