25 October 2010

“It’s got to do with intention”: The photography of Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt

Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy - the tone range isn't right and things like that - but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention.

- Elliott Erwitt

Stumbling across Erwitt’s comments on his fellow photographer’s work was a moving moment for me. They reaffirmed my own thoughts on photography and its values, and reassured me that I wasn’t alone in having such thoughts. When it comes to technical knowledge I’m still an ignoramus who has trouble telling his f-stops from his film speeds. But Erwitt’s words give form to an attitude that I embrace. They hint at a manifesto that I would gladly be a signatory of.

The ubiquity, even oversaturation, of photographic images in contemporary culture is obvious. Digital technology and the internet have enabled more people than ever before in humanity’s image-making history to produce, disseminate, copy, alter and store pictures at a rate impossible only a few decades ago. We do not exactly drown in an ocean of images. Rather, we eat, breathe and excrete in a self-sustaining ecosystem of images.

To be a photographer in these visually glutted times demands an almost superhuman will to avoid either despair or complacency. Despair comes when you fully comprehend the incalculable volume of ever-replicating photographs being churned out by millions of your fellow primates, an awesome number that obliterates any significance your own meager offerings may pose. Complacency comes when you accept the mediocre and the banal as replacements for the unique vision and exceptional sensibility you once believed yourself to possess.

With technically accomplished photographs as common as cockroaches – their producers’ fecundity abetted by sophisticated software and hardware – the Ansel Adams type of ‘postcard quality’ dominates the visual environment. Yet these amazing feats of image-manipulating wizardry often serve no higher purpose than to sell stuff, to make you feel dissatisfied with your current car/phone/furniture/bust-waist-hip measurements. The palpably commercial intentions of the photographer (and his patrons) are transparent.

The compliments Elliott Erwitt bestowed upon Robert Frank’s art are equally applicable to Erwitt’s own photographs. Clever, witty, delightfully serendipitous and full of humour, they are, to my naive eye, exemplars of storytelling taking precedence over slick technical virtuosity. These photographs charm, and do not seduce. They entertain, and do not proselytise.

Despite my disappointment with the superficiality of much current photographic practice, I’m not against mastering the technical aspects of photography. In fact, I mean to further educate myself on the mysteries of the craft, for that is what it is: a craft that demands diligent study and practice if one is to excel in it. To that end I am grateful to friends who have shared their knowledge and skills with me. As with any artistic pursuit, it is infinitely more rewarding to make the journey with the support and encouragement of kindred spirits. But my guiding philosophy is firmly established. And should my path not lead to wide recognition and acclaim, I will be consoled by the thought that greater artists than I once voiced our common convictions, and in the process gave those like me their blessing.

When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

- Robert Frank


Photographs by Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt.

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