Why do you photograph?

On a lunch break last week, I ascended the four serpentine escalators up through the cavernous Barnes and Noble that sits on the northern end of Union Square. There's a decent selection of photography books (still paling in comparison to The Strand's offering) tucked away in a corner. As I browsed, an odd little book caught my eye: Why People Photograph by Robert Adams.

I'd not heard of Robert Adams before. Maybe that reveals an embarrassing gap in my knowledge of art history. But wow. There's so many passages that leap from the page in this modest collection of assorted essays.

The most resonant stuff for me was in the first section, titled What Can Help. The opening essay, "Colleagues", begins like this:

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people's pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community. — Robert Adams

Adams is not talking merely about inspiration here. He goes on to tell a story about a photographer friend who took a picture of his beloved Airedale the first time they met. Although the picture was eventually included in a show at the MoMA in New York, he says he treasures it for "the recollection if affords of first meeting the photographer."

It's curious that Adams opens the book this way. Photography has grown up in the increasingly individualized West. Maybe more so than other art forms, I think of photographers as solitary figures, deliberately unmooring themselves from the burden of community in order to chase whatever catches their eye.

But there's a surge of interest in the idea of community lately. With mass exodus from religious and civil organizations, atomized family, and rising distrust of authority and institutions, we are hungry for authentic community, maybe now more than ever.

I've thought a lot about who this new product will be for. Adams, speaking of the photographers he likes, says this:

"They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it."

That seems like a good place to start.

Robert Adams
© Robert Adams — Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1971 • View full size

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