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Taken in part from my forthcoming artists’ book:
Presenting Photography to Curators and Museums
A photographer is defined from their body of work. This body of work can be focused or eclectic, it can be composed of single images or projects. But, it should all be the best the photographer can produce as their body of work is their legacy.
Now, we all grow and change over time with what we like to shoot. Nothing wrong with that. Emmet Gowin is a good example of how a body of work can change with time and be spread out. He has many areas he worked in from family to aerial photography, but they all seem to fit together nicely in his own style.
Some photogs may wish to include some garbage in their legacy. This is a perosnal decision. The garbage may be important to them to memorialize a certain phase, project or issue the photog was going through in their life. Personally I produce loads of trash, but I try to delete my garbage ASAP. I don’t need a lot of crap cluttering up my body of work. I don’t have the time to keep sifting through it hoping it looks better over time as it ‘marinates.’
Cartier-Bresson sums it up…
“Yes…Yes…Yes…photography is like that and there’s no maybes. All the maybes go to the trash. There is a tremendous enjoyment in saying yes, even if it is for something you hate. It is an affirmation…Yes!”
Cartier-Bresson was a ruthless editor. When he first started out he would cut individual negs out of a strip and trash the rest. He didn’t want anyone seeing his rejects. The drawback of this method is that our trash may yield a hidden gem in the future. But you have to balance this hoarding tendency of keeping everything with only keeping the better work – one can’t have it both ways.
Winogrand was the opposite of Bresson. He had a ton of trash he left behind. In his later life he had a driver cart him around the Miracle Mile district in L.A. as he blasted from the car window at anything that moved on the street. Due to his notoriety, a lot of his trash has become collectable art. Of course deciding ‘what is and is not trash’ comes under the auspices of ‘personal opinion.’ Whenever the conversation of opinion comes up, I must defer to an earlier post I made…
In a very lengthy, almost life-story-ish critic of Winogrand, John Szarkowski summed up the issue…
“To expose film is not quite to photograph, and the photographer who does not consider his finished pictures is like a pianist who plays only on a silent keyboard. In the absence of proof, mistakes multiply, craft becomes theory, and good thinking passes for art. As Winogrand fell farther behind in the criticism of his own work his technique deteriorated. The last few thousand rolls are plagued with technical failures—optical, chemical, and physical flaws—in one hundred permutations.
The most remarkable of these errors is his failure to hold the camera steady at the moment of exposure. Even in bright sunlight, with fast shutter speeds, the negatives are often not sharp. It is as though the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgment that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and the energy to focus one’s attention.”
On the photo forums people always ask about editing and how many of one’s photos gets trashed on average. There is no set figure. On some shoots I may not have anything worthwhile and it is all trash. On other shoots maybe I will keep 5% or 10%.
Infrared flash photo
Here is a tidbit about the Robert Frank’s editining process on his Americans project.
“During his trip, Frank shot 767 rolls of film yielding about 27,000 images. He edited that down to about 1,000 work prints, spread them across the floor of his studio and tacked them to the walls for a final edit. Out of a year and a half of work, Frank chose just 83 images.”
I wish Frank would come out with another ‘Americans’ composed of 150 or so of the rejects from the pile of 1000 work prints. He could call it The Rejected Americans.
Take a look at how the much beloved Winogrand edited for comparison to Frank. Winogrand produced absolute crap and called it his first rate stuff.
…and the ignorant, young photogs coming up latch on to Winogrand like he was some kind of photo god. Well, I guess he was a god, at least in the area of producing tons of garbage.
In my own work I have changed over the years a great deal. When I started out in the 70’s I was strictly a black and white snob – if it wasn’t BW I looked down on it.
In the 80’s and 90’s I branched out into color and shot very little BW. (These are scans from old 3.5 x 5 prints. The original prints and negs were lost in a flood.)
In the 2000’s I made the switch to digital.
Nowadays…I use anything I please to freeze time and work seamlessly between them all. But, one thing is in common with the majority of my work – as a social documentary photog – people are my landscape.
Infrared flash from my latest artists’ book Piercing Darkness
The photographer’s body of work tells the world that their great shot was not a fluke…the photographer is able to produce iconic work year after year. We have all seen a photographer online that had a nice shot or two. When we dig deeper into their portfolio we can see that the one great shot was the exception and not the rule. They may not have another great work in their entire body of work. That tells me that there was more luck that skill involved in bringing home that great shot.
Ozu Yasujirō, the great Japanese director, would repeatedly film the same scenes over and over even though nothing seemed wrong with earlier takes. He would say even a blind man can hit the bullseye if he shoots enough arrows.
Another take on Ozu can come from Josef Koudleka’s philosophy.
“What interests me is taking photographs to the maximum – the maximum that exists in a situation and the maximum that I myself can produce from it.” Koudelka goes on to say he will re-shoot a project repeatedly “to reassure me I have in fact achieved the maximum.”