Claire Yaffa: Life’s Lessons – A Personal Journey Continued, Chapter 7

Claire Yaffa took her first photograph 45 years ago when her son was 18 months old and it was the beginning of her journey, first as a mother, then as a photographer. She has worked extensively for The New York Times and Associated Press. Her photographs have appeared in countless influential publications and have been exhibited at major venues in the US and around the world. Below is the seventh series in her Leica Notebook, where she shares her favorite quotes from her favorite photographers. Portraits of  W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Duane Michals, Yousuf Karsh, Cornell Capa, and Leonard Freed are part of The Master Series of Photographers by Claire Yaffa and are exhibited at LEICA GALLERY, New York City,  LEICA GALLERY Frankfurt, Germany, LEICA, Solms, Germany.

Leica Notebook, Chapter Seven

In Chapter 4 of my Leica Notebook, I wrote about comments from photographers and how and why they photograph.  I believe if we pay attention to the thoughts of these photographers, we will discover that the lessons they have learned as photographers do not only apply to photography.  There is a deeper message they are sharing with us about how we decide to live our life.

W. Eugene Smith said, “Passion is in all great searches and is necessary to all creative endeavors – whether statesman, or scientist, or artist or freedom or devil . . . Question this. Take note of the values around you, everywhere thrust upon you and wait awhile with this question in thought”. His personal, philosophical concern was “I try to give what voice I have and give it to those who don’t have one at all”.

Robert Frank said, “Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference . . . it is important to see what  is invisible to others.  Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that  produces a photograph. It is wonderful to look, to understand what you look at and to be sympathetic at what you look at.  This is a thing a photographer trains himself to be..  You don’t learn this in a school.  This is about life. You use your eyes and  you don’t get tired  of looking . . . I’m still looking”.  In an interview he said, “I’m still taking pictures; I thought there might be some more pictures inside the  little camera, the Leica. Keep your eyes open and try to think.  It is your friend, the camera.  It is wonderful for your mind”. His aim, he said, was trying to tell something which was  true.

Lisette Model’s advice to photographers was to never take a photograph unless it hits you in the pit of your stomach.  To be a good photographer depends on how much effort she is willing to expend in achieving whatever goal in life she sets for herself. Lisette said, “When a photographer is in contact with his life and in contact with himself, that is, understands himself for what he really is, then he can use the medium creatively.  A photograph should be concerned with everything in life that is meaningful for us today”.

Duane Michals, in his advice to young photographers, tells them not to try to be an artist:  “Limit yourself to doing your work, and if the work is true and authentic, it will become art. But you have to feel it. Pay attention to your mind, find your energy; you have to make it happen. You are. Risk goes with the creative act, do what you have to do, living in a state of wakeful dreaming. Find out who you are. Be brave. If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Duane Michals wants you to feel, touch, become aware.  He also said, “How you express what you care about validates your own feeling . . . you must really care”!

Cornell Capa’s exhibition in 1968 at the Riverside Church in New York City was accompanied by a publication which was also the title of the exhibition, “The Concerned Photographer”.  It featured the photographs of six photographers: Andre Kertesz, Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, David Seymour (Chim), Leonard Freed, and Dan Wiener. This was the beginning of Cornell Capa’s passionate mission.  In 1972, Cornell Capa founded The International Center of Photography. It was dedicated to photography which demands personal commitment  and concern for mankind. It was the center for students of photography and exhibitions of “concerned” photographers. Cornell Capa, the concerned photographer, had the desire and plan to better humanity through photography. He created a place where photography became an important instrument in developing public awareness of the problems in our world.

Yousuf Karsh was fascinated by the people he photographed. He said, “For me, lies in what I call their inward power.  It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone and it has been my life’s work to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and too often to ourselves may lift for only one second to reveal the power in an unconscious gesture etc. This is the moment to record”. He repeats that the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.

My interview with Leonard Freed still resonates with me. He said, “The advice I would give young photographers is there is no substitute for work.  What I want to say is in my head, not in the camera . . . What I am seeing everybody sees, but you have to respond to it”. Photography is a visual language.  Just as a poet adds meaning to words, so the photographer adds to visual symbols.

“The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself” –Edward Steichen

-Claire Yaffa

You can also see more of Claire’s work on her website, www.claireyaffa.com.