“Good photography is not about Zone Printing or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.” (Elliott Erwitt)

While I do think that a little bit more goes into a good photo than just seeing and noticing, it is certainly the starting point of everything. I like how down to earth this quote is, dispelling the often zealous reverence to the history of photography that “we photographers” are supposed to have…

The photo itself is from a recent hike to Combs Peak (“bagging” another one in my leisurely pursuit of the San Diego 100 Peaks list). I like how the two clouds seem to have a conversation, and how, through their shadow, they also converse with the land. Their long and stretched shapes complement the long ridge of the Santa Rosa Mountains below them.

I admit that I do not “see in black & white” very often lately – it shouldn’t be just a crutch when color doesn’t work, and I think I’m pretty much a color photographer by now, my black & white output has been almost non-existent for a good while now. The limited tones and simplicity of this scene made me think of a black & white interpretation right when I made the photo – this is how it should be.

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10 thoughts on “Erwitt”

  1. Photography make begin with noticing things but good photography ends with hundreds of crucial decisions that lead to the final image, some of which we’ve learned from the experience of those successful souls who’ve lead the way.

    • What in particular do you think of?

      I think it’s perfectly possible to make your own experiences and learn from them. Photography is easy to learn.

      Maybe making ones own experiences and mistakes helps create a more “pure” form of artistry, actually?

  2. What a refreshing quote! Even if it may be a bit of an oversimplification, it’s still a well-aimed arrow at the stuffiness and snobbery of capital P “Photography.” Also a good reminder of what photography boils down to, which is “seeing.”
    I like the photo and am glad you mentioned the cloud shadows, which I might have missed. I have found in my personal experience that with very few exceptions, the only time I have had any real success with making black and white photos is when I have specifically set out to do just that. Then I am able to get my mind working in the correct way. Otherwise, I am shooting in the dark, so to speak. :)

  3. While I disagree with the notion of labelling other photographers or their techniques nonsense, I do agree with the general sentiment of what I hope Erwitt was getting at, of opening oneself to the world and making an effort to learn to see, of not letting the artistry get lost in the technical (though both are usually at play). Beautiful photo, by the way, and a great title for it, with the two clouds almost touching, just getting together for a little talk over the mountainous landscape.

    • It’s interesting how many different ways there are to interpret this quote. :) To me it is, as Jeff said, a stab at the “snobbery” in photography. “Ansel Adams nonsense” is a bit harsh for me too because at the time, his methods were surely important to make images that had such impact, and his understanding of composition, relationships in a photograph, were surely not some technical “nonsense”.

      And FWIW, I do think that technique is important, and in the same way that you do: one must overcome thinking about the technical aspects. But nevertheless, photography is, aside from the neverending complexities and mysteries of seeing, expressed through composition, a rather simple, technical art form, and all that can be learned (and is much easier today than it was before).

  4. “Ansel Adams nonsense” someone had an axe to grind… I must say I much admire Adams’ work, and the clarity with which he explains the technicalities of the process. His books have been an eye opener for me personally. But then I enjoy technical pursuits. In any case I agree with what I think is the general sentiment of the quote, that one has to transcend all that. Nowadays that’s even more evident I think, as the technical part of photography has been largely made automatic.

    • I’ve seen some other Erwitt quotes in which he also made some derogatory remarks about Ansel Adams. I wish I had seen those before, actually, because it made me regret that I posted this, actually…

  5. I don’t think there’s much to add after what Jeff and Todd said – it’s a refreshing, if provocative, quote about remembering to focus on what you’re seeing, not on what’s outside your own experience, like rules or guidelines. In Zen there’s a saying about not putting another head on top of your own. :-) That being said, the guidelines can sometimes help you get back on track or solve a problem. You leaned towards following a photography rule yourself when you said that black and white images should be conceived when you make the image, not later. I think that rule is useful because it reminds you to think about tonal possibilities as you shoot, but I don’t think it’s wrong to convert images later that you may not have originally imagined in black and white. I have no interest in arguing or quibbling, though. Thank you for posting a quote and asking people what they think – it’s a valuable exercise. :-) Beautiful tones in that sky, with the two clouds!

    • I don’t see you quibbling or arguing. :) After reading some other quotes from Erwitt, as I said to Johann, I do think there was more going on there but perhaps it all boils down to the difference between a street photographer and a landscape photographer…


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