Written by Jim Hughes
For years, every Christmas season after David Vestal moved from New York City to the Connecticut countryside, my wife and I would receive a small envelope postmarked Bethlehem, CT. Inside, neatly wrapped in archival tissue, would be a meticulously printed 2 1/2 x 3 3/4-inch black-bordered silver image of one of David's photographs on a piece of 3 1/2 x 5-inch black-and-white paper. Sometimes it would be signed on the back in David's unmistakable script, other times it would bear a cryptic "DV MCHNY," his version of "Happy Holidays." I never asked, but I wouldn't have put it past this brilliant, humorous, quirky and understated man to have moved to Bethlehem just so he could send those exquisitely crafted gems to his friends around the world with that postmark. In any event, we always regarded the prints as little treasures.
I met David Vestal on the pages of Popular Photography, where I learned much of what I knew about photography as I was growing up in the 1950s (it was a good magazine back then). In 1966, three years after I'd moved to New York to get married (50 years and counting!) and just as I'd accepted my dream job as editor of a photography magazine, Camera 35, I read a long piece by David in Pop Photo entitled "'...a great unknown photographer' — W. Eugene Smith." Unlike the usual technical fare in the magazine, it was more like one of those classic New Yorker profiles, full of quotations and contrasting opinions from friends and enemies. Vestal presented a fractured, stream-of-consciousness view of one of photography's heroes. One of my heroes. The story left an indelible impression.
As David later told me, the idea for the story originated on the Amazing Randi's late night radio show, where a panel consisting of Popular Photography's Charlie Reynolds, John Durniak, and Vestal had sat down with Smith to discuss the world's problems. Smith, having famously resigned from LIFE and subsequently failed, to his way of thinking, with his impossibly ambitious Pittsburgh project, had been feeling much maligned of late. On the air, he said, "I wish someone would do an honest story on me." Later, David sent Gene a note offering to do one, and in return received a note from Gene penciled on a torn piece of paper: "No Spray Gun Job."
In the resultant article, Vestal began: "W. Eugene Smith is an unknown photographer hidden behind a reputation. Like other legends, his has a core of truth and a thick coating of fantasy. While the whole business is much too tangled to sort out, I don't doubt that he is partly responsible for his myth.
"...It seems to be true that Gene can't work with some people because of his llimitations: and that others can't work with him because of theirs. And at the end of some of his successful jobs, the feeling on both sides—his and the editors'—has been one of pain and defeat.... I don't much understand Gene; most of the people I've talked to seem to understand him still less: and it's a fair guess his own self-understanding is full of holes. Certainly, he spends energy and passion on defense and justification he doesn't need.... He feels he is on trial with every undertaking, and the feeling somehow is converted into fact. But how all this happens is not understood."
Young buck that I was, I felt I needed to meet Smith, and eventually did, a year or so later, when I worked up the nerve to call the number under his name in the phone book. I went to his legendary loft. Published a portfolio. Became a friend. As some may know, I managed to help him get back to the U.S. after he was brutally beaten while taking photographs for his Minamata essay about mercury poisoning in Japan. In fact, I published that essay in Camera 35 in 1974, and ultimately, after his untimely death, spent a dozen years researching (with my wife) and writing the biography, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance, published in 1989.
Much of this was due in no small measure to David Vestal, with whom I've had a long history. In the middle of 1969, about when I met Smith for the first time, I hired David to join the staff as associate editor of both Camera 35 and Travel & Camera (the magazine that the venerable U.S. Camera had turned into when Tom Maloney sold his publishing company to American Express, which magazine two years later would once more metamorphose, this time into Travel & Leisure, leaving me to again concentrate on Camera 35). I seem to remember something about a change of editors at Pop that didn't sit well with David at the time.
David lent us his usual cerebral self, and did great work. In 1971, David even served as editor, with Regina Benedict as his picture editor, of the U.S. Camera Annual. But he soon seemed to tire of the constraints of the staffer's life. I think he was uncomfortable with corporate cubicles, assigned stories, and regular paychecks. David Vestal was nothing if not a free spirit. So back he went to writing and photographing what he wanted, when he wanted—and, of course, the teaching of small classes for photographers that had always been his lifeline.
David's own teacher had been the legendary Sid Grossman of the Photo League in the late 1940s (before that, David told me, he had been a student of dance, a fact that didn't surprise me, considering the lyric grace of his own photography). A list of David's students, who stayed with him as fast friends well past any sort of "graduation," is impressive: Charlie Pratt, Lilo Raymond, Helen Buttfield, Larry Siegel, Maggie Sherwood (how many old Villagers remember her Purple Houseboat gallery?), Shalmon Bernstein. I'm sure there are many others I can't think of at the moment. David once worked as Ralph Steiner's assistant, but Ralph would often call himself David's student as well. They had a lot in common, including no-nonsense writing styles.
In 1972, having personally benefited from so much of David Vestal's writing, I asked him why he hadn't put all that wisdom and knowledge between the covers of a book. He shrugged, and said something like he'd probably never get it done. "And how would I support us?" he wondered. I knew it was an issue. I doubted if his wife Agatha, a former student who photographed under the name Ann Treer and also designed jewelry, made enough to support both of them during what could turn out to be a long project. So I told David what I knew about writers from the past (I mentioned Henry James and Ernest Hemingway) who early on survived by serializing their work in magazines like Harper's Weekly and Scribner's, respectively.
I proposed a similar scenario to David. He could write, and illustrate, a chapter every month or so for Camera 35. We would pay him regular page rates as stories were published, or in advance if he needed. We would ask one-time only rights; he would not have to sign any sort of contract, and he would be free to sell the finished product to the book publisher of his choice and keep that money as well. I never mentioned the arrangement to my own publisher, and I was never asked. "It's a win-win for you," I said. "And we get a great series."
David agreed. The headline on our March 1972 cover announced "Exclusive: David Vestal's Book of Craft—An Advanced Course in B&W Photography for Beginners and Others." On the table of contents, I noted, "Beginning in this issue, David's Vestal's long-awaited first book: a complete education in 'straight' black-and-white photography...in serial form."
He was committed, and I was confident he would deliver. Here are some random excerpts from that first chapter:
"Look through the viewfinder at anything you want to photograph, then move around until you like the way your picture fits in the finder's rectangle."
"Get close enough to fill up the picture with what's most important. Get far enough away to include everything you need in the picture. What's important? You decide. It's your picture; you're the photographer. No one else can say what's important to you."
"If your seeing is good, your pictures should be good, even if they are slightly overexposed or out of focus. If they are lively or pertinent, and worth seeing, that is what matters. Only weak pictures need perfection. Strong ones can survive considerable faults."
—From "David Vestal's Book of Craft," Chapter 1: How the Tools of Photography Evolved, Camera 35, March 1972
Over two and a half years, Camera 35 published 21 chapters of David's "Book of Craft." The resultant book was published at the end of 1974 by Harper & Row as The Craft of Photography, By David Vestal, but I have to say I preferred our title. It was just a bit loftier, a little more befitting of the author. From our final chapter:
"The Zen people say that a novice sees mountains as mountains and water as water; later, he sees that mountains are not mountains and water isn't water; and finally (if and when enlightenment turns up), he once again sees mountains as mountains and water as water. This time he knows the score. Photographers go through the same process.
"...Technique is a means, not a goal. This is the beginning, not the end."
—From "David Vestal's Book of Craft," Chapter 21: What to Do With Your Pictures, Camera 35, August/September 1974
Over the course of the next several months, David, for reasons he termed "feelings of loyalty" to his original editor, who evidently was back on the job, struggled with a decision to return to the fold at Pop. Finally, he did. I understood. In any event, in those heady days the photo magazine business was something of a "moveable feast," as Hemingway might say. In July of 1975, Camera 35 itself was sold out from under me (that's how I felt, at any rate) and I too moved, accepting the editorship of the so-called "Annuals" division of Popular Photography, eventually leading, several years on, to my editing the then-new Camera Arts magazine. Along the way, David continued writing for me. Here are some more excerpts:
"Everything in a photograph comes from light and is seen as light. I don't just mean that, technically, light makes the picture exist. I mean that light conveys all the feelings and all the information that makes the picture work. Light carries both data and expression.
"Any photographer who is not alive to light is in trouble."
—From "The Language of Light," by David Vestal, Invitation to Photography, Summer 1976
"People often forget that the zone system is descriptive, not prescriptive: so remember that it is something to use, not something to obey."
—From "The Minimal Zone System," by David Vestal, 35-mm Photography, Winter 1977
"Claptrap trouble. [Edward] Steichen's most ambitious opus, the 'Family of Man' show [at MoMA], was widely promoted as the greatest thing since firmament. It was enormously popular and drew record crowds. It was lousy.
"'The Family of Man' included many strong and beautiful photographs, but they were murdered in front of your eyes by a showmanship that did not suit them. Most of the commercial-lab prints were too big, many were poor in quality, and all of them were jammed into too little space in ways that were too complicatedly clever. The good pictures were diluted by the inclusion of more mediocre ones. This wasn't communication, it was an assault. The show was also too popular to see well—rush hour in the subway.
"Those were the minor problems. The big mistake was to treat the photographs as raw material to illustrate a sentimental and essentially verbal (script by Carl Sandburg) idealization of our species. There is much to be said for mankind, but this was syrup pretending to have muscles. It was colossally mediocre; a still-photo counterpart of Cecil B. DeMille's Bible epic movies, and as convincing.
"Moral: Show good pictures only, and hang them so they can be seen well; don't try to show ideas. Intelligent or not, ideas are not visible."
—From "Getting the Hang of It," by David Vestal, 35-mm Photography, Summer 1978
"Ridiculous...is the word for all formulas, rules, and prescriptions that try to tell you how big to print any picture that the prescriber has not seen. There are no exceptions. The cleverer and more plausible they are, the more important it is to remember that they are nonsense: pernicious twaddle.
"When Abraham Lincoln's straight man asked, 'How long should a man's legs be?', Abe came right back with: 'Long enough to reach the ground.'
"Print size offers no punch line as good as that. However, when asked 'What size should be print be?', we can say: 'Big enough to fit the picture.'
"If you ask right, the picture will show you."
—From "How Big is Big Enough," By David Vestal, 35-mm Photography, Summer 1979
In September of 1982, two years into its brief but brilliant life, David joined the staff of my last magazine, Camera Arts, again as associate editor. His profile of Roy DeCarava ("In The Key of Life," Camera Arts, May 1983) proved to be one of the most finely wrought pieces I'd ever had the honor of publishing. In the next issue, addressing the allegedly technical topic of enlarging, David wrote:
"I should add that both originality and spontaneity are vastly overrated qualities. You can be both spontaneous and original, yet do nothing worth doing. And you can't be either thing on purpose by trying. Both are purely by-products of being yourself and not following the herd, and they have little or nothing to do with intentions. Like scarcity, they add no value, though they can be used to raise the price. Leave them alone. If you have them, fine. If not, don't worry—other qualities matter more."
—From "Enlarging Your Vision," by David Vestal, Camera Arts, June 1983
The quotation above came from the penultimate issue of Camera Arts. The July, 1983, edition marked its sad death. And now, my old friend David Vestal is gone as well.
While at Ziff-Davis (publisher of Popular Photography, et al), I had been able to perform a similar service for David's The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging (also Harper & Row, in 1984) as I had with his The Craft of Photography, by initiating the serialization of its contents in advance, this time in various of our magazines.
It was my pleasure.
One day in 1970, Charlie Reynolds, picture editor of Popular Photography, came crosstown to have lunch with his friend David Vestal, then associate editor of Camera 35. They returned to our office, then conveniently located on 32nd Street a few floors above the Spiratone store, with a rumpled restaurant placemat in hand—on the back of which was scribbled an almost indecipherable maze of names of people in photography, all connected by a bunch of lines and arrows. I took a long look and turned the mess over to our art director, Leo McCarthy, who produced what we decided to call "The Whole Photography Chart No. 1," which the authors, Reynolds and Vestal, laughingly claimed traced the entire history of photography and its various influences and confluences from its very beginning to the summer of 1970. Needless to say, Chart No. 2 was never produced. I must apologize for the condition of this spread from my only surviving copy of the September 1970 issue. Somewhere along the line, I obviously dumped a cup of coffee on it!
One of David Vestal's memorable mantras was, "Don't ask why. Ask why not."
As I understood his quiet words, everything is possible for those able to turn negatives into positives.
©2013 by Jim Hughes, all rights reserved
For many years, Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35. Later, he was the founding editor of Mike J.'s all-time favorite photo magazine, the original Camera Arts. His books include the superb biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance—The Life and Work of an American Photographer, and the monograph Ernst Haas in Black and White. Retired now, he writes occasionally for TOP (see his other articles by finding his name in the "Categories" list in the right-hand sidebar). He lives in Maine.
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