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Walker Evans

Text from Walker Evans's book Photography (1969)

The emergence, in some force, of serious, non-commercial still photography as an art is comparatively recent. It may plausibly be dated from the 1930s (not counting the work of a few previous, isolated individuals).

Modern photographers who are artists are an unusual breed. They work the conviction, glee, pain, and daring of all artists in all time Their belief in the power of images is limitless. The younger ones, at least, dream of making photographs like poems - reaching for tone, and the spell of evocation -, for resonance and panache rhythm and glissando, no less. They intend to print serenity or shock, intensity or the very shape of love.

More soberly, the seasoned serious photographer knows that his work can and must contain four basic qualities - basic to the special medium of camera lens chemical and paper: (1) absolute fidelity to the medium itself, that is, frill and frank and pure utilisation of the camera as the great, the incredible instrument of symbolic actuality that it is; (2) complete realisation of natural, uncontrived lighting; (3) rightness of in-camera view-finding or framing (the operator's correct, and crucial definition of his picture borders) (4) general but unobtrusive technical mastery.

So much for material matters. Immaterial qualities, from the realms of the subjective, include: perception and penetration; authority and its cousin, assurance, originality of vision, or image innovation exploration invention. In addition, photography seems to be the most literary of the graphic arts. It will have - on occasion, and in effect - qualities of eloquence wit, grace, and economy; style, of course; structure and coherence; paradox and play and oxymoron. If photography tends to the literary, conversely certain writers arc noticeably photographic from time to time - for instance James, and Joyce, and particularly Nabokov. Here is Nabokov: Vasili Ivanovich would took at the configurations of some entirely insignificant objects - a smear on the platform, a cherry stone, a cigarette butt - and would say to himself that never, never, would he remember these three little things here In that particular interrelation, this pattern, which he could now see with such deathless precision. Nabokov might be describing a photograph in a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Master writers often teach how to see; master Painters sometimes teach what to see.

Mysterious are the ways of art history. There is a ground-swell if not a wave, of photography at this time, and it may perhaps be traced to the life work, arresting still, of one man: Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was important enough and strong enough to engender a whole field of reaction against himself as well as a school inspired by and following him. As example of the former, Stieglitz's veritably screaming aestheticism, his personal artiness, veered many younger camera artists to the straight documentary style; to the documentary approach for itself alone, not for journalism.

Stieglitz's significance may have lain in its resounding, crafty fight for recognition, as much as it lay in his oeuvre. Recognition for fine photography as art. We may now overlook the smiling naivete of the Stieglitz tax ego; it wasn't naive at the time, it was a brand of humourless post-Victorian bohemianism. We may enjoy the very tangible fruits of its victories: camera work placed in major art museums, in the hands of discriminating private collectors, and on sale at respectable prices in established galleries. In short, Stieglitz's art was not entirely paradigmatic, but his position was.

As we are all rather tired of hearing, the photographer who knows he is an artist is a very special individual. He really is. After a certain point in his formative years, he learns to do his looking outside of art museums: his place is in the street, the village, and the ordinary countryside. For his eye, the raw feast: much-used shops, bedrooms, and yards, far from the halls of full-dress architecture, landscaped splendour, or the more obviously scenic nature. The deepest and purest photographers now tend to be self-taught; at least they have not as a rule been near any formal photography courses. Any kind of informal access to an established master is the best early training of all.

Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a JOYOUS sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts. This man is in effect a voyeur by nature; he is also reporter, tinkerer, and spy. What keeps him going is pure absorption, incurable childishness, and healthy defiance of Puritanism. The life of his guild is combined scramble and love's labour lost.

The meaning of quality in photography's best pictures lies written in the language of vision. That language is learned by chance, not system; and, in the Western world, it seems to have to be an outside chance. Our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures, and methods of rational thought, not in images. This may be a form of conspiracy that promises artificial blindness. It certainly is that to a learning child. It is this very blindness that photography attacks, blindness that is ignorance of real seeing and is perversion of seeing. It is reality that photography reaches toward. The blind are not totally blind. Reality is not totally real.

In the arts, feeling is always meaning - Henry James. Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.


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