“Access:” What It Means To Photographers

by William Lulow

I recently read a biography of Edward S. Curtis, a well-known photographer who lived in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. It was written by Timothy Egan several years ago. Mr. Egan is also a columnist for the New York Times and he is quite an excellent writer. He does a massive amount of research on his topics and can be counted on to render a complete and thorough account of whatever topic he chooses.

Edward S. Curtis is world renowned for his depiction of various North American Native peoples who have inhabited parts of the continent. The thing that registered with me about this book, is that for a story about a photographer, very little is mentioned about his photographic techniques. Mr. Egan does mention that Curtis used a 14″x17″ view camera (mostly all that was available then until after the turn of the 20th century), with glass plates that he had to coat with light sensitive emulsions in order to record the scenes he found. (Can you imagine doing this out of a horse-drawn covered wagon?)

The book is mainly about the man (Curtis) and the kinds of things that drove him to make the images he made, as a proper biography should. But it is also about access and how he was able to travel among the North American tribes freely, how he learned their languages (some) and how he was able to persuade various people to finance his photographic forays into the American West. It’s also, sadly, about how difficult it was to become a published “artist” in those days, and the trials and tribulations Curtis went through to publish his life’s work.

Doing any type of attention-getting art work has always been about access! If you can convince someone to let you do your artwork and pay for it, you will obtain the necessary access you need to create. I think this has been a problem for artists from time immemorial! The great Dutch Masters often needed sponsors. These days, very few artists are able to create masterpieces on their own, with their own financing, because, make no mistake, ART REQUIRES MONEY! It costs something to have any kind of photographic equipment these days, and that’s why the term “starving artist” evolved. Many good artists couldn’t afford to do their art! Even if you do everything yourself, it will still cost you. The great photographers like Penn, Avedon, Halsman, Karsh as well as all those like Eisenstadt who worked for great publishers and magazines, were able to create their art while someone else paid the bill. Any commercial photographer these days, gains access by having clients who need photographs. Curtis, himself, ran a large, fairly successful portrait studio in Seattle. That was the thing that gave him his start. But his true passion of documenting the Native American populations would wind up costing him his fortune, his marriage and eventually his health.

So, the story of how Edward S. Curtis gained access to these native peoples is really the story and not how he set up his camera. But, within that framework, it is also important to find out just how Curtis was able to make those remarkable images. As I said though, no real answer to this question was offered in this book.  Ansel Adams often shared his knowledge of the science of photography. I had an opportunity to meet him in 1975, at one of his lectures. I believe he was a scientist before he was an artist. In the early days of photography (dating back to around 1835), the problem was how to make images permanent. The Dutch Masters had the camera obscura, but no paper prints could be made from the images. It wasn’t until people figured out how to fix an image chemically on a piece of paper or a glass plate, that the real art of photography was born. So, it would have been interesting to read a description of how Curtis actually went about making his images, but that was not the focus of the book. It was more about the man himself and what drove him to do what he did.

But, to this day, photographers who are able to gain access to someone or something they truly love, helps them create great works of art.

I was fortunate, early in my career to gain access to a number of rock and roll musicians and was able to make some interesting and poignant images of them in performance. Since music was always an interest of mine, I felt I spoke their language and that I was uniquely qualified to make these images:

Chuck Berry

Elton John

So, access really means everything to a photographer because making images requires the camera to be present at whatever scene you are photographing. Getting access to your favorite subject matter is the first step to making great photographs.