Why People Photograph.
Robert Adams
1994. Aperture, NY. ISBN 0-89381-603-5

Excerpts

Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator.

Almost all photographers have incurred large expenses in the pursuit of tiny audiences, finding that the wonder they'd hoped to share is something few want to receive.

How commendable to have known this geography well enough to have made hundreds of pictures there - to have loved it that much - and then to go on working without it. And without illusions about human beings.

The main reason that artists don't willingly describe or explain what they produce is, however, that the minute they do so they've admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the picture. Characterizing in words what they thought they'd shown is an acknowledgment that the photograph is unclear - that it is not art.

Most people alive in the United States today have never had, for a variety of reasons, the full attention of a first-rate teacher, and our democracy is failing partly as a result.

Responsible teaching is an all-out effort. Only a maximum of patience, imagination, and zeal can make an effective case to students for caring.

If teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible.

As has often been pointed out, the scholar's task is relatively analytic, whereas the artist's is synthetic; academics enjoy disassembling things in order to understand how they work, whereas artists enjoy taking scattered pieces and assembling from them things that do work. Each activity is legitimate and conceivably reinforces the other, but there are not many people in whom the enthusiasms are balanced.

When it was suggested to the poet Philip Larkin that he earn a living by giving readings and lectures, he answered as would many photographers who have contemplated doing the circuit: "It would embarrass me very much. I don't want to go around pretending to be me."

Art depends on there being affection in its creator's life, and an artist must find ways, like everyone else, to nourish it.

It is therefore the artist's work, set against the life, that tells us how, in a measure, he escaped failure; thus it is the work that we must study if we are to learn something useful.

the biographer of an artist ought to begin with a commitment to use the subject's work as primary evidence, but to remember the nature of Aristotle's argument for its centrality - that it is a unique curative for sickness - and assume that art begins in unhappiness. True, the goal of art is to convey a vision of coherence and peace, but the effort to develop that vision starts in the more common experiences of confusion and pain.

Photographs as exceptional as Strand's originate, I think, in personal need, in an urgency to find what the artist has to have to be at peace (the mediocrity of much assigned work results from the lack of this compulsion). The necessity builds, sometimes from wholly private, individual factors, but often from the way these relate to the social context, until the artist is forced to take the risk of making something untried.

Even if most artists work first from a sense of obligation to themselves, however, they usually believe that if they answer their private demands they will in the course of doing so also fulfill their duty to others. It is a risky and arrogant proposition, defensible only after the fact of successful pictures, but it is an attitude as common to the calling as is the brittle behavior of its adherents.

Like many of the best photographers who came of age professionally in the 1920s and 1930s - Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans - [Strand] seems prophetically to have sensed that America was in danger of dying from within, of giving up. Temperament, ideals, and depressing news stories combined to push him to make the best photographs he could of place where his and the country's hopes coincided.

Strand, I think, understood that combining the concrete and the universal is at the center of what makes art important (certainly it is what makes it of more value to more people than interior decoration or philosophy). He knew, as William Stafford was later to write, that "all art is local" but is saved from being trivial by its wider applicability.

[Strand] took large risks, the kind one does not take unless one has to.

The problem was, as it has been for many Americans, what to do when the United States goes beyond what one can tolerate. Strand's answer was to leave, which is not everyone's, but it deserves respect and compassion.

Others, perhaps the majority, find that they cannot survive as artists out of the context that originally fostered their art. Childhood experiences, for example, which are of critical importance to most artists' work, are of reduced application abroad.

Photographers can be especially vulnerable to dislocation. It is not possible for them to carry to a new country, as can writers or even in some cases painters, the fundamental ingredient of their particular art - the surface of life. A photographer is impelled first by a love of the appearance of things, and this affectionate interest in outer fact cannot always be quickly rekindled in a new place.

What artist has not, after all, seen more deeply and patiently than he or she has lived?

A saint's gift to us is a life, but an artist's is mainly a vision.

What finally distinguishes her best photographs is the sympathy of her vision. [Gilpin] seems to have loved her subjects more - you can see it in the way the people respond - and as she teaches us that love, the subjects are new to us.

A common problem of pictorialism is excess - abstracting so far from the particular that the scene is of everywhere and nowhere, and thus is boring, worth just a glance.

Lacking anything like the imaginative gift of Curtis, [Gilpin] reached some of the same truths by concentrating instead on a particular tribe, and by adopting a style - the sharp-focus documentary one - that allowed individuals a specificity so compelling that it paradoxically made them universal.

Among the encouraging things about the appearance of new, successful photography is the promise that it gives of more such work to follow. This is so because, as Goethe observed about poets, "a subjective nature has soon talked out his little internal material, and is at last ruined by mannerism," whereas a more objective nature "is inexhaustible, and can always be new," taking as it does for inspiration and consolation the whole world beyond the private one.

The balancing of subjective and objective vision assumes enough time to come to conclusions about oneself, the world, and their right relation.

when [Adams] photographed a landscape, no matter how intricate, he stressed its coherence, and by implication, the relatedness underlying nature.

I suspect that there were times when he would have agreed with Kierkegaard that to be an artist is to have your life stand as a satire on your art, but Adams tried his best to make them congruent.

There were conflicts of time and energy, of course, between being an artist and a public activist for conservation, and the book recounts the sense [Adams] occasionally had of the cost to his art of his conservation work. The problem was, at root, that though the two roles looked the same, they weren't; making successful photographs of nature accomplished little directly to save it. Art is not didactic, as he knew ("I never intentionally made a creative photograph that related directly to an environmental issue"), and his greatest pictures, though thrilling, ultimately induced tranquility - not a useful emotion to reformers.

the style that remained his for the majority of his life - one employing sharp focus and a long tonal range of grays

Landscape photography is a rigorous calling, not only physically - the equipment is heavy, and there is a lot of ground to cover - but as it requires an alert, even tense patience. Few landscape photographers have, working within these demands, been inclined to radical shifts of subject or craft.

The price paid for believing one's life to be whole is a tendency to suppress inconsistencies.

If you believe, as I do, that art - even beautiful pictures of inherently beautiful subjects - is motivated to some extent by pain

Lange would have been likely to have said, I think, that she was after an objective vision of truths that cannot be discovered by scientific observation.

As an artist, her primary subjects were the beauty of the world, and the courage it takes to survive in it.

The bravery she was concerned to picture was usually set against the most common ordeal - tiredness, having to last. It is perhaps an especially American subject, endurance being one of the few glories open to many in a country where freedom is more valued than justice.

How can we hope, after all, to see a tree or rock or clear north sky if we do not adopt a little of their mode of life, a little of their time? To put it another way, if we consider the difference between William Henry Jackson packing in his cameras by mule, and the person stepping for a moment from his car to take a picture with an Instamatic, it becomes clear how some of our space has vanished.

The West has ended, it would seem, as the nation's vacant lot, a place we valued at first for the wildflowers, and because the kids could play there, but where eventually we stole over and dumped the hedge clippings, and then the crankcase oil and dog manure, until finally now it has become such an eyesore that we hope someone will just buy it and build and get the thing over with. We are tired, I think, of staring at our corruption.

Timothy O'Sullivan was, it seems to me, the greatest of the photographers because he understood nature first as architecture.

It is worth adding, finally, a truism from the experience of many landscape photographers: One does not for long wrestle a view camera in the wind and heat and cold just to illustrate a philosophy. The thing that keeps you scrambling over the rocks, risking snakes, and swatting at the flies is the view. It is only your enjoyment of and commitment to what you see, not to what you rationally understand, that balances the otherwise absurd investment of labor.

On the prairie there is sometimes a quiet so absolute that it allows one to begin again, to love the future.

Because our politics and economics aren't likely to change in the near future, I hold small hope that the American West, even significant parts of it, will remain open. The region's central, defining characteristic - space - is unlikely to be retained in anything resembling its original sense because, in accordance with our system of values, it is not as important as the chance to amass wealth.

Capitalism may not be mentioned in the Constitution, but it is in fact our state religion, and we are ardent in living by it.

Making art - being able to say what one sees that is whole - is an enormous relief, as if one had been held dumb by an impediment of speech, and then abruptly cured, enabling one to say, and thus understand better, what it is that is most important.

Art does not deny that evil is real, but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation; the structure of the picture, which is a metaphor for the structure of the Creation, suggests that evil is not final.

An artist "invents" from the confusion of life a simplification, a picture with more order than the literal subject apparently has, so as to suggest by analogy a wider coherence throughout life.

Quotations

Dorothea Lange
A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode.