In his last interview, shortly before his death, Ansel Adams was asked whether he thought Edward Steichen – another formidable figure in the history of photography – was a ‘great photographer.’ Adams responded: “No. He was at one time, he did some beautiful things. And then he became trapped in the commercial New York milieu, in the advertising world.”
Steichen’s image ‘The Pond – Moonlight’ is among the most expensive photographs ever sold, at nearly $3,000,000. By comparison, the most anyone has ever paid for an Ansel Adams print is around $610,000. Both sales occurred in 2006, when both men were long deceased, although it is worth mentioning that the two had long been at odds when they were alive.
Two interesting questions arising from Adams’ answer are these: was he correct in saying that Steichen was not deserving of being considered a great photographer because he ‘sold out’ to commercial interests? And, if a photographer who is widely regarded as being among the most important figures in the evolution of photography as art is not considered a great one, then who is?
The disassociation between commercial value and the significance of a work of art is not a new thing. Philosopher Bertrand Russell opined, “In a thoroughly commercialized society, an artist is respected if he makes money, and because he makes money, but there is no genuine respect for the works of art by which his money has been made.” Considering the subjective nature of the monetary value of art, it would be futile to debate this aspect further, and so I will focus on the second question: what makes a great photographer, independent of what their work sells for?
Certainly there is no small degree of subjectivity here, too, and to confuse things further, the term ‘photographer’ is also ambiguous. A photographer can be considered to be someone who simply excels in the use of photographic equipment and processes. Considering that today’s cameras are smarter than ever and can perform on our behalf many of the tasks that previously required great knowledge and skill, the distinction of a great photographer, as measured by the technical qualities of their work, is ultimately not much to brag about. It’s fair to say that, by this measure, there are millions of good – even great – photographers in the world at this very moment. Similarly, the fact that someone could afford to travel to well-known locations, or to photograph things in serendipitous circumstances that have to do more with luck than any quality of the photographer, also make for poor foundations for greatness.
And so I propose that the greatness of a photographer ultimately comes down to this: the degree and consistency with which a photographer is able to conceive meaningful work that nobody else has, or could. This is because, sooner or later, someone will photograph just about any objectively worthy subject, but it requires a great mind to make worthwhile images that simply would not exist if it were not for that person.
If you aspire for greatness, and if you agree with my premise here, then it is incumbent upon you to cultivate the uniqueness of your mind and your work. Stop chasing after things already photographed by others and challenge yourself to see like nobody else has seen before you. If you do, you will have earned well-deserved greatness and gratitude, even if you never sell a single image.
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