Since June 14, 1971, I have been in the village of Millerton almost every day with my camera, learning more than I ever expected about the streets, houses, backyards, rooms and people—especially young people. Like a lot of the kids, I often have nothing to do but hang around and talk, listen, see and be seen.
An old Eskimo man who lives in a village just north of the Arctic Circle once told me that he doesn't learn very much from listening to people; he prefers to look at them from enough distance so that conversation is difficult or impossible—and thereby gain what he called "a good look" at what is going on.
I once saw a dragonfly in New York City: it was caught between bundles of black plastic trash. The color of this astonishment is in all of Helen Levitt's photographs. She sees, trails, hunts and seizes hold of those dances that ordinary people do on their own turf.
Look at the neighborhood on a wintry day and you wonder why anyone would want to photograph this place. The streets are deserted except for a dog or two, and the cold wind coming off the nearby lake is playing games with the loose snow. But stay awhile.
Strictly speaking, so-called documentary photographs have a straightforward aim — to record the facts of the day. And what is more straightforward, more strictly documentary, than photographs of faces made for the purpose of identification?
Dear Niland, Thank you so much for the gift of Jacob Riis. So many thoughts come flooding in, when one studies these pictures. Perhaps my impressions will be of some interest to your readers. First off, the importance of this: that Riis never thought of himself as a photographer, in fact speaks in a most apologetic way of his camera work—"I'm downright sorry to confess here that I'm no good at all as a photographer."
ROBERT COLES is a child psychiatrist on the staff of the Harvard University Health Services. His books include Children of Crisis (in three volumes), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival, just published.