32 thoughts on “Be You”

  1. JASON

    oh yes you have heard me say this all before….well, it is something i believe to be true..actually very simply it just makes logical sense…there is no genius to it….however it is amazing to me always that i meet so many who skip over their whole lives “waiting” to be anointed as “free”, when in fact they always were free in the first place…the toughest thing for me to “teach” is how to guide people through “freedom”…it seems that many secretly desire to be told what to do…very few can handle pure freedom

    cheers, david

  2. “many secretly desire to be told what to do” I think the problem for some people is that too much freedom (choice) stifles them. It can make it difficult to hone down an idea.

    My partner is a painter and we were talking about this theme the other day. If you’re taking pics you are usually reacting to something that is happening around you; therefore you are (sort of) tied to an eventual outcome/image etc. I know there are a myriad ways of shooting/framing something but you have action of some sort that narrows the choices down somewhat.

    Whereas a blank canvas is just about too much freedom! The choices and themes can be overwhelming! I suppose it’s similar to doing a completely conceptual piece of photography; you may have a theme or idea but deciding how you create it is the difficult part! :-)

  3. David,
    this is a great tip.
    “Be yourself” is not something that I’ve heard much during my younger days, so maybe that is the reason why I find it so difficult to find out who I really am and just be me.
    A good teacher is someone who knows the fears and imperfections of his students, even if he has left all these obstacles behind and has been free for a long time.
    I’m on my way to freedom. I hope.

  4. David, I sit here fascinated by your fire. For well over two months now, I have been sleeping in and spending most of my time recovering from surgery in a reclining chair right next to our wood stove with a glass door. I have taken thousands of frames from that chair, many including the wood stove. Never did I see there logs burn the way the way the fire in your video burns. Is it not really a wood fire? Are you burning gas? Or is there just something about North Carolina fire wood, that causes it to burn like gas?

    I like the tip, by the way, and without ever following it, I kind believe I have always followed it.

    When I watch this video, it is almost hard for me to believe you are a man of the east. You look, sound, move and talk like the consummate man of the west.

    I am finally getting much better now, but not good enough to go out onto the spring sea ice and do a burn diary week out there like we had discussed. I have tagged this message to you twice via Instagram, but I don’t what you see and don’t see and I never got an acknowledgement, so I now let you know here.

  5. It’s taken me about 14 months since you wrote a comment on how I should integrate my kids into my photography to kind of reach this point. I’m nearly there. I’ve had to learn to accept certain things. Being a very very driven kind of guy it’s kind of hard to relax and just be. Learning how it’s OK if there isn’t a beautiful photo everyday. In fact I see better and I notice the most subtle and unnoticed within my life. Generally I’m happier and I feel much more confident with my photography since I’m looking within and just trying to be me.


    yes, that is exactly correct…a blank canvas throws some people off totally….well even worse, is that they cannot decide on the size of the canvas in the first place…once one decides whether to make a big painting or a small painting, then half the battle is won….

    i find it is best to just do SOMETHING…..ANYTHING….just to get the juices flowing…most good things are evolutionary in nature….you start one maybe not so great idea, and then that leads to the real idea…but you cannot get to the real idea just sitting around waiting for the real idea….same with shooting itself…rarely is a picture just sitting there waiting to be taken…it happens, but not often enough to count on it…always best to just start shooting…the process itself leads one to the right place…sketching…..scribbling words…plunking around with the guitar….all the same thing..try too hard and then you get a “forced idea”…not good either….

    one must also face the fact that great work is not a consistent thing…anything that can be done repeatedly is not ever going to be held in the highest regard….consistent is a necessity for the pro photographer earning a living, yet has nothing to do with great work….in a lifetime perhaps only two or three really innovative and great pieces of work will emerge…the rest is all sketching…building….process….sure, good things do come from the process itself…yet the really great things are rare…

    always good to hear from you Ross….hope our paths cross again soonest…

    cheers, david

  7. MARK

    yes, that is correct…in the so called formative years, there is rarely an authority figure who wants you to have freedom…those early years we are all taught to stand in line..draw in the lines…follow the rules….do not stand out….anyone who can get through that creatively unscathed is a strong person indeed…most don’t….i think i can help others simply because i have the same fears as those whom i mentor….i can feel the pain…i know where they want to do…and i can see very clearly how they feel…and i try to push those i mentor in a direction where they can grow…give them a key…it is always easier to see things just a bit from the outside….not always so easy to see your own deal….my mentoring is not the same as “demonstration” teaching…sure , i do that for a lighting class or whatever…but for getting a photographer to really get a hook on their work, is not about showing “how to” , yet just about getting them to find their voice…and i cannot do that unless i really can figure out who they are….so it is not a teaching template….it is one by one…

    cheers, david

  8. PAUL

    I have been watching you grow…you have gotten some really incisive photographs of your family…i am sure i have not seen all of it, but i have seen quite a bit…enough anyway to know that you are getting closer and closer…you often describe that you cannot relax….this is the biggest thing of all…to somehow be on it and yet relaxed at the same time….i think this is about some type of meditation…i have never taken any courses on meditation, yet i created my own version of it and it really helps more than anything….i have learned to relax under the most heavy pressures….not every time, but more than was natural to me…i can “sleep” standing up waiting in line at the airport for example…and when stuff is coming down all around me , i can go into a zen like state….and most especially when finally finally in the location, in the zone, in the place where i KNOW there are pictures, i can really relax….if one is too too wired it just doesn’t work…this takes practice….practice works for concert pianists, for pro golfers, and for photographers as well….put down the camera for a few days, and you have to start all over again…not joking.

    cheers, david


    now my friend you must know that i DO NOT HAVE A GAS FIRE….that is wood of course…that was a new fire , so it was some kindling just getting going i guess…it does look a bit too consistent to be wood, but it is….i have fires going year around….my favorite thing is to have all of my doors and windows opened and a fire going just to take the chill off….now you don’t have so many days in Alaska where you can do that probably, but here there are lots of days in the 50’s and 60’s where this is just perfect….

    i doubt there is much difference in the kind of people here in the Outer Banks than there would be in Jackson, Wyoming or Juneau or Barrow…matter of fact, i can tell you , it is the same bunch of misfit renegades like you and like me…it is a mistake to think that “the East”is automatically either New York or Miami and that everyone in the East is in rush hour traffic…..the East has all kinds of people….there is a whole lot of territory between Boston and Miami that seems for most of those who live West to not really be able to account for…..look at the map…that is a long long coast line, and much of it , most of it, undeveloped….my son Bryan is doing a television documentary right now on folks who live “off the grid”…most of them are in the East…unfindable up in the mountains, deep in the swamps, etc etc..John McPhee’s great Coming Into the Country was about Alaska for sure…yet coulda been written for here as well….

    the Midwest and the West do figure in of course…the whole family is from Iowa, and about half of those eventually went to California and Colorado…i was living in Colorado as a small child and my parents both chose Colorado as their final resting place……Durango is just a Western version of Nags Head….there it is mountain biking , and snowboarding and here it is kite boarding and surfing..again the same bunch of folks who just want to LIVE in a specific environment and figure out any way to do so….

    you have gotten some pretty decent work from your chair..actually your very best picture is from that chair….nice selfies too…..see, not moving works!! i do wish you good health, but being forced to shoot what is right around you is making some very interesting work….

    now, you will have to excuse me, i must go split some logs…

    cheers, david

  10. IMANTS

    good point…my mother trained me to not do that…yet when we shot this it was raining outside and i was in and out…plus, i am bald!! cold on the top of my head!! i used to collect pipes from all over the world…have some really nice meerschaums and straight grain briars from Italy and Greece…nobody smokes a pipe anymore…love that smell of pipe tobacco….

  11. David, your reply to Ross says it all. “sketching…..scribbling words…plunking around with the guitar….all the same thing..try too hard and then you get a “forced idea”…not good either…”.

    it’s easy to take a photograph but difficult to take a great one: so many variables; light, subject matter etc. etc. but the most difficult part is getting yourself into the zone – the mental preparation that allows you to see the photograph in the first place.
    Using the sporting world as an analogy, we are all aware of sportsmen and athletes at the peak of their performance; yet these same athletes sometimes have periods of poor form: they struggle to reach the level of performance that they and we know they are capable of. The same goes for photography; we have to get out there and shoot, practice our photographic scales, be open to opportunity. I don’t always practise what I preach but I am inspired by what you say.


  12. David, what a relief! You are right, I could not believe you would have a gas fire, but it sure looked like it. Nice defense of the east coast and yes, there are many renegade people everywhere who share kindred heart and you can find people hidden off the beaten path and grid anywhere and I hope I get to see Bryan’s documentary, but no, I have been up and down the East Coast and there ain’t no Alaska there anywhere, no how, no way, no, not even in Maine. For that matter, not even in the wide open spaces of the west. I do know a good number of real, genuine, bonafide Alaskans who hail from the east who were born of that spirit and wound up merging heart with place. It’s been over 30 years since I read Coming Into the Country, but one of the sentences or paragraphs I cannot quote but well recall was his description of a certain kind of house – a description that would fit 90 percent of the houses in Barrow – you can find here and there on the East Coast. McPhee stated the people living in those houses were Alaskans but they just didn’t know it yet.

    Thank you for your comments on my reclining chair pictures. I am totally perplexed and lost, though, about the one you describe as my very best. I have absolutely no idea what image you refer to. Someday you must tell me – not now, not here, but someday.


    ahhhh yes, i remember as well McPhee’s description of that house!! funny we would both recall that, and i cannot quote it exactly either, yet the scene he painted was indeed clearly memorable in the abstract…

    for sure i cannot claim to be an old Alaska hand…i only spent a year there from Juneau to Barrow and countless super small communities of the Inuit, but it was an intense year….out on the ice for days with the whale hunters out of Barrow (where i lived in the church rectory), and lost with a bush pilot on the way to Anaktuvuc Pass where i spent several weeks…basically one long very dark winter and “spring” (no not summer) on the North Slope alone…

    it was in Anaktuvuk Pass that a woman made for me a wolf ruff that was seen in the video i just did for PhotoTips on archiving….still have my white bunny boots too….they still use those “thermos bottle” bunny boots? i had a whole complex compound system of cameras in and cameras out..going from 30 below outside to overheated 85 degrees on the inside, and then back out and back in , was as you know a formidable task of condensation elimination….so as “outsiders” go , i been there and done that..ha ha…no, nothing quite compares with Alaska nor the people who choose to live there….i think McPhee is from New Jersey….my bush pilot was from Florida (maybe why we were lost)…

    so the first level of really serious misfits from the east coast head for Alaska no doubt!! at least back in the day when the pipeline was being built etc etc…not sure about now..

    however, i think you would be quite surprised at how far off the grid some are on the east coast…especially in Appalachia and the swamps of Georgia and Florida..besides, the citizens of Anaktuvuc and Barrow for example are not really off the grid….they are just small isolated communities where it can get very dark and very cold…and with way way more alcohol etc consumption per capita of anyplace i have ever been…THE social problem i think you would agree (or was anyway)….of course the very big difference is discerning between the indigenous Inuit and the white renegades who come up from the south to get away from it all or to make a fast buck..in Alaska there are the off the grid types and then the indigenous who are not off the grid…on the east coast, there are very few indigenous …some, more than you might expect, yet not to compare with Alaska…however if you go to a Virginia powwow for example the drums and the beat are not so different than the drums of Bethel…yet i digress….

    for sure the landscape is very different between east and west, yet i see little difference in the people..my next door neighbor Billy for example could be in the Alaska woods or right where he is…a renegade is indeed a renegade…

    my favorite picture of yours from the blue house in Anchorage…living room shot..

    cheers, david

  14. True. Thanks to satellite technology, there communities are firmly locked into the grid – and to Facebook. But, many residents spend big parts of their life camped out and you could throw whole Appalachian states into the country they wander through while doing so.

    Yes, David, it is necessary to distinguish between the Native community and transplanted misfits such as myself, and I am most fortunately to have been accepted and even adopted with that community. Bunny boots are still used, but are way down the line on preference these days. I hate bunny boots. They are warm for a day or two, but then they get soaked with sweat and while they still have enough insulation to keep your feet from frostbite under most circumstance, your get so miserably cold in them that life sinks into a state of pure misery.

    Alcohol consumption remains a big problem, but there has been a very intense, grass-roots driven campaign against substance abuse and it has had real successes. Your visit to the Slope also coincided with that moment in history and time when easy access to alcohol coincided with easy access to money for the first time. As bad as it was, it did not compare to what I experienced when I visited Far East Russia in 1994. Vodka for breakfast, Vodka for lunch, Vodka for dinner, Vodka for between meals, Vodka at bedtime. I never allow myself to get drunk, yet there are parts of that trip I don’t even remember but I am pretty sure they were pretty interesting – in an unpleasant sort of way.

    I would agree that the blue house image is one of the best of my post surgery recovery images – thanks! I have a little something I am going to email you, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. It is not a submission, but rather something I have put together on a subject of mutual interest. I would never have created in the manner I did were it not for your influence. If you can find time to take a look, you might enjoy it.

  15. I tried being myself once. It didn’t really work out. In a relationship like that you have to be able to commit and I just wasn’t ready for it.


    Don’t miss today’s entry (May 2) on the NY Times Lens Blog to see the excellent feature on our brother Burnian, Jason Houge. Not only is Jason an exceptional photographer but he uses his creative talents for the social good. For months on social media and his blog, Jason has conducted a print sale and his own version of Kickstarter to raise funds for the spaying and neutering of his feline family as well as their ongoing needs for food and health care. I am honored to own two of his prints and they are superb! So often we photographers wonder if our work can promote change in the world. Jason Houge doesn’t ask that question; he answers it by his actions. Now I want to see the book!


  17. Ufff “be you”… Photography is for me a hobbie, and I tried to do things…but which is my style? what I want to do?… I like the ocumentary style, but I am shy to approach peolple in the street… Then my style cannot be the one I would like?…
    David, has everybody his own style, or most of us just copy fom the others?… I think this is what I´m doing. I don´t know how to find “myself” in the pictures I take… Color, B&W, composition, moments,… this is aesthetic… but “how to be oneself in a picture”…?
    That´s very very difficult for me…


  18. CESAR

    yours is a key question..for yourself and for most….

    first off, you cannot “try” to have a style…the way one succeeds at most things, is not the way one develops an artistic style….

    the key is the word “develop”…it must be natural…not forced…not even thought about too much…..for sure the FIRST STEP for most people is indeed to emulate…this is a good thing…a starting point…a point from which you must grow…..by studying or emulating you learn what a style really means….and everyone borrows, emulates, references, all the time even within your own style when you do get one…still you must break from whomever you are emulating at some point…

    style usually comes from a combo of subject matter, approach to that subject, photographer personality, and perhaps technical device….you want a nice balance between all those things exactly the same way a painter would….your personality is going to determine most of it…and is also the one thing most likely to be your “fingerprint” on your photographs…so do not try to be somebody you are not…this is the single biggest hurdle for most…do things you can do and care about….dig deep…but dig with care…and find a technique that suits you….find a colour palette that suits you….

    i see so many portfolios where the photographer is trying to be 10 different photographers….95% of the work i see out there has this one very common error…..as if to say to a curator, “well if you do not like this, maybe you will like that”….or “see , i can shoot sunsets AND sunrises”….just shoot sunsets….just do ONE thing…at least until that one thing is DONE….

    with regard to your shyness with people on the street, just know that HCB never met anyone he photographed…he was not shy, he just did not want to interact….i am the opposite……i like to get to know the people i photograph most of the time….no right or wrong here, it just points up that you can work one way or another way or some way that we have not thought of….

    i suggest a deep Zen relaxation along with never stopping to catch your breath..don’t think too much about photography at all….immerse yourself in something, and do not let up….digital allows all of us to become self satisfied too fast…film and digital get compared technically , when in fact the biggest difference is in the psychology…looking at the picture on the back of the camera messes with your head in all the wrong ways…try try not to do it…your work will change for the better if you do not look…..so at least borrow the psychology of film even if you are shooting digi….

    play…have fun….chill….do not walk around and “look for pictures” …a seriously losing game….let them just be around you with you in you….

    photography sure does look easy , right? ha ha…well it is, but making it easy is the hard part…

    cheers, david

  19. Patricia and David (Dominik, Thomas, Bill, Tracey, David Bowen, and many more)
    Thank you all for the incredible support!

    Being me – It’s been a challenge discovering who I am. Many years, in fact.
    Sometimes I thought I knew, but I was really only being someone I thought others wanted me to be.
    I am who I am, now. I will always be a bit fluid in my interests, tastes and styles but I will always be sure of who I am.

  20. David –
    Your comments about film and digital are absolutely true… For everyone I know.
    Technically speaking, I have become so accustomed to shooting film that I have noticed some major discrepancies in the way digital “sees” light and a situation. It may be this or It may be the bulk of the camera or It may be the stigma that “professionals” use digitals and carry cameras like mine that I choose to not use it. Outside a studio environment, I just can’t get into it much anymore. That’s a choice that affects my work and my style in a direct way. Where I choose to work and who I choose to work with also is a choice that can be seen in my style and the way I work.

    Your advice almost 5 years ago for those of use who were are your workshop was to read more and look at more work by others has never left me. I am always checking books out from the library and getting them sent from all around the country. I own quite a few myself. By looking at all of these different artists, I have learned what I like, what I love and what I hate about each person’s work… I have learned how to look better.

    The biggest issue I have, and I suspect it’s probably there for everyone as well, figuring out what to move onto… I hate to think of myself as boring, so I love to explore new ideas and meet new people. I used to look for images, now I look for inspirations. then I often hit the books again. Look at old work, look at my old work… learn from it. So many photographers are used to SEEING their work – when they edit, when they publish, when they shoot… But during all of that time, they don’t seem to be LOOKING at their work… It’s a bit of Analytical vs Creative…

    I find it necessary to gather as much feedback I can about the work I’m doing and then stand back and try to see it the way others are seeing it to understand it better, and to determine where to move with it. I can’t allow the feedback direct me, just give me clues and suggestions as to what is being seen and what isn’t. The best thing to do is to encircle yourself with a community of people who are creative, intelligent, and trustworthy to give you feedback that’s not sugar coated, just true and honest. This idea has helped me grow and maintain a level of understanding of my own work that I just couldn’t have otherwise.

    p.s. David – I think in the past, You and I and others have had misunderstandings and disagreements that resulted in sore feelings at first… but I have taken those instances as opportunities to stand back and reassess those situations. And in the case of work I’ve shown you or your staff, to reassess that work and to realize it’s just not ready. I just want you to know, in my head I refer to you as Uncle Dave. I hope you don’t mind.

  21. I’ll offer this as general comments about the conversation, certainly not as any kind of role model.

    For a lot of people, I don’t think “be you” is the answer. Most people look at whatever is in front of their eyes and see pretty much the same thing that everyone else sees. So for them, the advice to “be you” will just result in the standard snapshot. Then there are those who simply want to become a photographer because they like to take pictures or they’d like to live the kind of globetrotting lifestyle that many of the top photographers do. So they might look at how successful people did things and try to do things the same way. One can be quite commercially successful that way.

    The opposite of those examples is the person who see’s the world differently, or sees things that most people don’t see and wants to communicate those visions through photography. These are people who have more or less already became themselves and for the most part will continue to do so.

    But for those with unique viewpoints, “be yourself” is helpful advice. Otherwise, for those who feel that being great is better than being commercially successful (though preferably both), I’d say the better advice would be to “become yourself.” How does one become oneself? I’m sure everyone finds their own path, but I’d guess the main prerequisite is to be genuinely interested in things. Then read, travel, see art, interact with humanity, etc. Everyone will find their own unique perspectives if they get into life, or some aspects of it, deep enough. Then it doesn’t hurt to learn how a camera works and some general knowledge about color and composition.

    Overall, I think David’s advice on this subject is excellent and I know for a fact that he’s helped a lot of people both be and become themselves. The big area where I fail to heed it is the part about developing a consistent style. It just seems to me that every project I work on calls for it’s own unique style. Not for the sake of being different, but in order to best communicate the story. Sometimes one color palette works, or one style of monocolor, other times another. I can see the wisdom behind the advice, but just can’t bring myself to follow it. If I did, I wouldn’t be being myself, I’d be trying to be somebody else. It can be a bit of a conundrum.

  22. MW – good counterpoints and becoming one’s self can be a daunting task – and for some who get all caught up in day to day mundane life it’s impossible. For some, photography will never be more than a hobby. As drawing is for me. I enjoy it from time to time, but I just can’t make it my medium. Drawing and painting has been around thousands of years and various movements and cultures have sprung from these mediums. They are the most widely accessible form of art as anyone who tries CAN do it. even a paraplegic can draw if they want to. That is not meant to be condescending, Drawing is nothing more than mark making. People believe photography is available to everyone and that everyone and a monkey can do it. This just isn’t true. for most people, as it is with any medium, it is an easy hobby to technically master or become mastered by. It’s a far greater task to have content in a photograph than it is to capture a moment of action or beauty.

    I don’t think anyone should make it their goal to be a great photographer. I am guilty of having made it my goal, and I can attest that it only leads to great disappointment and self doubt than it leads to anything constructive. Greatness will come if its going to. and you shouldn’t be searching for it because it’s a fruitless journey. The goal of a photographer should be first to master one camera and one lens. become intimately aware of them as if they were a part of their body. Only they will they not be distracted by technical issues and be able to focus on their content. What do they have to say with their images. And at this point, if it hasn’t already happened, they will begin to know themselves a lot better. and in time, that too won’t be on their mind – they will just know. and their images will get better and grow with them.

    Each person has their own way of understanding their experiences. each person reacts in their own way. An experience that may freeze someone in fear, may make another cry and yet another move to stop what ever atrocity was happening. These differences also affect how we as photographers and artists develop as human beings and creatively.

  23. David, thanks for your words! Always learning with you, and I sincerely appreciate the time you dedicate to give us advices like these.
    I’m going to print them to read when doubts arise… ;-)

    thanks again, cheers.

    P.s. thanks also to mw and Jason for your opinions

  24. a civilian-mass audience

    Be YOU, BE FREE…not any easy task

    “People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.”

    MR.HARVEY …thank you for helping my BURNIANS grow…!!!

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