The object was to make a great picture. A beautiful picture. A picture that could stand beside other great pictures. One that the artists you admired would look at and approve.
When I became interested in photography it was printed in all the magazines and books that you should look at original prints. Except for the dreary photo portrait studios that was not easy to do. So books and magazines with pictures were the substitute.
New York in the early sixties had a lot of used bookstores around. One that I liked was on west 23rd st perhaps near 7th ave where photography books and old photography annuals might be found. The books were often instruction books, The Exacta Handbook or travel books like Americas National Parks as examples.
Treasures as we viewed them were put out by photography magazines every year called annuals which sometimes were even in hard covers. The annuals would put out the “best” pictures of the year and were in categories. Portraits, spot news, candid, sports, (female) nudes, landscape, advertizing and so on. The annuals from the 1930’s were OK, soft focus and romantic but those from the 1940’s were better. Sharper, cleaner, a clearer vision. Dramatic war pictures by W. Eugene Smith were a favorite. (The GI drinking out of a canteen!) Faster films and available light were another.
My pals and I would smoke pot and drink beer (smoking pot can make you thirsty) and look at pictures. All of us interested in making pictures would read these materials and discuss what we liked. The back section would often have a little information about the picture. This was taken by a 4×5 Speed Grafic, that by a 2 ¼ Ikonta, this was 35mm Tri-X pushed in Harvey’s 777, that was 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ developed in Rodinal and so on.
We saw that some pro’s used very expensive equipment like a Rollie and another picture just as good taken with a Minolta. Since we looked at the newest annuals as well as those older ones we could see that very fine work had been made with equipment that was no longer to be had new. A Speed Grafic from the 1930’s could be just as professional as one from the 1950’s.
As we looked, we tried to learn. We decided who the good photographers were, who was popular but not so great. We learned the difference between Between Bunny Yeager and Edward Weston. But we knew little and learned from both.
Art books with pictures were enchanting too. But color reproduction was expensive and even used those books were not common. But black and white art books might be found. It is where I got my love of Rembrandt and those etchings.
Being young and energetic we took pictures, developed and printed them and evaluated. Manhattan was a great place at that time, lots of surplus WWII and Korean War photo equipment and supplies around.
An ambition to make great photographs, to get the great shot was our dream. Every expedition was full of hope. And gradual improvement. Greatness was our dream. We did not dream of being photographic stars but of being artists. Dreams of making pictures so good that other picture makers would look at it and say, “That is a Great picture!” we were young.
When you get older you did what you wanted the way you wanted and sometimes your peers will like what you did. The goal of a great picture matters less than a body of fine work that you can look at and think, “That is a Good picture!” more than once.