Wednesday, April 12, 2017


When photography was young, when wet plates ruled the waves as it were, it would have been almost inconceivable for one photographer to make 100,000 pictures. To do so would have been a decade or more of continuous labor, and the you'd probably poison yourself or blow yourself up before you finished. As the decades passed, it got easier and easier. In the era just before ours, it was feasible for a normal, albeit dedicated, person to shoot 100,000 or even more frames of film.

Add to this the notion that painting and drawing are the natural antecedents to photography, and we arrive naturally at the notion that the single picture has some weight. While painters wailed (reasonably) about the relative ease of making a photograph, there was still the notion that the single photograph encapsulated the thing, that a singleton had weight. Indeed, the problem was that the unit of merit, the single picture, was too damned easy.

Roll the pointer forward to the present day. It is now feasible for anyone with even a modicum of dedication to shoot 100,000 frames a year.

Anyone can be a great photographer now, you just may have to shoot more frames. Anyone who is not willfully shooting bad pictures, anyone who has even a modicum of taste and creativity, can shoot the occasional really terrific photograph. If necessary, simply add a measure of randomness to your process, and shoot even more.

If the measure is the single picture, then the only difference between a great photographer and a dog is simply that the dog has to shoot more.

This is not to say that the single picture is bad. It's like a grilled cheese sandwich. I love grilled cheese sandwiches, they are wonderful. They are fully democratic, as well. Anyone can make a grilled cheese sandwich. Anyone can take a wonderful picture.

Still, the logical conclusion is that either there is no difference between a great photographer and a dog, or that the difference lies somewhere else.

The difference is, I maintain, that the great photographer, even the good photographer, can do something more than make good pictures one at a time. This creature can make a collection, a book, a portfolio, that embodies one or more ideas. These ideas and they way they were executed forms a back-story for the collection, enhancing its strength for those who know the story. Even absent the back-story, however, the ideas can be discerned, more or less, roughly perhaps, by anyone willing to take the time to examine, to look closely, and to think. Even more, the ideas lend flavor and depth even to those less willing to inspect. It's a stretch, but I think that sometimes really strong work can just feel more potent without much examination, without much thinking.

Diane Arbus photographed the masks we wear, the artifice behind which we hide ourselves.

Robert Frank photographed America as he understood it.

Ansel Adams photographed the same subject, as he understood it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed little tableaux, each of which embodies in an especially potent way a moment of genuine life, of truth.

Frédérick Carnet photographs a dream of abandonment, of apocalypse off-screen, of aftermath.

Karel Kravik photographs an unsettling dream of childhood past.

Sally Mann photographed death in its many aspects, and makes us see that, among its many qualities, it is beautiful.

Any one picture from any of these bodies of work could have been shot by anyone, even the rankest amateur. Nobody but the artist in question, could have shot all of them and put them together in this way. A lucky amateur could perhaps have shot one frame from each of several of these bodies of work, or even a couple from one of them. But to shoot the whole thing? No. Serendity will take you farther than you think, but not that far.

Photography, if it is anything more than a convenient way to document things, inherently is the portfolio, the collection, the book. The single picture is irrelevant.

This, I believe. This is my manifesto.


  1. I think that flickr, 500px or instagram are quite good proofs that there are a lot of people who cannot shoot a terrific photograph, even after having posted 100,000 of them.

    1. Everyone *can* take a brilliant photograph. Many people *don't*.

  2. Not so sure this really makes photography any different from any other visual medium, especially "multiple" media like prints, illustration, etc., where evidence of an artist's thematic intelligence can be collated into books and portfolios (Goya?) and not scattered around the world by the art market (Van Gogh sunflowers, Degas dancers), but...

    Bear in mind that anyone can make perfectly satisfactory marks on paper, too, but somehow fail to achieve the recognition of, say, Sally Mann's friend, Scribblin' Cy Twombly.


    1. I think the difference is that a single dancer from Degas is still a pretty worthwhile thing, and was still pretty hard to make, requiring skill, talent, taste, and so on. You can make something of Degas, you can judge Degas to a degree, from a single picture.

      This same "single picture" yardstick has been used for photography, and it is increasingly the wrong yardstick (I maintain).

      The correct yardstick is, in my view, portfolio based rather than single picture based -- and of course this OTHER yardstick can also be applied to Degas et al.

      The point is not that the second yardstick does not apply to paintings and so on, the point is that the FIRST one is increasingly less useful for photographs.

      Cy? I dunno about Cy. I have not done the homework, so I am loath to be dismissive, but I find him, um, puzzling.

      Warhol, arguably, doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense single-picture by single-picture.

  3. Nassim Taleb made a very similar argument in his book "Fooled by Randomness", saying somethng like if you had big enough amount of monkeys who type random things on a typewriter, one of them will end up writing something meaningful. He also argued (among many other things) that if you take large enough sample, then some of the individuals can be successful entirely by luck and then they most likely construct a story afterwards attributing their success to something completely different (I think that's very much applicable to artists and photographers too although he mostly talk about stock trading). Very interesting book.

    Greetings from windy Death Valley,

  4. It would be very comforting if it were true that "Any one picture from any of these bodies of work could have been shot by anyone, even the rankest amateur." It would mean those photographers don't really have a *better* eye than me, they're just more consistent!

    But then I open "Immediate Family," and I look at the picture "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude," and then I read Mann's autobiography about the numerous different versions she took before getting to just that right one, and I look at all of the thousands of photos I've taken and I see the difference between what she accomplished in that single picture and what I've accomplished in mine. And I have to say that your argument doesn't seem to hold up.

    Many years ago when I was on my school's track team I remember a high jumper telling me that he was sure it was just a matter of odds, and that if kept trying eventually one of his jumps would be over 7 feet. This was, needless to say, not borne out by experience. There are some people who are capable of jumping over 7 feet and some who are not. Now, among those who are capable, they still have to do it at the right time if they want to win a track meet, and they generally have to hit several jumps as the competition goes on. In may ways, so too photographers. The truly great ones (Mann, Frank, Winogrand, etc.) are both far more talented photographers than the rest of us, but they also work very hard at it, and they had the ability to put together a cohesive body of work. To me it seems that you're creating an either/or when really it's a both/and: photographers that really stand out are those that are both immensely talented on the single picture level, but they also have the ability to create cohesive bodies of work (either by previous design or inspired editing).

    And by the way, this is the first time I've commented but I've enjoyed your writing for quite a while. I just felt I had to push back on this idea--so probably that means it's a good post, even if I fundamentally disagree.


    1. Thank you! And welcome to the ranks of the visible!

      I approve of pushing back. And while I think you have made a clear statement of position, and while I think you might well be right, and I wrong, I will pose single question:

      Have you experimented with shooting randomly? Not, perhaps, completely at random, but without regard for framing, timing, or even much discrimination for subject. Just point vaguely at anything that might be interesting and burn off a handful of frames.

      The results might surprise you!

    2. Kind of? Since you're in Bellingham (I think) I assume at some point you've been to Seattle and walked through Pike Place Market and know what it's like there. I work about two blocks from the Market, so every day during the summer I walk through at lunch and shoot a roll of film. (I regret to inform you that I am the silliest of all photographer types: a lawyer with a Leica, and film one at that.) I try not to worry too much about creating beautiful pictures, I can't see the frame lines very well with my glasses on anyway, and I never spend more than 20 minutes walking through, so there is a substantial amount of randomness. That's particularly true as I get near the end of the roll and need to head back to the office.

      In my experience over the last few years, nearly all of the Market pictures that turn out well--to me that means they combine some sort of odd personal moment with a touch of graphic interest--are not the ones taken mostly at random, but instead are seen by me in the moment and taken promptly. None of the random ones have ever been as good as the ones I knew were going to be good before developing the film, though the random shots may be very interesting in their own way. I'd also say the act of shooting (somewhat) randomly also changes the way I shoot the rest of the time because it opens me up to more possibilities and allows for failure as part of the process.

      So like I said: I've kind of done that experiment, and find it valuable and I continue on with it. But my version of randomness is probably still more tightly controlled than what you're talking about. Maybe this summer I'll burn a few extra rolls and see what I get.

    3. It's a *whole* lot easier with digital!

      I can say at least this much: If my thesis is in any meaningful way correct, it was far less correct before the advent of digital cameras.

      See also this ancient post/experiment:

    4. For your info Julep & Gimlet, shooting film or digital depends now on how much money you can spend. As a penniless photographer since I decided to give up my job as an advertising photographer, I've been shooting with a small digital camera bought 300€ (I shot the serie The Last First day mentionned in this post with this camera). Even if I wished I could have shot it with my Mamiya 6x7. however I still hope that one day, I could go back to films or to digital camera of a better quality.

    5. Frederick, those are wonderful pictures you're making and I doubt they would be all improved by a "better" camera. For me, I prefer the look of B&W (most of what I do) when shot on film and feel lucky to have the resources to do so. But I think your work shows the photographer makes the pictures, not the camera.

    6. When It comes to do prints, it does make a difference, especially in the size of them ! :-). But you are right. The camera doesn't make the photographer. And you also have to accept the limits of your camera and not being obsessed by extreme technical quality of a picture. My first two series, L'appartement 33 and Eclipses were both shot with Nikon FM2 and a 35mm lens (sometimes 20mm for few pictures of L'appartement 33) with a cobra flash and a sync cord. I loved that time when I had to do my best with little equipment.