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A quick note on my posts…

Most of these posts are in a state of creation and/or repair. Just as I’ll tweak images over time, so too, with my blog posts – with one important difference: while I’m not likely to post an image I think ‘deserving’, it’s a different story with most of my posts. Some of them barely deserve to be called rough drafts. The blog area is my mental sketchpad for ideas, and I’ve elected to just post them, unfinished.

I might even add more to this post, too.

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Great Photography Quotes

Sage words from some of the best.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 Photograph by Diane Arbus


  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” — Ansel Adams
  • Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • “The world is falling to pieces and all Adams and Weston photograph is rocks and trees”
    — Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”
    — Annie Leibovitz
  • “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
    — Diane Arbus
  • “I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.”
    — Diane Arbus
  • “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
    — Jim Richardson
  • “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
    — Robert Capa
  • “Your first 1,000 photographs are your worst.”
    — Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • “To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
    — Edward Weston
  •  Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
    — Susan Sontag
  •  “A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”
    — George Bernard Shaw
  • “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
    — Richard Avedon
  • Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.”
    — Saul Leiter
  • “I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”
    — Saul Leiter
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Forget the rule of thirds…

Against rigidity in composition.

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.” – Edward Weston

The rule of thirds suggests that a well-composed photograph has a key point of interest at one intersection of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid superimposed on our image. The general idea is that symmetry is boring, the eye delights in seeing some dynamic weighting in an image, and that by making one of these four points our “focus” we have created an optimal balance.

This is a good idea as a starting-point, but that’s about it.  Once absorbed, it should be discarded as too mechanical to want to follow rigidly.

There are many factors of structure and tone that go into what most of us see as interesting composition. Each of those factors carries a “weight” that changes our sense of artistic balance.

Of course composition likes some sense of balance and offset, but the best artistic compositions are done by feel rather than formula.

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“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Decisive Moment.

“He had his little Leica,” [fashion photographer Helmut] Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”

– Dana Thomas, Newsweek, 6/1/03

© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos // US photographer, Helmut Newton posing at the Chopin monument, at the Parc Monceau in Paris. 2000.

Cartier-Bresson’s tongue-in-cheek condemnation of clarity (a better translation of the French “netteté”) can be viewed on several levels.  While joking about his shaky hand, his overwrought language satirized the high-dudgeoned political correctness that even then informed art criticism.

But as Mark Twain once called humor “the good-natured side of a truth,” in some sense Cartier-Bresson was also affirming his belief that clinical sharpness was in fact, an overrated photographic virtue.

Of course, neither did he consider softness a virtue — he simply did not value clarity for clarity’s sake. His credo might be summarized: “an image needs the clarity it needs, and no more.”

The title of his famed photographic collection, The Decisive Moment, says it all: for him photographic resolution was the resolution of time rather than print resolution. The moment and composition trumped photographic clarity.

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, Martin Munkácsi c. 1930

Cartier-Bresson wrote that after seeing this photograph “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.”

Different types of photography have different holy grails. Compare Cartier-Bresson’s desire to “fix eternity in a moment” with Ansel Adams’ goal: tack sharp with every tonal value correctly pre-envisioned.

Adams carefully planned exposure and film development of each shot using his zone system; Cartier-Bresson didn’t process his own images, but simply gave his film to a trusted processor, and rarely did any cropping from his full frame shot.

It never occurred to me until later that in order to take that picture, Capa had to get ahead of that soldier and turn his back on the action.
– John Morris, Capa’s editor at LIFE magazine

Invasion of Normandy Beach, Robert Capa
Invasion of Normandy Beach, Robert Capa

“We cannot develop and print a memory”

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again.

Behind the Gare de Saint-Lazare, Paris, France. 1932 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever.”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers

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Camera Tricks are magic!

In the YouTube video Camera Tricks are not Magic, magician Penn Jilette aims a broadside at fake magicians who substitute camera trickery for skilled slight-of-hand.

That question, what is magic? dovetails with an oft-quoted dictum of science-fiction writer/futurist Arthur C. Clarke. His “Third Law regarding the future of scientific development states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

In this sense, photographic tricks become magic when they’re performed by skilled photographers, who use cameras, lighting and post-processing slight-of-hand to achieve photographic illusion.

Early use of content-aware fill by Stalinist censors to remove newly-executed associate.

We live in a world of computer generated images that photographers can only dream of creating. But CGI aside, today’s photographers have post-production image enhancement tools that far surpass older darkroom techniques.

At what point of photographic manipulation do we feel that we’ve been cheated? We’re too familiar with retouching in the advertising world; it’s moved far beyond blemish removal and into entire body reshaping. Photographic trickery is nothing new. Stalin simply airbrushed his newfound enemies out of photographs.

“It’s been ‘shopped” – Adobe’s trademark takes a hit as “photoshop” becomes a generic term.

Photo-editing can be roughly divided into three categories:

Global adjustments like brightness, contrast, and color toning are applied to totality of the image, “without prejudice.” These adjustments, even carried to some extreme, can be considered pure in the sense that they don’t tamper with the integrity of the overall image, and instead apply a (nerdspeak alert) monotonic continuous curve to all values in the image.

Next come local adjustments; graduated linear and radial filters and similar tools that mimic darkroom techniques of dodging and burning. In our digital darkrooms we can do tricks like altering contrast, coloration, and clarity and sharpness. These still tend to be, like global adjustments, “broad brush” techniques that serve to even out large-scale unevenness. However subtle, they are clearly edits that change regional areas.

Finally, there is retouching; brushwork that aims to change small “imperfections”. In some cases the retouching might not be aimed to change reality per se. Most photographers who do post-processing are too familiar with techniques to fix the ugly spotting of the sky that can be caused by even a single speck of dust on the camera sensor.

But what of removing blemishes? If your job is to make your subject look good, chances are you wouldn’t think twice. Sometimes you remove a large blemish, but retain smaller ones so as not to overdo it. What about removing an ill-placed lamp post that threatens to spoil an otherwise great picture? Or replacing a burned out light on a marquee? How about moving an animal in the background of a field for the sake of balance?
(to be continued)