March 7, 2013
by Richard Kalvar
A number of years ago I made the very regrettable error of allowing myself to be born into a family that didn’t have much money, so when I started photographing in a serious way, I had to find a means of making a living. At the time it didn’t seem to me that I could do that through my personal photographs, so I began to seek professional work taking pictures. I suppose that to support my habit I could have driven a taxi, or become a customs inspector like Henri Rousseau or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but using the camera seemed like the path of least resistance.
I started to get some work with newspapers and magazines, and then with commercial clients. The magazine work was often similar to my personal photography in that the photos were un-posed, and based on observation. But there were important differences. The journalistic pictures were less free. They tended to be more descriptive, straight-forward and first-degree. And I couldn’t come back from a day’s shooting and say, “Too bad, I didn’t see anything that inspired me so I didn’t take any pictures”; as a professional, I had to produce and to meet a deadline, so the bar of acceptable quality was necessarily lower. I also did posed stuff, portraits and the like. Just between the two thousand of us, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy this kind of work: as a source of revenue of course, but also because it’s interesting to see and try different things, and to solve different problems. I like to say, in my immodest moments, that I’m a pretty good professional photographer, but a more interesting amateur one.
Not that the wall between the two is totally impermeable. I’m the same human being taking both kinds of pictures, and my professional work, while not as deep or mysterious, is I hope informed by the same acuity and sense of play, and the same visual values.
Naturally there are drawbacks and dangers in serving two masters (oneself and someone else). A good friend of mine had another friend who was a sculptor, who also had trouble earning a living with his art. He took a design job at a factory that manufactured store window dummies, but was quickly let go when he couldn’t help making the legs too long, or the head too twisted. In my case the danger is more in the other direction. The client explicitly or implicitly defines the parameters. If I’m working for a press organ and I feel that the most interesting thing I’m seeing that day is my feet, I can be sure that my employer will be unhappy with the results. If I’m working for a large company organizing, say, an international get-together, I have no doubt that unflattering pictures of the participants will be frowned upon. To what extent will that lead to self-censorship, even of the photos that I take for my own pleasure while working for the client?
How you present the various things you do can also be problematic. Someone I’ve always admired for his ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is my colleague Elliott Erwitt. He’s an excellent portraitist, a fantastic advertising photographer, an intelligent and sensitive photojournalist, and a superb observer of the human comedy. But far, far better than all that are his brilliantly witty found photographs, some of the finest ever taken. But Elliott has a tendency to put them all in the same bag, to publish them together. To my mind the mixture of genres, the juxtaposition of the great and the merely very good diminish the power of the best pictures. I wish he didn’t do that.
We have a similar problem on the Magnum website. It’s a viewing tool but also a selling tool. I have my best pictures on the site, but also pretty good (and sometimes not so good) pictures that are potentially useful, that could be sold for journalism or for illustration. If you judge me by EVERYTHING of mine you can find on the site, you won’t judge me very highly. I can only hope that you people can walk and chew gum at the same time, too.