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 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.
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.
Some of the young photographers today enter photography where I leave off. My “grandchildren” astound me. What I worked for they seem to be born with. So I wonder where Their affirmations of Spirit will lead. My wish for them is that their unfolding proceeds to fullness of Spirit, however astonishing or anguished their lives.
The uninvolved photojournalist’s pictures will at the very best serve to prop up the copy, at worst ruin it; the involved photographer’s work however will speak entirely for itself and will in no way profit by copy, though copy neatly added will not spoil such a picture; simply, it will not be read.
A photographer is a witness. He has a moral duty. Every picture must be true and honest. I believe a photographer’s strength is his ability to accurately record reality. There are photographers who think they are lucky if they find unusual or special subject. But it is never the subject that is so marvelous. It is how alive and real the photographer can make it.
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.
The personality and style of a photographer usually limits the type of subject with which he deals best. For example Cartier-Bresson is very interested in people and in travel; these things plus his precise feeling for geometrical relationships determine the type of pictures he takes best. What is of value is that a particular photographer sees the subject differently. A good picture must be a completely individual expression which intrigues the viewer and forces him to think.
I like to look at pictures, all kinds. And all those things you absorb come out subconsciously one way or another. You'll be taking photographs and suddenly know that you have resources from having looked at a lot of them before. There is no way you can avoid this. But this kind of subconscious influence is good, and it certainly can work for one. In fact, the more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer.
...the only things that distinguish the photographer from everybody else are his pictures: they alone are the basis for our special interest in him. If pictures cannot be understood without knowing details of the artist's private life, then that is a reason for faulting them; major art, by definition, can stand independent of its maker.
As a fledgling street photographer strolling up and down the streets of cities, I quickly became aware of Time and its erosive power. My early photographs focused almost exclusively on the signs of an older culture that was holding on for dear life. I'd photograph seltzer bottles in old wooden crates piled high in a truck, or the dusty windows of Jewish bread shops, or old men building February fires on the beaches of Coney Island. My interest was more than documentary, for it seemed to me that what was about to vanish was important and irreplaceable, and frankly, I wanted my photographs to offer, in some manner, the power of resuscitation. Actually, I still do, though I no longer believe that photographs can prevent the homely past from being plowed under; rather, I believe that photographs - especially good photographs that compel our interest - help us to remember; and even more importantly, they help us to decide what is worth remembering.
To us, the difference between the photographer as an individual eye and the photographer as an objective recorder seems fundamental, the difference often regarded, mistakenly, as separating photography as art from photography as document. But both are logical extensions of what photography means: note-taking on, potentially, everything in the world, from every possible angle.
Different levels of photography require different levels of understanding and skill. A “press the button, let George do the rest” photographer needs little or no technical knowledge of photography. A zone system photographer takes more responsibility. He visualizes before he presses the button, and afterwards calibrates for predictable print values.
I profoundly believe that a photographer worthy of the name is first and foremost a human being, a person deeply concerned with the human predicament. Such a person will want to make his photography do a job of work for the particular cause he has espoused. To my mind it is this dedication which gives the photographer the moral right to stand in front of other humans with a camera in his hand. I consider any alternative an unwarranted imposition upon the rights and privacy of the subject.
The photographer sees the world as a child sees the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. If he has a camera with which he can secure these ever-changing combinations, he is then able to look on them again and again, and he has the further pleasure of pleasing others with the sight of things which he, with perhaps unusual opportunities, was able to see, which his friends would otherwise not ever be able to.
The photographer, if he is to maintain his integrity must be responsible to himself, he must seek a public which will accept his vision, rather than pervert his vision to fit that public. Unfortunately many fine photographers never find this public and are virtually unemployable in the commercial field.
One of the leading uses of photography by the mass media came to be called photojournalism. From the late ‘twenties’ to the early ‘fifties’ what might have been the golden age of this speciality – photographers worked largely as the possessors of special and arcane skills, like the ancient priests who practiced and monopolized the skills of pictography or carving or manuscript illumination. In those halcyon days the photographer enjoyed a privileged status.
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.
Why do most great pictures look uncontrived? Why do photographers bother with the deception, especially since it so often requires the hardest work of all? The answer is, I think, that the deception is necessary if the goal of art is to be reached: only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that beauty is commonplace.