The Art of Photography and the Amateur Ethic
Students entering a beginning class in photography often warn me that “They’re not very creative.” If you can love, then you can photograph”, said Alfred Stieglitz [1864-1946] who was often named the father of modern photography. In addition to being in love with life, Stieglitz championed the amateur ethic by the use of snapshots as art.
In recent times, the use of the word “amateur” has come to being an uncommitted, hackneyed, immature, and unaware practitioners of a given hobby such as photography. The true meaning of the word “amateur”, however, is doing something for the love of it. It would seem that a such a gifted person making photographs for joy’s sake would be the salvation of many dreary academic art projects by providing a fresh point of view and endearing spirit, benefiting humanity’s quest for enlightenment.
The invention of roll film by George Eastman around 1888 made small cameras possible, freeing the creative eye of all photographers, especially the amateur, to capture fleeting moments in time. Ever the experimenter, Stieglitz used such a camera in 1893 to photograph the horse-drawn mail coach from New Jersey racing down Fifth Avenue in a snowstorm to make a delivery. The results amazed audiences around the world. It was thought impossible to photograph in such inclement weather. It became Stieglitz’s highest prized photograph in many international amateur contests. The medals it won for Stieglitz can still be viewed today at the prestigious New York Camera Club.
On a bitter cold stormy night in 1898, Stieglitz once again ventured out in inclement weather to make photographs. He reported:
The gale blew from the northwest . . . sheltering the camera from the wind, I focused. There was a tree—ice covered, glistening—with the snow-covered sidewalk. Nothing comparable had ever been photographed before, under such conditions. My moustache was frozen stiff . . . The frosty air stung my nose, chin, and ears . . . The Savoy Hotel was not far away. Before venturing back it seemed wise to have hot lemonade and a bit of warm toast. Or it may have been a chocolate éclair. Or both.”
Love and passion for life seems to be the only explanation I can think of why a person would endure such unpleasant conditions to make photographs.
It has been humorously said of writers, “When a writer is in a family, that family is finished.” Meaning, writers often embarrass their family members by using them as models for the stories they tell. In the case of Jacques Henri Lartigue [1894-1986] you have a parallel situation, a curious, often mischievous, boy with a camera ready to record forever, the eccentric activities of his wealthy family. Encouraged only by his father, the young Lartigue received no formal education that might “taint” him with the rules and pressures of making Art. Lartigue made pictures for the joy of it. These early photographs have delighted audiences through time.
Knowing when to push the button is a part of the blueprint for making a great photograph. Good examples include the surreal pictures Lartigue made; such as, the splash his uncle made while diving into the swimming pool, his feet and legs dangling unexpectedly upright in mid-air. Or the Grand Prix racing car with its wheel twisted in an oval tilting to the right of the frame and the spectators on the side of the road leaning to the left in a strange distortion of space and time. The later photograph was made possible by panning with a slow moving focal plane shutter. Another former colleague of mine, not understanding the artistic nature of photography rudely asked me, “Where is the art?” Dumfounded, all I could think of to do was wiggle my index finger in a push the button gesture.
Camera ease and speed are essential for the tools used by many amateur and professional photographers alike. Modern photographers are used to faster lenses and film that freeze action in its tracks than their predecessors but amateurs were among the first to use this equipment. Examples of a quick eye, camera speed, and the decisive moment can be measured by notables; such as, Henri Cartier-Bresson [1908-2004] but the creative results by magazine photographer Gary Winogrand [1928-1984] and war correspondent Robert Capa [1913-1954] say it as well. In the case of Capa, the image that first comes to mind is the moment a soldier fighting for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War was struck by a bullet in the head causing him to fling his rifle, his arms outstretched to meet death’s mystery.
Winogrand was often criticized for his voyeuristic vision and using his camera as a weapon. During a lecture, a member of the audience challenged Winogrand’s gunslinger style by asking, “How long did you spend making that photograph?” The irascible Winogrand dryly quipped, “About 1/250th of a second.” [At that rate Winogrand could make two hundred and fifty pictures and the time would be a total of one elapsed second.] Their manner and images often made people uncomfortable but no one should deny their passion for life.
For photographic artists to grow in their work with energy and without cliché I suggest looking toward a renewing point of view inspired by an ethic of love and creative energy. Coping with life and all its foibles and joys, for being forever twelve and armed with a camera, for following your bliss and making photographs with passion and without fear of failure is what it means to be truly alive.
A. J. Meek
Stieglitz: An American Seer,
Dorothy Norman, Random House, 1960.