a reaction to robert adams’ why people photograph

Orkney – 1967

 I’m not concerning myself here with the review section (Examples of Success) in the middle of the book (covering – amongst others – Atget, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange in short reviews of books, or parts of introductions to books or exhibition catlaogues) but instead looking at the opening section (What Can Help) which looks at the things that can keep photographers going. I’ve also had a good read of the final section (Working Conditions)and its couple of longer pieces, but think I’ll save my thoughts on them for later.

So, a few words about what I can deduce from the book’s contents about Robert Adams…


Used here in the sense of a collegiate body; people you regard as your peers who share characteristics with you and have similar enthusiasms. I am not a fan of photography clubs, feeling they tend to spend way too much time dealing with questions of how (techniques and equipment) and not enough time asking what and why; I am a great fan of spending time with like-minded people who also take pictures.

I have met some of them through real life. There’s my friend Sean, who takes photographs I wish I’d taken but who thinks the same about some of mine; we sit in the 3 Judges and pass around packets of prints and drink beer and talk shite about stuff. Then there’s Maciek, whom I met through work and who passed on first a Salyut and then a Hasselblad and who had the great idea of making a photographic pilgrimage around the north circular which he was unable to complete before he returned to Warsaw; we would sit in his office looking out over the Strand and talk and look at pictures or take pictures of one another with cameras we’d just bought off ebay or from the photo exchange on the corner of Waterloo Bridge. Or there’s Malcolm who was the boyfriend of a flatmate and who takes pictures of poetry readings and of the shadows in the stairwell leading to his flat and holocaust sites in eastern Europe; I don’t see him often enough these days, but it’s always good when I do. Others I’ve “met” online, usually through flickr.There’s Matthew, who lives in Texas and does double-exposure film swaps and when  uses cheap novelty cameras a lot; he also likes the number 23. Or there’s Ian, who lives in Moscow and who I met up with for a drink a couple of times I was over for work; he shares my interest in steam-punk sci-fi and makes strange collages from Victorian illustrations and takes pictures with modified brownie-type cameras sometimes creating panoramas by incrementally advancing the film and making multiple exposures as he pans across architecture. I’m not sure why I felt a connection with these people but not with others, but now, I think I’m beginning to get a new sense of community with some of the other OCA types who’s blogs I follow or who comment on the Facebook or Flickr threads,  It all helps, it all keeps me alert to things that I could do with cameras or things that other people have done that I could look at.

While I feel that taking pictures is something I enjoy more as a solitary thing, sometimes it is definitely good to share thoughts and the pictures themselves. Sometimes it’s good to talk about something else entirely.,,


One of the things that I like about Adams is his lack of meanness to others. This is most apparent in this essay as he separates the truly funny picture (which he reckons is relatively rare) from the ironic ones. I am all too aware that I will happily take a picture of – say – the appalling punctuation on a brass nameplate or a beautiful emerald green Lada in Moldova with a number plate that starts “CRAP” to most likely prove my cleverness, while rarely managing something as simple as a good joke. And generally I seem to get closer to humour (and which make me smile, and don’t have titles like ‘kinell)  when I’m “off duty” with family and friends, backing up Adam’s theory that funny pictures are more likely to live in family albums. Like the diptych at the top of this piece, made from two slides taken by my sister Jane, sometime towards the end of the sixties…


Anyone who has put pictures online and had them “faved” or “liked” or linked to from someone’s blog has had experience of being collected. It is a gratifying experience, but one that usually misses any of the deeper to-and-fro contact sketched out in the shortest of Adams’ essays; it is unusual for someone to say why the like something in the online galleries. And it also generally misses out the opportunities for the sort of financial reward that used to go hand in hand with contact with collectors. It also lacks the chance to step onto the pantheon (or whatever it is you do with a passing pantheon) that was present in Egglestone’s meeting with Szarkovsky or even the meeting of the entrepreneurial collectors with Vivian Maier’s discarded archive in a junk shop.

A feature of two of the non-photographic exhibitions I’ve been to this has been their acknowledgment of this aspect of the relationship between artists and collectors. Many of the sketches made by Turner during tours of Europe and displayed in Late Turner, at the Tate were done to drum up patron’s interest in full-size oil paintings; the entire premise of Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery was that (as the review of the exhibition in the Guardian put it) “Paul Durand-Ruel was […]the the only dealer brave enough to promote the impressionists, helping them with their doctors’ bills, their studios and even their rent; sometimes he was their only customer.”

Adam’s main argument here though is more to do with a shared delight in the image and a shared self-confidence on the part of both parties that they have a superior sense of what is “good” and that collecting and making art are, at best the two sides of the same creative coin.

Another – related – theme that has emerged from the exhibitions I have seen over the course of this year (and also before it) is that the same photographers show up in different contexts again and again. It would have been no surprise whatsoever to have Walker Evans pop up with some 80 years after pictures of the American Civil War in Conflict – Time – Photography, where Don McCullin’s pictures of putting up the Berlin Wall can be used for “16 Years After” World War Two a matter of months after they were used as examples of his ability to produce reportage at Tate Britain; Boris Mikhailov shows up at the Barbican (Everything Was Moving) and then the Photographers’ Gallery (Colour Soviet Photography); Jacques-Henri Lartigue is almost everywhere (as well as in the book here, illustrating humour). Collectors (and a surprisingly  small number of them) have created a series of roads through the forest of nearly 200 years of photography that are as direct and brutal as the railways that opened up the American West and, for the most part, we are happy to take their advice…



Adams seems to fall into the same position as the (difficult to nail its provenance) quote that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” in that pictures say it so much better than the people who try and explain them (with a few exceptions) seem to be able to manage.

But he also lets slip that: “Probably the best way to know what photographers think about their work […] is to read or listen to what they say about pictures made by colleagues or precursors whom they admire.It is then impossible to read Adams’ later statement about Atget (p128) without thinking that this is something he believes he does himself: “In view of all the modern world that Atget chose to ignore however and the depth of his feeling for the old gardens it is arguable that his work is elegiac, even if affirmative (as to a lesser degree seems that of Walker Evans, whose views of America in the 1930s contained so many affectionately observed anachronisms)” He writes well, and I like him for it.


Adams taught English before he became a full-time photographer (lucky man! – although this of course ties in to the quote I’ve posted here…) and uses this section to reflect on the tensions created by using time to teach rather than to make your own stuff, pulling in examples of people stymied by teaching. He says he has never been drawn to teaching photography either – he opposes teaching (analytic) to making (synthetic), and observes that not too many people have the two urges balanced within them. In his statement that “academics enjoy disassembling things in order to understand how they work, whereas artists enjoy taking scattered pieces and assembling from them things that do work”.

I can recognise in this statement the way that – aged about 40 and so far, far too late, really – I had the blinding revelation (so obvious!) that all the things I did that I enjoyed and did well had some element of “putting things together”, be that parts, or people, or different things or things and people.

The downsides of teaching are something I can recognise as well. Too many members of my family have been teachers of one sort or another and I have never been drawn to join them; I am well aware that some of them had at one time thought teaching would buy them time to be more active in the applications of their chosen disciplines. It didn’t. So it goes.

(Although, as an afterthought, I have always thought the people who taught me art at school were much more balanced and less bitter than the people who taught me music. Not sure why, but it might have had something to do with the fact that the art teachers all seemed to still do their own stuff, often to a very high standard, while the music teachers ate up their spare time playing the organ or giving piano lessons or shouting at the school choir…)


Money buys time, and time is money. I worked as a freelance for a number of years and, although that bit of my life is now a very long time ago, I still can be surprised at the idea that I can take time off to be ill or to go on holiday and still be paid. I think to a certain extent this is what the last two things were about as well, at least in part.

It also goes without saying that, to be creative, it helps to not have to worry where your (or your family’s) next meal is coming from, or whether you can afford to do another print or have another roll of film developed. Certainly, I would have benefited from having access to something more user friendly than a Zenit-E when I was starting, or at least the ability to buy more boxes of Kenthene 8 x10 paper, or indeed a set of the filters that you needed to use Ilford Multigrade.

The big jumps forward that I’ve made photographically have tended to come when an increase in my disposable income has allowed me the space to experiment and make mistakes and the more fallow periods map easily into points when I’ve been rather skint…


I’m a cat man myself, but I agree that there is something nice about pets and the companionship of animals; and there’s something about pets that makes you like photographs of other people’s pets as well as your own. I’m not thinking of hilarious online cat pictures/video here, incidentally.


So, Robert Adams, what do I make of him from his writing here? Well despite a possible tendency towards sanctimoniousness and elitism, I think he would make a good colleague. I’d like to have a drink with him, to have a chance to talk in relaxed circumstances. He might turn out to be too American  or too protestant or too like those people who deplore mass tourism largely because it means they can’t be alone in Goa or on Ibiza or whatever, but I still think it would be a pleasant couple of hours. And I would get him to sign my copy of The New West when I get it…


  • Maciek on Flickr
  • Malcolm on Flickr
  • Matthew on Flickr
  • Ian on Flickr
  • Sean is no longer active online, so I can’t link to his pictures, but we still meet up and drink beer in The Three Judges every now and then, if you ever find yourself in the West End of Glasgow…

2 thoughts on “a reaction to robert adams’ why people photograph

  1. Pingback: Assignment 3: Life During Wartime | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

  2. Pingback: Exercise 1.2: Background as Context | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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