When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe. "you must have a wonderful camera...It must be the best camera in the world...You must show me your camera." Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London. When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: "I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter."
The difference bewteen the recorder photographer... and the artist photographer... is that the artist will, by experience and learning... force the camera to paint the imagination...the emotion... the concept and the intent... rather than faithfully and truthfully reproduce an unnatractive and unflattering record.
It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible, but images. For example, now all adults can know exactly how they and their parents and grandparents looked as children – a knowledge not available to anyone before the invention of cameras, not even to that tine minority among whom it was customary to commission paintings of their children. Most of these portraits were less informative than any snapshot. And even the very wealthy usually owned just one portrait of themselves or any of their forebears as children, that is, image of one moment of childhood, whereas it is common to have many photographs of oneself, the camera offering the possibility of possessing a complete record, at all ages.
I believe that the chief value of photography as a means of communication depends entirely on the ability of the camera to arrest life instantly. It thrills me to speculate how the invention of photography has contributed to the speeding up of human reflexes. The rapidly working camera has sharpened man’s capacity to observe and observe rapidly; it has taught many of us to use our minds to classify visual phenomena in an instant of time; to relate our own attitude to that of the person in front of the camera in a split second. This to my mind is the essence of photojournalism.
What is a good photograph? I cannot say. A photograph is tied to the time, what is good today may be a cliché tomorrow. The problem of the photographer is to discover his own language, a visual ABC. The picture represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera. This disease of our age is boredom and a good photographer must combat it. The way to do this is by invention – by surprise. When I say a good picture has surprise value I mean that it stimulates my thinking and intrigues me. The best way to achieve surprise quality is by avoiding clichés. Imitation is the greatest danger of the young photographer.
Photographers learn to interpret photographs in that technical way because they want to understand and use that ‘language’ themselves (just as musicians learn a more technical musical language than the layman needs). Social scientists who want to work with visual materials will have to learn to approach them in this more studious and time-consuming way.
Photography is never more strong in its emotional appeal or in the authority of its statement than when recording incidents in the life of man or man’s reaction to the life around him. Here is one province where it can be said with some certainty that the camera does not lie. It cannot afford to try.
The first thing I did with my very first camera was climb Mt. Fuji. Climbing Mt. Fuji is a lesson in determination and moderation. It would be fair to ask if I took the moderation part to heart. But it certainly was a lesson in respecting your camera. If I was going to live with this thing, I was going to have to think about what that meant. There were not going to be any pictures without it.
These days I think the composers of music influence me more than any photographers or visual creators. I see something exciting or lovely and think to myself: 'If Papa Haydn or Wolfgang Amadeus or the red-headed Vivaldi were here with a camera, they'd snap a picture of what's in front of me.' So I take the picture for them.
...the era of popular photography which began with the introduction of the first Kodak camera in 1888 is that of the anonymous photograph...Both sitter and photographer may be no longer identifiable. Yet...these primative pictures are of great historic significance...Through them we have a detailed picture of everyday life of a kind never previously available.
Ansel Adams in 1930 had been training to become a concert pianist while considering a career as a photographer. He decided, after seeing the photographs by Paul Strand, that "the camera, not the piano, would shape [his] destiny." His mother and aunt both pleaded, "Do not give up the piano! The camera cannot express the human soul!" To which Adams replied, "The camera cannot, but the photographer can."
The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer – a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world. It became clear that there was not just a simple activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but ‘photographic seeing’, which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.
(...) Although there a sense which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as painting and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise.