DPP Home Profiles Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Former L.A. Times Director Of Photography Larry Armstrong guided the newspaper through technological upheaval and radical, fundamental changes in photojournalism

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Cast members from the motion picture Wild Hogs, including, left to right: Tim Allen, Ray Liotta, William H. Macy and John Travolta, photographed near Malibu.
DPP: When did you start your study of this martial art?

Armstrong: I started doing it the first year we started firing people at the Times because of cutbacks in the early 1990s. I was so stressed out. I’m now a 4th degree black belt and I teach it twice a week.

I always thought ego was important to drive your work. I realized after 16 years of martial arts that ego is actually something that simply gets in the way. I was a team photo editor at the Eddie Adams Workshop for six years. There are 10 teams of 10 photographers at the Adams annual workshop. I gave the students a little lecture about a Zen concept that I learned in Aikido called shoshin, which means a “beginner’s mind.” I included a quote from Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where he defines shoshin: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” What that means is that every time you approach something, like learning Aikido, though you may have learned a technique 10,000 times already, if you can possibly clear your mind from ever having seen it and look at it for the first time, then you’ll really learn it. We’d get these hotshots who had been picked out of a thousand people and they would walk into the workshop with their egos jacked up sky-high. I would tell everybody, if they wanted to get something out of the experience, they had to hang up their egos for the three days there and practice beginner’s mind. I told them to listen to people and to not be the photo expert that won their way into the workshop.
DPP: You practice what you preach in terms of educating yourself in other disciplines, including painting.

Singer-songwriter Marcus Larson photographed in Downtown Los Angeles.
Armstrong: I’ve immersed myself recently into plein air painting—painting landscapes outside on location. You only have about an hour and a half to two hours to complete a painting since the light changes, so you’re working on smaller canvases. There are wonderful parallels and differences between how you view things photographically and how you view things as a painter. For example, I learned very quickly that what I thought of as my strength in photography—solid compositional skills, the kind that gets you to stop and draw your eye into it—doesn’t work in painting. It’s more about focusing on certain elements and light. Photographers have to make decisions about things instantly—color, light, composition. I now see still photographs differently, especially when it comes to color. You see colors differently through the eyes of a painter. Photography glosses over them. They’re there, but you don’t see them. Look at a line of eucalyptus trees and give yourself a quiz as to how many colors are actually there. When you take a picture of them, you might think, “Oh, what a lovely green,” and that’s about it. But when you have to apply paint, all of a sudden, you’re seeing five different colors in a branch.

DPP: So the more awareness and skills you can utilize, the more prepared you’ll be in this highly competitive business?

Armstrong: To compete nowadays in photography, you have to be familiar with all the lighting equipment out there. You should also know video. There’s nothing more enjoyable than heading out with a camera and a couple of lenses and to be able to document everything in the world with available light. But in the new world, you’re often going to be asked to light it, and if you want to be called back again by the same client, you need to know how to do it extremely well.

See more of Larry Armstrong’s photography at larryarmstrongphoto.com.


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