Alexey Brodovitch Talking

Alexey Brodovitch (American, 1898-1971) was a graphic designer, photographer and teacher who had an immense influence on the lives of many famous photographers who have, in turn, done much to shape the way we view photography today.
You can read a good description of his background here, but perhaps equally relevant to this article are the names of some of the photographers who were fortunate enough to work with and learn from him: Tony Ray-Jones, John Benton Harris, Hiro, Lillian Bassman, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, Gary Winogrand, the list goes on…

These notes by Brodovitch, originally published in Photography magazine in 1964 and republished in Creative Camera in 1972, came to my attention following a request I received from a researcher in Italy. Their succinct commentary on aspects of commercial photography still applies equally today.


Alexey Brodovich photographed by Ray-Jones

What is a good photograph? I cannot say. A photograph is tied to the time, what is good today may be a cliche tomorrow. The problem of the photographer is to discover his own language, a visual ABC. The picture represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera. The disease of our age is boredom and a good photographer must combat it. The way to do this is by invention, by surprise. When I say a good picture has surprise value I mean that it stimulates my thinking and intrigues me. The best way to achieve surprise quality is by avoiding cliches. Imitation is the greatest danger of the young photographer.
Everything is in constant evolution. We live in a dynamic age of atomic energy, exploration of space, miracle drugs and television! I feel photography must keep pace and develop a new vocabulary, new ways to analyse, to report and to convince. The past should be used for inspiration, not for imitation.
I really believe in progress and revolt in every generation. For this reason the work like official Karsh, which is a throwback to nineteenth century, does not excite me. I am more stimulated by Avedon’s fashion pictures of models against the rockets at Cape Canaveral than I am by Bert Stem’s fashion pictures of little girls in Victorian settings.
I believe today’s trend is away from theatrical and staged photographs and towards the more spontaneous and sincere way of seeing. Things should be used which could happen, not things which are obviously posed, obviously artificial, only to meet the needs of that ad.

On Technique

Anyone can learn to take a technically proficient picture. All that matters is the taste and the personal viewpoint of the person behind the camera. Sometimes a revolutionary technique is used to express this, but this technique cannot be imitated without producing a cliche. Pictures with unusual techniques like Bill Brandt’s nudes are a good thing to go through a young photographer’s system.

One of the photographer’s most important tools is cropping. I know that Cartier-Bresson does not approve of anyone cropping his pictures. For most photographers, however, I believe it is a mistake to refuse to crop. Photographers should make three or four prints from a negative and crop them differently. The cropping can very often create your new vision and help to discover and explain your new language. I read in a profile in the New Yorker of Yehudi Menuhin’s interest in Yoga, and before each concert he stands on his head. I don’t care if he does this if he plays beautiful music. It is the end result which counts.

On Seeing

There are two phases in making a picture. The first takes place when the photo is actually shot. The second seeing comes in examining the contacts. It is important to be able to recognize the pictures which express your viewpoint. It is also important to recognize the accidents which often result in good pictures.

The journalistic photographer must also be his own picture editor and art editor. In a commercial job the art director and picture editor should never be a substitute for the photographer’s thinking. When he looks at the ground glass, he should see not only the picture, but four or eight pages.

When the novice photographer starts taking pictures, he carries his camera about and shoots everything that interests him. There comes a time when he must crystallize his ideas and set off in a particular direction. He must leam that shooting for the sake of shooting is dull and unprofitable. The pictures a mature photographer takes are interpretations of the subject in terms of the photographer’s own personality and interests. If he has inventiveness, photography can be completely rediscovered in his own way.

The personality and style of a photographer usually limits the type of subject with which he deals best. For example Cartier-Bresson is very interested in people and in travel; these things plus his precise feeling for geometrical relationships determine the type of pictures he takes best. What is of value is that a particular photographer sees the subject differently. A good picture must be a completely individual expression which intrigues the viewer and forces him to think.

On Teaching

Although I have become known as both an art director and a teacher of photography, I really do not teach. My classes are not for the purpose of learning the technical aspect of photography, nor are they concerned with a particular style of photography. They are laboratories in which photographers are free to experiment and find a direction for their work. In these sessions, I am a student more than a teacher.
I personally am very much against, in principle, any art of visual education. It seems to me that education of this kind is very dangerous and is likely to develop certain cliches. Students have come to me from different schools. Everyone who came to me would bring a certain type of picture. From the pictures I could tell immediately which school the student came from. This is a tragedy. The instructor or teacher should not be a pedant. What is required is someone to tease or irritate the student and help him discover himself.

Class work

When we examine assignments in class, they are first passed around, so everyone is familiar with them. I don’t care if the student produces a photograph, a design, collage or sculpture. If he has avoided a cliche and captured the essence of the assignment, this is the important thing. In my classes we talk not only about the student’s work. but also about graphic design in magazines, books anc newspapers. We discuss current examples. When we see an interesting picture in a magazine, the idea is not to copy it, but to be stimulated by it to go out and discover something different.

Photography today

Most of the photography which we see today in magazines and newspapers is stereotyped and cliche ridden. In America everything is imitated quickly and we see the same type of pictures over and over again. A dozen photographers working for a magazine like Life will bring back pictures all of which look alike.

If a photographer sincerly tries to put the product of his reporting in such a magazine he will probably be fired or forced to walk out as did Gene Smith of Life. It is up to the photographer to decide whether he will be the slave of Life, Look, Vogue or Bazaar or whether they will be his slave. This depends on his character and the strength of his determination. It is the responsibility of the art director of a magazine to have a concept of his readership and to find photographers to fit that readership.

The photographer

The photographer, if he is to maintain his integrity must be responsible to himself, he must seek a public which will accept his vision, rather than pervert his vision to fit that public. Unfortunately many fine photographers never find this public and are virtually unemployable in the commercial field.

The creative life of the commercial photographer is like the life of a butterfly. Very seldom do we see a photographer who is really productive for more than eight or ten years.

Most advertising photography has remained static in a dynamic world. If a photographer is to survive, change is very important. Even if a photographer has been fortunate enough to find his place in the commercial world, he he must constantly experiment to find new ways to say things and he must constantly go forward.

Alexey Brodovitch

First published in Photography, February 1964; reprinted here from Creative Camera 92 February 1972