Like most photographers my age, I have been influenced by many of the masters that have come before us. In my case, it’s Brett and Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Paul Outerbridge, George Tice, Richard Avedon, and many others. What I see as common among that list is that they all made their own, distinct images with relatively simple, basic tools and materials. The photography is very straight forward and deliberate.
I am particularly appreciative of a loose association that once existed called Group f.64, because of what they were trying to say as a “movement”. A bit over 80 years ago, Group f.64 was a reaction against “Pictorialism”, a prevalent (at the time) style of photography in which the photographer would heavily manipulate a photograph, feeling that this was necessary to make photography an art form. Group f.64 believed that the art of photography must develop along the lines defined by the actualities and the limitations of the medium. Rather than trying to imitate paintings, the members of the group made images that emphasized the look obtained with a camera.
Most photographers eventually feel confident in their tools, materials, and technical ability. Fine. Now, having reached that point, what can we do that is indicative of the medium, but not derivative of all the other photographers we admire? This is very difficult, as we cannot help but be influenced by what we have seen. What we can do, as artists in any medium, is pursue our own vision, and not just copy someone else’s.
Recently, a friend and photographer I really admire lamented that perhaps we were doing most of our work for other photographers. If that is true, then it’s too bad. However, it may well be true. It’s no secret that the laity probably doesn’t get much of our work. They definitely do not care what camera/lens/film/developer/paper we used! They just want to see the pictures.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Trust me, I know all too well how much it matters if someone else is paying you to make the pictures they want. But that’s not (necessarily) art, that’s commerce. When we have the luxury of making art for it’s own sake, we only have to please ourselves.
Like the folks in Group f.64, I continue to strive to make the camera work for me; to do what I can within the strengths and the limitations of the medium. I want to make pictures so that people don’t say: “where is that?”, or even: “what is that?” And certainly not: “that’s a good print”.
What I would prefer them to ask, if anything, is: “Why?” Isn’t that one of the purposes of art? To make people ask why? Or, to think? Or, just to wonder? Wonder at the shapes, the light, the texture. Just look at the print as they would a piece of nature. Just accept it for what it is. The answer to the question: “why?” is simply: This is the way the camera (and the photographer) saw this – regardless of what “this” was.