LensCulture was started in 2004. In the decade-plus since, it has grown and evolved into one of the world’s leading destinations for contemporary photography. Yet over this extended period of time, LensCulture’s mission has remained unwavering: to discover inspiring photography from around the world and share it with a passionate, global audience.
Below, we interview LensCulture’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Jim Casper, who has been at the magazine’s editorial helm since its inception. Jim is currently on the jury for the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017. We asked him about his views on contemporary photography, his search for talented photographers, and his advice for aspiring practitioners the world over.
In the slideshow above, we show images from each of the 50 photographers who were selected as LensCulture Emerging Talents in 2015.
LC: As editor-in-chief of LensCulture, you’ve seen an unbelievable amount of photography cross your desk. Serious photographers (whether they are just starting out, or have been established for decades) are eager to catch your eye! What makes a series—or a single photograph—stand out to you?
JC: What interests me most are people who are able to make consistently powerful work. The language of photography is tremendously important to me, so I’m especially drawn to photographers who demonstrate fluency in this visual language, and who are able to select photos and put them in a sequence that makes the whole visual experience rich and complex. I’m attracted to work where the photographer is able to tell a story and evoke emotions with their pictures. To be honest, digital cameras make it easy for all of us to take a technically great picture from time to time, and if we have a good eye, the composition will be good too. But the challenge is to be able to make great pictures repeatedly, with intention and awareness of the power of the photographic medium.
LC: So editing is essential to a successful series. Have you seen instances where the photographs are strong but there’s something lacking in the combined set?
JC: Yes, it happens all the time! As a member of a lot of different juries, I can tell you that this is almost always a topic of conversation. Someone will submit ten photos in a series and eight of them will be really strong. But then two of them don’t feel like they belong, and those two drag down the whole submission. Invariably the jury says, “Ah, we wish this person had only submitted these eight. This would have been a great submission.” The extra two imply (rightly or wrongly) that the photographer isn’t sure where they’re going with the series. Maybe they aren’t sure about how to put a story together. Sometimes, really, less is more.
LC: Can you say more? What else makes for a good “visual story”?
JC: The sequence is important. If you’re looking at it as a visual narrative, you have to be a good storyteller. How do you hook people’s interest? How do you keep your audience engaged? How do you give them variety, how do you move the series along towards some kind of tension and then, finally, how do you bring them to a good resting place? The flow and the rhythm are essential.
If you’re not making a narrative—if you’re just trying to evoke a mood or a feeling—then the images have to talk to each other: they have to be in dialogue. Even in non-narrative photography, it’s important to think of a group of images as chunks of visual language. It’s a lot like putting words together in a sentence (or a poem).
If you can grab my attention with one photo and make me want to see the next one, and each of the photos that follow in the flow—that’s successful sequencing from my point of view.
LC: As a frequent participant in portfolio reviews and juried competitions, do you have different metrics or criteria in mind when you’re judging emerging talents?
JC: I would say that I’m more open to experimental ideas—things that are almost working but maybe not yet 100% effective are worth exploring in the context of emerging talents. One main measure I use is to imagine if they’re going to continue to develop their style and their approach in an interesting way. If I see evidence that they’re on a good path, I give them extra points, even if they’re not quite there yet.
LC: What does that “evidence of a good path” look like to you?
JC: That’s a tough one. I have to have a sense of the person behind the camera and their point of view. I have to see consistency and intention. For example, a big mistake a lot of people make is that they keep stuff in the frame that doesn’t really help the photograph. In fact, the extra clutter distracts the viewer from appreciating what is intended. Seasoned photographers know how to focus your attention. If someone demonstrates that they have a sense of composition and they develop a rhythm with their work then I want to look at more from them.
Captions and artist statements are also important. The caption should make me want to go to the next photo, and the photos should build the concepts that I read about in the statement. It’s important to be aware of the power that text can bring to your photos.
LC: As one of the founders of LensCulture, what did you envision for its future? What did you want it to accomplish? Did you anticipate where we are today, or did you think the magazine would be something completely different?
JC: I never envisioned that it would be as widely appreciated as it is today. But then, I couldn’t have anticipated the meteoric rise of the internet, social media, digital photography, smartphone cameras and sharing!
At this moment in human history, I truly believe that photography is the most universal language on the planet. I think it’s the one language that everyone understands no matter what class they belong to, no matter what education they have, no matter how much money they have, no matter what verbal language they speak — photography is a profoundly rich visual language that is open to all to use and to understand.
So, I’m looking for people who are thinking about how they can use this medium for helping others understand something that’s complicated, for conveying emotion, for propaganda, for advertising — all of the many ways photography is used to influence and affect people.
In short, I just love this visual language and I luxuriate in it. I want to find people who share that same kind of passion. We’ve been talking a lot about style and technique and approach, but it’s also important for emerging photographers to find interesting stories and subjects — ideas that they feel strongly about on a personal level.
LC: In your mind, what are the most important steps that a photographer can take when it comes to advancing his or her career? Is signing to a gallery a crucial step? Is social media unavoidable? Are competitions and portfolio reviews as valuable as they seem?
JC. [Laughs] Those are big questions! First off, you have to be a good, consistent photographer. That being said, the people right now who I see gaining attention and exposure and fame (and hopefully assignments and commissions and sales) are those who are using social media really effectively. Publishing regularly to Facebook and Instagram can be significant. It’s a powerful way to put yourself in the minds of gallery owners, photo editors, and even art collectors. But you have to publish good work. You have to know how to tell a story and how to write a headline and use hashtags. In addition to being a good photographer, you also must excel at marketing and self-promotion to stand out from the crowd.
Between this pressure to produce and the desire to get your work out into the world, there’s definitely a challenge of how to avoid creating work that elicits a sense of déjà vu. When someone says, “Oh, I’ve seen this picture or story before,” then perhaps you’re going too fast.
That’s why it’s important to know about the history of photography and what other people have done before you. It sounds obvious, but you should be familiar with the world you’re operating in. What happened in the past? Why was this successful? How can I accomplish a similar thing but make still make my work different and personal? Without this knowledge and context, you miss important references that could help you appreciate and understand the world around you—references that could inform and improve your own work, too.
Finally, taking classes and workshops, participating in portfolio reviews, entering your work in competitions, applying for grants are all important activities too. They are great ways to put your work in front of people who care about photography and to get feedback from experts and peers in your field.
LC: Are there a few photographers who you think all younger photographers should be acquainted with?
JC: We share lots and lots of fantastic work on LensCulture—the idea is that you can visit the site and get inspiration from other working photographers around the world. There are also other wonderful, inspirational photo magazines out there: Aperture, Foam…there’s a great magazine in Japan called IMA, which just released its first English-language issue.
Another piece of advice I’d offer is to engage directly with other photographers. Engage with your heroes. Take a workshop or look at every book this person’s done, offer to be an assistant on a shoot. Soak it up in every way you can.
Some of the very best photographers I know did stints as assistants for photographers they admired. We can all learn a lot just from watching other people who are experts in their crafts.
Finally, there are some many great videos out there for people to watch. For example, there’s a channel called Develop Photo—I think they have some excellent resources there.
LC: What’s your goal for LensCulture’s current Award competition? Do you have your eye out for anything in particular?
JC: I’m open to all fresh ideas and approaches. I’m really hoping to find someone who is playing with the medium—or even inventing a new form. We know that there are geniuses out there—maybe they can’t even articulate what they’re doing right now but their pictures give us a glimpse.
When I’m looking at submissions from all over the world, I suppose in a way I’m keeping an eye out for the “jazz” of photography. That would be really fun to discover.
—Jim Casper, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Editors’ Note: Jim Casper will be judging entries to the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Jim and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great benefits. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.