I learned, with a heavy heart, that Iranian photographer Abbas Attar passed away in April at the age of 74. Over six decades, Abbas photographed wars, revolutions, and religions, and was a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency.
Eight years ago, I was fortunate to attend a four-day workshop with Abbas, organized by Sony in the heart of Tokyo. Abbas struck me as a serious photographer with mischievous eyes. He was stern about the craft, but fun around the edges. Abbas introduced himself as a ‘photography monk,’ and warned us that he didn’t like to be photographed; he believed that photographers should stay on one side of the camera and not the other.
Our days were packed — we started one morning at 3:45 AM — and I learned a lot from the master. For example, when asked about what makes a good photographer, Abbas gave us an answer that wove between practical and romantic. “First, get good walking shoes. Second, fall in love. Third, wear a scarf. It can protect your camera from rain, hide it from sight and keep you warm.”
And when we asked Abbas why he only shoots in black and white, he said, “I don’t want to show reality, I want to transcend reality. Color distracts, black and white helps me to concentrate on the subject.”
But the most important lesson I learned from Abbas was to be ruthless when curating your photographs. Our 12-person group must have shot tens of thousands of images, but we could only select 40 photographs for the final photo essay. The selection was a painful process; we didn’t only cull mediocre photographs, we dropped many outstanding images as well.
“Less is more,” Abbas kept telling us, “20 pictures is not always better than 10. Always the necessary photographs only.”
It hurt to drop so many beautiful images, but the result was eye opening. The sequence was stronger because only the very best photos remained. I learned that having more than one photograph of the same subject didn’t lead to a better story. On the contrary, it dilutes the emotional resonance by splitting it between images. Showing only one photo — even if it’s only lightly better than the others — is difficult for the photographer’s ego, but makes a deeper emotional impact on the viewer.
Abbas shared that for a photo story, he would print the best of his photos and lay them on a long table for days to a week. He went through them again and again; to rearrange, throw out, and edit. He explained his philosophy this way: “The first stage in shooting is the emotional part. It’s fed by emotion, culture, and your moods. The second part is editing and is intellectual. Does it work? Purge emotions from your work; edit with a cold eye.”
Those four days with Abbas changed the way I photograph and I’ve carried the lessons with me to this day. For example, I shot over 4,000 frames over 10 days for our article on travel photography in Japan. I loved 70 of these the most but only shared 11, and the feature is stronger for it.
It was only a short four days, but I’m grateful to Abbas for the warmth and generosity he gave us. The best way I know to repay him is to pass his lessons on. I hope you find them useful.
“The craft of photography is not one dimensional, it is many dimensions. When I’m shooting I’m aware of many things. Color, composition, movement, one split second and everything works. You have to be aware of the significance of what’s happening. Luck is very important as well, but it has to be deserved. You have to work for it, you have to be aware. With respect to my friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, my idea of photography is not the decisive moment, it is the suspended moment. The mind, the eye, the finger, the foot, the heart, even the sex, all have to be one line. One split second, everything works. One split second after, everything is finished.”