Larry Weidel: I am here with Seth Resnick, a star in photography from corporate to fine art, to advertising. He also trains and lectures on the technical side of photography and has authored several books on the same.
Seth has traveled the world. He is the epitome of a “master photographer.” He has a long list of major achievements, and he is devoting a large portion of the prime of his career to passing on this information through doing workshops around the world.
Seth, you live “the life,” traveling the world, and what many people believe is a dream life. Tell us where you came from and how you became a photographer. Of all your huge achievements, what are you proudest of?
Seth Resnick: That’s a tough question. I started out in journalism. Every day was an adventure. Every day was something new. I always said that I got to learn a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing.
I was introduced to everything from being on Air Force One, covering a heart-lung transplant, and spending two years in the burn unit with a little girl to Tim Berners-Lee, who literally invented the web, and Rodney Brooks who invented the Mars Rover that just landed this week.
That’s a broad synopsis.
LW: You’ve obviously lived a big life. If people dig into your life story from the beginning, where would you point them?
SR: I’d point them to looking at themselves and what they really want to do, what really drives them. For me, I still have a massive exotic tropical fish collection. I’ve had it since I was probably four years old.
In seventh grade, I decided that there were no books written about reef aquariums with living coral. I had a newsletter at that time called the Legal Reefer. No pun intended.
I wrote a book, and it got to the point where I had a manuscript, and I needed photographs. I took out the Yellow Pages, found a photographer, interviewed him, and told him that I wanted to photograph these fish.
He said, “No problem. It will be $300 a day.” That was about $297 more than I wanted to spend on photographs for a book.
I thought, “This can’t be a big deal.” I went out and bought a camera, and suddenly became fascinated with the physics of where the camera has to be, where the light has to be, and how many lights in order to control the background.
I never finished the book and never looked back. That was literally the introduction to photography for me.
I don’t enter contests in part because of the question of who’s judging me. If you feel it’s good, then the rest of the world can tell you it’s not. And if you think it’s not good, then the rest of the world can tell you it’s awesome. Then, you think, “Whatever.”
At some point with the formula, it becomes a habit. And as soon as it becomes a habit, I become bored.
The transition from where I started in local newspapers, then to magazines, then to the corporate world, and then to advertising, eventually I realized that I am good at this, but it’s not what I feel inside.
I wanted to convey what I really feel inside. And the only way to do that is to do it for yourself. The issue there is money. When you’re not working for someone else and you’re working for yourself, money doesn’t grow on trees, which is an issue.
It takes time. It takes perseverance. You find a gallery. You find private collectors. I have a newsletter now, and the circulation of it is now over 25,000.
Every time I have a new series or new edition, I put that information out there and miracles happen, I guess.
LW: Was that gradual?
SR: It was a short period of 40 years. (laughs)
LW: Twelve-hundred days. Wow. How would you describe the change to having your independence?
SR: Being in the right place at the right time, and the karma and energy around you. A perfect example goes back to the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.
I’m freelancing for Sports Illustrated to photograph the bobsled, which sounds like a joy. But it’s the Winter Olympics, and I’m laying on a refrigerated course in the dead of winter in Lake Placid, and I’m supposed to photograph every single bobsled.
The bobsleds come down one after the other. I think, “What’s the big deal?” On my first day of shooting, all the bobsleds are coming down, and mistake number one is when I photograph the East German team.
I went up to talk to them, and I touched their sled. As an American, you don’t touch an East German sled. So we avoid a little international incident.
I go back down, and I’m trying to learn about bobsledding. I see the US Navy bobsled coming down, and I think, “Wow, those guys are good because there’s such a low center of gravity, I can’t even see them.”
I have my 300mm at f/2.8. I lift the camera, and I see the US bobsled team coming down, I click, click, click, and it made the cover of Time magazine and made the inside of Sports Illustrated.
The icing on the cake for that whole story is—30 days in Lake Placid may seem glorious to the rest of the world, but let me tell you that working 12 hours a day in Lake Placid in the dead of winter is exhausting—the last event in Lake Placid, which was the 1980 hockey game with the Russians.
We had about a zero percent chance to even make a goal, and through drawing straws, the loser had to cover that game. I had to cover the game.
To this day, it’s one of the greatest moments in sports history. Did I plan it? Of course not. Again, persistence. I’ll take the losing straw. I’ll go do what I have to do, and it turned out awesome.
Photographing the Olympics next to me at that time was a guy named Rich Clarkson who then became the director of photography at National Geographic.You keep working. You never give up. You believe in yourself and that creates a chance for magic to happen. Click To Tweet
LW: How do you go from getting a camera to take pictures of your tropical fish to where you are photographing for Sports Illustrated at the Olympics? There’s a significant transition there.
SR: I decided in high school that I wanted to be a photographer for real. I drove my parents nuts. It came time to apply to college. Most people apply to 20 or 30 colleges.
I applied to one school, the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, an early decision. My dad said, “What’s your backup?” I didn’t have a backup.
Miraculously, I got in. It was basic photo school—all kinds of fun. My two roommates at that time are both amazing photographers in their own right today—Stephen Wilkes, who has done the Day to Night series, and Bob Sasha, who’s had four or five covers for Geographic over the years.
We were all roommates. We went to London together, theoretically to study photography. I went to ski most of Europe, but photography was a good part of it.
We had a class trip to Scotland, and we had an amazing professor, Dr. Tom Richards. He’s still alive. We said, “So if we were to get in a car, and we were to take a wrong turn, could we meet up with you in a week?”
In his Kentucky accent, he said, “Boys, I’m in charge of watching out for you. I can’t give you permission to do anything that’s wrong, but I’ll tell you what. We’re going to go up to that light, and we’re going to take a right, and you might want to take a left. And as long as we meet up next Saturday, we’re good.”
We had four days of the most amazing photographic experience, no instructor, just three of us in Scotland. We all bonded. We came back, and we each produced an amazing body of work.
We got accepted into the Royal Photographic Society in London. Then I got an internship while I was in London to start at the Syracuse newspaper when I got back.
LW: Things fell into line, but you had to make it happen, and not everyone was on your side.
SR: There are all kinds of photographers. One of the things that has guided me—and it’s a question I ask every photographer that comes for advice—is “it’s not what the photographs are of. It’s what they’re about.”
When you can figure out what they’re about, then you have a guiding light. It took me a short 40 years to understand that what I actually photograph is an energy that I feel between myself and the subject, no matter what the subject is.
I’m compelled. I’m drawn to it. It’s almost like a sixth sense. I focus on that. I’m not a generalist. I’m very specific, but my subjects can be from people to inanimate subjects.
As long as I connect with that sense of energy, then I find what guides me.
LW: That relates to why so many people pick up a camera. I never worried when I heard the idea that “cameras are so good now, anybody could pick up a camera and take a good picture so photographers are out of business.”
I said, “Well, why don’t you go take a picture, and bring me one back.” It’s not the camera by itself. You can have a Ferrari, but it’s not going to win a race. Somebody has to drive it.
What were things on your way up that occurred to you that you were doing, or the top people were doing, that you admired that other people perhaps wouldn’t do to make things happen—changes they wouldn’t make in their own lives to push themselves forward?
SR: Guidance from people I respected, including my dad who was in construction who said, “Don’t ever do a job unless you’re going to do it right.” That’s something that still guides me today. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do whatever it takes to learn about it.
It was also guidance from fellow photographers who to this day enlighten me—Jay Maisel, Susan Meiselas, Arthur Meyerson, Eric Meola, John Paul Caponigro—they’ve all become dear friends, and taking little bits of their journey, how they took it to heart, and how they went from point A to point B.
In the end, it ultimately comes down to believing in yourself—that’s critical—and honesty, integrity, and perseverance.
That may sound like what everybody says, but in the end, it’s really true.
You don’t give up. Don’t give up on yourself. If you really believe in it, just keep on going.
LW: One thing is your talent and your product, but another factor of success is trustworthiness. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past.
SR: You’re as good as your last job.
LW: They can smell a phony a mile away. People think they can take shortcuts or take advantage of people, but you’re not going to get away with that over time. There are no secret shortcuts.
Talk about when you learned that payoff. When did you figure that out? “I’m going to stand for something, and I’m going to go above and beyond?”
SR: Photographically, I made a list of keywords that are about me and keywords that are about my images. I don’t mean words like location or blue or green. I mean words like tranquility, sensuality, journey, and enlightenment.
I made a list of words that were powerful words to me. Then I started going through my own images and asking, “Does this image have all those things?” If it didn’t, it didn’t mean it wasn’t a good image, but it meant that I had to reconsider that one.
Sometimes there were new words. That’s a critical part of what I do, and sometimes it helped me understand that this is an interesting photograph, but it’s not what drives me.
Ultimately it was a conflict about going to Antarctica, which I’ve now done 13 or 14 times. It’s cold with a lot of snow and a lot of ice. I love it. And then going into Namibia, the hottest place, the driest place on earth—not exactly the same.
And what is it about those two places that drive me? I found out, and it’s part of the self-discovery of allowing yourself to open up and lay down on a couch and talk to yourself.
They both have wave patterns. The ice has wave patterns of wave patterns. I’m a skier. I’m a rock climber. We never climb straight. Water skiing. Kiteboarding.
I never liked football or baseball as a kid. Those were different lines. I like S-curves. Suddenly, I was able to connect S-curves in the ice with S-curves in the sand. And that brings me to another discovery. Where else can I find those curves?
They’re not easy questions. It’s not like you go buy a book about moving up the ladder. It’s looking inside and saying, “How am I going to move up the ladder? What is it that I’m trying to do? What am I trying to accomplish? How am I trying to say it? And how am I going to get there?”
It’s looking inside that allows you to move up the ladder.It's looking inside that allows you to move up the ladder. Click To Tweet