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In reading the letters between Paul Strand and Ansel Adams from the Center for Creative Photography’s publication, The Archive, it quickly becomes apparent that the times then were quite different. The first exchange of letters between the two photographers in 1933 occurred during the Great Depression, when photography was almost unheard of and even other forms of art were comparatively scarce in relation to the volumes produced today.
To compete and be heard in the market today, a photographer must not only make good photographs, but also promote tastefully. Writing well online also helps to develop a following. One of today’s photographers succeeding in all three is Guy Tal. I have mentioned him before on this blog and I mention him again, because what he writes often relates to what I am learning about the history of photography and because he recommended my blog to his readers. I like Guy Tal’s blog, not because I always agree with him, but because he has a knack for stirring up ideas, thoughts and opinions and getting people to participate. Recently he wrote a blog post called, “Small Confession,” in which he acknowledges the necessity of self-promotion but confesses that he respects photographers who do it reluctantly more than those who revel in it.
Shortly after reading this post, I started reading the letters between Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. These two pioneers, despite what it appears to us now, were also reluctant self-promoters. However, they lived in a time when people were looking for something new artistically and there wasn’t all that much being created of note. Along came people like Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others. These people offered something that had never been seen before.
Straight photography was not a stuffy, constraining, self-contradicting notion as it is seen by some today. It was a huge Wow, and also freeing and energizing to the medium. Also, these artists did not have to promote themselves as loudly to be heard, because there was much less noise then and fewer voices vying for the public’s attention. People mobbed most of the events of the straight photographers. Perhaps those who look at straight photography as out-dated and old-fashioned, will have justification for that opinion when their events are packed because they have invented something striking and new enough to draw hoards of people.
The first time Ansel Adams wrote to Paul Strand, he reminded him of their meeting and mentioned meeting with Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. Then Ansel Adams told Paul Strand that he had opened a small gallery…
My place is most decidedly not an imitation of Stieglitz’; I wrote him at great length and outlined my plans—I told him I was going to alternate my exhibits between photography and painting or graphic arts, that I was not a missionary or a promoter, and that I did not care if I made anything out of the gallery or not—I only hoped it would pay its own rent. I am trying to bring things to San Francisco that should have come many years ago.
Ansel Adams went on to ask Paul Strand if he would be interested in exhibiting his photographs at Ansel Adams’ gallery. Paul Strand wrote back…
Actually I have little interest in exhibitions—because at the basis they seem to be un-American—just a mean and meaningless affair; mean in that they exploit the artist to entertain the public free of charge—meaningless in that they seldom establish any standards.
I turned down three museums last year in just the above terms—Their impudence and complete ignorance of what they are doing is just disgusting—They think that flattery is a substitute—but they can all go to hell as far as I am concerned—for I refuse to be part of that racket—that is my general feeling about exhibitions—I can never get used to the idea that pictures are free entertainment in the U.S., elsewhere too, that the people who claim to enjoy a thing never support the individual who makes what gives them pleasure.
Paul Strand went on to explain that it was difficult to send his prints out of Mexico, where he was living at the time, for fear they might be damaged, and that he might entertain the idea if he could ever make it to San Francisco in person. Paul Strand told Ansel Adams of a show he had in Mexico under extenuating circumstances, that over 3,000 people came to see in 10 days. Not bad for someone who despised the whole idea. For more about the photography of Paul Strand see the blog posts, “Straight Photography And Abstraction,” and “Photography’s Golden Era 5.”
(This blog post was originally posted March 24, 2010.)