On Photography

Alexey Brodovitch

What is a good journalistic photograph? I cannot say. A photograph is tied to its time – what is good today may be a cliché tomorrow. There are many so-called schools of photography, but I really hate to put labels on things. Every photograph is really giving a personal visual report on something. Whether it’s Smirnof’s vodka or the new model Mercedes-Benz or some event on the street or something in the headlines, the problem of the photographer is to discover his own language, a visual ABC’s to explain the event. The photograph is not only a pictorial report; it is also a psychological report. It represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera. Each day the audience for photographs sees hundreds of pictures of high technical quality. The public is being spoiled by good technical quality photographs in magazines, on television, in the movies, and they have become bored. The disease of our age is this boredom, and a good photographer must successfully combat it. The only way to do this is by invention – by surprise. The quality of surprise, in our profession of graphic journalism, is our major capital.
When I say that a good picture has surprise quality or shock appeal, I do not mean that is a loud or vulgar picture but, instead, that it stimulates my thinking and intrigues me. Sometimes a very quiet and unspectacular picture can have surprise quality because of some stimulating and intriguing element. Surprise quality can be achieved in many ways. It may be produced by a certain stimulating geometrical relationship between elements in the picture or through the human interest of the situation photographed or by calling our attention to some commonplace but fascinating thing we have never noticed before, or it can be achieved by looking at an everyday thing in a new and interesting way.
The best way to achieve surprise quality is by avoiding photographic clichés. Many photographers fail to produce stimulating work because they take the same picture over and over again, or ones that had been taken many times before by other photographers. Imitation is the greatest danger of the young photographer. The greatest danger of the older photographer who has found approval and has become commercially successful is that he will fall into the trap of endlessly repeating himself. All young photographers imitate others to some degree when they are first starting out, but they must know when to stop and discover their own visual language. It is every photographer’s responsibility to discover new images and a new personal way of looking at things. If he can do this his pictures will command attention and have surprise quality.
Everything is in constant evolution. We live in a dynamic age of atomic energy, exploration of space, miracle drugs and television. I feel strongly that mass communication, particularly visual communication, must keep pace and develop a new vocabulary; new ways to analyze, to report and to convince. When I emphasize the importance of up-to-dateness in photography I do not mean that photographs which were done in the past are not important. Outstanding past work in photography, and in fact in all the arts, is very important to today’s photographers. But it should be used for inspiration and not for imitation. These works should be something to be built upon, not to be repeated.
I really believe in progress and in revolt in every generation. Just sitting and admiring the work of the masters and then going out and doing the same sort of thing will not lead to progress. For this reason the work of a photographer like Karsh, which is a throwback to nineteenth century portraiture, is not very exciting to me. In the same way I am more stimulated and intrigued by Richard Avedon’s fashion pictures of models against the rockets at Cape Canaveral than I am by Bert Stern’s fashion pictures of little girls in Victorian settings which seem to me very old fashioned.
I believe that the trend in today’s photography is away from the obviously theatrical and staged photograph and toward the more spontaneous and sincere way of seeing. For example, in advertising there was a long cycle of very pictorial and artificial illustrations. It was the era of the Martini glass against the background of the pyramids, or the other liquor ad which used a background similar to a famous Chirico painting. I think that the day of this type of photograph is over. Some of the new young photographers (Art Kane is a good example) have broken the ice for a more spontaneous and casual approach to advertising photography. The new approach is more sincere and much more philosophical – it gets under your skin. I value shock appeal, but things should be used which could happen, not things which are obviously posed, obviously artificial only to meet the needs of that ad.

Every young photographer should understand that technique is only a means to an end. Anyone can learn to take a technically proficient picture and, once having learned this, all that counts is the taste and the personal viewpoint of the person behind the camera. Sometimes a revolutionary technique is used to express this, but this technique, for its own sake, cannot be imitated without producing a cliché. For example, I have recently seen a very intriguing book of nudes by the excellent English photographer Bill Brandt, photographed with an unusual wideangle technique. I do not think that photographers should go out and imitate the technique of Bill Brandt. These pictures should be used for inspiration not imitation. Technique as an end in itself is much too easy to imitate, but pictures with unusual techniques like the Brandt nudes are a good thing to go through a young photographer’s system.
I believe that any technique in photography is permissable if it contributes to the personal report being given by the photographer. All of the tools of the photographer should be used to this end. For example, one of the photographer’s most important tools is cropping. I know there are some photographers who believe that the dimensions of the picture should not be changed in any way after it is shot but, generally speaking, I believe this is very limiting. I know that Cartier-Bresson does not approve of anyone cropping his pictures. This may work very well for his personality and method. Cartier-Bresson is a great photographer, near to being a genius. For most photographers, however, I believe that it is a mistake to refuse to crop.
Photographers should make three or four prints from one negative and then crop them differently. When I was art director at »Harper’s Bazaar« and at several agencies as a consultant, young photographers would bring me their portfolios and all the prints would be in the same standard proportions, either for the Leica or the Rolleiflex. Many times, by limiting themselves in this way, they missed the true potentialities of their photographs.
It is an excellent exercise for photographers to experiment with different croppings of their pictures. The cropping very often can create your new vision and help to discover and to explain your new language. Cropping is like all other techniques which can be used in shooting and in the darkroom. If they result in a more powerful expression in the final picture, the photographer should use them. I read in a profile in »The New Yorker« that the violinist Yehudi Menuhin is interested in yoga and that before each of his concerts he stands on his head. I don’t care if he does this, if he plays beautiful music. It is the end result which counts.

There are two phases of seeing in the making of a picture. The first takes place when the photograph is actually shot. This is when the instinctive decision is made which results in the picture being recorded on the film. The second seeing comes in examining the contact prints of the pictures. It is important to be able to recognize the pictures which express your viewpoint and also how these pictures can be printed and cropped to bring out that viewpoint. It is also important to be able to recognize the lucky accidents which can often result in good pictures. When a photographer takes a picture, he does it because something has interested and excited him. He must become expert at studying his contact sheets to discover what caused that excitement.
The journalistic photographer must not only be a master of the technical skill which will allow him to get his personal vision onto the film, but he must also be his own picture editor and art director. The art director and picture editor of the magazine or agency are there to help him, but they should never be a substitute for the photographer’s thinking in these areas. When he looks into his groundglass he should see not only the picture but also four pages or eight pages. It is the photographer’s decisions at the two levels of seeing the picture – when it is shot and when it is chosen and printed – that determines his personal style.
When a beginning photographer first starts taking pictures, he generally shoots haphazardly and carries his camera about shooting everything that interests him. Sometimes a few of these pictures are very interesting, because he has not yet become bogged down in technique nor has he learned to copy anyone. There comes a time, however, when the beginner must crystalize his ideas and set off in a particular direction. He must learn that shooting just for the sake of shooting is dull and unprofitable, and he must develop a general tendency in his work. With this maturity the photographer will begin to develop his own photographic vocabulary to express new discoveries of vision and understanding.
The pictures which the mature photographer takes are interpretations of their subject in terms of the photographer’s own particular personality and interest. If he has inventiveness photography can be completely rediscovered in his own terms. The precise still lifes of Irving Penn are very much an expression of Penn’s personality, just as the emotional quality of Avedon is expressed in his photographs. It is not necessary to be emotionally involved with your subject to photograph it. Some photographers, like Andreas Feininger, take very good pictures which are an expression of their detached, intellectual approach to their subject matter. I do not think that this lack of emotional involvement has a detrimental effect on a picture. It is the unexpected and the surprise quality of a personal vision, rather than the emotion, which make people respond to a photograph.
The personality and style of a photographer usually limit the type of subject with which he deals best. For example, Cartier-Bresson is very interested in people and in travel; these things plus his precise feeling for geometrical relationships determine the type of pictures he takes best. When I was on »Harper’s Bazaar«, I introduced Lisette Model. Her particular genius was in photographing the bizarre quality of human beings and finding beauty in the grotesque. If she were asked to photograph a boy and girl kissing she would be a complete failure, but when photographing fat ladies on the beach she was wonderful. This is her style.
When Avedon was a guest speaker in my class, he said he could put a camera on a tripod in Times Square and push the button by remote control in his studio, and still from a thousand negatives he would have one or two very good photographs. He pointed out that these pictures would not be a personal expression. What is of value is that a particular photographer sees the subject differently than I do. A good picture must be a completely individual expression which intrigues the viewer and forces him to think.

Although I have become known as both an art director and a teacher of photography I really do not teach. My classes are not for the purpose of learning the technical aspects of photography nor are they concerned with a particular style of photography. They are really laboratories in which photographers are free to experiment and to find a direction for their work. In these sessions I am much more of a student than a teacher. I, personally, am very much against, in principle, any art or visual education. It seems to me that education of this kind is potentially very dangerous and is likely to develop certain clichés. In my experience as an art director, students have come to me from different schools – from the Chicago Institute of Design, from the Art Institute and from photographic schools. Everybody who came to my office would bring a certain type of picture – even mounted exactly alike. From the pictures I could immediately tell which school the student came from. This is a tragedy. Students must go through a certain basic training to discover facility of self-expression; they must know technique. But the instructor or teacher should not be a pedant. Rather than a teacher in the accepted sense what is required is someone to tease or irritate the student and to help him discover himself.
My classes are not a lecture or a club meeting. They are for the photographer who wants to work. In each session I give a »problem« which, over the course of the next week, the students will photograph. This problem is always general enough so that each student can interpret it in terms of his own interest and personal direction. For example, one assignment I gave was »The United Nations«. It was up to each photographer to tackle it according to his own particular approach. Some who were instructed in fashion photography used the United Nations as a setting for a fashion photograph. Others did architectural photographs or advertising photographs based on the U.N. Still others did reportage assignments on the people who work there or the visitors who come to see it. It is up to each photographer to discover the angle from which he will approach the subject.
When we examine the pictures in class, they are first passed around so everyone is familiar with them and then they are discussed from the standpoint of creating a new vision and finding a personal direction. Many of these photographs are not completed work but a sort of sketch or preliminary experiment in a photographer’s finding a new way to say something. Finally, I don’t care if the student produces a photograph or a design, a collage or a sculpture. If he has avoided the cliché and captured the essence of the problem, this is the important thing. Sometimes I give an assignment where the student experiments in photographing a simple geometrical shape. An excellent thing to use for this are the conical paper drinking cups which can be bought for a few pennies. The student can make constructions with them or hang them from wires or do anything he wants. If the students spend a week doing this, experimenting with the effect of light and shade upon this beautiful geometrical shape, they will learn a great deal about still life photography.

In my classes we talk not only about the student’s work but also about graphic design in magazines, books and newspapers. We discuss current examples. When we see an interesting picture in a magazine, the idea is not to copy it but to be stimulated by it to go out and discover something different. Most of the photography which we see today in magazines and newspapers is stereotyped and cliché ridden. In America everything is imitated so quickly and we see the same type of pictures over and over again. A dozen photographers working for a magazine like »Life« will bring back pictures which all look alike. If a photographer sincerely tries to put the product of his reporting in such a magazine, he will probably be fired or forced to walk out as did Gene Smith. It is up to the photographer to decide whether he will be a slave of »Life«, »Look«, »Vogue« or »Bazaar«, or will they be his slave. This depends on his character and the strength of his determination.
It is the responsibility of the art director of a magazine to have a concept of his audience and to find photographers to fit that audience. When I was art director of »Harper’s Bazaar« I picked for one audience. When I was art director of Portfolio – which was a magazine for graphic artists – I picked an entirely different type of picture. Just as it is the art director who must be responsible to an audience, the photographer, if he is to maintain his integrity, must be responsible to himself. He must seek an audience which will accept his vision rather than pervert his vision to fit an audience. Unfortunately, many fine photographers never find this audience and are virtually unemployable in the commercial field.
The creative life of a commercial photographer is like the life of a butterfly. Very seldom do we see a photographer who continues to be really productive for more than eight or ten years. Most advertising photography has remained static in a dynamic world. If the photographer is to survive, change is very important. Even if a photographer has been fortunate enough to find his place in the commercial world, he must constantly experiment to find new ways to say things and he must constantly go forward.