Aphorisms, quotes, by photographers about photography
The recent post about John Berger got me thinking about the literature out there on photography, and while photographers are usually scoffed at as an illiterate bunch, the truth is they are more often quite eloquent writers and what they have to say about photography is usually much better than what is found in the dusty tomes of academic scholars. So I thought I would kick off this thread with a series of my favorite quotes from Photographers, and see if any of you out there can use them, add to them, or care to comment.
(I should add that there a few quotes from artists in other fields but they seemed particularly apt, so I left them in)
Some people are creators, but I’m a discoverer. I don’t believe in originality. You take inspiration from whatever moves you, and you find your own voice in those things.
I can be an artist a posteriori, not a priori.
I believe that there is no person in the world that must be protected from pictures. Everything that happens in the world must be shown and people around the world must have an idea of what’s happening to the other people around the world.
If you don’t ever make mistakes, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability.
It’s always seemed to me that photography tends to deal with facts whereas film tends to deal with fiction. The best example I know is when you go to the movies and you see two people in bed, you’re willing to put aside the fact that you perfectly well know that there was a director and a cameraman and assorted lighting people all in that room and the two people in bed weren’t really alone. But when you look at a photograph, you can never put that aside.
For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.
I think that the camera is something of a nuisance in a way. It’s recalcitrant. It’s determined to do one thing and you may want to do something else. You have to fuse what you want and what the camera wants. It’s like a horse.
I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into it and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of righness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.
The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination and I think it’s true. I would never choose a subject for what it means to me or what I think about it. You’ve just got to choose a subject, and what you feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold if you just plain choose a subject and do it enough.
The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.
I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.
Ask yourself about the source in your artistic longings. Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing? How strong is it? Would you do it if it were forbidden? Illegal, punishable? Every work of art has its necessity; find out your very own. Ask yourself if you would do it, if nobody would ever see it, if you would never be recompensed for it, if nobody ever wanted it. If you come to a clear [yes], in spite of it, then go ahead and don’t doubt it anymore.
Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing. . . .
To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eyes, and one’s heart on the same axis.
The profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it. There are no systems, for each case is individual and demands that we be unobtrusive, though we must be at close range. . . . If you have made yourself obvious, even just by getting your light meter out, the only thing to do is to forget about photography for the moment, and accommodatingly allow the children who come rushing at you to cling to your knees like burrs
Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it . . . for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, . . . A balance must be established between these two worlds—the one inside us and the one outside us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.
[A photograph has two decisive moments: one is the instant in which the exposure is made, and the other is the selection you make when you sort out your negatives.]
“Every photograph is a fiction shown as if it were true . . . What counts is the control of the photographer to impose an ethical direction to this lie. The good photographer is the one who deceives the truth well.”
I think you reveal yourself by what you choose to photograph, but I prefer photographs that tell more about the subject. . . . I think each photographer has a point of view and a way of looking at the world . . . that has to do with your subject matter and how you choose to present it. What’s interesting is letting people tell you about themselves in the picture.
Mary Ellen Mark
Like people and let them know it.
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.
I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.
There is no real warfare between the artist and the documentary photographer. He has to be both.
We photojournalists are not changing the world. All we can do is show why this world has to change, sometimes.
The more ambiguous a photograph is, the better it is. Otherwise, it would be propaganda.
If a picture is good, it tells many different stories.
Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling.
I only use the camera like I use a tooth brush. it does the job.
Car le style, pour l’écrivain, . . . est une question non de technique mais de vision.
I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.
[I am] always torn between the attitude of the journalist, who is a recorder of facts, and the artist, who is often necessarily at odds with the facts. My principle concern is for honesty, and above all honesty with myself.
A photograph is a moral decision taken in one-eighth of a second.
. . . you need to be cynical about publishing in order not to be cynical about writing.
It’s hard to find the proper balance between the arrogance we need to keep on writing, the arrogance that assumes that we have something worth saying; . . . and the humility we also need in order to grow and develop, the humility that knows that we cannot nurture and refine our gifts without the help of others, that other people including editors can sometimes tell us things we need to hear. Too much arrogance and not enough humility and we close ourselves off from the world, and nothing new comes in and we eventually become imitators of ourselves, turning what at one time were discoveries into mannerisms. And too much humility and not enough arrogance and we lose our center of gravity and find ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s opinion
Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making, your identity, the incessant transient noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites and interests have been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness.
"To be or not to be. That is not really a question."—Jean-Luc Goddard! ;))))))—bob
02 Dec 2005 11:12
Jon: this is a great beginning…i’ll send some of my favorite tonight. :))))…I love the toothbrush quote…cheers, :))) bob
02 Dec 2005 11:12
from a Polish interview with our fellow lightstalker Michael Ackerman:
INTERVIEWER: While meeting people at your slide shows, what do you cherish most?
ACKERMAN: A few drinks.
INTERVIEWER: When you work with young people at the photography workshops of different kind, what do you tell them is the most important in photography?
ACKERMAN: To make mistakes.
02 Dec 2005 11:12
Here is my all time favorite quote from a photographer…it comes from my 11 year old son, Dima. He, my wife Marina and I had been walking around at night, in Chinatown, photographing. Later, we developed my son’s film and prints. When I looked at his photographs, as always, I was astonished….at one point, I asked him the following:
BOB: Dima, sweetheart, why didn’t you focus your lens in these pictures?
DIMA: Focus, why? I don’t know, why do i have to focus..is it important?
that’s when he was 10….:))))..he, still, is my guru….
02 Dec 2005 11:12
(ed. Dec 2 2005)
“Pictures can be either a mirror or a window, but the best are both.” David Alan Harvey
Hey Bob! Knew youwould like this. The making mistakes theme is really an important one, or as Arbus put it, "I’ve never taken a picture I’ve intended; they are always better or worse." -which in a sense is another way of putting it. I have to thank another LS member for getting me to think about that idea seriously though, Eric Wolf, because it came at just the right moment to make me stop fussing about all the techie stuff and get my priorities straight. That is an important moment in one’s development, and something that cannot be learned in school.
The resistance of the object world, the fact that you ride that image like a runaway horse - that for me is what shooting is all about.
"She wasn’t beautiful, but she was my first Lieutenant."
02 Dec 2005 15:12
"Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze."
Alfred Steiglitz (1864-1946) : "The Hand Camera – It’s Present Importance" American Annual of Photography, 1897.
02 Dec 2005 16:12
I love the Steiglitz quote. Here are a few, not all photographers. |
“Sometimes you have to play for a long time to be able to play like yourself.”- Miles Davis |
“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness.” – W. Eugene Smith |
“The journey home is never a direct route: it is, in fact, always circuitous, and somewhere along the way, we discover that the journey is more significant than the destination, and that the people we meet along the way will be the traveling companions of our memories forever.”Â —
Up Country by Nelson DeMille, page 854, (last paragraph) |
“I don’t think people accept the fact that life dosn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.”—
David Lynch (via Stanley Kauffman, 10/29/02 New Republic, p28. |
“It’s great to have something new and exciting between your legs.” —Dan Gurney in reference to his motorcycle designed and built by him. Fortune Magazine. 2003 |
“The great Henry Aaron hit a home run 755 times in his career, but failed to do so almost 12,000 times.” — John Szarkowski on Garry Winogrand. |
Winogrand refused the role of philospher and critic and photographed, according to Szarkowski, “not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life.” |
“And never have I found the limits of photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold….” —-W. Eugene Smith, Aperture vol. 14, nos. 3-4, 1969 |
Exile is not a material thing,
it is a spiritual thing.
All the corners of the earth
are exactly the same.
And anywhere one can dream is good,
providing the place is obscure,
and the horizon is vast.
—-Victor Hugo |
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
—-Scott Adams, “The Dilbert Priniciple” |
Photography deals exquisitely with appearnaces, but nothing is as it appears to be.
—-Duane Michaels, American, b1932
Some great quotes, keep ‘em coming. John, you have some great stuff there — I have had a version of Scott Adams’ line in my scrap book for years, but in Spanish, and I never knew where it come from — actually I think it sounds better in Spanish. I will have to find it and reproduce it here. Also I love the Miles quote, that is very like him. You know, it is said about him that for years he tried playing like Dizzy, but couldnt quite do it, and so he found his real voice by recognizing his limitations and capitalizing on them. Miles was an incredibly smart guy.
Gary Winogrand, who was known for shooting a lot of frames, was once asked by a student if he ever worried about not getting a good shot because he was reloading with film.
Winogrand looked at the student and said:
"There are no good shots when I am reloading"
02 Dec 2005 19:12
This is great! thanks you so much, Jon.
This is from my friend Antoine D’Agata
“…I try to distance myself from a certain type of documentary photography that often avails itself of symbols that are too easy to read and assimilate in order to present a complex reality in a balance that is endlessly discussed over and over between photography as an instrument of documentation and photography as being completely subjective. It isnâ€™t the eye that photography poses on the world that interests me but its most intimate rapport with that world.The only photographs that truly exist are the Â« innocent Â» images. We find them in the family photo albums or in the police archives. Beyond serving as a simple documentation of reality or of a certain aesthetic sense, they attest to the role of the photographer, of his implication, of the authenticity of his position in that moment. The compositions of light, narrative, are no longer, for me, fundamental problems but superfluous lies. What interests me today in an image? The perspective that has justified the act of photography, the interference of the experience, of the ongoing scene, the texture, the material, the meaning of the self-portrait, of the individual, the incoherence of the unfolding sequence, the maniacal reconstruction of the random experience â€“ the photographs, like words, are meaningless when isolatedâ€¦To criticize in a coherent manner, the dominant image actually demands from a photo that it is lucid in the midst of its messy situation, from the experience between a glance and a good, hard look, the camera and the unconscious, in its fundamentally tainted rapport with reality and fiction.”
the master Robert Frank
â€œto show how I am, myselfâ€¦ to show my interior against the landscape Iâ€™m inâ€?
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.”
Gracias Jon, muy buenas tus citas, te dejan pensando…Aca te mando una de Susan Sontag (traducida por mi al castellano, ya que no pude conseguir la edicion en espanol de “On Photography” y la consegui en frances…seguro tu lo tienes en ingles…) “Las fotografias no han hecho jamas descubrir la fealdad a nadie. Pero muchos son aquellos a quienes les han hecho descubrir la belleza…es porque se encuentra que alguna cosa es bella que nace el impulso de hacer una foto…..el nombre con el que Fox Talbot registro la fotografoa en 1841 fue , del griego kalos, bello…….nadie grita <por dios, que feo es, tengo que sacar una foto! > E incluso si esa frase es pronunciada, en el fondo significaria < esa cosa fea…yo, la encuentro bella>” Hasta aqui la cita de Sontag, la que siempre me hizo pensar, sobre todo, cuando a veces, tenemos que hacer imagenes de lo feo, lo tragico, el sufrimiento, dolor, injusticia, etc…..por que lo hacemos?. La ultima frase de la cita me hace pensar sobre todo en las fotografias de Joel Peter Witkin, creo que la frase le cae como anillo al dedo….
PD: perdon por la falta de acentos, pero tengo miedo que aparezcan esos caracteres chinos …
Jon, mi post era mas largo, pero no se porque una parte se quedo por el camino….en todo caso, la cita de Sontag de la que hablo esta al comienzo del capitulo “L’heroisme de la vision”, del libro “Sur la Photographie”…Claudio
With the exception of “Hammett” I controlled all my films and produced
or co-produced them all. So I can only blame myself for all mistakes, be
proud of some of my flops and suspicious of some of my successes.—Wim Wenders
Not directly photography but I like it:
“…We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. This isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling, and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”
“I was not daunted, I was bloodied but unbowed. When you have vision, and ideas and imagination, when you believe in yourself, defeat is nothing more than the foundation for victory. it’s nothing more than a signpost on the road to triumph.”
What a start to the day!!!…. just read Proust, Twain, and Jung, with single liners that say it all, then Steinbeck with a perfect example!!… cheers Dave!!.. that’s put a spring in my step this morning…
Dave, a great selection there, the Steinbeck was a wonderful surprise, and Mark Twain is perfect! And Lina, thanks for the words from Antoine — the last words are particularly trenchant: " a photo that it is lucid in the midst of its messy situation, from the experience between a glance and a good, hard look, the camera and the unconscious, in its fundamentally tainted rapport with reality and fiction." That not only sums up Antoine’s work beautifully, it is a very apt description that is worth reflecting on. I wonder though if that rapport with reality and fiction is fundamentally tainted — that is overstated, it seems to me. I think a good photograph exists as a result of the tension between those two elements, and while an inauthentic photograph may be tainted as a result of mismanaging that tension, the relation itself between fiction and reality is not a taint, and nor is the intervention of the photographer. The position or perspective of the photographer at the moment of "intervening" and snapping a pic is certainly an important part of the image and its meaning, but I am not sure that it imposes a taint on the moment — though Antoine would probably insist it does and desire it should do so. interesting as always. The Robert Frank is a great addition too: "realism is not enough, there has to be vision."
"No news is good news;no damn journalists is even better" WC Fields (I think)
"May you live in interesting times" Ancient Chinese curse
"The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you have lost your innocence." Bruce Springsteen
Colin that is a great resource! Thanks for that. But here is a Winogrand nugget that doesnt appear there:
"I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines [our press]. They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life."
Jon: love that story about Winogrand…i read it in the book for his 1964 exhibition…i have the exhibition book and its one of my most cherished…….for me Winogrand’s "we have not loved life.." is one of the most wise and profound statements ive read from another photographer…its my modus operandi as well ;))))….cheers, bob
05 Dec 2005 09:12
Thanks for that Jon – lovely bit about illusions and fantasies and losing ourselves. Great stuff.
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.
No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.
A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.
Allard, William Albert
I think the best pictures are often on the edges of any situation, I don’t find photographing the situation nearly as interesting as photographing the edges.
Allard, William Albert
Maybe the judgment of whether something is art or not should come from the viewer and not the doer.
In contemplation, if a man begins with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
One picture is worth ten thousand words. Barna
Barnard, Frederick R.
A photographer is like a cod, wich produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity”
Bernard Shaw, George
The war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemplyment
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.
To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.
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.
Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.
If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time
What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.
When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.
It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.
There are two kinds of photographers: those who compose pictures and those who take them. The former work in studios. For the latter, the studio is the world…. For them, the ordinary doesn’t exist: every thing in life is a source of nourishment.
The limitations of photography are in yourself, for what we see is only what we are.
I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.
Creativity is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature.
Thanks Jon! That Ghandi quote made me giggle. Ohara said in one book, ‘I want people to get bored looking at it. When people get bored, that’s when the essential comes in’…. hmmmmm… I like Haas with ‘what we see is what we are’. It makes me consider the question of who shoots what and why.
"And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes…. …"……………&………. "Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job."— Joyce
08 Dec 2005 06:12
"The world I was trying to present was one where I would feel good, where people would be friendly, where I could find the tenderness I longed for. My photos were like a proof that such a world could exist."
I just read Harold Pinter’s Nobel lecture:
Art, Truth and Politics by Harold Pinter. This is only the beginning, look at the rest of it at: http://www.commondreams.org/views05/1208-28.htm
“In 1958 I wrote the following:
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost."
Harold Pinter 12/8/2005: “When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections….. it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
”I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
“If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.”
From a T-Shirt picked up in Tokyo about 20 years ago:
"The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being – there of the thing, which any could provoke – but an awareness of its having been there!"
"Thats the only way to make good photos. To be close to and to love and respect the people youre photographing" – Nguyen Dinh Uu : Vietnam War photojournalist
"It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon.
Master Ittei said, ‘Confucius was a sage because he had the will to become a scholar when he was fifteen years old. He was not a sage because he studied later on.’ This is the same as the Buddhist maxim, ‘First intnention, then enlightment.’" – Hagakure : Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo