What’s this Self Doing in My Photos?

By David Vestal Back to

The excellent photographer Tio Cabron takes me to task. He is a bright lad of 70 or 80 summers—like me, not exactly a spring chicken—and he makes persuasive points. I quote from his letter:

“I feel it necessary to chime in while you’re waxing philosophic on the man or the product. I don’t think they can be separated. And that’s because: You know the old saw ‘No man is an island’? Bull! Every man (and every woman for that matter) IS an island and that’s where all this curiosity and lofty analysis springs from. Nobody knows [anything] about the person sitting in the same pew. They don’t know their brother or their mom! Most people don’t even know themselves, let alone anybody else.

“Just like I know Dexter when I hear him, I know your stuff when I see it and that’s because I’m curious about other islands that I’ll never know but may learn to recognize.

“Everything you do is about yourself because—in the first place—it’s what you see and all your licks that you bring together to interpret that which you see. Just like I know Buddy De Franco’s licks, I know a bunch of yours. When I hear or see those licks at work—bells go off.

“It may be a comfort to you to ‘trust that’ your work is not about yourself, but I think that’s being a little myopic.

“You’re pretty slippery, but I’m on to one of your favorite licks, which is: Trying not to look like yourself. Dead give- away—What one sees and how one handles it IS oneself. Punkt.”

No, it’s just part of oneself, and that bit of self is a small part of what gets into photos. He gets some of this right, but not all of it.

Yes, when we photograph we are strainers that let some seeing through and hold the rest back. Our let-ins and our leave-outs are personal. In photographing we manage them largely by using viewpoints that let wants in and keep don’t-wants out. This isn’t always conscious.

What’s seen and who sees it

Yes, our pictures reveal us. But no, by us and about us are not the same thing. A photo has to be a mixture of what’s seen and the person doing the seeing. The proportions vary. I’d say that in Minor White’s work the person was 90% and the subject was 10%, and that was his intention. In Ansel Adams’s work I’d guess it was split 50-50, and I think that was Ansel’s intention. In mine I suppose the subject is about 80% and myself 20% regardless of my intention, which isn’t conscious when I shoot, or even later, until the question comes up. Such estimates are not exact and can’t apply for everyone. Every viewer makes his own guess. It’s more feel than fact. About my work, Tio’s estimate favors the person-as-subject side, but I think that the things my photos show and the things my words say really are their subjects. And that, now that he brings it up, is my intention. If more self than subject comes through in my pictures or writings, that means I failed. Some of my self must be there, but it should not be dominant. I want the most interesting stuff, and I’m just not as interesting as much of what I see in the world.

In my photos I create nothing. I choose among things I find by chance. (Those words, “create” and “creative,” terminally overused by the mindless, lost all meaning long ago. I seldom use them except to dismiss them.) As Picasso said of himself, but it goes for me as well, “I do not seek, I find.” Finders keepers, unless we give it away. I see it as part of our function as photographers to give our seeing away to anyone who wants it, and I think it’s great when an occasional viewer decides to pay for it.

Of course this doesn’t go for professional photography, the provision of services for clients, an honest and useful craft except in the case of some advertising, which happily deceives us for much profit. I make my pictures for enjoyment. I live in the neverland of amateurs and artists.

An artist may be defined as an amateur who doesn’t know when to quit, nor how much to charge, nor how to get anyone else interested. To be an artist is hardly a profession for those of us who suffer the commitment to make art (or would- be art) out of some inner need other than to sell at a profit.

I don’t knock profit. We need some. I also don’t knock would-be artists. A few who are called that while they live become a fair proportion of the “great masters” (another bogus term) who are discovered or invented by the art business—dealers, curators, critics, and the like—after they’re safely dead. And most of the rest are harmless.

Art and its market

I hope you share my impression that any connection between actual art and the art market is purely coincidental. This may be even more true for photography, new in the field since about 1970, when it was instantly taken over by dealers, curators, etc., etc., who were used to the hype of older media and had no clue about photos. They have read some books since then, and learned some names, especially hundred-year-old ones, and made up mystiques and whopping auction prices to go with them, but many of them still don’t get photography. This goes for photo teach- ing in art schools and universities as well. It’s almost as bad as literary criticism and politics. If you don’t already see this, it’s time to start paying attention. For several decades now we’ve had a stuck-in-the-mud-conformist art academy that really believes it’s the revolution’s avant garde. I hasten to add that a few dealers, curators, and so on actually know what they are doing. In this they are like artistsMost don’t get it, but a few do. Some people, even quite a few are real artists without understanding what they’re doing. The field is that crazy.

Tio Cabron has been a very good photographer since long before the present phase of this photo art mishugas began, and he’s not affected by it except to develop great contempt for it. That’s one reason I like and respect him. He’s a real photographer and a good guy, a mensch.

If you don’t know those words, go the library and take out a book on Yiddish, that great expressive language. As a kid I read a book, Nize Baby by Milt Gross, and that was my introduction. Yiddish is not my native tongue, and I don’t know much of it, but teachers who knew and used it have taught me a lot. The words “Tio” and “Cabron” are Spanish, not Yiddish, and that’s another good language. My friend spends much of his time in Mexico.

Minority stuff here, to be sure. Well, artists are a small minority among us all, and photographers are a minority among artists. As a minority within a small minority, we have to stand up for ourselves and our rights.

One such right is to draw a clear distinction between by and about, and defend it against all comers. When I read Tio Cabron’s letter, it reminded me instantly of an ancient Jewish-restaurant joke that every true American must already know and be tired of: the one in which the customer taps on his glass with a spoon to get the waiter’s attention:

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”

And the waiter gives him a sensible answer. In my new and improved, photographically relevant version, the customer’s line has now become:

“Waiter, there’s a self in my photo.” The waiter’s answer hasn’t changed:

“Don’t worry. He won’t eat much.”

About the Author

David Vestal
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.