Making Choices That Really Matter

By Bill Dobbins

Many veteran photographers I know are thankful they are not just starting out today.  There are too many photographers, too many images being created, too many devices to use to make pictures, too many photographers chasing after too little money.  This presents a real challenge.

Like Madonna before her – and even more so – you never know what identity Lady GaGa will adopt each time she presents herself to the public. She is multitude. And she makes use of all possible variables in her creations.  Notice how this image relies on costume and accessories, lighting, hair, make up and model expression to achieve its effect. She makes so many interesting choices because she gives herself so many variables to choose from.

Actually, the music business has been going through much the same kind of transformation as photography.  Digital technology means it is easier to create and distribute music.  So there is more of it available than ever before.  But this has resulted in audiences too often expecting to get their music free – unless they are hearing it in live performance.  Which is why so many acts depend on touring to make money rather than diminishing album sales or publishing royalties.

Of course, there are some music performers who seem to have broken through these barriers where others can’t.  Who have established a style or a brand or an identity that sets them apart and transcends the limitations that tend to characterize the music business today.  So ambitious photographers might do well to analyze their success and see if there are lessons to be learned that can be applied to their own careers.

Take Lady GaGa for example.

Lady GaGa is a phenomenon.

There may be no other celebrities who have as many creative and imaginative photos on line than Lady GaGa.  There are many thousands with the widest range – from high fashion to sexy nudes – of styles and concepts.

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is a singer, pianist, dancer – and now actress – who emerged from New York’s Lower East Side avant-garde music scene to release her first album in 2008 that sold almost five million copies.  To date her albums have sold 27 million copies and her musical tours have become incredibly successful.  But what helps set Lady GaGa is that nobody since Madonna has put so much effort and creativity into surprising the audience with her chameleon-like ability to shape, change and vary her physical appearance and identity.

Lady GaGa is deadly serious about her music as art as well as entertainment. And when it come to graphics and visual presentation, the more striking and surprising the better. She is a performance artist who works closely in collaboration with a whole range of (fortunate) photographers and comes prepared to the photo sessions with the ability to choose among many looks, costumes, props and ideas. The results care spectacular, as an image search for her photos on the Internet will show you.

GaGa makes sure there is plenty of bite in her images.

GaGA  has few peers in the history of show business when it comes to identity as performance art – except maybe only Madonna herself and the highly creative and imaginative David Bowie.

David Bowie was a master at adopting all sorts of identities and guises. At the same time is music helped define his era.

None of this has happened by accident.  Lady GaGa has put a lot of time, effort and expense into achieving these ongoing and surprising manifestations of her changing identities.  In the old days of Hollywood movie studios employed costume and prop departments, stylists and make up artists, choreographers and dance and singing coaches.  Nowadays, so does Lady GaGa.  She has created a support group she calls the Haus of GaGa – a creative team that finds or creates the costumes, props, sets and other visual aspects of her stage, TV or video presentations.  What you see in the performance is the result of a well-thought out, deliberate, collaborative and expensive production effort.

GaGa has a whole department called Haus GaGa that finds or creates outfits and props, builds sets and comes up with ideas for photos to amaze.

GaGa’s ability to present herself in a unique way is quite impressive, to be sure.  But what does she have to teach photographers?  To begin with, there are lessons to be learned going online and looking at the wide range of GaGa photos you find there shot by a very wide variety of photographers.  There is one lesson just in considering how many different ways there are of approaching the same subject – how many choices there are to be made if you fully consider them. There are Marilyn Monroe-like glamor images, high fashion (and whatever you call a pic of her wearing a meat dress),

2010 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
Who else but GaGa has ever thought of appearing on stage wearing a dress made of meat?  Ideas and choices are what get attention.  Sometimes simple and classic, sometimes innovative and complex.  

Some of the photos are fairly simply done.  Others involve a great deal of production value.  But if GaGa is involved they tend to be very interesting.  Of course, most photographers don’t have the budget or even the desire to opt such high levels of production – except a notable few like David LaChapelle.  But there are many choices to be made that don’t involve movie-like production efforts.   It all depends on quality of ideas, and ideas involve opening yourself up to new choices. You’ll come across GaGa photos involving illustration, pop art, extreme make up, fetish, nudes and lots more.  You won’t likely see any other celebrity portfolio with this kind of variety.

Of course, when it comes to earning a living  you probably have a certain style and that’s what your clients want.   So by all means be prepared to give it to them.  But be aware that careers tend to be like sharks who will drown if they don’t keep swimming.  So it pays to continue to evolve, grow, change, adopt new ideas and keep making new choices.  Ongoing success tends to involve a balance between delivering what is expected and familiar to your clients with the ability to incorporate just enough that is new and surprising.

Back in the 1970s, Guy Bourdin extended the range of permissible fashion photography right up to the point of becoming impermissible. This was actually a mainstream high fashion image.  Unfortunately, most in the industry rarely want to take chances like this nowadays.  

In terms of new ideas, most of us don’t have a creative team around us to give us more to expand our ability to make choices like GaGa does.  But we do have access to all sorts of creative input and ideas – from other photographers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and more.  Creative stimulation is available from a variety of sources.  All that is necessary is to look around and be open to inspiration.  And be willing to change, grow, develop and evolve.

To shoot in Paris, you have to CHOOSE to shoot in paris – as Annie Leibovitz did to create this photo. You also need the budget to bring in lights and stands, rent the merry-go-round, hate the model and pay the hair and make up artists, the stylists, an art director, the rest of the crew and assistants, somebody to do security and make sure the shoot is catered.  Only THEN can you make photos.

Spontaneity and intuition are important in photography.  You see that something will make a good photo and you shoot it.  If you’ve put in your 10,000 hours the rest – choice of lens, exposure, composition and so forth – will hopefully happen fairly automatically.  The many choices you make regarding all aspects of the picture are what determine the end result.  But you can’t choose props and costumes that are not available, sets you didn’t build or anything else you didn’t think of and plan for.

You can’t do photos of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or street life in Calcutta unless you’ve made the decision to go to those locations.  To actually shoot with the Eiffel Tower in the background you need to get to Paris.  You choose whether to use which models you to use, whether males or females, what body type, what costumes, props and make up.  One difference between photography and painting is to make a photo you actually need something in front of you to shoot (Yes, I know – Photoshop.  A different subject.)

Madonna has been inventing new looks and identities for decades. For this identity she used the word “like” because she wasn’t actually claiming to be a virgin.
Before there was Photoshop, David LaChapelle was using sets and costumes and other techniques to create complex and often surrealistic compositions that were clearly his his own style based on his own taste and imagination.  He was able to do this back when he had little money and was working in small, confined spaces because he had a creative vision he was determined to carry out.
Terry Richardson often uses such explicit sexuality in his photography that in this age of free porn he has been accused of shooting photos that are too erotic. His highly informal style has not gotten in the way of a highly successful career.

For example, you can’t shoot a photo of a model in a hat unless you have a hat for her to wear.  And different hats will give you different results.  Different types of hats, different size brims, different colors.  Baseball caps, vintage hats from Chanel or cowboy hats.  You may decide which hat to use in a photo on an intuitive basis, based on a feeling of what  you think looks best. But if you don’t have the right hat to use you can’t use it in the picture.  And you won’t have the right hat unless you or a stylist brought it to the shoot in the first place.  You can’t choose to use what isn’t available

You can’t choose a hat for a model to wear in a photo if that hat is not available when you are ready to do the shoot.  Stylists and producers can make a photographer’s job a lot easier.  GaGa has a whole department to take care of this.

The practice of creating “look books” nowadays to help come up with ideas and approaches is a good one.  Having a starting point to aid in creating ideas can be beneficial.  I once took a model out along with a copy of a photo book by one of my favorite photographers.  We used the photos as art director sketches to give us the basis of our own photos.  It worked great in stimulating creativity and the final photos didn’t really look much like the ones in the book.  There were just too many variables involved – and I wasn’t really trying to make close copies anyway.  Just to get ideas.  And that worked really well.

Model/bodybuilder Sharon Bruneau showed up for a photo shoot with me with some red duct tape and a roll of Saran Wrap. Styling based on imagination rather than budget.  But unusual choices can really increase the impact of photos.    Photos by Bill Dobbins.

You can do the same thing choosing photos out of magazines or downloading them from Google or Bing images.  New starting points help to reach new destinations.

Having too many choices can sometime be paralyzing.  This is true in buying a car, camera or purchasing a house as well as in creative activities.  So having a way to narrow down your choices to a more manageable number can be very beneficial.  This is why a photo assignment in which a client or art director gives specific instructions can make the job a lot easier to carry out.

Self assignments can accomplish the same purpose and give you the opportunity to develop your skills and expand your experience.

The calm compositions of the commonplace by William Eggleston seem the opposite end of the spectrum from the extremes of Lady GaGa. But in 2012, three dozen of Eggleston’s prints sold for $5.9 million in an auction at Christie’s.


You can learn about lighting studying painting. Notice how Rembrandt has light as a warm glow emerging from surrounding darkness.

Few of us can be totally creative all the time.   But we can keep reminding ourselves that more creativity is possible.  And we can make an effort to go out and find ideas that will stimulate our creativity and motivate us to try things that are new and different.  We can try things from time to time that we know might not work.  Take a chance.  That’s valuable, as long as we don’t do it when the rent money is involved.  Remember, failure is as much part of the creative process as success, although it’s not nearly as much fun.

GaGa’s videos are as creative as her still photos. This is the cover from her video Born This Way that was released to promote the album of the same name.

Actually, in spite of the Internet, digital technology and the enormous freedom this gives for creative experiment,  in my view commercial photography has become much more conservative than it used to be.  In that way it is like commercial country music.  Most music coming out of Nashville nowadays is aimed at teenage girls who listen to country music radio.

You have to wonder what inspired Led Zeppelin to create the song Kashmir. It was totally unlike anything else being done in rock music.

This helps explain how  Taylor Swift  became one of the biggest stars in the industry – although she has now moved well beyond the country genre.  The songwriters and singers doing commercial country music are excellent and the musicians first rate.  Even more than first rate.  Nobody plays guitar better than somebody like Brad Paisley.  And he’s just one of them awesomely talented Nashville Cats.  But watch the Country Music Awards and you’ll see the music has become  homogenized.  It is what I call “Tin Pan Valley.”  Few real surprises, no real danger. Traditional country values very carefully filtered and packaged for mass consumption.

When I find music I really respond to, whether country or rock or other, it is often decades old.  When I see photos that really affect and move me too many of them are “vintage.”  There is always good creative work being done and there are certainly lot of good photographers (and art directors) but a lot of the photos selected by the industry are very conventional – because creatives who make conventional choices won’t be blamed if something goes wrong.  Those who take chances and try something new can get fired.

GaGa did a lot of photos in support of her ArtPop album, video and music tour. She sold a ton of albums in a time when albums are hard to sell.



We are all products of our own time, sailers on the sea of our own culture, being pushed and pulled by various tides and currents of trends and styles.  If you want a reminder on how taste can change just check out the hair styles and bell bottoms of the 1970s.   All anyone can do is his or her best to remain imaginative and creative, to try not to be too repetitious.  If we can’t surprise yourselves we are not likely to surprise others.

But rather than just dream up new ideas out of your head, you can stimulate our imagination and expand your potential choices by looking for as much creative input as you can.  Lady GaGa has Haus GaGa nowadays but she didn’t when she was getting started.  She relied on her own creative ideas.  David LaChapelle has a whole staff to work with him on his elaborate productions but in the beginning he was collaborating with just a few in a small apartment on the Lower East Side of New York.

Cindy Sherman’s art involves turning herself into various identities and then shooting photos or having photos made of herself. This is less pure photography than it is photography used as a tool for the the making of art.

One nice thing about digital photography is that you can go out and shoot any subject that comes to mind with no film and processing experiences.  You can experiment.  You can make mistakes with no great consequences.    How do they say you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice!  How do you know if different ideas or approaches work?  Try them.  How do you refresh the pool of imagination and ideas in your mind?  Fill is up with inspiring work and creativity by others.  Go to a museum.  Listen to an opera.  Read poetry.

Or trying looking at some Lady GaGa photos or one of her videos.  It doesn’t matter where inspiration comes from as long as it inspires.

Bill Brandt was never short of different and creative ideas for photos.  Photos like this come before the age of Photoshop, are highly imaginative but don’t require elaborate production.
Man Ray with a creative approach to the same subject.  This was a photographer who used a lot of darkroom manipulation to achieve desired effects.
Lady GaGa poses for a lot of outrageous images but also some traditional BW photos as well. She leaves all her choices open – and then makes smart choices.

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)





EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

 This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs.  Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act.  If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.

Double-barrel creativity – The highly imaginative presentation of Lady GaGa and the elaborate composition of a David LaChapelle photo. For photographers like LaChapelle and Annie Leibovitz, sometimes producing a still photo shoot can seem more like making a movie.