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William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844, salt print from a calotype negative.
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844, salt print from a calotype negative.Private collection, Courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York

Most people are not skilled photographers, but if you’ve taken enough pictures in your life, you’ve surely turned up some good ones —
a snapshot or two that made you think, “Maybe I have a knack for this.”

That unskilled amateurs can occasionally produce great images is a dilemma that has dogged photography as a form of art ever since the camera was first introduced in the mid-19th century. A new book, “Photography and the Art of Chance” by Robin Kelsey, looks at how some of the greatest photographers have dealt with the heightened role of accident in their medium compared to other kinds of visual art.

“Prior to photography, every mark made in a picture could be traced to a human hand, and it was that intention behind the image which in some way gave it meaning,” says Kelsey, professor of photography at Harvard. “The question for [early photographers] was, what is the meaning of a picture when it’s made automatically?”

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Different photographers have had their own ways of answering that question. For example, William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneering photographer and inventor, created a number of images of brooms leaning in open doorways. Kelsey calls Talbot’s 1844 image “The Open Door” one of the great photographs of the 19th century. The doorway from the title indicates the way to the future, and the broom can be taken as the artist’s brush, which Talbot is saying has been surpassed by the advent of the camera. Chance comes into the equation with the suggestion that Talbot just happened to stumble onto this perfectly symbolic arrangement, when similar photographs he took make it clear that the image was carefully composed.

Some artists concerned with the role of chance in photography have tended to focus on images containing vapor — clouds, mist, fog, foam. Going all the way back to Ancient Greece, visual artists have had a hard time capturing these formless substances accurately using formal artistic methods, which often create a look that feels contrived. “The mastery of linear perspective always hits its limits with clouds,” says Kelsey. As a result, he explains, clouds make a good subject for photographers who want to address the role of chance head on.

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“When photographers are trying to wrestle with the substitution of automatic process for skill, they look to a place skill could never reach anyway,” says Kelsey.

Kelsey argues that, overall, our culture is “in denial about the fact that individual photographs are prone to chance.” He sees this most clearly in museum exhibitions that often contain individual images from a number of different photographers. He think it’s difficult — maybe even impossible — to judge from a single image whether a photographer is talented and whether an image is a work of art or a stroke of fortune.

“If you want meaning out of photography, you need to work with a group of photographs rather than an individual image,” Kelsey says. “Museums [show] lots of great individual photographs, great engaging images, but I’m not sure what they mean.”


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.