[Writer, b. 1931, Richmond, Virginia, lives in New York.]
It was the unspoken curse of the medium, which went: “Photography is not really creative.” Naturally no painter would be so gauche as to say publicly that photography was not an art form. Nevertheless, there was an unuttered axiom: “Painters create, photographers select.” Not all the enlightened lip service in the world could change that feeling. The condescension with which the most insignificant painter could look down upon an Ansel Adams, a Steichen, or a Stieglitz was absolutely breathtaking. If sneers gave off heat, Alfred Stieglitz himself would have ended up about the size and shape of a smoked oyster.
[Richard Avedon] began standing people up against white no-seam paper and lighting their faces so that every wen, hickey, zit, whitehead, blackhead, goober, acne-crater, beard follicle, nose hair, ear bristle, crow’s foot, wattle, mold, eye bag, and liver spot stood out like a tumor, and the poor grey souls looked like pustular ruins, sad, spent, demoralized. Ah, Lord, you never get out of this world alive! This was serious work.
Suddenly there is magic in such items... as random and eccentric framing, blurred images, keeling horizons, distorted scale, unreal colors (puce waters, chartreuse skies), grotesque foreshortening... and nightclub photo lighting with its flash overexposures and clotted shadows and inexplicable detail and tilted walls and stray items—arms, legs, shoes, cloven bottoms, anorexic elbows—appearing in an amputated condition about the edges... Once regarded as technical limitation of the medium, as annoyances to be overcome by professional expertise, they now become like animae, tree spirits, to be treated with reverence and looked to for guidance.
Then 1967’s Photographer of the Century made his entrance at a dead run, carrying a stroboscopic 35mm camera. He bolted into the tubercular-blue gleam of the room and hurled himself toward the floor, feet first like a baseball player going into second base. He slid ... an ectomorphic sliver... sweeping through one and all, flailing away at the film advance lever of his camera, squeezing off six, eight, ten pictures about calf level during his furious skid. Stroboscopic lights burst all around. They were like rockets.