The world in photography has changed. Print journalism is dying, and so is the photographer who would rummage the earth for stories. Today, there are more photographs taken in a single day than an entire year prior to the smartphone era. While smartphones and social media platforms have given people a place to showcase their work, it is now difficult to separate the good from the bad like never before. A hobbyist with a financial reservoir can now photograph the Northern Lights on a holiday and submit it as his or her ‘work’.
And publications aren’t willing to spend money to acquire images because people are willing to give them for free just to get published.
“There’s a lot less demand for in-depth stories”, says American Photographer Ira Block. And while that’s true, it doesn’t bother him as much. To prove it, he has over 330,000 followers on Instagram. Ira has also recently published a book documenting a country’s fascination with a mainstream sport in ‘Cuba loves Baseball’
Ira starts of by saying that photography wasn’t easy back then, and it isn’t now.
Ira Block has been behind the lens since the 70’s. Born in a time of great imagery and when the photographer was the one bringing stories to the world, Ira prefers the term ‘Cultural Documentarian’ over documentary photographer. While he does have a bunch of commercial work to his credit, a lot of Ira’s work revolves around culture and people.
Over the years, Ira has photographed a ton of memorable stories for the National Geographic magazine, the National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Adventure (not to mention the countless photographic expeditions commissioned by the magazine). A Sony Artisan of Imagery, Ira also conducts several workshops around the year mentoring aspiring photographers in the art of telling stories through the camera.
In a career spanning several decades and still counting, Ira’s photographed countries that are known for their tourism opportunities as well as some of the most remote locations in the world.
Ira Block likes to distinguish recurring visits to each country by at least a couple of years so he can can document the changes first-hand through his lens. Surprisingly, this was Ira’s first visit to India. He was speaking at Indian Photographer Joseph Radhik’s event - Pep Summit, where GMax Studios’ commander-in-chief Gorky M, managed to catch up with him. And we’d love for you to hear that conversation, the second episode of our latest series, ‘In Frame with Gorky M.
In Frame with Gorky M is a half hour conversation featuring some of the world’s best photographers. If you haven’t seen the first episode featuring Joseph Radhik, you can see that video here.
In a candid conversation with Gorky M, Ira Block talks about the uncertainty and confusion in the world of photography right now. Ira and Gorky M also reminisce about the good old days of shooting film.
Was the switch from film to digital easy for you, and do feel nostalgic about working with film?
I switched from film to digital in 2004. When I first switched, I was nervous. I remember one of the first stories I was doing (with a digital camera), I had to go to Malaysia to photograph. I basically shot it with digital and I also shot it with film because I was so nervous. As I progressed, I thought that digital was great. I had multiple copies of my images, I could email or send pictures around the world. It’s something I couldn’t do with film.
I do miss shooting with film though, especially black and white. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it.
You have taken exceptionally well to social media, especially Instagram. Did that take a mental leap or did you go in all guns blazing?
The world in photography is totally changed. Not just photography, but everything in the world has changed because of the digital age. I realized I didn’t want to be a dinosaur. With social media and digital platforms, I embraced it. I thought, let’s make this work for me.
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The sides of buildings here in New York are a great canvas for murals. This one is being painted just around the corner from me - it's been fascinating watching the process. If anyone knows this artist let me know so I can credit or hashtag him/her. Update - @kobrastreetart is the creator @natgeo @thephotosociety . - - - #mural #urbanlife #muralart #einstein #grafittiart #bealpha #kobrastreetart
And it has worked for Ira. He posts regularly, and he also writes about his experiences in his blog. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s highly recommended. It’s the photographic word of God.
Each social media platform has a different aspect ratio for pictures. Do you keep that in mind when you’re taking pictures?
It does cross my mind (when I’m taking a picture), that I want to make it the right size, the right feel for Instagram. But then I realize that if I get a really nice image, I can’t use it for something else. It's not the right style. I can’t make a print (of it). I get torn at times.
What’s your typical gear, now that you’ve switched to mirrorless cameras?
I’m using the Sony mirrorless cameras, which are pretty small and lightweight. Typically, I carry two, maybe three (camera) bodies. I usually have three zoom lenses with me. The wide zoom, the mid-range zoom and a long zoom. With digital, you don’t want to change lenses that much because of dust on the sensors. Back in the days of shooting film, I’d have two or three cameras around my neck. These days most of my stuff (images) are done between 24-105 mm.
Tell us a little about the kind of gear you carried back in the day
I remember going through the airport with 10-12 cases of equipment. And now, with digital (cameras) being able to pump up the ISO’s to a higher number, I carry less lights. There are smaller lights that are transportable and easy. Those days of carrying equipment and having assistants and getting that stuff on airplanes was always iffy.
Tell us about the importance of accumulating personal work, as a professional photographer
If you really want to be a good photographer, and if you really love photography, you need to have personal projects. With commissioned work, you can’t be as creative, you’re being told what to do by the client. Personal work is where all your creativity is, where you can try out new things, develop a new style. You’re not worried about what the client is going to say. I think personal projects are very important.
Point out some of the primary differences that you see between photographers in your generation versus some of the younger photographers today
When I look at some of the newer photographers today, I sometimes get the feeling that they’re not going to work as hard. Because of what you can do in post production, a lot of people think “I don’t have to get it right now, I’ll do it later”. I came from a generation of “you have to get it right in the camera.” For me, the joy of photography is being in the moment and not being in front of a computer screen.
Who are some of the photographers that have inspired you over the years?
Henri Cartier Bresson is one of the classic photographers that everyone looks up to. His reportage, his decisive moment was an important changing point in the world of photography. When I started doing color, it was Ernst Haas - the German photographer. He took color and made imagery out of it; using color as an art-form in itself. And then there are some early Nat-Geo photographers. There’s guys like Wynn Parks and Bill Allard - a friend of mine who’s a great photographer. These are photographers that I look up to.
Ira continues to talk about his style of photography, his choice of composition and some very important assignments he worked on during the episode. He also stresses on the importance of having a regular income that doesn’t always come from photography.
Watch the entire episode with featuring Ira Block below