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Photographic Wisdom




Great advice is often distilled in quotes from professional photographers





The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.  Dorothea Lange - quoted in: Los Angeles Times (13 Aug. 1978). 

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.
Dorothea Lange

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.  Dorothea Lange

This benefit of seeing...can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image...the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate. Dorothea Lange

It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary.  David Bailey - In 'Face,' (London), Dec 1984.


Too many photographers try too hard. They try to lift photography into the realm of Art, because they have an inferiority complex about their Craft. You and I would see more interesting photography if they would stop worrying, and instead, apply horse-sense to the problem of recording the look and feel of their own era.  Jessie Tarbox Beals

Where the focus of the photographer's mind is more on the way he is taking the picture than the reason for taking the picture at all, the result will fall short of what photography is suppose to be. Robert Benton


Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer's decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen. If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless. John Berger


It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country. Most photographers would feel a certain embarrassment in admitting publicly that they carried within them a sense of wonder, yet without it they would not produce the work they do, whatever their particular field. It is the gift of seeing the life around them clearly and vividly, as something that is exciting in its own right. It is an innate gift, varying in intensity with the individual’s temperament and environment.  Bill Brandt - 'Camera in London', The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 14


Searching is everything - going beyond what you know. And the test of the search is really in the things themselves, the things you seek to understand. What is important is not what you think about them, but how they enlarge you.  Wynn Bullock


I wish more people felt that photography was an adventure the same as life itself and felt that their individual feelings were worth expressing. To me, that makes photography more exciting.  Harry Callahan


A photographer must be prepared to catch and hold on to those elements which give distinction to the subject or lend it atmosphere. They are often momentary, chance-sent things: a gleam of light on water, a trail of smoke from a passing train, a cat crossing a threshold, the shadows cast by a setting sun. Sometimes they are a matter of luck; the photographer could not expect or hope for them. Sometimes they are a matter of patience, waiting for an effect to be repeated that he has seen and lost or for one that he anticipates. Leaving out of question the deliberately posed or arranged photograph, it is usually some incidental detail that heightens the effect of a picture – stressing a pattern, deepening the sense of atmosphere. But the photographer must be able to recognize instantly such effects.  Bill Brandt, 'Camera in London', The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 16


The purpose of art is to raise people to a higher level of awareness than they would otherwise attain on their own. Brassai


When I photograph, what I'm really doing is seeking answers to things.  Wynn Bullock


Images at their passionate and truthful best are as powerful as words can ever be. If they alone cannot bring change, they can at least provide and understanding mirror of man’s actions, thereby sharpening human awareness and awakening conscience. - Cornell Capa, Collection, Use, and Care of Historical Photographs by Robert A. Weinstein 

Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should? While we're working, we must be conscious of what we're doing. Sometimes we have the feeling that we've taken a great photo, and yet we continue to unfold. We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.
  Henri Cartier-Bresson - on photojournalism, American Photo, September/October 1997 , Page: 76


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. Henri Cartier-Bresson

The photograph itself doesn't interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.  Henri Cartier-Bresson


Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me.  Henri Cartier-Bresson


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 organisation 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 which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organisation can stem only from a developed instinct. - Henri Cartier-Bresson - There is also a shorter version of this quote: 'To me photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization the forms that give that event its proper expression.' Henri Cartier-Bresson, 'The picture history of photography: From the earliest beginnings to the present day' by Peter Pollack 


Photographs are of course about their makers, and are to be read for what they disclose in that regard no less than for what they reveal of the world as their makers comprehend, invent, and describe it.  Allan Douglass Coleman


The man who lives in his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention or admiration and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfying: some real tribute must be paid. Photography, to many of its addicts, is a convenient and simple means of discharging these ever-recurring debts to the visual world.  Olive Cook - [cited in: 'Creative Camera International Year Book 1978', Coo Press, London, 1977, p. 11]



I believe that the photograph can be a means of awakening personal sensibilities and awarenesses of the things that are most meaningful and important. Ideally the photographic image then becomes a means of sharing individual perception with others. Suzanne Camp Crosby, In/sights: Self-portraits by women by Compiled & with an introduction by Joyce Tenneson Cohen.

Words alone cannot express my passion and love for what I do. I see, therefore I am! If you were to ask me what I do for a living I would tell you that I am blessed with the awesome responsibility of creatively interpreting the fleeting events of our lives. For me, it is all about gently catching personal memories of a given place and time and precious moments spent with special people. It is all about handing these moments back to be gently cradled in our memories and shared with others, eventually to become our legacy.  Michael Davis

I don’t need to know anything about the people I photograph, but it’s important that I recognize something about myself in them.  Rineke Dijkstra, Collector's edition of Life, the Eisie Issue , Page: 109


The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.  Robert Doisneau,'The Encyclopedia of Photography' (1984)


Most people try to include too much in the picture. If you are photographing a child playing on the lawn, photograph the child, not the trees, the house, and everything else in sight. Photography is really a simple statement and the clearer it is the better.  Eliot Elisofon


Art is not to be found by touring to Egypt, China, or Peru; if you cannot find it at your own door, you will never find it.  Ralph Waldo Emerson



There is no formula for a good photograph. Mediocre pictures may follow a formula, good ones seldom do: When the visual tools are used just right, the design, lighting, mood, and emotion come together to just the right point, and that point hits you and you know what the photographer meant – that’s a good picture. Ed Feingersh - 'What Makes a Good Picture?', The Best of Popular Photography by Harvey V. Fondiller.


Any good photograph is a successful synthesis of technique and art. Andreas Feininger, Total Photography by Andreas Feininger , Page: 246

Photography is like life... What does it all mean? I don't know - but you get an impression, a feeling.... An impression of walking through the street, walking through the park, walking through life. I'm very suspicious of people who say they know what it means.  Leonard Freed


There is no doubt that once you know the story behind a photo that there is a better understanding of its contents. The big challenge to photographers is to be able to tell the story with only the image. The other thing is that it is not really necessary to feel the same emotion the photographer has, but rather that a response is made that triggers off a connection to something in the viewers life or reveals information that is new to him.  Philip Wayner


A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included.  David Ward, from the book: 'Landscape Within'


A photographers work is given shape and style by his personal vision. It is not simply technique, but the way he looks at life and the world around him. - Pete Turner, More Joy of Photography by Eastman Kodak (Editor)


Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.  John Szarkowski, On Photography by Susan Sontag , Page: 192


Photography is a means of recording forever the things one sees for a moment.  Aaron Sussman

The photograph isolates and perpetuates a moment of time: an important and revealing moment, or an unimportant and meaningless one, depending upon the photographer's understanding of his subject and mastery of his process.  Edward Weston


Ultimately success or failure in photographing people depends on the photographer's ability to understand his fellow man.  Edward Weston


Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.  Edward Weston


When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches.  Edward Weston

There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition. If there were we would be able to put all the information into a computer and would come out with a masterpiece. We know that's impossible. You have to compose by the seat of your pants.   Arnold Newman, Interviews With Master Photographers


Influences come from everywhere but when you are actually shooting you work primarily by instinct. But what is instinct? It is a lifetime accumulation of influence: experience, knowledge, seeing and hearing. There is little time for reflection in taking a photograph. All your experiences come to a peak and you work on two levels: conscious and unconscious. Arnold Newman, Interviews With Master Photographers


Making pictures is a very simple act. There is no great secret in photography... You just need practice and application of what you've learned. My absolute conviction is that if you are working reasonably well the only important thing is to keep shooting.... Keep working, because as you go through the process of working things begin to happen.  Elliott Erwitt

You can find pictures anywhere. It's simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what's around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy. Elliott Erwitt, More Joy of Photography by Eastman Kodak (Editor)

Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term - selectivity.  Berenice Abbott - in 'Infinity' magazine, 1951.


The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework - that to me is the art of photography.  Berenice Abbott

.......... the strong desire to take pictures - is important. It borders on a need, based on a habit: the habit of seeing. Whether working or not, photographers are looking, seeing, and thinking about what they see, a habit that is both a pleasure and a problem, for we seldom capture in a single photograph the full expression of what we see and feel. It is the hope that we might express ourselves fully – and the evidence that other photographers have done so - that keep us taking pictures.  Sam Abell, Seeing and Shooting Straight by Sam Abell

............... there is more to a fine photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think - to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work.  Sam Abell, Seeing and Shooting Straight by Sam Abell


As I have practiced it, photography produces pleasure by simplicity, I see something special and show it to the camera. A picture is produced. The moment is held until someone sees it. Then it is theirs. Photography, alone of the arts, seems perfected to serve the desire humans have for a moment - this very moment - to stay. Sam Abell, Stay This Moment : The Photographs of Sam Abell by Sam Abell (Photographer), Robert E. Gilka


There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy conceptAnsel Adams


Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.  Ansel Adams


There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewerAnsel Adams


I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term -meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching - there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.  Ansel Adams - 'A Personal Credo,' in American Annual of Photography, vol. 58 (1944; repr. in Photographers on Photography, ed. By Nathan Lyons, 1966), Photographers on Photography : A Critical Anthology by Nathan Lyons (Editor)

Both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and the wonder surrounding him.  Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams: Photographs by Wings Books


There are worlds of experience beyond the world of the aggressive man, beyond history, and beyond science. The moods and qualities of nature and the revelations of great art are equally difficult to define; we can grasp them only in the depths of our perceptive spirit.  Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams: Photographs by Wings Books


A photograph is not an accident – it is a concept.  Ansel Adams


Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.  Peter Adams ,Sydney, 1987

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.  William Albert Allard, Photographic Essay (American Photographer Master Series) by William Albert Allard


Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn't make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.  Peter Adams - Sydney 1978


'If a subject has a delicate surface to it, you do not want to go charging in there. You need to establish some kind of presence and understanding. I will say, 'Try to forget I'm here. I won't ask you to pose, I won't ask you to do anything.' It's important that I just be allowed to be around, to be present. Photographing people requires a willingness to be rejected. So, I think the best approach is to be honest and direct. Very often, I tell them, 'You don't know me. There's no reason why you should trust me...the only thing I can promise is that I'll try to do the most honest work I can. Ultimately, it comes down to somehow being able to instill confidence. I don't think you can bullshit your way into that, because a lot of these people can see through walls. If you want to photograph people, you'd better know something about them. I like to explore, to be sensitive to the rhythms of the moment. Exploration means seeking out what I think is there, and yet often finding something finer, something closer to the center, that no amount of research could have led me to. I tend to react more than direct. You have to be receptive [to your subject]. You have to care. You can't do good work if you don't care. That's not necessarily a strength, but it gives you strength. - William Albert Allard, Photographic Essay (American Photographer Master Series) by William Albert Allard

If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it's already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer. Eve Arnold


As a fledgling street photographer strolling up and down the streets of cities, I quickly became aware of Time and its erosive power. My early photographs focused almost exclusively on the signs of an older culture that was holding on for dear life. I'd photograph seltzer bottles in old wooden crates piled high in a truck, or the dusty windows of Jewish bread shops, or old men building February fires on the beaches of Coney Island. My interest was more than documentary, for it seemed to me that what was about to vanish was important and irreplaceable, and frankly, I wanted my photographs to offer, in some manner, the power of resuscitation. Actually, I still do, though I no longer believe that photographs can prevent the homely past from being plowed under; rather, I believe that photographs - especially good photographs that compel our interest - help us to remember; and even more importantly, they help us to decide what is worth remembering.   John Rosenthal - Exhibition lecture, National Humanities Center   

I genuinely believe photography to be at it's most potent when underscored by truth. To contrive is to control, and frankly I'm more interested in observation than direction. Riding the ebb and flow of Sydney's streets, approaching the next corner afresh, never quite knowing what may present itself in the adjoining street. That's the random beauty of street photography. Control has to be a stultifying, creative break. The magic, emotion charged moments are in my experience invariably captured us.
  Andrew Stark   
Tags:   truth  magic  street  photography 

A photographer who made a picture from a splendid moment, an accidental pose of someone or a beautiful scenery, is the finder of a treasure.  Robert Doisneau - in the Dutch Photomagazine 'Foto' April 1983   

There are things hidden for all the world until photographed.
  Craig Coverdale



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