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January 22, 2013
by Richard Kalvar
As mentioned in a recent Magnum blog post, the NYTimes Lens blog ran an interview on January 3 with W. Eugene Smith, conducted by his colleague, Philippe Halsman. It was called “I didn't write the rules, why should I follow them”.

That’s a great quote (and a fascinating interview). When I first began in photography I ingurgitated a number of rules for the worst possible reasons, which I then regurgitated in my photos. Don’t crop, shoot in black and white, don’t set up pictures… all part of the photographic zeitgeist, the Cartier-Bressonian canon.

And then I ran into a friend of mine, another struggling young photographer named Nick Lawrence who was a little ahead of me at the time. He used a Leica, and when I asked him why, he said that Leica was the best, and owning one he didn’t have to think about equipment any more. That seemed to make sense to me, so I saved up and bought myself an M4. What a dumb reason to buy a camera!

So there I was, equipped with the standard rules and the standard camera. Well you know, sometimes it turns out that the things that you do for the wrong reasons turn out to be the right things to do anyway. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I decided not to crop, because that developed my compositional discipline and my ability to organize a picture instinctively, in the viewfinder. It also obliged me to work very close up to my subjects in order to fill my 35mm lens frame. I had to be a toreador, not a sniper. Also, I had the feeling of doing something difficult, getting the picture right in the first place; anyone could crop a picture and find something interesting, but doing it in the camera was special. These things were essential to my photographic development.

As I evolved I quickly understood that what fascinated me were the differences between the frozen, isolated, silent photograph and the reality it purported to represent, and at the same time the obvious resemblances between the two. I could play with the notion that people thought that a picture was reality when of course it wasn’t. Photographing in black and white created a further level of abstraction. The black and white pushed the link but didn’t break it, and made the overall impression more dreamlike. So that rule served me well.

Since I was playing at the intersection of appearance and reality, the credibility of the reality leg was essential. Setting pictures up (or today, modifying them in Photoshop) would destroy the relationship between the two. It would cheapen my photography. By posing pictures, people like Doisneau lessened the value of their work. You never know whether they’ve set something up (easy), or found it and tamed it (hard!). Some photographers like Elliot Erwitt have managed to work successfully on the edge, but that wouldn’t be right for me.

And photographing with my discrete little Leica allowed me to remain unobtrusive despite being very close to my subjects, without which nothing would have been possible.

I didn’t write the rules, but following them set me free.


Some notes about the slideshow above:

Sometimes people set pictures up FOR you, but that’s part of reality, too.

- During a trip to Brittany, my wife decided to show off her gymnastic talents with a handstand in front of an ancient Celtic menhir. That would have made a nice picture for the family album, but I preferred to catch her on the way up, as she was about to go down the rabbit hole.

- I was walking down the street with my friend Michel Sidhom when we saw this interesting store window. Michel walked over and got into an animated discussion with the people in the window. It was his idea; I didn’t tell him to do it. So it’s all right with me.

- For a while, for some strange reason, I believed that you shouldn’t have people looking directly into the camera – rule 427B. That one fell by the wayside pretty quickly, as I realized that some of the best pictures were the ones where people were looking directly at you, creating a link between you and the rest of the scene. Sort of like “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. Or Jack Benny, George Burns, or Groucho Marx standing next to someone and staring silently at the audience, as if to say, “Can you believe what this jerk just said?!” It’s okay if people look at you, as long as you don’t tell them to do it (rule 223F, paragraph 17).


Well, those are my personal rules. MAKE SURE YOU FOLLOW THEM!