Never Explain Your Work

- - Photographers

I asked Ethan Levitas to tell us a little more about the picture he took for GQ that we featured on The Daily Edit last week. Here’s his response:

Jean-Jacques Naudet, the legendary editor in chief (’76-’88) of French Photo, who looks like a leading man and lives like a gentleman – and who is a gentle man – told me not to. This was years ago, at his flat in Paris, while I was showing him some rough prints of my work Broken Arm. They were strewn all over the living room floor, and as he looked them over he told me, in his deep but quiet voice, “These are great.” Then he asked, “But how did you get all the police to cooperate and pose for you? What did you say?” A bit perplexed by this, I replied, “Well, Naudet, I didn’t. And that, to a large degree, is the work.” To which he seemed to take great delight, smiled wide and said, “These ARE great.” Then he added a four letter word, poured us another glass, lit another cigarette and after a long pause looked up and said, “Never explain your work.”

And though the paradox wasn’t lost on me, I generally agree. But at the risk of stepping on my own photograph, and because I truly appreciated hearing sincerely and positively from my peers about this work, that it spoke to them, a few words.

Sam Brown’s experience is at turns unique, tragic, and inspiring. (I hope those interested will take a moment to read the text of the GQ article as well.) As I considered this sitting, I struggled to avoid any simplification that would leave the individual behind: a skin-deep representation of the trauma, a lens-based impulse to voyeurism or imposed sentimentality, or any political polemic. At the same time, Sam’s story is also Capt. Brown’s story, and cannot, and should not, be separated from the Nation which he represented and served. It is personal and it is collective. Which, incidentally, is not unlike photography itself.

Other than that, and if I may, I’d prefer at the moment to get out of the way and let my portrait, and the medium, speak for itself.

There Are 19 Comments On This Article.

  1. The image definitely captured “unique, tragic and inspiring” and perhaps that is all that has to be said.

  2. I have to agree. I have a freely available insight into whether I have accomplished what I have set out to do or failed and need to try again. I frequently have my wife view what I have shot and if she comments on anything other than technical aspect of a photograph, then I can move forward. Thanks.

  3. I’m a bit slow today due to lack of sleep (new baby) and a cold… I think the point of the Jean-Jacques story is, that you shouldn’t have to explain your work because the photo should be great on its own and have nothing to do with how it was made; even though he seemed to like it more after the explanation.

    If that’s the case, I agree. How something was made shouldn’t determine if it’s good or not… A crappy photo that was painstaking to make is still a crappy photo. A great photo that was simple to make is still great.

  4. In Why People Photograph the great Robert Adams quoted Robert Frost. When someone asked Frost what one of his poems meant he replied, “You want me to say it worse?” I believe artists should be able to speak intelligently about their work, but you should still know when to get out of the way.

  5. Darrell Eager

    When you look at the image it’s a good portrait. When you read the article it’s a great portrait.

  6. I’ve always prefaced any description of what I do with “I’m not a writer or and orator. If I were better with words, I wouldn’t have such a need to use a camera.” Maybe it’s a copout to a proper artist statement, or maybe it’s just honesty with a little less unnecessary supportive bullshit.

  7. Never “have” to explain one’s work is a goal.
    To me, a photograph either communicates it’s message or not !
    Many of us have lost sight of the fact that photography is a medium of visual “communications”. It’s has a language all it’s own.
    A photograph either speaks to you or it doesn’t
    IMO, of course

  8. Unfortunately the reality is that artists –photographers included– are asked to explain and/or justify their work all the time. (Isn’t that precisely the idea behind the dreaded “artist’s statement,” most of which are dreadful indeed…?)

    But all that aside, it’s an incredible story…and a great portrait, worth of its subject.

  9. So what are your thoughts on what should be said when asked? Should one say something like, “I don’t explain my work” or “I’ll leave that up to your imagination”?