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Newman

Text by Arnold Newman, "A Life in Photography", from Arnold Newman

As a "portrait" photographer I know there is no final definition of a portrait, nor can there ever be one. Yet one thing is certain - a good portrait must be a good photograph, or image, whatever the medium might be. One must be a good artist before becoming a good photojournalist, or a good still life, fashion, sports, landscape, portrait photographer. The only difference is one's own interests, passions and the ability to communicate. We do not take pictures with our cameras, but with our hearts and minds. Good art cannot be defined. There is only great art that creates new ideas and then there are imitations of varying degrees. There is no best way or only way. We learn from the past, in order to understand the present. The past is our foundation, the springboard into the future. Tradition and past ideas are important bases to begin with, but can be traps if misunderstood.

Ideas, conceptual and visual, are what all forms of art are about. Everything else is nothing more than subject matter and technique, which is easily learned. It is not what we photograph or assemble physically or digitally that counts, but how we create our images. Cezanne used only traditional materials and subject matter, still lifes, people, landscapes, but it was his ideas that revolutionized the 20th century art world and laid the groundwork for modern art, including photography. It was not what he painted but how he painted. It is the same for photographers. It is how we photograph that matters not what we photograph. Too often exotic or unusual subject matter is confused with good photography and extolled by the public as well as by artists and critics, regardless of the quality of the interpretation.

As for myself, I work the way I do because of the kind of person that I am - my work is an expression of myself. It reflects me, my fascination with people, the physical world around us, and the exciting medium in which I work. I do not claim that my way is the best or the only way, it is simply my way. It is an expression of myself, of the way I think and feel.

Generally, I build my images carefully, even if they are created in just a moment. They are based on my experience, intuition, and my background as a painter, both by natural inclination and by training. When I switched from painting to photography in 1938, it was first from financial necessity in the middle of the Great Depression, and then from love. Immediately I realized the creative differences - conceptual, visual, as well as technical and proceeded from there.

Mostly I seek ideas, visual concepts, and the vague and preconceived images that have begun to form in my mind, and then (hopefully) find them. One should be flexible and open to discover the unexpected, which is an integral part of this medium. The unexpected often reveals new ideas and unexplored paths. Therefore, one must learn to "look." Nothing should restrict one's manner of expression as long as "it works." No amount of words can describe a photograph or create one. Frequently, we "find" without seeking, acting upon Pasteur's expression "Chance favors the prepared mind." That is why so many great "accidents" seem to happen to the better photographers.

I prefer the risk of failure in experimentation to the alternative of safe repetition and boredom. I do not change for the sake of change, but for experimentation that may lead to new visual ideas. Inevitably, there must be a great deal of the photographer in his finished work. In other words, the photographer must be a part of the photographic process. However, continuous exploration of a single theme in the development of a visual concept should not be confused with repetition. Ideas do not always reveal themselves immediately, and their pursuit often takes a longtime. But it's fun to try!

Rigid rules, regulations, official schools and current trendy "with it" styles needed by the unimaginative are deadly to creativity. History is full of "Golden Rules," laws of composition and other indispensable guidelines. Yet not one great image has ever been created through their application. Style is a natural result, not an aim.

Equally destructive are the schools of "anything goes," of shock, technical flamboyance, self-indulgent, grandiose ideas, or of size for the sake of size. These are all too often labeled the "cutting edge," devoid of lasting meaning or information, and championed by some for their own personal acclaim or interests. Yet new and original voices always emerge to once again open up new paths not thought of by the theorists. Original voices will always emerge.

Unaltered, or traditional, photographs are not real at all. They are flat in a three dimensional world. Color is distorted by a real lack of control. Black and white photography is further distorted or abstracted in a world of reality. Straight photography is not real at all - it is an illusion of reality, sometimes forming into fantasy, abstraction, or any other form the photographer wishes to create. Altered images, such as collages or digital images, are newer forms for the creative mind. It is these illusions and fantasies that we create our own private worlds with. What are they? The truly innovative artists create ideas and images unrelated to anything we have experienced or seen before, new ways of seeing and thinking about our own familiar worlds. This is the real creative artist we all aspire to be. I have been fortunate to photograph the great, the fascinating, the famous and sometimes infamous all over the world and in all walks of life. But most of my subjects are not famous. And just what is fame? One can be famous on one side of an ocean and totally unknown on the other side - or in one country or city, but not in another. And just how long does fame last? And what is fame when it is used to describe a person of true accomplishment? How is it different from the "celebrity" syndrome created by public relations as grist for the media and an obsessed public?

For me, I am interested in what motivates individuals, what they do with their lives, their personalities, and how I perceive and interpret them. But of equal importance, or of perhaps even greater importance is that, even if the person is not known or already forgotten, the photograph itself should still be of interest or even excite the viewer. That is what my life and work is all about.


 


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