My work vs Atget's : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I'm at this crossroad again that most of my passed & present work is really bad and fit for the garbage. This negative self-evaluation happened times before, but non as bad as this time. After giving so much, I'm thinking how little I've achieved (only a few photographs over eight years of serious work). When I think of Atget's photographs, they seemed so easy and effectlessly made. Looks like he is able to walk about, sees an ordinary thing, and place his camera without being precisely concerned. He'll do that all over again and win. In his work I see dark corners (that I avoid at all cost or I'll be accused of copying), ordinary print standards (that I struggle to excel), and charm (that I don't see in my own photographs). What is it that he can see & do so 'freely' that I cannot? Is it a talent that cannot be trained? Is it compassion that one either has it or don't? Is it luck that he has more subjects to work on during his time? Is it 'perk-up' ideals that made me (and others) to believe he's so good? What is it?? Do I give up photography for good???

-- Aaron (, December 17, 2001


I t is true , every image Atget made was perfect, and he made them all in a single six week period. All Bernice Abbot had to do , once she rescued the glass negatives, was make contact prints, no burning and no dodging, and no editing.

Maybe it has to do with the factthat Atget was deeply in love and moved by his subject.

Try reading "Rememberances of Things Past" by Proust.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, December 17, 2001.

Sorry, delete 'passed' and insert 'past'. Also 'effectlessly' for 'effortlessly'. Apology, Aaron

-- Aaron (, December 18, 2001.

I think that there is a secret and I think that it is called having "a vision". I come to photography from graphic design and I know that when I have a design idea clearly visualised in my head, the artwork comes as you say effortlessly and freely. I think that Atget must have projected his "vision" or whatever you could call it, love for the places he photographed (you can feel it, no?).

So maybe instead of worring about tech things, spelling, comparison with other photographers and all the stuff we get caught up in we could look for something real which we see and feel a need to express, then perhaps the tech stuff, the spelling mistakes, the opimum quality etc. won't matter?

-- adrian tyler (, December 18, 2001.


Don't compare yourself to Atget. As Ellis pointed out, he was a flash in the pan. Besides, what's he done lately?

Perhaps you are looking outside of yourself for your satisfaction as a photographer. That's an easy trap to fall into when other photographers seem to always drop names about where they have been published and/or which gallery is hanging their prints or whatever. I never met Atget, but I suspect that while he liked the fame, he was driven more by an internal desire to make photographs. What would have happened had he not become famous? Would he still have made them? I tend to think so.

A photogrpaher once told me about a friend of his who would go with him into the field and expose sheet after sheet of film. But he never developed one of them. The enjoyment for him was being there and going through the process of composing and determining the exposure.

If you enjoy the process of being there, wherever "there" is, composing and exposing, and, what the heck, seeing the result (print or transparency), then it doesn't matter whether you're as good as some old French dude. Do it for yourself, first and foremost.

By the way, if you want some dark corners in your photographs, then do it. You may with time end up twisting them in an unanticipated direction with surprizing results. Neither Atget nor I will accuse you of copying.


-- Bruce M. Herman (, December 18, 2001.

Were the iconic Atget to have some of his famous prints posted to a critique forum, I could see the comments now - “Vine - lacks middle tones, suffers from convergence” or “ St. Nicolas - nice, but there’s a hot spot in the URHC” or “Charon Chateau - too much uninteresting foreground, and a little soft overall”. These prints sell for $5000- 6000 U.S. Go figure. Like many old prints, they have a certain charm, but their appeal lies mostly in the potential resale value. Technically, you’d probably outshoot him. His subject matter was commonplace, and repeatable.

You’ll go crazy wondering if your work will ever be comparable, and there’s little point in speculating.

-- Michael Mahoney (, December 18, 2001.

Only a few good photographs in eight years? That's not too bad. Really. Ansel said one really good photograph per year was about right. Making photographs is easy. Making great photographs is difficult.

Keep at it. Deep feelings for the subject does make a difference in the final product, so maybe a change in subject matter might be the key for you as an earlier contributor suggests

When someone ir really good at something, it does look effortless. Watch an athlete, a dancer, listen to a musician. If they are talented, they make it look easy. Genius is 99% perspiration, so there is a lot of work involved in making great art. Eight years is not a long time to work at photography. Again referring to St. Ansel, he said something like you can't be a photographer until you have exposed 10,000 negatives. When he wrote that, sheet film was the primary way to make a negatives, so becoming a photographer is a lifetime thing.

-- Joe Lipka (, December 18, 2001.

Aaron... The advice to shoot for yourself is good. A well-known photographer once trashed one of my contact prints. My confidence took a nose dive, because the print looked pretty good to me. But then I realized that my judgements and opinions on photography are just as valid as his. He didn't like my work, but I do, and that's all that matters.

-- Ben Calwell (, December 18, 2001.

Aaron: I am willing to bet that among your work you will find some fine images. Go back through them with an open mind and give them another good look. And forget about comparing what you do with someelse. You aren't in the same place and you don't have the same mind. Your mind might be better. Also, you don't know how many hundreds or thousands of negs Atget tossed in the garbage can to get the ones he kept. Even Saint Ansel said he had thousands of negs he had never printed. I suggest that you go back through your body of work, select a few negs that you like, and really concentrate on making a super print from each. Toss out all the "good enough" prints and make super prints. Then mount them and mat them properly. Prints always look much better properly displayed, whether in a book or proper mats. I honestly think you will find your work is better than you think. All of us at times get frustrated, but the key is to get in the darkroom and keep at it. You don't know how many times ol' Atget banged his head on the darkroom wall because a print would't bend to his will easily. The time to be most critical of your own work is when you are making the first prints in the darkroom. Then correct what is needed to make a fine print. One of my best ways of getting back on track when I'm in a slump is to give myself a self- assignment to get the best picture I can of a particular subject. The subject matter is not important, but getting back to the basics and trying my best to make a good image usually perks me up again. Above all, forget about Atget or whomever and concentrate on your own body of work.


-- Doug Paramore (, December 18, 2001.

A good dose of parania about ones own work every now and agiain is a healthy thing, good time for editing and moving on. Tommorow is a new day.

-- adrian tyler (, December 18, 2001.

You shouldn't have much problem avoiding the dark corners -- those that sometimes appear in Atget's work were the result of vignetting. Try to find some joy in your work. I suspect you are thinking too much. If certain aspects of your fundamentals are weak, work on those. I believe it was Louis Armstrong who advised practicing your scales, and when you have those down cold to "just blow, baby."

-- Donald Brewster (, December 18, 2001.

Yikes, Aaron, you're kinda hard on yourself, don't you think? Couldn't you chose an easier target to measure yourself by, like Ansel, for instance? Atget may very well be the greatest photographer who ever lived! It's like trying to compare your drawings to Leonardo's. That said, many of Atget's 10,000 pictures were really just ordinary. We only get to see the best. If you want to measure up to the old French guy, pick a narrow range of subjects that you truely love, and spend every waking moment making 10,000 pictures. Forget about the rest of the world and let everyone think you are an eccentric old fool. BTW, Sally Mann's recentlandscapes rely heavily on dark corner vignettes and the use of too-small image circles for her format. They are beautiful, but they are obviously contrived to the max.

-- Arthur Gottschalk (, December 18, 2001.

lots of good answers here. I think also that there is a time factor involved. Today we marvel at Atget's photographs because we marvel at that period of time in which he made those photographs. There is always a certain sense of "charm" about the past. Moreover, it is not Atget's craft, but rather his subjects that are so intersting. What you are shooting today may seem ordinary today, but marvelous 100 years from now. The same with the great scenics done by Ansel and others. Today many of those places have apartment buildings and factories in the foreground, and part of the value of those photographs is to see the subject as it once was. to make great photographs you have to find great things to photograph. Keep looking. Kevin

-- Kevin Kolosky (, December 18, 2001.

What a wonderful collection of heart felt comments. I believe this forum really shines when questions like this pop up.

My wife, a painter, turned me on to the book "Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This wonderful, readable, funny and very pertinent to photography book explores all the issues that have been addressed so far. As I have spoken with other artists on this book they have almost universally said that this is on their short list of "must read" books. I highly recommend it to the poster and to the followers of our forum!


-- Scott Jones (, December 18, 2001.

I think the emotion is a familiar one to anyone who gets deeply involved with any medium/anything. Things seem to follow a certain pattern. There is an initial hurdle as one learns whatever medium one has chosen to work with (learning chords, learning color theory, learning to use tilts and swings etc). Then comes a period when a certain level of expertise/competence is achieved. I believe this is also the period when doing this particular thing (playing music, painting, shooting LF etc)is the most fun in the normal sense of the word - its got almost the same sense of the sheer pleasure a child gets from movement or running around. That is, the sheer act of painting or playing music is fun.

Beyond this seems to lie a long road of see-saw oscillations. It also seems a road where one is quite literally alone (but not necessarily lonely). Part of the oscillations comes from the fact that technique and vision are often not in sync. First technique gets better and allows one to sense new ways to do/perceive things - so one feels that one is not seeing well enough. Then vision/imagination gets better and deeper and technique seems unable to capture what is seen/felt. For what it is worth, in general things do seem to catch up and work does get better if one keeps at it, but that doesn't necessarily make the process any easier. The rewards are less easy to articulate (personal growth is probably the closest one could come up with). The answers seem to come less easily also (probably because we have a stock of answers in memory that obviously do not work - unlearning is devilishly hard). I guess what I'm saying is that maybe this is the nature of the beast (the one on our backs, that is). The only thing is that its likely to be that way with whatever we choose to do - give up LF and take up pottery and one will reach this pass again. So, it seems to lie inside us. I guess that's enough rambling.

Good luck, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, December 18, 2001.

I agree, that book is terrific and so are Robert Adams's books, "Beauty in Photography"and "Why People Photograph."

Ellis Vener is right again. Photograph what you love, follow that obsession to the ends of the earth. Subject matter is neutral; the artist invests the neutral subject with meaning. If it means little to him, it will never happen.

If a visual effect that another artist has created has a powerful influence on you (Atget's romantic air, sense of time having passed, and quiet light), you should pay close attention to that, because it has connected to your own true vision in some way.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, December 18, 2001.


You do yourself a great disservice by comparing your work (or yourself) to Atget (or to anyone else, for that matter). There's cetainly nothing wrong in my view in having a mentor, model, ideal, call it what you will, but what does it mean to be this great photographer's disciple? Merely to replicate his work? As you realize, that won't get you anywhere. Atget didn't have enough image circle on his one lens for his big (18x24cm, I think) format camera. If you artificially attempt to imitate that, it's fakery, a conceit. In my book, that goes for other aspects of his style, or of any great photographer's style.

You can have a mentor/model/ideal without condemning yourself (probably unfairly, in your case) to the lowly role of slavish imitator. Take Ansel. What does it mean to be like Ansel? To try new things; to use every format from 35mm to 8x10; to take commercial assignments; to try out the new stuff from Polaroid and Hasselblad; to shoot portraits, still lifes, architecture, not just Yosemite Valley. By becoming your own photographer--a clumsy way of putting it, but that's what I mean. That's how you become like Ansel.

I do research in an academic field with a more less fixed body of evidence that's been worked on for centuries. It's very difficult to come up with something really new and interesting. To allow your agenda--topic, research design, methods--to be governed by those who went before you is an almost certain recipe for failure. My approach has always been (and I tell this to students, too) to express yourself, to inject your own individuality as a unique person into the project. The things that make the scholar or photographer unique will inevitably bestow a uniqueness on the product of his or her efforts. Previous posts have made the point in different ways, but I think Sandy put it best when she said that the subject is neutral and you, the (uniquely individual) photographer, invest that subject with meaning. But my main point is that you can have your Atget, or I my Ansel, and not reduce ourselves to the status of worshipful imitators. Good light, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, December 18, 2001.

This is a true story and not a joke, but I hope it will make you laugh anyway. When I was going to City College, some folks gave a monkey some paintbrushes and canvas and the monkey started to paint. After a while the monkeys paintings were getting quite a bit of money, and the painting were called by some as 'brash' and 'innovative'.

The guys that were pulling off this hoax, started to get scared that they would go to jail, so they let the 'cat out of the bag', along with contrite promises to pay back all involved. One of the folks who had purchased the paintings said something to the effect of, 'I don't give a shit who painted it, I like it, I'm keeping it'.

The critics who praised the paintings before the hoax was exposed had nothing to say after everything came out.

As anybody who looks at a series of inkblots knows, it's all in the mind. I cannot figure out the artistry in dipping a paintbrush in a bucket of paint and flicking the paint onto a canvas laid out on the floor. That's not art to me, but it is to someone else, so be it.

The story is absolutely true, and I mentioned it here because although we're all serious about our craft, it shouldn't be taken to life and death extremes.

Life isn't fair, so what? There are great photographers out there who may never get the recognition they deserve. Their are folks out there like Kertez, Eugene Smith, Scavullo and others who put the 'G' in great. There are some other photographers who have work in magazines and galleries which makes me want to scratch my head(if it misframed, it's misframed).

I tell you one thing I don't do anymore that you ought to consider. I always been afraid of making snap judgements about my work immediately after a shoot, for fear of missing a killer shot. Unless it for a job, I like to look at it then put it away for awhile, so that I can look at it later as if somebody else had done it. You might have a masterpiece in that pile you didn't like initially, but is nontheless a 'killer'.

Why don't you find somebody you respect and let them look at your stuff, and find out what they think. Maybe you've just got some fine tuning to do. Trashing yourself won't be as beneficial as getting some 'nut and bolts' specifics from somebody else.

All you can do is perfect your technique in order to focus people on your vision, after that it is up to the Gods as to how great it is and how many people recognize your work.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 18, 2001.

Aaron, you may also benefit from having someone whose opinion you respect have a look at your work - we are often our harshest critics.

-- Michael Mahoney (, December 18, 2001.

aaron sometimes we are too close to our own work and it is hard to step far enough back to gain perspective ... it is good to show an innocent your work .. maybe you will gain helpful insights ... but whatever you do, don't stop taking photographs.

13 years ago, i was advised to show aaron siskind some of my work. he was not very kind with his words ... he told me that i was "wasting my time" and to "throw away my camera" ... i never stopped exposing film ... or doing camera-less work .. who knows if he were still alive and i showed him more work, he would probably be just as harsh ... but i know i would not have been able to critique my work as he did ... good luck - john

-- john nanian (, December 18, 2001.

A blind man could make beautiful pictures of Paris -- Atget was a hack (IMO).

-- Wilhiumn (, December 18, 2001.

I find it amusing that so many early photographers are considered artists, "greats", etc., when by todays technical standards they are quite ordinary. Many are painfully bad. What we really admire in these early works is that they were created with the most rudimentary tools - glass plates, chemistry that would melt a volkswagon, and bad optics. They were the pioneers, and as in any endeavor, those that follow develop a reverent respect for the ground-breakers. Their prints are important not for their photographic excellence or the "mastery of craft" that produced them, but because they represent a "golden-time" in the development of photography. They convey a certain antiquity that, as photographers, we tend to fall in love with.

Atget's "vision" was, by his own admission, a pure documentation of a specific place at a specific time. He did not set out to create "art", nor was he pretentious regarding the results. The fact that others saw the prints artistic and were willing to throw money at them might have created a market value, but did nothing to improve the photograph. And if I'm not mistaken, Atget devoted 20 years to photographing Paris - hardly a flash in the pan! You obviously admire Atget's work and draw inspiration from it, but don't let that turn into emulation. You have better film, a better camera, and probably produce better photographs. They're just not Atget's.

-- Matt O. (, December 18, 2001.

With some effort anyone can copy the greats of photography, Get some peppers adn a dim light and be weston, Camp at half dome and be Ansel, READ what Kim Weston says about his grand father photos. You can never be happy coping others style. Weston did't copy Adams didn't copy, Lee Rue didn't copy. But then is the object to be competetive with the great masters adn icons our just please yourself. Don't turn your photography hobby or art o avocation or calling, into a competetion with others, look and learn, I get a real kick out of knowing that Moonrise ofer Hernandes and the first Half doem shots of Adams were BEFORE he used the zone system. He guessed!!! AND weston didn't use a light meter, Horrors!!!!( the wesson meter has notheing to do with Edward W.) So shoot and learn. Look at George Tice. Who would ever have thought New Jersey was that interesting??? Well he did and it is. Why? Because he enjoys the place and understands it. So too must the photographer understanfd the subject and what he/she wants out of the subject. Read Karsh's book and how he studied the persona nd conversed with then before the exposure. HE developed a rapport. And we can seeand feel that rapport. So if you are in the doldrums change something, a lense or perspective or formats. Get the 35mm out and burn through alot of images , exercise the brain and the eye. large format is a banquet to the eye , but some times a big mac is a needed break.

-- ED (, December 18, 2001.

Hi Aaron.

A couple of ideas already stated better than I will, but I'll say in my own way:

If I took a bunch of materials into a shed and built a Model T Ford, and came out and said Ta Da! Would anyone be impressed? No, because it's not 1908 anymore. Henry Ford was the right man in the right place at the right time. So was Atget. So was Ansel. So was Weston.

What we can do the same but differently is that spark of genius that all of them had to finish their respective inventions. I've read your previous posts. You've got that spark. You'll just have to wait to see where it takes you.

I'm at the same crossroad as you. 8 years + or -. At first you charge up that steep learning curve and you think this'll be easy. But that curve levels off and the gains start coming at a much slower pace. It is frustrating. You couldn't quit if you wanted to. Do what pleases you. Jim Galli

-- Jim Galli (, December 19, 2001.

I think it's important to remember that the work of Atget you're seeing is most likely the work that's been published in one book or another or perhaps you've seen an exhibition. So let's say you've seen 100, may 150 or so, of his photographs. Atget photographed on almost a daily basis for roughly thirty years. It's estimated that he made about 10,000 photographs in the course of his life. So if we assume that only his best work is published and exhibited, and if you've seen 100 of his photographs in books or at an exhibition, you've seen roughly the best 1% of his work. You haven't seen the 99% of his work that wasn't worth publishing or exhibiting. If you've made 1,000 photographs and 10 are excellent, you're producing roughly the same percentage of excellent photographs as Atget O.K., I know that's a little misleading since his misses might be a lot better than your misses and his excellent photographs probably are better than yours but my point is that you're seeing only the best of his work and that comprises a tiny fraction of his total output, just as your best work comprises only a tiny fraction of your total output. So perhaps you should't be quite so discouraged though I know how you feel.

-- Brian Ellis (, December 19, 2001.

"[Atget] had made many photographs of water lilies, perhaps most of them at Bagatelle, but the two that follow (with adjacent negative numbers) are perhaps the most instructive. The maple leaf in the lower right corner of plate 39 is the same one that appears in the lower left corner of plate 40. By moving an eighth of a turn counter-clockwise Atget has turned white water black, and gray lilies white... "...It is a heartening lesson for all photographers that even Atget was not always sure."

--John Szarkowski, _Atget_, p. 99

-- Justin T. (, December 19, 2001.

When I am feeling like you are describing, I recall this quote, attributed to Robert Hughes: "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize."

-- John D Clark (, December 19, 2001.

Hi all,

Thanks for all your thoughtful replies. I feel like I've just read a really good book. However I will need a little time to absorb and rethink all that's been posted here. I will respond in a few days. In the meantime, keep that response coming in. Appreciate all that's given.


-- Aaron (, December 19, 2001.

Aaron- You might want to take a look at the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They will provide you with some level of comfort, and urge you on far better than I could manage, although I will tell you, and it is apparent from these responses, that you are not the only one with a house full of prints and negatives. As this eight years of serious work you have done is the first order of an artist, and not the stunning masterpieces, I think you are going to make it. Tom Perkins

-- Tom Perkins (, December 19, 2001.

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