PEOPLE WHO THINK and write seriously about photography spend lots of time questioning the value of the photographic enterprise, far more than they do discussing photos and photographers. The questions raised by these critics and curators, for those not versed in postmodern and poststructural theory, include: In our image-saturated world, can one look at a photo as something new? Is it possible to make an original picture? And my favorite, a matter of continuous debate for nearly a century: Does a picture represent the way things really are, or just the photographer’s subjective viewpoint?
You don’t need to be in Yale’s MFA program to encounter this thinking. Read The New York Times or visit the Museum of Modern Art, both eminently mainstream organs. You’ll find critics questioning the “mind-numbing tyranny of the image” and shows where the artists “are not primarily interested in images.” One authority describes the mistrust of photography as “orthodox” and “standardized by the academic establishment.”
Call me old-fashioned but, when it comes to photography, I’m primarily interested in pictures. I try not to be tyrannical about it, but the most important parts of my work are printed on paper.
The art form has its problems, of course. It would be a better world if a thousand Web sites didn’t post a billion pictures every day. The belief that a moment not recorded is a moment not lived is not a happy one. But a photographer, it seems to me, must believe that photography has a particular genius that rises above mass consumption and consumerism, a genius that Flickr Photostreams can’t destroy.
When I first started shooting serious images, I shot street photography. I live in New York, and street photography matches New York like fresco matches Florence. The city just wants to be shot in black-and-white, with a touch of motion blur.
After a couple of years, my fake Cartier-Bressons got better, but I realized that I didn’t have much to say about the subject that was new. Also, I wanted to be taken seriously, and as long as I was shooting street, that wasn’t going to happen.
So, I put aside the imaginary Leica, the one I could never afford, and I slowed down. As I did so, the demands of the moment gave way to a consideration of time. Garry Winogrand once said that it’s impossible to capture time—narrative, what happened before or after the shutter tripped—in a still image. But by working the angles and sneaking up on it unseen, that’s exactly what I hope to do.