Transitions

By David Vestal Back to

“We can’t step in the same river twice. It’s not only the river that changes. We change, too, although we seldom notice it at the time. And we are set in our ways. So we contradict ourselves? Constantly. Don’t worry; it’s normal. Unexpected things happen, and good or evil, or both, result.”

What to do? We can panic if we choose to; we’d better adapt to the changes. Let’s try them. We may like them. If not, what can I say? The changes are here, and so are we. But we and the river are not all that change. The changes also change. Make what you will of that. Some will see it as a dilemma that leaves no hope, which may be true for them. But I think that constant change gives us good chances to grab the brass ring as we go by.

Now there’ll be changes in this magazine. I can’t judge them at present. It may get better than before, and I’m for that. So, what changes would I like to see?

For one thing, more pictures. I think that’s on its way, with five portfolios planned per issue. For another, better pictures, an iffier matter. This depends partly on judgment and partly on luck. I’ll have no opinion until I’ve waited and seen. And when I arrive at an opinion, of course I may be wrong. Everyone’s personal “better” consists of how a picture or piece of writing affects him or her, and no two of us are enough alike to allow any hard-and-fast certainty. I’ve sometimes come to dislike what used to please me, and to like what I didn’t like before. Patience and attention are called for, and I can’t predict my reactions, let alone yours.

What else? I’d like to see more serious, not solemn, discussions of photos and what matters about them. I’d like to see less obsession with gadgets and with unnecessarily complicated techniques. On this I have a position after 60 years of photographing and seeing photos. I like working simply. I try to get the best results I can by the simplest means. I’m sure this approach is right for me, and I’m sure it’s not right for everyone.

My wife, Ann Treer, by her nature, printed in more complicated ways than mine, and did it well. We often photographed together. Sometimes her photos were better than mine, and sometimes mine were better. With our different ways of working, we turned out to be equal. I worked as simply as I could and she didn’t. Each of us was right in not working like the other. Yet her photos and mine are much alike. Long after her death, in printing the pictures for an unpublished book of our travels in Brazil, I was glad I had her permission to use her photos. Many are better than mine of the same people and places. In a 1977 show in Sao Paulo, which included many of my Brazil photos from 1961, the man who hung the show included some of her photos, thinking they were mine. They fitted right in.

I have learned that it’s not for me to judge how others work. It’s the results that count. Still, I’ll continue to stand up for those who work simply and produce well, as did Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Lewis Hine, Eugéne Atget and Helen Levitt, among others. These are a few of my guys.

It’s also not for me to judge what kinds of photographs others should make. Let’s have variety. Photographers can’t, don’t, and shouldn’t all see and work alike, and that is good. There are many photos that I don’t get. Is that because they’re no good, or is the failure mine? I can’t always tell from here. If I were a collector, I’d be right to pick only what I like. As a teacher and writer it’s not for me to reject all pictures that I don’t get. I’m more broadly receptive than many, but my reach isn’t universal. I’m not photo technique’s picture editor, which is just as well. There are others who can appreciate photos that I don’t get, and I must respect their judgment.

In judging photos I also consider the photographer as a person. But that is too iffy. Some delightful people make poor photos, and some awful people make good ones.

In the world of scholarship and criticism, some Great Authorities have been wrong. I’ve read what they wrote about photography, and it’s an ignorant return to the fussy scholasticism of the middle ages, when supposedly wise men argued bitterly about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Popular false authorities include, to name only dead ones, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag. I believe these educated fools were sincere and didn’t know they were phonies. Alfred Stieglitz, a special case, was a very good photographer but a lousy guru. His eye was better than his mind. I have more sympathy for Minor White, a good man and a good photographer, who nevertheless believed, spoke and taught a good deal of absolute bilge. So it’s complicated. I rant with pleasure on such dead celebrities, trusting, as I do, that I am right. As someone said, holy cows make the best burgers.

Of course I may be wrong, but I’ll take that chance. There are also living fake gurus and photographers who fall in the same class. I don’t argue with them because I don’t want to add to the publicity they thrive on. If any of their nonsense appears in PT – and it probably will – that won’t be my fault. If you notice my silence, you’ll know what I am thinking. Or will you?

There is something more substantial to consider than false philosophy. Taste enters into it, but this issue is factual. It concerns how designers treat photos. I have recently resisted, in a thing I publish, a strong temptation to photocopy and print the murder of a good photograph by Cartier-Bresson. It was destroyed by running it through the gutter between two pages of a little book which is informative and good, except for its bad designing. It’s even inexpensive. Copyright stopped me, and also, I’d rather use that space to present good undestroyed photos. This all too common crime is generally overlooked. I find it depressing and incredible that many, perhaps most, book and magazine designers seem unable to see what is right in front of them on the pages they’ve designed. It’s vandalism through ignorance, and it enrages me. Here is what some “visual professional” did to the photo in question.

It’s an early, excellent HCB photo that shows a beat- up, eroded wall on which irregular white areas and spots show through dark paint in a rough pattern. A child runs beside this wall, looking up. It’s a beautiful and evocative photo, unexplainable but strongly lyrical when it’s presented so you can see it. In this case, the running child has been swallowed up by the deep crack between two pages. It’s largely gone in a dramatic case of photocide. The layout sheet, of course, was flat, and the designer could clearly see that he’d centered the child’s image exactly in the gutter, but this one ignored what we all know happens to a picture in a deep fold. Here we can see less than half of the child on each page. Much of it is hidden in the gutter. Few book designers or magazine art directors run words through the gutter, though I’ve seen that, too. In general, words are considered sacred, and photographs are treated as disposable tissues. As photographer and picture editor Charlie Reynolds once truly said, “Art directors cut up photographs to make pretty pages.”

If I must, I will make a nuisance of myself to keep this from happening in photo technique. I can expect to be ignored and considered crazy, but I’m used to that. Everyone seems to think running photos through the gutter is just wonderful. But the evidence of the eye shows that those who believe that are the real crazies. Look attentively at what’s in front of you, and unless you’re a designer you will see it as it is. I suppose they are taught somewhere that chopping and folding photos improves them. It doesn’t.

I also object to words printed in the picture area of photos or otherwise interfering with our seeing the picture intact. Again it’s self-evident, and again it’s the done thing, so being against it shows that I am crazy. Even if I am, you still have no chance to see a picture without distraction when words invade it. Get out of our pictures, words, and stay out. Exceptions, of course, are words that are part of the pictures. They should be al- lowed to speak for themselves without competition. My madness is unfashionable sanity. So listen up, “professional designers.” Self-evident facts seem to be received by designers the way politicians receive good sense that doesn’t follow their party’s line or a lobbyist’s advice with hysterical denial. If you claim intelligence, let some reality in. Consider facts as important as the nonsense you were taught.

Let’s make this transition work as it should, always toward something more real, more valid and more useful. This is a photo magazine, so let photography and pictures rule. Treat them as the most valuable thing we have. Treat them right. Celebrate, don’t mutilate photos, especially since mutilation is “how it’s always done.” If we don’t do our work better than “what’s always done,” we should be ashamed.

There is always, in magazines, a temptation to cave in to advertisers and put their demands ahead of the reader’s needs. Some self-respect is called for. Consider the New Yorker, back when it was intelligent. For a long time they had the advertisers buffaloed. The old New Yorker refused to run dumb ads, and the ad agencies caved in. That policy might be worth reviving. The rumor now is that, along with the decline of print news, because of the Internet, even advertising is imperiled. PT, I gather, will now put online everything it prints on paper.

I use the Internet only to get information. No email, no website, nothing like that. I got along without it before, and I get along without it now. I like my freedom. But my odd attitude won’t influence this magazine, which needs the net. The same principles that apply to the magazine on paper also apply in cyberspace. (But maybe there isn’t any gutter to run pictures through between Internet pages? If that’s so, Hallelujah.)

Let’s not imitate the slick, bright noise of TV commercials, although it’s true that, because of the money, the commer- cials, even with their dishonesty and idiocy, are generally better than the shows, which exist only to provide watchers for the commercials. We see that in photo magazines, too. People buy them for the ads.

How’s this for a transition? Let the online and the printed form and content of photo technique constitute a well-made continuing program to present and support the true art of photography, without the usual bullshit. We’d have something real.

Readers, you can help. If you see photos mistreated here, complain. You have some power to influence the magazine’s course, and I hope you will use it thoughtfully and calmly. Courtesy helps criticism work. Meanwhile, I trust you are with me in favor of the lively and pertinent journal that PT can and should be. Accept no substitutes.


About the Author

David Vestal
Dvestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.