After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.

—Jack Kerouac, introduction to The Americans by Robert Frank


I have no idea what tripped the curiosity circuit. A glimmer of something, a passing thought, perhaps just that deep-core wish to go exploring, to find the hint of a new road to follow. But I swear I wasn’t really interested.

Sitting at my desk at home, happily working at something I now forget, a list went by on Facebook. Like everyone else, I ignored the list, and then I didn’t. It was titled “The Ten Most Collectible Photography Books of All Time.”

“Of all time” was a bit much, I thought. Photography hasn’t been around that long. But since I’m an editor as well as writer and photographer, I was curious to see which books made the list.

I was sure I had two or three of the chosen books pegged: The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson had to be there. So did Sierra Nevada, The John Muir Trail, by Ansel Adams. Beyond that was open to guess. So I called up the list, ready to be amazed at how much I had missed.

From “Moments Preserved.” © Irving Penn. Published by Simon and Schuster.

It was an intriguing list, and at first I was going to buy these books. Something about “most collectible” didn’t register until I saw the prices. But God love the college library.

The pictures are iconic, yes. Some of them are timeless. Yet a lot of them are only valuable because of their place in history. It’s a bit like asking a pilot if a Sopwith Camel is a good airplane. In its time, it was the best thing in the sky. But we’ve learned a lot since then. Many of the pictures that were revolutionary at first now seem a bit mundane. I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed.

Then, suddenly, it happened: the thunderbolt came crashing through the roof, flashing around the room, buzzing and sparking, upsetting the neighbor’s dog as well as my own cup of tea. I knew many of the pictures—yes, they are that famous—and there were many I had never seen before. But I had never read these books. I don’t mean read as in visual literacy, or the old textbook How To Read A Film. I mean I had never read the introductions, the texts, the words on the page.

From “I Want To Take Picture.” © Bill Burke. Published by Nexus Press and most recently reprinted by Twin Palms Publishers.

As I started to read passages by these photographers talking about their work, a cacophony of inspired voices over the course of just a few days, what I heard was a conversation. An idea that came up in one book was shouted in another. An aside in one became the thesis of another. I was reading a multi-voiced guide on how to see the world, how to pull meaning from the elusive, how to think about the work we do.

I started pulling quotes. At first, just for myself. But then the collection grew to be large, and it dawned on me that I was building a small narrative of instruction. So, yes, what follows is just a collection of quotes from “The Ten Most Collectible Photography Books of All Time.” (Actually—I only used six. The Antarctica book weighs 47 pounds and the closest copy is in Winnipeg. That’s a road trip for another time. A few others have no text at all, though a lot has been written about them by critics.) I’ve rearranged them into an order where one idea proceeds, with some luck and grace, to the next.

Here is a found philosophy of photography. Imagine we’re all in this together.

Trolley—New Orleans, 1955. From “The Americans.” © Robert Frank. Published by Robert Delpire, then Grove Press, and most recently reprinted by Steidl.

***

“There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

***

“Nevertheless, a certain objectivity must be maintained, a certain quality of reality adhered to, for these images—integrated through a camera—represent the most enduring and massive aspects of the world, and justify more than an abstract and esoteric interpretation.”

—Ansel Adams, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail

***

“Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

—James Agee and Walker Evans, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men

Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Photo from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” © Walker Evans. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company

***

“Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life—to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination. While he is actually working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

***

“A detail of a tree root, a segment of a rock, a great paean of thunder clouds—all these relate with equal intensity to the portrayal of an impressive peak or canyon.”

—Ansel Adams, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail

***

“As American a picture—the faces don’t editorialize or criticize or say anything but ‘This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ‘cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe’…‘if we deserve it’…”

—Jack Kerouac, Introduction to The Americans by Robert Frank

Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955. From “The Americans.” © Robert Frank. Published by Robert Delpire, then Grove Press, and most recently reprinted by Steidl.

***

“If complications arise, that is because they are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.”

—James Agee and Walker Evans, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men

***

“For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”

—James Agee and Walker Evans, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men

Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of Floyd. Photo from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” © Walker Evans. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company

***

“The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

***

“The grandiose elements of the scene are subordinated to the more intimate aspects—for it is through the reception of beauty in detail that our experiences are formed and qualified.”

—Ansel Adams, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail

From “Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail.” © Ansel Adams. Published by Archetype Press and most recently reprinted by Little, Brown and Company.

***

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone, has gone forever. From that fact stem the anxieties and strength of our profession.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

***

“A collection of one photographer’s work is an unquestionable record not only of the exterior world, but of his sensitivity and inner reaction to that world. His collected photographs are truly the reflection of his mind’s eye. It is this reflection, or second image, superimposed on every photograph that gives photography its richness, and this second image that gives us a composite picture of the man’s creative soul.”

–Alexander Liberman, introduction to Irving Penn’s Moments Preserved

From “Moments Preserved.” © Irving Penn. Published by Simon and Schuster.

***

“In the Seventies, I learned to use photography as an excuse to go where I had no business and to make pictures in places where I was uncomfortable.”

—Bill Burke, I Want To Take Picture

***

“I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life—to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

***

“This work, then, is a transmission of emotional experience—personal, it is true, as any work of art must be—but inclusive in the sense that others have enjoyed similar experiences so that they will understand this interpretation of the intimate and intense beauty….”

—Ansel Adams, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail

***

“In our civilization, we seldom pause to notice differences, we are ready to accept the easy appearance of conformity. The merit of…photography is that it makes us pause, makes us notice, and alerts us by awakening us to the vital importance of detail. The great discoveries of our age, in fact the greatest masterpieces of all ages, have had in their conception and execution a miraculous respect for the seemingly tedious but magical tool of art: meaningful detail. Patience with this detail is, in one word, precision—the key to our civilization, the key to communication of vision.”

–Alexander Liberman, Introduction to Irving Penn’s Moments Preserved

From “Moments Preserved.” © Irving Penn. Published by Simon and Schuster.

***

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as would a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

—James Agee and Walker Evans, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men

***

“What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face?”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

Sunday on the Banks of the Marne. From “The Decisive Moment.” © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum. Published by Simon and Schuster in the US and Editions Verve in France. Most recently reprinted by Steidl.

***

“Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers don’t like potry [sic], see? Anybody don’t like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”

—Jack Kerouac, Introduction to The Americans by Robert Frank

***

“Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.”

—James Agee and Walker Evans, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men


Introduction and selection of quotes by W. Scott Olsen. Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary journal Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).

The original top 10 list of books can be found here.