Edward Steichen -for the beginner

Edward Steichen, from a lecture at the Wilson Hicks Photojournalism Conference, 1961, republished in Photographic Communication, Focal Press, 1972. Creative Camera, March, 1974, page 76

Most, if not all, of the recognised good photographers today -- top notchers let’s call them –– never went to any photographic school or had any photographic instruction. My own instruction consisted of a little slip of paper that came with a box of plates. It told me how to mix the developer and so on. Everything else I worked out for myself. Now I don’t say that is the best way, but unless the young person who is planning to be a photographer has that kind of let me call it ‘guts’ -and unless he will sacrifice anything and everything to become a photographer, he won’t succeed. I think the biggest mistake any young photographer can make is to try and make his living by photography before he has matured enough to know why he is photographing and what he wants to photograph.

May I share with you a little experience I had the first year of the fifteen I was at the Museum. A young fellow came in one day with a portfolio of pictures. He had photographed children on the streets of New York. He photographed them in the slums, on Park Avenue, in Central Park, and he did it with a fine sensitivity. I asked him whether he had ever shown these pictures to a publisher, and he said, ‘No.’ Was he interested in having any of these submitted to a publisher?

I asked. ‘Why not?’
He replied, I don’t want anybody to tell me what I should photograph or how I should photograph.’

I said, ‘That’s fine What do you do for a living?’
‘I’ m a plumber and I make more money than most photographers.’

That set me thinking. My recommendation since then to all young people who have talent is for them to devote two or three years while growing and developing to making their living at something other than photography If they feel that their work must be related to photography, then they should develop x rays at a hospital or sell photographic materials in a store. But they must fight clear of involvement in professional photography. And the reason is that a young fellow is quickly moulded by his early experiences.

..I don’t want anybody to tell me what I should photograph or how I should photograph.

I told Hicks a little while ago that I could mention four photographers who, 14 or 15 years ago, were among the most promising young men I met. Good photographers. I exhibited their work and bought some of their things personally to give to the Museum for its collection. These fellows went immediately into commercial photography, and they are hacks now They trot out photographs which they made 10 or 12 years ago and send them to exhibitions that they hear of. That is a tragedy.

We have schools of photography that are a dime a dozen. They have various courses in photography: how to become a fashion photographer, how to become an advertising photographer, and then what they call basic training. Their basic training consists of how to thread film in the camera and how to develop a negative –– tripe that any school boy 13 or 14 years old will learn from a photographic demonstrator in a shop in five minutes. Basic training in photography should be basic. What is basic in photography is for the youngster to learn and realize what photography is, what it is about, and above all why he wants to photograph.

If we want to photograph for a profession, to make a living, I’d say good, I have no quarrel with him, but I haven’t any time to waste with that. There are plenty of sources. But, if he wants to make good photographs, to express something, to contribute something to the world he lives in, and to contribute something to the art of photography besides imitations of the best photographers on the market today, that is basic training, the understanding of self.


2007-01-01 21:42:08



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