Photographers whо have been practicing photography all their life often have a piece of wisdom to share with future generations. Some do this by releasing books, documentaries, notes, and so forth – almost all experienced photographers have shared a pithy quote or two which have proven their worth over time. But a quote isn’t a simple statement of a photographer's opinion; it is better understood as straightforward advice with a much deeper underlying meaning. Note that the following quotes will be “interpreted” based upon both my own point-of-view, as well as some research I did. I respect and value the work of these photographers greatly, and I’ve learned a lot from them, as I imagine most of you have, as well.
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa
I have greater respect for photographers who risk their life for a photo. Not because of the obvious danger, but because of their dedication to their cause: to get the shot that shares the truth with people. Capa was a war photographer who died on the scene from the detonation of a land mine. This is his famous quote, and it is rather ironic, given the tragic manner of his passing.
There is an obvious, superficial reason for getting closer (shallower depth of field, sharper details, better control of the scene), but I know there is more to this quote. When Capa said “you’re not close enough,” he meant that the closer you are to the scene you are about to photograph (remember, he was photographing wars) the more you feel the scene. In “feeling” the scene, you better understand the energy and essence of your surroundings and the events that are happening in them. In Capa’s case, I can only imagine the amount of adrenaline and fear he must have experienced that countered the motivation and dedication he had.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
This is reasonably valid, with a few exceptions. Although generally true, this doesn’t mean that you can’t get lucky, and then have the awareness to duplicate your success. The deeper meaning, however, is that the success of your photography does not hinge on talent and gear, but practice is what truly makes you a photographer, in the end.
Since Henri Cartier-Bresson was shooting on film, obviously, 10,000 shots on film isn’t a small number. You can easily achieve that on digital. That is why I prefer to multiply that goal by five. Now I’m not saying that on shot 49,999 you are an amateur, and that by reaching the magic number 50,000 you are suddenly a pro. It is just that the amount of practice necessary for you to become a pro with the camera requires a significant investment of time. Bresson was a street photographer. As you might imagine, reflexes, spacial-awareness, ability to compose in an instant, and subject-movement prediction aren't skills you learn by watching “YouTube” tutorials. And for those that want to do street photography, I would highly recommend researching the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” – Imogen Cunningham
This quote is pretty much self-explanatory, and very true. “Tomorrow” doesn’t really mean having a set date, but it actually describes the future, general. It means you don’t need to get too sentimentally-attached to a great photo you just took, since there are many more to come. Your photography career and/or hobby never ends – there is no “the end” to this story. In addtition to this quote, one might easily add: “Twelve significant photographs in one year is a good crop” by Ansel Adams himself. You might shoot a photo in January which you are very pleased with, but the 11 months ahead are yet to come, and if 12 great photos in a year were enough for Ansel, how could you ask for more? Go ahead and review your past year’s work. Can you fairly say that you have taken 12 photos that are great and that you are really proud of?
“I always thought good photos were like good jokes. If you have to explain it, it just isn’t that good” – Somebody, somewhere*
Too bad I couldn’t find out who said this, but it is very true, regardless. Think, too, about “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Also stated by somebody, somewhere, this carries the meaning that if you really need to explain what is going on with the picture, then the picture has failed in conveying its concept and goal. Make sure your pictures are storytellers in themselves, with no need for an explanation (nor words written on them – don’t ever do that, just don’t).
There was a photographer working in Amsterdam, as I recall, who photographed unusual portraits. He had an interesting approach when he would display the photos in an exhibition – he wouldn’t give them a title. When people told him what feelings the photos created for them, he would just agree, even if his original intention was completely different. He would let people feel the photos in their own way since that was his end goal.
*somebody, somewhere refers to an unknown author.