Robert Adams, an American who abandoned his career as an English professor to become a celebrated photographer, wrote a series of essays which comprise his book Why People Photograph. In the Foreword he writes, “Though these essays were written for a variety of occasions, they have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and non-photographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then to behave in accord with our vision.”
In the first section are musings by the author on a variety of topics of interest to photographers under the “What Can Help”. He discusses the importance of colleagues, humour, writing, teaching, money and dogs. Each section is written in a very plain and accessible way, and each is filled with examples to support the theses he puts forth. It is practical, affirming and uplifting and thought provoking. He doesn’t attempt definitive answers to unanswerable questions, but rather provides his own thoughts and that of others to frame a discussion around the subject that serves as a starting place for the reader to ruminate and derive one’s own conclusions.
In the second section, “Examples of Success”, he analyses work of a number of celebrated and some perhaps not as well known photographers.. Each are well referenced and rife with meaningful insights into both the person and the work they produced. There are wee gems embedded in each of the stories. For example, there was something that came up in both the Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange essays that I found particularly interesting and useful. “Strand, I think, understood that combining the concrete and the universal is at the center of what makes art important. He knew, as William Stafford was later to write, that ‘all art is local’ but is saved from being trivial by its wider applicability.” And in the Lange essay, “There is, however, no question that her ultimate goal was art, specifics made universal.” Lange shied away from the use of the term art about her work but in 1939 stated, in an effort to get her work exhibited at MOMA, “A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se, it is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode.”
If one looks back the work of Lange, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and others whose photographs remain significant today as well as the work of current photographers like Nachtwey, Addario, Burtynsky, to name a few, their work endures because of the underlying “universality” conveyed through the depiction of something very specific and local to a time and place. There is something in most of those photos to which most of us can relate. It may not (will not) necessarily be the same thing for every viewer, but every viewer can find something in that photograph that stirs emotion, memory, empathy, etc.
It seems to me to align quite well with the idea that subject is the most important thing along with a true passion for that subject. It is in the recognition by the viewer of ‘the thing itself’ and connection the photographer made with it that a photo carries impact, has weight or thickness which will cause it to endure.
The third and final section of the book is about Adams’ own work in the American West. He gives remarkable insight into himself and the people and things that have influenced his work.
While this book is about photography and photographers, it also about far more and it reads more like a lovely compilation of short stories than text book. It is a worthy addition to the library of photographers and non-photographers alike.
Adams, R. (1994). Why People Photograph (1st ed.). New York: Aperture.