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.