Though Capa's dictum is cited in discussions of his riveting war photography, in fact, his simple prescription fits almost any kind of camera work, from photojournalism to baby pictures.
The more I indulge my personal preference for black and white documentary photography, the more I think telephoto lenses are best left to photographers who shoot sports or wildlife. And yet, if you were to look at a random group of amateur shooters, chances are you'll find a good number toting more glass than they need, in the form of 70mm-300mm zoom lenses or any other bulky incarnations of what a salesperson or manufacturer insisted was "the only lens you'll ever need."
But, you might ask, doesn't a big zoom bring you in closer than you ever could get without stumbling over your subject? Doesn't a long lens grant you "access" you might not otherwise be able to achieve.
Well, yes and no.
Sure a long lens can, in effect, bring your camera closer, but it doesn't do diddly to bring you closer. And in the long run, especially in terms of people photography, that's what really counts.
Take a look at some of the best people photography out there be it an image made 40 years ago by Cartier-Bresson or Bruce Davidson, or last week by Sebastiao Selgado or Mary Ellen Mark, and I'm willing to bet that hardly any of these great photographers' images were made with lenses much longer than 85mm. In fact, Cartier-Bresson, whom many regard as the greatest photojournalist of his day, if not all time, almost never carried more than a 35mm and 50mm lens for his rangefinder Leica.
Getting closer to your subject forces you to interact. It forces you to bring something of yourself to your photographs even if you obviously never appear in your pictures. This is one of the hardest things for a new photographer to learn: what you are photographing oftentimes is directly affected by what you, not your subject, bring to a situation.
The other day I was making a presentation to a local camera club, talking about Judy's and my photography in Venice. As almost always happens, the questions turned to how we made the very personal pictures that we did.
"In doing this kind of photography," I said, "the two most important words are 'access' and 'networking.'"
In fact, the latter often leads directly to the former. Perhaps the best example of networking leading to phenomenal access is what happened to us several months ago, as Judy and I were talking to the parents of a prospective bride about shooting her wedding. During the course of a relaxed chat in our dining room where we do our wedding dog-and-pony show amidst albums and other material we mentioned our ongoing Venice project and our latest upcoming trip.
"Oh, you should talk to our neighbor Giovanni," the father of the bride said. "His brother lives in Venice."
Sure, said Giovanni when I called him on the phone; he'd be happy to contact Giampaolo for us. His brother, Giovanni said, was in the glass business.
Boy, was he.
Giampaolo (Paolo for short) turned out to be one of the city's best known dealers in fine Venetian glass. His family had been dealing in this respected art for centuries and even had been admitted to Venetian nobility on the strength of the family's reputation for quality. [This rare honor, accorded to commoners of great skill by the ruling Duke, or Doge, gave Giampaolo's forebears the right to marry nobility.]
His shop, on the "street of glass" on the Venetian island of Murano, was chock full of the glassmaker's art. But what Judy and I were most interested in, and which Paolo provided in spades, was unfettered access to master glassblowers in their studios.
We could have spent an entire day shooting in several locations just the two of us, wandering wherever we pleased so great was Paolo's hospitality, not to mention his reputation among his colleagues. Finally, even we had had enough of this visual feast.
"Would you like to see a palazzo?" Paolo asked, almost as an afterthought.
And so, later that week, we spent the morning photographing in a stunningly beautiful, newly restored palazzo, making pictures not only of the gilded interiors, but of the count and countess who lived there.
But that's not the best story of this trip. The best story happened our first evening as Judy and I left our rented apartment and were walking the short distance to the local water bus, or vaporetto, stop in search of pictures. As we neared the stop, Judy noticed the large open doors of one old building, the interior of which we never had seen on our previous trips.
"Ooh look," Judy said, "they're dancing." Sure enough, inside a lone elderly couple was dancing cheek to cheek in what appeared from the street to be an empty meeting room.
"C'mon, we'll miss the vaporetto," I complained. But Judy wouldn't couldn't budge. She went in.
I had to follow her. Judy smiled broadly at the couple, who returned her smile and nodded hello. That's when we became aware of the music, walked further in and saw a whole roomful of old folks dancing to recorded music and having a hell of a time. Now, my reserve crumbled who could pass up this chance for pictures? and I sought out someone, anyone, to ask permission to shoot.
[Important note: many people ask us about getting permission, or even if they need to get signed releases, before working. In most cases you don't need either. For personal or journalistic work in public places, you generally can shoot at will within reason. Sticking your camera in someone's face and just clicking away is asking for it. Good manners are never out of style. But when shooting commercially (for advertising, let's say) signed releases often are mandatory. With the old folks, it was simply a matter of courtesy to ask permission, and the courtesy paid off wonderfully.]
Immediately we were welcomed by these exuberant people, members of the local Gruppo Anziani, "Group of Seniors." We were offered wine and, most important, the chance to make photographs.
Judy and I burned film right and left, intermingling with the dancers so much that within a half hour we were dancing with them ourselves.
There was laughter, there was singing, and there was excited talk as these folks peppered us with questions which I, in my halting Italian, tried to answer. But most important of all, there was genuine interaction, people to people, and that informed our photographs.
I can't imagine making pictures that night with anything but a short lens. Judy and I needed the personal contact if our pictures were to be successful.
And they were.
Because, following Bob Capa's rule, we were close enough.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at email@example.com.