Elliot Erwitt on Robert Frank

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Thomas Bertilsson, Sep 29, 2010.

  1. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    This definitely is something to think about. I found this on the page Wikipedia has on Robert Frank:

    "Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy - the tone range isn't right and things like that - but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention."
    (Elliot Erwitt)

    To me that rang very true of how I appreciate photography. There is a lot of talk about perfect negatives and perfect tonal scale prints, and I am certainly guilty of indulging in some of that too. But what really matters to me, in the end, is to make photographs that feel important. As nice as it would be to get on posters or in picture frames at IKEA, I don't feel like I'm doing the art of photography any favors unless I am true to myself and photograph what I find important and of value.

    With that said, I still think it's important to try to make the best print one can make, tonally, for visual impact. But it's a much smaller piece to me than what the picture represents subject matter wise.
    I am, frankly, pretty tired of all the technical stuff surrounding photography, and I've come to realize that I need to have a very clear focus on what I actually wish to accomplish with my work and to start focusing on it.

    Good riddance, photographers. What's your agenda with all of this?
     
  2. Q.G.

    Q.G. Inactive

    Messages:
    5,682
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2007
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I agree.
    Too much focus on "look at how perfect i am".
    Too little on "look at me because i have a reason for being other than just being pretty".
     
  3. jeffreyg

    jeffreyg Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,413
    Joined:
    Jun 12, 2008
    Location:
    florida
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Other than whatever floats your boat, I think one should master the technique that best expresses his/her vision so that it is second nature. Then concentrate on the content of the image. I know it is popular to have a "body of work" but a number of varying views of the same subject can at times be boring.

    http://www.jeffreyglasser.com/
     
  4. Moopheus

    Moopheus Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,129
    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2006
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I think this comment reveals more about Erwitt's biases than about the value of either Adams's or Frank's art. Adams persued technical perfection and Frank didn't. It's true--you can't substitute technical quality for a lack of vision. Is Erwitt suggesting that this is what Adams did? I don't buy that. If Adams's photos were merely demonstrations of technical prowess, they would have disappeared decades ago.
     
  5. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I agree about mastering technique so that it's second nature, and I think the same of the materials we choose. The less of an obstruction technique is, the better off we are to see what's in front of the camera and understanding what needs to get done to incorporate the essence of it in print.
     
  6. Mark Layne

    Mark Layne Member

    Messages:
    919
    Joined:
    Jun 9, 2003
    Location:
    Nova Scotia
    Just an excuse for sloppy work
    Mark
     
  7. jimrohrer

    jimrohrer Member

    Messages:
    178
    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Wellfleet, C
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    You can't seriously compare Robert Frank to Ansel Adams... It's like comparing John Coltrane to Isaac Stern. It's a different kind of beauty made in a different style with different instruments.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 29, 2010
  8. Mainecoonmaniac

    Mainecoonmaniac Subscriber

    Messages:
    4,055
    Joined:
    Dec 10, 2009
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Some writers have perfect grammar and structure, but it's all useless if the writer has nothing to say. Some musicians play on key and have perfect notes, but they might not be playing music. The craft should serve the art. The Impressionist were consider sloppy painters, but now they're revered. I agree with Jim Roher. You can't compare Adams with Frank. There are a lot of photographers that are slaves to technique and materials instead of serving art.
     
  9. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

    Messages:
    5,894
    Joined:
    Sep 14, 2004
    Location:
    Massachusetts
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I'm inclined to agree, though I have to say, my bias and personal preference for Robert Frank's work over Ansel Adams is pretty clear to me. And, I'm not entirely convinced that Frank was as sloppy as Erwitt describes. I thought that about Frank for a long time, but seeing the show that was mounted last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there were some stunning prints.

    I do think, however, that it's important to get your technique... your craft to match your vision to a place where it's second nature. Then... you can start to really make pictures with intention... with a strong point of view. (Even if that technique remains somewhat sloppy!)
     
  10. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Nobody knows exactly what Erwitt was thinking. But his comment on Frank's work made me think of my own approach, without really dismissing the work of Adams.
    It's all personal, isn't it? Doesn't matter who speaks, it's just their opinion when discussing art anyway.
    For me, personally, I look at Adams' work and admire his skill and the beauty of the landscape. In conjunction with what went on at the time, with establishing national parks, etc, the pictures are important, regardless of Adams' personal agenda. So I certainly don't dismiss it.

    All I wanted from posting the quote, was to make people think about what they do. To think critically about what they do. Perhaps even to justify their approach, to themselves. It's a good thing to do, and it might help us photographers to focus harder on what we want to achieve with our hard work and endless hours of developing film and printing.
     
  11. Q.G.

    Q.G. Inactive

    Messages:
    5,682
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2007
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Adams would indeed have disappeared decades agao if he had not done what he did at the time he did. f/64, anti-pictorialism, anti-Stieglitz (also a technical perfectionist, but of a different aestheticism), and all that.
    Out of that context, he wouldn't have lasted.

    Except, of course, because of the Zone System Church of Technical Excellence.
    To paraphrase Mark above: just an excuse for boring work.
     
  12. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

    Messages:
    4,423
    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2009
    Location:
    Rochester NY
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I agree that this comparison is, perhaps, meaningless. There's an old cliche... something about apples to oranges... I forget.

    Ansel was about the beauty of nature really. I dont' think he wanted to get grouped into the "postcard" category. He was just photographing the grandeur of nature, and he did it better than lots of others. As a kid he would spend his summers in Yosemite and so I think for him, it's a retreat to that. It's more of a zen thing.

    Robert Frank is your classic urbanite photographer. More like a hard-boiled noir detective, but with a camera. You know, gritty underbellies, visual puns; although those great things! He captures the human aspect of nature; not the rocks and trees.

    I think that Mr. Frank's photography can teach us and show us about ourselves, our cities and the general hilarity of these apes that we call humans! Whereas Ansel's photos are more about celebrating mother nature, period. The things that we drive by and don't recognize how amazing they are, he captures them.

    It's up for other people to perpetuate the idea that they are panderers to a certain cliche. They're just doing (did) what they do.

    Good thread though :D
     
  13. mabman

    mabman Member

    Messages:
    829
    Joined:
    Jun 7, 2007
    Location:
    Winnipeg, MB
    Shooter:
    35mm
    It's a frame-of-reference argument, isn't it? If Adams didn't do what he did, how would Erwitt be able to contrast/compare in the first place? So, both Adams and Frank are valid and represent 2 different photographic philosophies. Both are useful, depending on the context, IMHO.
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. Ian Leake

    Ian Leake Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,424
    Joined:
    Mar 25, 2005
    Location:
    Switzerland
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    Well said.
     
  16. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Some of you are missing the point. It's not about comparing Adams and Frank.

    It's about evaluating why we do what we do and how we do it, and what part of it that is truly valuable to the outcome.
    It's about questioning our approach and values that we may have formed over the years, perhaps without asking ourselves why.

    Example: I used to think that I could get magic results by testing different films and developers. Why? Because I read a lot about different films and their 'characteristics' on the internet, and was intrigued with the choices presented to me, and thought that my gold nugget was somewhere in there among all those films.

    Problem: I didn't really learn any of those films very well at all, and I produced work that I am not very happy with. Printing is difficult and cumbersome, because virtually all my old negatives are widely varying in density, contrast, grain, etc and I don't really know what to expect from them.

    Solution: A wise man hit me over the head with the argument: Why? Why are you doing this? It forced me to sit down and question my approach, and I have since switched to using mainly one single film, and one or two others on the side for fun. All processed in one main developer, and yet another (again on the side) when I want to play with unimportant shots.

    Results: The process of exposure, film development, and printing, has become very much second nature to me. I don't really think about what I need to do at the time of exposure. I feel it, like it's flowing through my veins. That's important and has liberated my senses, and I can focus on what I think is important - subject matter.

    I thought that the quote by Erwitt would have a similar impact on others, and perhaps even be somewhat of an 'epiphany' to some, because it is a very bold statement that made me sit down and think for a while.

    - Thomas
     
  17. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

    Messages:
    4,423
    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2009
    Location:
    Rochester NY
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    What you're saying sounds more like an Adam's philosophy. He would tell you the same thing; pick a developer & film and stick with it.

    I thought the point was more like, worry about what you're pointing your camera at, not what happens later. I imagine that Robert Frank is more likely to have negatives developed in god-knows-what and frankly he doesn't care, because it's the photo that matters.

    That's my take-away-message at least. From a social perspective, Frank's photos are much more engaging on a gut level. You see people, you wonder about them, some scare you, some excite you. There's a raw energy to it.
     
  18. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    That's an assumption, and an argument can't be based on that.

    But I get your idea, and as long as it's clear to you, that's all that matters.
     
  19. Q.G.

    Q.G. Inactive

    Messages:
    5,682
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2007
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    You see though how quickly the entire "why?" question gets brushed away?
    [...]"sounds more like an Adam's philosophy. He would tell you the same thing; pick a developer & film and stick with it."

    Where's the "why" in that? Where's the answer?
    And can Adams' philosophy be summed up as "pick a developer & film and stick with it"???

    "Why?" is indeed the best question to ask. A question that indeed is asked very often too.
    But one people rarely ask themselves. And even if they do, coming up with an answer is even rarer.
     
  20. tmike

    tmike Member

    Messages:
    2
    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2010
    Shooter:
    35mm RF
    I don't think you can judge Robert Frank's photo the same way you judge Ansel Adams' photo. For landscape picture, technical perfection is very important, but for journalistic work, content is everything.
    Don't you just hate it when you print a high contrast picture, with the intention to suppress all shadow detail, and you show it to somebody, the first response you got is "I wish there are more shadow detail". I am sure those are the comment that will drive Ellior Erwitt crazy too.
     
  21. Q.G.

    Q.G. Inactive

    Messages:
    5,682
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2007
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Why would a landscape picture have to be "technically perfect"?

    What is "technical perfection" anyway?
    Stieglitz i mentioned before has shown quite a few great landscape pictures in his Camera Work, that were nothing like Adams' take on perfection. Yet technically perfect they were too, because they were exactly the way their makers wanted them to be (!).

    You can judge Adams' pictures the way you can judge the pictorialists pictures: by the answers to the "why?" and "why like this?" their makers have provided.
     
  22. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

    Messages:
    4,423
    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2009
    Location:
    Rochester NY
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    edit: (got in late, this might seem out of context now... a few posts down the road)

    Hold the phone.

    I'm making general statements, true, but if you've ever read one Ansel's books, you'll see that he encourages this type of systematic, empirical approach. Point is, the initial post seemed to be poo-pooing Adams, and yet Thomas B. comes back and says something that appears, to me, to more applaud the Adam's approach over the Frank approach. That's all I'm saying. I don't know enough about Frank to really make any statements on his workflow.

    Furthermore, I'm not trying to base my argument on that assumption either; that Frank would've been more haphazard in his appraoch; I would think anyone could see the point in my statement. And yes, it's clear to me.

    But ultimately, I thought the whole point here was the picture, not the darkroom. An argument that could be crystallized in a Frank vs. Adams comparison.
     
  23. Q.G.

    Q.G. Inactive

    Messages:
    5,682
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2007
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    That's Erwitt's point: instead of obsessing about technicalities, Frank, he says, makes pictures.
    :wink:
     
  24. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Once again, it's not a Frank vs Adams smack-down. It's a statement of Erwitt where he describes what he feels when he views photographs of both photographers. He favors Frank, clearly, but that's not the point.
    The reason for posting it is to raise some questions about the way we work, to search within ourselves for better and better solutions to get to where we want to be. Only so much can be learned by reading the work of others. At some point we have to turn to ourselves for improvement, whatever improvement means. All too often I see 'optimum picture quality' as the de facto criteria to abide by, while other things about a photograph might be just as important, regardless of subject matter.
     
  25. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

    Messages:
    15,268
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    It's about both the darkroom and the picture. It's about your entire process. That's how you get a picture anyway. Without the process there is no picture. You have to do both. But where do you spend your time? What's important to you? Do you strive to make one perfect print every month? Or five proof prints every day? What matters to you?
     
  26. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

    Messages:
    4,423
    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2009
    Location:
    Rochester NY
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I see.

    Perhaps it's not as black & white as I tried to make it.




    Hmm, do you smell that?



    It's a pun.


    :pouty:






    :tongue: