News & Notes
This month for my Recent Work, I selected four images shot during a recent anti-war protest here in San Francisco. It was an interesting situation that, as you can see from this month’s notes column, brought up a whole series of questions.
In other news: a small selection of my prints is on view through December at the Corner Cup. Amanda Janes runs the Corner Cup at the corner of 43rd Avenue and Lawton and invited me to exhibit some of my work there. It’s a great little space and a warm and friendly place to enjoy good coffee, view great art and get to know some really wonderful people.
San Francisco provides abundant opportunity to photograph unique or unusual scenes and events. There’s so much to choose from one has the luxury of leaving the camera in the bag and waiting for that perfect moment or set of circumstances to materialize. There are times, however, when those choices can be very hard to make.
The images I chose for December’s Recent Work page illustrate the point. While the anti-war demonstration depicted was relatively tame, people were being arrested and I saw one photographer who was working for the organizers of the demonstration being roughed up by police officers. It was obvious the potential for confrontation was increasing. It took some time before I felt reasonably sure of avoiding a direct confrontation and took my camera from the bag.
I shot a total of 19 frames before putting the camera away. Several young men had begun taunting the police when I decided to stop shooting. I had no desire to be involved in a full blown police action, so I packed it up and headed for the the subway station.
I started asking myself why I stopped to shoot the pictures in the first place. No one pays me to shoot pictures. I’m not hired to photograph breaking news stories. Yet, I felt compelled to photograph this particular protest march. I actually felt that I should make the pictures, and that if I didn’t I would be neglecting some moral obligation to record the socially significant events of the time and place in which I live.
I grew up heavily influenced by the effects of photojournalism and television news. I remember the days on which the Kennedys and Martin Luther King were assassinated, and I remember watching the Vietnam War brought home through intensive television coverage. Those images, in large part, shaped my social consciousness.
I’m never without a camera, but I don’t leave the house each morning intent on finding a story. I’m simply prepared to take pictures. But if I do come across a story it’s not easy to simply say, “That’s not the kind of thing I shoot.” It’s not easy to just walk away. It becomes one of those difficult choices. A choice that one way or another has to be made.
When I quit working for other photographers and ventured into the arena of freelance work, it soon became clear to me that shooting assignments wasn’t necessarily the way I wanted to be making images. For a few years I worked shooting images for a variety of magazines devoted to bicycling. It was a subject I was interested in and an activity in which I participated. I thought the match would be perfect. To a certain degree it was, but I wasn’t making a living. I was accumulating a sizable file of stock images that didn’t really excite me or satisfy my need to make compelling images. I gradually returned to shooting the type of subject matter that genuinely moved me and also to shooting black and white film.
Trying to make a living at editorial photography actually got in the way of doing photography. So did most the other jobs I was able to find within the industry. Once I found a way to make a living in a pleasant and creatively inspiring environment my photography blossomed. My work became technically better, more of my personal vision and thus style came through in my images, and I began enjoying photographing more than ever. I had finally reached a point of no return: I can never stop making photographs, there is no question about that now.
I may never again try to make my living from my creative work. The point is that I will never stop doing my work. There will never be a time, during the rest of my life, when I won’t be pursuing my creative work. There will never be a time when I won’t be a photographer.
As my friend Dan Unger, a NPS ranger assigned to Alcatraz, led John and me through the 1940’s industries building, it became obvious that I had spent enough time looking and that I was now beginning to see. This project is just beginning, there is so much more to do.
I don’t want to guess at how many more trips to the island I will make before I feel I have completed the project. Nor do I want to speculate on the final outcome. But I am compelled to keep looking at and photographing this mesmerizing ruin of one of our society’s darkest institutions.
My wife is a painter. No one has ever said to her, “Your paintings are beautiful, you must use really good brushes.” Do writers get this: “That novel you wrote is just wonderful, you must use a really good typewriter”? Have you ever been to a dinner party and enjoyed the meal so much that you felt compelled to compliment the cook on the quality of their stove? Think about it: How many people believe that by simply sitting down at a Steinway they will be able to play like Glenn Gould? Yet there are thousands of people who believe that spending thousands of dollars on a Leica will make them great photographer. Why is that?
A camera is a light-tight box that holds a piece of film in place behind a curtain. The shutter is the mechanism that opens and closes the curtain in a fraction of a second thus exposing the film to light. That’s all a camera can do. It doesn’t matter if the light-tight box is a Leica, a Nikon, a Minolta or a Quaker Oats carton. It doesn’t matter if the light-tight box is totally mechanical, electronic, computerized and fully automatic. They are all doing the same thing: holding a piece of film in place behind a curtain then opening and closing the curtain in a fraction of a second exposing the film to light. That’s all any camera can do.
No piece of equipment, no matter how precisely manufactured, has ever been responsible for making a great photograph. To paraphrase a quote from one of Eddie Adams’ mentors: “Cameras don’t make photographs. People make photographs.” If I make a good photograph it’s because I’m being a good photographer, not because I’m using a Leica M4-2. If I make a great photograph it’s because when I released the shutter I was experiencing a great moment as a photographer. And I experienced that great moment because practice as a photographer has trained my vision to anticipate and recognize that great moment so that I’m releasing the shutter and exposing my film at precisely the instant that moment unfolds.
So, I guess that’s the answer: Cameras don’t make photographs. Practice and dedication to photography makes good photographs.
In the 1980’s, when I had hopes of a successful career in commercial and editorial photography, I shot color almost exclusively: Fujichrome 50 Professional then Fuji Velvia. As those career hopes diminished, I gradually returned to the ‘wonderful world’ of black and white.
The more I worked the more I came to realize that my true vision would never have emerged in color. My natural and most honest vision will always be found in black and white.
I occasionally return to the question of color vs. black and white and while I greatly enjoy many fine color images, I always end up on the black and white side of the debate.
The presence of color provides so much familiar information that one often assumes to completely understand the image at a glance. Black and white focuses one’s attention on the essence of the image, its truest subject. It forces one to actually spend a little time studying the image, to be able to see what’s in it.
Some years ago I came across an article on Bernice Abbott in an issue of American Photographer. In it she is credited with saying that color too often gets in the way of the image. I generally agree with that idea, and in my own work I find that to absolutely be the case. On the other hand, color can be a very vital tool if one thinks of color in the same way a painter thinks about and uses color.
The most powerful, dynamic and often most successful color photographs are those in which color is as much the subject of the image as is the object being photographed.
Consider the work of the following photographers:
PeteTurner – www.peteturner.com
Jay Maisel – www.jaymaisel.com
Eric Meola – www.ericmeola.com
Art Kane – www.artkane.com
Every now and then I hear about a new color film being released and I get that familiar twinge of excitement I often experienced twenty years ago when every new product release by a film manufacturer made every die-hard Kodachrome user cringe. From time to time I’ll have a little fun shooting a roll of color, but so often when I ‘m going through the proofs I’ll find myself looking at an image and wishing I’d shot it in black and white. I can find inspiration in the work of Pete Turner or Jay Maisel, but the most I could do would be to copy them. The uniqueness of my work, how ever subtle it may be, will only exist as various percentages of gray.