PHO703: Robert Adams and James Nachtwey

Two other points arise from a look at Robert Adams – see my earlier post. The first is his attention to framing and composition.

‘The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. … But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit – so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. … But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last’ (ART21 2020).

Involved in this is careful attention to detail, but for a purpose and not simply because something happens to catch the photographer’s eye in a meretricious way: ‘By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it is conveyed by artists is through attention to form’ (ART21 2020).

Careful framing is a constant battle in my experience and is often more difficult at night when one often cannot really see everything in the viewfinder.

The second point is that problematic word, beauty. Adams is very open about being in pursuit of it: ‘Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty’ (ART21 2020).

However, I think it is more productive for me to consider this not in terms only of ‘beauty’, whatever that may be, but in terms of the tension between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion. Many if not all artists must struggle with this. It has been very well expressed by the documentary photographer James Nachtwey: ‘I don’t think that in my pictures the beauty overcomes the tragedy. It sometimes envelopes it and makes it more poignant. It makes it more accessible. The paradox of the co-existence of beauty and tragedy has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages. Photography is no exception’ (Caponigro 2000).

How does this relate to my practice? First, it has made me appreciate that I have not been paying enough attention to detail and particularly not to the extent that a carefully selected detail can reveal much more about an overall story than one may think.

Second, that the interplay between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion, creates tension and is particularly relevant when photographing at night. One can choose almost any pair of opposites and the tension between them will be there. Good images require tension. So in my walks along the Thames this summer, the tranquil and the uncanny and sometimes the quite menacing have all arisen. And they have arisen, too, in the contrast between quiet suburban streets or peaceful old houses and brash and anonymous new shopping centres or run-down, inner city deprivation. So the tension between these elements is also something I need to pay more attention to, both in individual images and in the sequencing of an overall portfolio.

Finally, Adams and Nachtwey agree at one point: much of photography is all about collaboration, and to the extent that we carry all that has gone before us we are also all re-photographers.

Adams: ‘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’ (Adams and Byrne 1994).

Nachtwey: ‘I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I’m photographing – not the other way around. I’m not trying to make statements about photography. I’m trying to use photography to make statements about what’s happening in the world’ (Caponigro 2000).

So it’s not all about me, and it never was. Thank heavens. What a release.


ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture, 13.

ART21. 2020. ‘Photography, Life, and Beauty: Robert Adams’. Art21 [online]. Available at: [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2000. ‘An Interview with James Nachtwey’. John Paul Caponigro [online]. Available at: [accessed 22 Jul 2020].