In 1965, legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson landed his first big assignment. He lived with the Hells Angels, the most notorious motorcycle gang, for one year publishing his writings and photographs about his experience in The Nation. Five years earlier, on February 26, 1962, Thompson pitched Pop Photo for an article on the virtues of American photography. Writing to James Zanutto, the features editor for Pop Photo at the time, Thompson’s pitch advocates for “snapshooting” and discusses his own experiences with the photographic medium and stresses the importance of strong vision over sophisticated photographic equipment.
The excerpt below was published in Thompson’s book The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 and can be read in full here.
Dear Mr. Zanutto:
After reading Hattersley’s “Good & Bad Pictures” in your most recent issue, I mentioned what I thought was an article possibility to Bob Bone and he suggested I see what you thought of it.
Its title might be something like “The Case for the Chronic Snapshooter.” This derives from Hattersley’s statement that snapshooting is not, by definition, a low and ignorant art. He cites Weegee and Cartier-Bresson as examples.
My only salvation lay in a Hasselblad, a Nikon and a quick enrollment in a photographers’ school. I pondered this for a while and soon found myself running in circles, going from one camera store to the next, promising them all that I’d come back the next day and buy a complete outfit. Meanwhile, I zipped my camera into a suitcase and stopped taking pictures altogether. They were bound to be terrible, and besides that, I was embarrassed to be seen on the street with my ratty equipment.
Then I read Hattersley’s piece. After that I got out some of my prints and decided that not all of them were worthless. As a matter of fact there were some that gave me pleasure. And I had sold a good many, I’d enjoyed taking them, and some had even given other people pleasure.
When photography gets too technical as to intimidate people, the element of simple enjoyment is bound to suffer. Any man who can see what he wants to get on film will usually find some way to get it; and a man who thinks his equipment is going to see for him is not going to get much of anything.
The moral here is that anyone who wants to take pictures can afford adequate equipment and can, with very little effort, learn how to use it. Then, when the pictures he gets start resembling the ones he saw in his mind’s eye, he can start thinking in terms of those added improvements that he may or may not need.
It may be that my thesis will rub some of your high-priced advertisers the wrong way, but I doubt it. After all, the best way to appreciate fine equipment is to shoot with some that isn’t so fine, and then move up. But no man will learn an inferiority complex quicker than he who starts out with a Leica and consistently gets poorer stuff than his buddy with an Olympus Pen. And the man who starts out with an inexpensive but adequate camera will soon learn its limitations, and he’ll appreciate his Leica when he gets it.