‘We make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honour what is greater and more interesting than we are’ … Robert Adams captures students protesting the enrollment of black pupils at West End High School
in Birmingham, Alabama 1963. Photograph: Robert Adams/Polaris/Eyevine“For photographers, the ideal book of photographs would contain just pictures – no text at all”
photographer Robert Adams once wrote. He went on to admit that he “once worked through more than a hundred drafts of a four-paragraph statement for a catalogue, all to find something that would just keep out of the way of the pictures”.Finding words that keep out of the way of the pictures and yet shed light on the nature of photography
is nonetheless something that Adams has excelled at, in two books of essays: Why People Photograph (from where that quotation is taken) and Beauty in Photography
. Like Stephen Shore
, he is a brilliant photographer who also happens to be a gifted and incisive writer. Adams’s main subject is the American West, the encroachment of the man-made on the natural. In his writing, he champions clear and concise language, whether visual or in the written word. Often, he writes against the prevailing academic and curatorial thrust towards theoretically-driven conceptual photography, the kind of photography, indeed, that relies most heavily on words, whether to explain or obfuscate its meaning.”At our best and most fortunate,” he writes in Why People Photograph, “we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honour what is greater and more interesting than we are.” I would also recommend Adams’ book, Along Some Rivers, Conversations and Photographs, in which he almost convinced me thatDorothea Lange
was a better photographer than Walker Evans. Almost.
If Adams seems unconcerned with appearing old-fashioned, Stephen Shore is, for want of a better word, a modernist. His groundbreaking colour photographs from the early 70s showed us a vernacular America that was so everyday as to be almost invisible, an almost banal place of brightly lit diners and dowdy motel rooms. Shore photographed armchairs, faded lampshades, bedspreads, curtains, even the food he ate every day. The photographs in Uncommon Places and American Surfaces evoked a sad, ever-spreading hinterland that novelist Raymond Carver also mapped out in his minimalist prose.
Shore also shared with Carver a passion for fly-fishing and, in his short “artist statement” for his first book, Uncommon Places, originally published in 1982, he compared the rituals of his favourite pastime to the demands of his vocation. It remains an illuminating piece of writing:
“As I wade a stream, I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I’ve cast is on the water, my attention is riveted to it. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes, I strike. Then, the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy.”
Shore is also a successful teacher of photography at Bard College in upstate New York – a secondary career of which, one senses, Adams would not approve. “When I have been asked to teach photography”, he muses in Why People Photograph, “I have found myself puzzling over three questions: ‘Can photography be taught? Ought it to be taught? If so, am I the one to teach it?'” He concludes that the doing and the teaching are not totally exclusive, but that “there are not many people in whom the enthusiasms are balanced”. Stephen Shore, though, would seem to be such a one. His text book, The Nature of Photographs: A Primer, is a kind of ideas manual for aspiring photographers. It is a somewhat (wilfully?) dry book, but it does go off into some interesting places that you won’t find in many photography primers – particularly in the third section, The Mental Level, which is a kind of Zen-like meditation on awareness and perception in photography.
For years, though, my favourite piece of writing about photography was William Eggleston‘s brief but intriguing afterword to The Democratic Forest (1989). It begins with a description of what, for Eggleston, was a photographic epiphany. When out taking photographs around Oxford, Mississippi, he realised “it was one of those occasions when there was no picture there. It seemed like nothing, but of course there was something for someone out there.” So Eggleston simply pointed his camera at the earth and began “taking some pretty good pictures”. Later, over dinner, a friend asked him what he had been doing all day and he replied, “Well, I’ve been photographing democratically.”
Eggleston, as I have found out on more than one occasion, is a photographer who, in interviews, can often be inscrutable and/or resolutely unforthcoming about what he does, but here he gets as close as anyone to pinpointing his prevailing aesthetic. Later in the afterward, the tone of his voice changes as he talks scathingly about the “blindness” of those who use the word “snapshot” when referring to his work. “The word has never had any meaning,” he says, “I am at war with the obvious”. That final sentence has come to, if not define then at least hint at, the singular attitude that underlies his democratic way of seeing.
In the same piece of writing, Eggleston cites Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, as an influence. Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 essay remains one of the key pieces of postwar writing on photography. His sporadic essays and reflections are collected in the thin, but invaluable The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. “To photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality,” he wrote, neatly defining the moment of suspended reality that occurs when the shutter opens and closes in an instant. “It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”
There are too many great photographers who also write well about photography to cite them all here, but I would like to mention William Gedney’s journals which now belong to Duke University library. This is a different sort of writing: a mixture of insight, gossip, theorising and reflection, the flavour of which can be tasted here. The description of a dinner in honour of Edward Steichen is priceless: “I do not relate to the affair of the people, dull speeches, pompous … the self-glorification is disgusting … The Times’ cameraman sat at my table … He is such an ass.” In the next entry, though, Gedney’s tone changes to pure wonder as he looks again at E.J. Bellocq’s book, Storyville Potraits.
“How beautifully lucid and strong the pictures are … I was struck now in looking at the book how in just 34 pictures, so complete a world is rendered, an all encompassing wholeness. Each one of his photographs seems to contain the germ [of] all his work. If only one of his pictures existed (all the rest had been destroyed) you would still sense he was a great photographer, at least I get that feeling. So consistent and concisely clear is his vision.”
That sense of wonder, expressed by one photographer for another, speaks volumes about how the work of great photographers impinges on the consciousness of those that follow them. I’ll give the last word to Robert Adams. “Your own photography is never enough,” he writes. “Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community.”
Now see this
Still City is a small group show that, according to Room Gallery’s blurb, is about the “under-represented aspects of cultural life in London”. Don’t let that put you off. Featuring work by Polly Braden, Ollie Harrop, Billy Macrea and Colin O’Brien, it takes a sideways glance at life in the capital, from stark portraits of travellers’ children to surreal inner-cityscapes. From 6 to 29 August, Thursday to Sunday, 12pm – 6pm, at Room, 31 Waterson St. E2 8HT