We were snowed in yesterday, it was perfect timing to begin a new book, Magnum Stories (2004). The pages are full of inspiration and wisdom. It highlights the Magnum photographers’ talent and dedication to their craft. I have only read a few pages but this one especially struck a cord: George Rodger’s letter to his 8-year old son written in 1970 on pages 403-404. I wrote it here so I can go back to it easily as his words are a powerful reminder of how I aspire my photographs to be…
“Let your picture composition be honest, pure, strong and well defined. It is a matter of design, and the less complicated a design, the more pleasing it is to the eye.” – George Rodger
My Dear Jonathan,
I have just received your very interesting letter and I thank you for sending me copies of your first pictures. I liked especially the one you took at Stonehenge when you photographed the shadows on the ground rather than the stones themselves. I wonder what made you do that? Do you know?
Your questions are rather difficult to answer. But I shall do my best and, if you don’t understand just now, I expect you will a little later on.
Your very first question I think is the only on that really matters because the answer to that is also the answer to all the others. You ask What must I do to be a photographer like you? If you hadn’t put “like you”at the end of the question, the reply could have been much easier. How can one explain something that is non-technical, intangible, and that comes from deep inside?
As a matter of fact I bought a book written for photographic beginners, that I was going to give you for your birthday. On the first page it says that light travels through the air at 186,000 miles per second and, on the very last page of all, it says that another part of a camera not yet discussed is the viewfinder. So, as you want to be a photographer like me, I can’t give you this book for your birthday. I disagree with it. I couldn’t care less whether light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 186,999. It is quite irrelevant. But I do think the undiscussed viewfinder is all-important.
Of course at the very beginning, you must observe some slight technicalities. You have to if you are going to express yourself aesthetically by means of a purely mechanical instrument – focus, aperture, etc. But these should become reflexes as soon as possible and then be forgotten. They should be as instinctive to you as opening your mouth when you bite at an apple.
Then, with this reflex established, you can concentrate on what you see in the viewfinder for it is through the viewfinder that you establish the link between reality and your own interpretation of it. Remember that. Everything that you see on the ground glass of your Rolleiflex is reality – things as they are. Photography is what you make of it.
You look into your viewfinder and what you see there may be pretty and gay, or it may be sad. Your heart may stand still for the horror of it or your eyes dim in pity or in shame. But it is all reality and you must know what to do with it.
I don’t think anybody can advise how you should know what to do with it, except by telling you to be true to yourself, and that is rather vague.
Certainly you cannot interpret what you see in your viewfinder and make it into a good picture without having the understanding of it. You must feel an affinity for what you are photographing. You must be part of it and yet remain sufficiently detached to see it objectively. Like watching from the audience a play you already know by heart. Unfortunately there is no formula for acquiring this knowing-by-heart, this understanding. It is something that comes from within yourself.
But you can train yourself towards it. And, actually, the basic training itself has little to do with photography.
It depends very much on your own personal knowledge of the world and your ability to perceive and accept how other people live in it. You would never gain very much by jetflighting from one fleshpot to another wearing an expensive camera round your neck like a rosary and expecting the world to stand still while you search for some elusive truth. But try covering the same distance in an old car that is guaranteed to break down every few hundred miles, and see what you end up with! Some say, in fact, the more difficult you make things for yourself the better off you are!
By the way, have you ever observed a chameleon? It is a very interesting animal – rather like a lizard. But besides being able to swivel its eyes right round so it looks backwards, it can also change its colour according to its environment. It is green in grass, turns dark brown as it rests on a log, and changes to deep red as it ambles across a patch of laterite. This is a very useful practice which you might well try to emulate. I don’t mean you should turn a rich coffee colour when you visit Vizagapatam, or turn black in Bangassou, but I do mean that you should acquire the aptitude for not appearing white in either.
Every nation, race or tribe has its own peculiar ethics, its prices and dignities, its foibles and its shibboleths – all very different from your own. but they are just as right and justified in their world as you are in yours. Therefore you should accept these things and the more you know of them the better. Develop your own chameleon touch until you blend into your surroundings and feel as much at home in a Bedouin tent as in marbled halls. There is wisdom in this which will reflect in your pictures.
Learn languages – not only European, but Swahili, Arabic, Urdu. Remember not to be in a hurry East of the Suez – people will only laugh at you. Learn to eat with chopsticks, or with your fingers – without, for the love of Allah, using your left hand.
And, wherever you are, avoid gimmickry. Good photography is based on truth and integrity. The gimmick is only the poor man’s way of excusing his lack of talent – his inability to compose a picture without trickery. Let your picture composition be honest, pure, strong and well defined. It is a matter of design, and the less complicated a design, the more pleasing it is to the eye.
And I think this is really all I have to say to you at this time. It is up to you to interpret the reality I spoke of at the beginning in all of these terms. It is how I see it and what I believe in. I don’t say it is necessarily right. But think about it and don’t be in too great a hurry. It took me thirty years to find all this out. I don’t expect you to digest it in half an hour. But please don’t write next week and say what you really want to be when you leave school is a fighter pilot!
Your affectionate father, George Rodger.