Werner Herzog’s “Life Rules” and Photography


Werner Herzog’s “Rules” and Photography

Werner Herzog’s “life rules” (my term, not his) appear on the back of the latest book about this great film director as written by Paul Cronin. I find them uniquely suited to photography and have written my own interpretation and use of each.

His “Rules” and My Personal Interpretation

I think to be able to learn something from such a master as Werner Herzog, is a rare privilege and I believe I have learned a bit about my approach to photography from his words. Here they are in no particular order. His “rule” appears in quotes with my commentary below each:

  • “Always take the initiative.”
    • This is always the best course of action for all things, but for photography in particular. To get the camera out and to go out with it takes some initiative – every single time.
  • “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need.”
    • Basically this says to me to do what it takes to get a shot. I stay within the law, but I do what it takes.
  • “Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.”
    • I take hundreds of photos sometimes to only get one good one. Enough said.
  • “Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.”
    • I’ve lamented missing shots or forgetting a key piece of equipment, but I never stay in that place of grief. The way I think about a photo opportunity is that if it is meant to be, it is meant to be. If not, then next time.
  • “Learn to live with your mistakes.”
    • I have framed a photo poorly when taking it, used an inappropriate lens or filter, and totally screwed up the camera settings. These are mistakes and I end up with photos that have my mistakes clearly visible. I have to live with these photos and I try to improve them in post-processing.
  • “Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.”
    • This says to me “become more knowledgeable about art.” The more I learn about art and study paintings, etc., the more I learn about what makes good photographs.
  • “That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.”
    • I have hundreds of photos that I’ve taken that are not the best. They’re not “keepers.” Still, I go through them days and sometimes years later and find a gem.
  • “There is never an excuse not to finish a film.”
    • Maybe there are millions of excuses, but none of them good enough. Take the photo and finish it.
  • “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.”
    • Exploring new areas to shoot photos is a must. Some things will stand in the way. Don’t let them.
  • “Thwart institutional cowardice.”
    • A lot of stuff is written about photography and one can get so involved in reading and studying that it becomes a kind of cowardly way of approaching it. Just take action. Take the shot and figure it out later.
  • “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”
    • Using a filter, lens, or camera in a way that is technically not allowed or shooting at a time or in light that is technically not the best, is a sure sign that you’re onto something good. Keep going.
  • “Take your fate into your own hands.”
    • In developing my own personal style of photographs, I continually run into the fact that the photos I take are whatever I want them to be. Not someone else. It is me. I am shaping my own photographic style.
  • “Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.”
    • Every landscape or natural scene can be approached differently by different photographers. But, every landscape has a core essence to it that is common to anyone who photographs it. The trick is finding that core thing or things about a particular scene. Once you find that, then you can essentially become any photographer you want because you can photograph the scene in every conceivable way.
  • “Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.”
    • It is easy to just take landscapes, or just take animal shots, or just take portraits. Whenever I have stepped out of these ruts and into something unknown, I have benefited. For example, taking night shots improved my attention to camera settings and freed me from the horror of shooting in manual mode.
  • “Walk straight ahead, never detour.”
    • If I have an idea for a photo, I follow through with the original idea. It is easy to get side-tracked into a different “look” or a different this or that, but it is usually my first idea that was the right one.
  • “Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver.”
    • I take this as a kind of “heads down” approach. I work at various things without telling others exactly what I was thinking, but I make sure it turns out good in the end.
  • “Don’t be fearful of rejection.”
    • Photo critiques sometimes hurt. That doesn’t mean one should close their ears and eyes to other’s ideas. Photo critiques can be helpful.
  • “Develop your own voice.”
    • Who wants to produce photos that look exactly like someone else’s? I’ve wanted to emulate the style of those photographers I look up to, but I always end up developing my own style. Sure I can have some photos that look similar to any other great photographer, but I have my own style in my body of work. That’s what counts.
  • “Day one is the point of no return.”
    • I think the first day I took a photo, I was hooked on photography. There was no turning back from that point. I was seven.
  • “A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.”
    • I’ve never taken a photography class but I’ve read many books. Books are good guidelines, but I never follow their rules exactly. I guess that would make me a book failure of a sort. I get better photos that way.
  • “Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.”
    • I get a lot of great shots purely by chance. I don’t know what percentage, but it is high.
  • “Guerrilla tactics are best.”
    • Everyone can shoot a photo from eye level. Crawl. Crouch. Stand on a ladder. These actions make the better shots.
  • “Take revenge if need be.”
    • I’ve missed great “classic” shots like Artist’s Point in Yellowstone, or a beautiful New York City skyline. I take my revenge and make up for these missed shots by taking plenty of others around the same area.Then I make them better than those “classic” shots from “classic” locations. Ha. Take that.
  • “Get used to the bear behind you.”
    • Something is always pushing me. I guess it’s because I really like photography. That push is my bear.

— Werner Herzog (The items in quotes above. My comments are in green indented and below each.)

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From the latest Werner Herzog book.

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Writing this really made me think about my photographic hobby (obsession) a lot, and showed me how someone in a different, but similar (film making is similar to photography in a way) industry can teach me something about myself. In any case, I learned from this exercise, and I like that.

Thank you for reading what I wrote — I hope you enjoyed it!