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Friday, 03 June 2016


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I have read that a large reason for the high market value of "The Pond--Moonlight" is the rarity of original prints (3?) and that each was colored differently in printing using a gum compound, rendering each print unique. I also read that critics label his style "pictorial."
His having produced at least three different versions of the same original print and scene using a type of post-processing, I guess it's a good thing that Steichen's public then and now has not cabined him as a photojournalist.

Ouch... ;-)

I've always regarded his work as highly competent commercial photography but I can't say I have ever seen one of his photos that grabbed my attention and spoke to me on a deeper level. But then I didn't care much for "The Family of Man" exhibit either. I guess he and I are/were just out of synch.

Of course, Mr Steichen wouldn't have said it if he lived to our days...

Ever the contrarian, I tend to react to such statements by testing them. One way is by imagining how the opposite might, or might not, be true:

"No camera is as good as the simplest photographer."

My wife is a very good photographer, who never uses a camera. She tried photography, but found even the moderate technical things that she had to keep in mind with a good P&S camera distracted her and the results were no more than poor reminders of what she had wished to capture.

So now she says something like "Oh look, Moosie, pretty!" and moves on, knowing that the subject she has seen will be captured about as well as is possible for her later viewing pleasure.

One might then use me as the standard against which to measure cameras for the "simplest photographer." By that measure, they fall short. The latest intelligent Auto Modes are really awfully good, but some care and attention is still required in capture, and often after, to get the desired result.

Looking at the other side, do I imagine Steichen to be correct? And in what way(s) might I disagree?

Certainly my cameras are capable of photography which I don't use them for. I don't do astrophotography, fashion photography, HC-B style street photography, and so on. Does that mean I've not used the cameras in all the ways they are capable of working, and thus I'm not as "good" as they are?

He's talking about insufficiency in photographer, not cameras. Yet, there are things I've asked of my cameras over the years of which they weren't capable. I often test their limits. And that seem to me at least as important as my shortcomings as user of the cameras.

There are certainly photographic opportunities I would take, but do not notice, not "see", and which the camera could capture. There are all too many photographs I could have done better. But in that sense, the camera isn't "better" than I; it doesn't notice subjects I've missed, or ways I could have done better. It's only an unused intermediary, uninvolved in the failing, incapable of averting it.

And I'm not the measure, anyway. He says "No photographer . . ." It seems to me that there have been quite a few photographers, both famous and not, who have used their cameras right up to their limits - at least for the work the photographers want to do.

Do you suppose that Steichen may have been feeling the itch to buy a new camera, and was talking to himself? A useful quote to those suffering from excessive GAS. \;~)>

Might he have just been looking at some less than adequate work by others, and generalized from too many times saying "You could do better, there's nothing wrong with your camera."?

For, me, on balance, this quote, while pithy and sounding like there may be some deep truth in it, proves pretty light weight.

Maybe, but the best camera without a photographer is just a light tight box.

Some folks overthink these things. Some underthink them.

In recent years I've been testing this theory by using mostly simple cameras - Barnacks and folders, TLRs, even a Brownie No.2. My photography has improved! Go figure.

Jim, I recommend "Edward Steichen - Lives in Photography" by Brandow and Ewing if you're not very familiar with his work. My favourites are his early (1900-1910) portraits and nudes - try "Solitude (Portrait of F Holland Day)".

Side note: was Steichen also the earliest master of the selfie? See his Self Portrait With Brush And Palette, 1902.

I think the issue with that quote is that his, and others, works didn't just end with the press of the shutter. The work continued with film processing and then printing.

'No photographer is as good as the simplest camera'

Could continue with:

'No photographer is as good as the simplest development process.'

'No photographer is as good as the simplest print.'

This omits lighting, staging and access to renowned subjects, which all add to the perceived quality, or otherwise, of the results.

No writer is as good as the simplest word processor.

it may be true in some cases..


when i've sold cameras on ebay, especially my older been around the block ones, i often mention in my write up that the camera is capable of taking better pictures then whoever buys it could ever dream of . . . it's a bit of a variation but i think makes the same point.

Any photograph can be taken without all the automation that today's cameras offer. The limits of automation are often exceeded by good photographic technique. Automation in the hands of a good photographer can make their job easier.

Ah, a Steichenism! Enigmatic vapors wafting down from Mt. Rushmore. He was quite a character.

Obviously we all say stupid things sometimes. He may have been in an unhappy time.

an exercise in rhetoric possibly, only of value to those who pursue an answer otherwise meaningless.

Photos made with a box camera-


Steichen at War and The Photography of Max Yavno are the two eldest two books in my photography book collection. Both are still in my top twenty all time favorites. Still available and cheap to get secondhand. Steichen at War is much more interesting than his fashion work or The Pond. That shot he made with infra red!


Steichen was probably even more important as a Director of Photography at the MoMA than as a photographer. There was a nice anecdote I read in one of my Irving Penn books. I couldn’t find the exact text and publication, but it went more or less like this:
Steichen had discovered the young Irving Penn as a promising talent, so he invited him for one of the openings of an exhibition at the MoMA. At the reception Steichen asked Penn what was his main point of interest at that moment. “Pudding” was Penn’s answer. (Because he was working at an ad for Jell-O Pudding). It lasted a long time before Penn got the next invitation.

Just a WAG but I'd wager more photos were snapped last business week than had been in toto at the time of the utterance in question with the average % of "good" ones being the same, or more likely, less now than then. What is hindsight going to say in the future?

Besides The Family of Man, Steichen's own photo photographs can sometimes be seen, unannounced in several locations in Luxembourg and they are always peaceful and inspiring.
I once went, with great interest, to see a Robert Capa exhibition at one of the BCEE banks in Luxembourg. - how disappointing. He was, in my view a snapshoter and not a good one at that. Dejectedly, I started to leave but noticed a corridor with yet more photos. I wondered if I could take any more of Capa but decided to give it a go. It wasn't Capa, it was Steichen's work and what a contrast. Okay, one would expect a contrast but one set of photos embraced you with their quality and subtlety - the camera had not been an obstruction to conveying this and the others might also have conveyed their message better if a more simple camera had been used.

Ah, but what is a good photographer ?...... (he says enigmatically)

Some make better photographs, than lines with words!?

I love this quote, It's simple, easily misunderstood, but it's true at the heart of the matter. We mostly buy cameras and gear to make things _easier_, not possible. Sometimes, sure. But being a good photographer is also about knowing what you can get away with - if you're shooting sports with a 4x5, you're getting different shots than with a D5/400 2.8. But which shot is the best, well - up to the nut behind the camera. I sure as heck don't need 1.4 lenses and crazy ISO speeds, but I like shooting in darker places, so it makes things easier. That's what money's for, makes things easier:)

Mike replies: Maybe you'll like my version better. "99.99% of the greatest photographs in the medium's history were taken with cameras that are not good enough for today's most inexperienced amateur."

Approximately 100% of all of the photographs you ever admired were taken with cameras older and less capable than the new one you're GASsing after.

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