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The Story Behind That Picture: "Being a Photographer"

By: Thorsten Overgaard


When are you a photographer? That seems to be a question many ask themselves, and in my opinion they generally ask too much and for too long.

A photographer is one that takes pictures.

I do something I call Artists Nights whenever I can, whereever I am in the world. It is usually a couple of hours where Joy Villa and I entertain other artists about our life, making a life and a living being an artist. We ancourage artists of all kinds to stop 'hoping to be' and start acting as. Don't say you want to be a writer if you already started writing.

Say, "I am a writer" and be one.

Surprisingly enough that is a big barrier, to grab an identity as. Perhaps I am not as surprised as I sound like. We are almost all grown up having to wait for someone to tell us when we are ready to go to school and learn (even we started learning from the minute we were born), when we can get a licence to drive a car, we are waiting for others to tell us that we can assume that job we had applied for.

Waiting for approval.

In the case of photography, the approval never comes. I regret that I didn't take a photo of it, but when I visited the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin some months ago and saw his photos and legacy and the bookstore with all his books, there was also a guest book. Someone had written in it, "Newton sucks!".

In the documentary Let's Get Lost about Chet Baker, William Claxton (1927 – 2008) tells how he met Chet Baker in the record studio and photographed him: "I was very young, trying to be a photographer. I wasn't a photographer yet", as he said.

Interestingly, whilst he didn't see him self as a photographer, he actually did manage to take some iconic and historic pictures, and may have beeen the one that discovered Chet Baker, photographically. As it turned out, those photos are sold for $6,000 - $12,000 from Fahey/Klein Gallery today.


William Claxton took many grat photos of jazz musician Chet Baker when he was a rising star. William Claxton said about them, "I wasn't really a photographer yet. I was just trying to take some photos." As it turned out, those photos became iconic and are sold for $6,000 - $12,000 from Fahey/Klein Gallery today.


  Vivian Maier
  Vivian Maier was a nanny that became an acclaimed photographer.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was a nanny and spent her spare time photographing, and apparantly didn't think much of her photography. At least she never shared it with anyone, and only by chance were her negatives found after her death and it is now a big business for those who own the negatives doing books, iBooks and exhibtions. Her prints are in the price range of $3,900 and she left more than 100,000 negatives.

She probably never regarded herself as a photographer and certainly not a professional one. Yet she is celebrated worldwide after her death.

The main problem with being an artist and a photographer is that there is no office that issues licenses to do art. It is something you do, and even when you do it very successfully and for a lifetime, the license or certificate never comes in the door.

Hence you would hear Katy Perry, the only other person than Michael Jackson to have had five number one hit singles from one album on the Billboard list, say in an interview just recently that she couldn't believe that so many people liked her music. You look at her sitting at the first row at the Grammy Awards, and performing for her famous collegaues and millions of television viewers at the same Grammy Award Show ... how could she be in doubt?



"Thanks to Thorsten for teaching me about finding the light, how to do a portrait shoot with great soft light, how to engage the model, and how to inspire confidence even when your camera or you have a problem."

  - K. S. (San Francisco)  


Never need praise, approval or sympathy

The first one that has to recognize and like your own photography, is your self. It should be worthwhile to follow and realize your own goals first and foremost.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), best known for his writings about photography and his landscape photography, also showed himself as a very unselfish person in a project that is not widely known.

In 1943, Ansel Adams, documented the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California and the Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II.

When Ansel Adams offered the collection to the Library of Congress in 1965, he wrote in a letter, "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment. All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use."

Ansel Adams simply donated his work to the library, free to use for anyone. Hence one can actaully download high resolution scans of the pictures and make ones own Ansel Adams prints.

I mention this because it is a good example of how the first and foremost thing you must do is produce photographs (or other art) and share them. Commercial success, fame and all may follow, but the basic urge should be to make it.

Ansel Adams reportage from the relocation center may be overshadowed by his famous landscape photography, but in itself it is a worthwhile work, made with the heart, shared and available.

Don't wait for approval, praise or sympathy. Just get on with what it is that you feel you are meant to do. The more you do, the more there will be to love and discover for others the day they start noticing your work.






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Thorsten Overgaard, February 12, 2014




Above: "Roy Takeno reading paper in front of the office", 1943. Photograph by Ansel Adams.


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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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