Influences come from everywhere but when you are actually shooting you work primarily by instinct. But what is instinct? It is a lifetime accumulation of influence: experience, knowledge, seeing and hearing. There is little time for reflection in taking a photograph. All your experiences come to a peak and you work on two levels: conscious and unconscious.
A preoccupation with abstraction, combined with an interest in the documentation of people in their natural surroundings, was the basis upon which I built my approach to portraiture. The portrait of a personality must be as complete as we can make it. The physical image of the subject and the personality traits that image reflects are the most important aspects, but alone they are not enough…We must also show the subject’s relationship to his world either by fact or by graphic symbolism. The photographer’s visual approach must weld these ideas into an organic whole, and the photographic image produced must create an atmosphere which reflects our impressions of the whole.
I don’t think any student, any photographer, any person should take pictures the way I take pictures. I build them because it’s the way I am, and that’s the way I should be. If I try to be something else and try to take pictures or talk to you humorously because I think I’ll get a few laughts, no. Sombody else, like Duane Michals might be basically funny. He is that way, he makes me laugh all the time. But he is being himself. A writer must be himself, a painter, all of us – or else suddenly we lose what we have.
I think photography is a matter of controlling what’s in front of you and making it do your will. This, of course, implies absolute mastery over camera, medium, techniques, and the ability to work with the subject and get him willingly and happily without any self-conscious feeling to fall into those things which are natural to him. This is a very complicated thing to do in portraiture. Mine are deliberately self-conscious portraits and therefore contain no forced feeling of candidness… the subject is unaware of the fact that I am waiting – things begin to happen – the man begins to reveal himself.” “If the background becomes overwhelming and you lose the personality, then I have not made a good portrait and it is not a good picture. I think the world is full of intelligent people who are not really trying to be flattered; what they really want is to be understood”. “The more I get to know my subject the more he gets to know me, and so often the pictures taken at the end of a sitting are much better both creatively and interpretively… A photographer is always in a state of preparing himself for a given moment… we have only an instant in which to think and act.
...Susan Sontag wrote her book On Photography —you’ll find no real photographer has ever said it was a good book. Writers wrote about her book and praised her, knowing nothing about photography... Susan Sontag, almost like it was her own original ideas and thoughts, began to say these things, inferring perhaps that photographers didn’t have the intellect to understand what they were doing. And I get angry, because all my life I’ve been discussing the same kind of questions that she had in this short chapter. I could show you where I wrote notes in the margins—the book is black with notes — "this is full of shit, this is not original, we discussed this years ago."