I love quotes from people who know what they are talking about.
There are a ton of good photography quotes out there. I see them used in artist statements and photographic advertisements all the time. One of the most interesting aspects about quotes from master photographers is that they are often presented as indisputable fact, yet many of them are contradictory.
Ansel Adams gave us many excellent photographic quotes. Two of his most famous quotes are, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it,” and, “The negative is the score, and the print is the performance.”
Ansel’s original prints are evidence of his beliefs. They are hand-crafted pieces of photographic art. Ansel worked in the darkroom with the same negative for days, even weeks before making what he considered a satisfactory print.
Ken Burns, master story-teller who combines still images and narration in his award-winning documentaries, agrees. “I treat the photograph as a work of great complexity in which you can find drama,” he said.
That tells us that if we want to become great photographers or film makers, we need to take our photography more seriously. In fact, based on these two artists, we may be tempted to remove luck from the art-making equation completely.
Let’s see, we did a quote from “A” and “B,” so what’s under the letter “C”? Master photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, said of his amazing photographs, “Of course it’s all luck.” (emphasis mine).
At least Cartier-Bresson slaved over printing his “lucky” photos, just like Ansel Adams, right? Henri said, “Actually, I’m not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.”
My head hurts. Let’s skip down the alphabet and find one that addresses the artist’s intent instead of the art. Edward Steichen said, “It is the artist that creates a work of art, not the medium. It is the artist in photography that gives form to content by a distillation of ideas, thought, experience, insight and understanding.”
Finally a universal quote that transcends contradiction!. Photography is just a creativity tool chosen by the artist, like a brush or chisel. The quote makes me picture a museum-quality photographic art exhibition. We’re all formally attired, and discussing the profound and noble intentions of the artist over glasses of champagne and plates of fresh fruit and samples of the finest cheeses.
Then the great Diane Arbus blows the door off the hinges by yelling, “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”
I just heard several gasps, and maybe the shattering of a champagne glass or two. Instead of being terrified of spilling a drink on the art, I now see us wearing jeans and t-shirts, and standing in an old warehouse full of controversial photographs. Terror still lurks below the surface, but now it’s in the thought of walking back to our car parked on the dimly lit streets in this war-torn part of town.
I’ve been in both situations, and I’ve been amazed and disappointed by art at both places. I’m sure you have too. Once at the latter, a good friend and fellow artist asked if I would be part of evening security for a group exhibition that night.
At first, I considered her request a compliment on my obviously intimidating physical presence, but I looked outside to the part of the city we were in, and imagined creepy and grotesque figures stepping out of the shadows, hoping I’d say yes to the request.
Remember when an exploration party would beam down to the surface of a hostile planet on the original Star Trek television series? Among the group of regulars was always one guy you’d never seen before. Immediately, you knew who was getting killed in that episode! That night at the group exhibition, I felt like I had just beamed down to find myself surrounded by the stars. I felt expendable. I also felt an overwhelming urge to urinate.
Focus, Todd! Focus! …
It’s easy to select the perfect quote to get our point across, and it’s just as easy to counter that quote with another. Instead of being confused by contradicting quotes from masters on the same subject, maybe we should be thankful for it. We all create from different places and spaces.
How lifeless would the resulting work be if all things were based upon the same art-making formula? Exhibitions of all sorts would become areas to avoid. That would be something worthy of terror.
I leave you with a truly transcendent quote, and one of my all-time favorites. It’s not from another photographer, but from blues musician, Dave MacKenzie. MacKenzie said, “If you play the blues long enough and don’t get rich and famous doing it, something wonderful happens. If you still keep doing it just because you enjoy it, it rubs all of the rough edges off of you, and you become happy.”
You can become happy playing the blues, but only if you keep playing the blues… There’s a quotable contradiction!