Book Review – “Why People Photograph” by Robert Adams
Title: Why People Photograph – Selected Essays and Reviews
Author: Robert Adams
Format: Paperback, also available in Hardcover
Publisher: Aperture Foundation
Publish Date: First published in1994
Price: $14.95 ($10.91 at Amazon)
Description: Selected essays on photography and reviews of nine photographers
Robert Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937. For over four decades he has documented through his black-and-white photographs the impact of human proliferation in what used to be the wilderness of the American West, particularly in California, Oregon, and his home state of Colorado. Mr. Adams is a professional photographer and prolific writer with over forty published works. He strongly believes that art is not to be confused with decoration or investment.
In 2009, the Hasselblad Foundation honored him with the Hasselblad Foundation International Award, a prize of 500,000 kronor (approximately $61,000), describing him as “one of the most important and influential photographers of the last 40 years”. Adams’ photographs are inspired by the joy he clearly derives from the natural beauty of the landscape and also his dismay and disappointment at the degradation of the American West by commercial development. For an excellent introduction to Adam’s images go here. His work is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. To see his exhibit titled “Consolations: Prairie, Forest, Sea” go here.
This book has three sections, in addition to the foreword and acknowledgements. The first section is titled “What can help”, containing seven essays. The second section, titled “Examples of Success”, has nine reviews of a diverse bunch of noted photographers including Ansel Adam & Dorothea Lange. The third and final section, titled “Working Conditions”, contains three essays.
In the foreword to the book, the author makes clear his thesis – “Though these essays were written for a variety of occasions, they have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and non-photographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then behave in accord with our vision.” Adams presents us with an etching by Edward Hopper, “The Lonely House”, and then goes on to interpret the etching in a very interesting way – the author sees a coming “crowding” but reminds us that “there is still time – in the lee, in the quiet, in extraordinary light.” His allusion to “crowding” is an indicator of the angst he clearly feels at what he considers the damage done to the landscape in the American West by human proliferation and commercialization. He devotes much of the writing in section three to this topic.
His first essay, titled “Colleagues” begins with a bold statement – [emphasis mine] “Every Photographer that has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures.” He goes on to identify an essential quality shared by the photographers he likes – animation. He asserts that Photography is the kind of intoxication it is because the photographer has known a miracle, been given an unexpected gift that they did not earn. Adams then offers up a powerful insight [emphasis mine] “When Photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does.” Adams’ wry sense of humor is cleary evident in this essay. He writes, “I have to admit there is another reason I like photographers – they don’t temp me to envy. The profession is short on dignity. Nearly everyone has fallen down, been the target of condescension, been harrassed by security guards and dropped expensive equipment. Almost all photographers have incurred large expenses in the pursuit of tiny audiences, finding that the wonder they had hoped to share is something that few want to receive.” Later on in the essay, the author offers up another keen insight – every photographers need to face the threat that they may lose their vision, either temporarily or permanently. He offers up Ansel Adams as an example of someone that he believes lapsed into the formulaic after a period of extraordinary creativity.
In the essay titled “Teaching”, while commenting on teaching, Adams says that art requires empathy and a sense of wholeness. I wonder if it is indeed this sense of wholeness that drives most photographers or perhaps, antithetically, a perception of incompleteness and a never-ending quest to achieve that sense of wholeness through their photography. What do you think? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
The review section has essays on nine photographers including Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Laura Gilpin, Judith Ross Roy, Susan Mieselas, Michael Schmidt, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange & Eugène Atget. In the first essay on Edward Weston, Adams is scathing about what he considers a lacking biographer – “All but one of the recent biographies of photographers leave me embarrased at having listened to things for which there is, on the basis of the books, scant justification to listen. Gossip.” and later, “One wonders why biographers, who usually begin their studies out of enthusiasm for their subject’s art, so often quickly turn away from the art.” It is clear that he does not think much of Maddow’s biography of Weston. This section is interspersed with black-and-white plates of images that Adams offers up to illustrate his points.
An excellent book, written by a photographer who has thought much about photography and photographers, and who is able to clearly and cogently express his thinking in polished prose; in fact his prose is as polished as his photographs! Definitely a book that belongs on every photographer’s bookshelf. Highly recommended.
Thank you for your excellent book review. I found Adams comments that art requires empathy and a sense of wholeness puzzling and provocative. I'm not sure what he means so I need to interpret this in my own frame of reference. So much of photography does seem to require a sense of empathy with the subject of our picture. Would art leave us untouched if this were not the case? On the other hand, what about abstract art? Does that also require a sense of empathy? For me to explore this would require time and perhaps discussion.
As for a sense of wholeness, what does that mean? Having come late to photography, with virtually no art background, except as an observer, I have been surprised and amused by the way my passion for photography has evolved. First, learning the technical side of using a digital camera was not easy for me. I'm a big picture person and have usually been able to leave details to others. But with photography, learning the technical details is a must to make the picture you want to make. In addition to managing the camera, there are other details to attend to. What will you leave in and leave out? What is your intention? What are you feeling and seeing? And for me, is my horizon straight? Probably not! What a struggle. What a learning experience. How surprising that I love doing something that requires me to develop the perseverance to attend to details.
On an entirely different note, the idea of a "sense of wholeness" brings to mind the deep sense of peace I feel when I go out early in the morning searching for something that I find interesting, beautiful or challenging to capture. The quiet of the morning and the beauty of the waking world are enough and not enough. I can spend hours seeking and if I don't find my picture, I still had the gift of the morning.
And finally, how does the "sense of wholeness" relate to my search for my inner artist, my voice, my creativity? How do I learn to see and express what I see? Is that too a quest for a sense of wholeness?
Thanks again Raaj. This would be an interesting topic to discuss as a group in person.