Why are we so preoccupied with new work?

In an e-mail recently another photographer took me to task for showing work that I'd done in years past.  I understand the fascination with new gear and all things digital but photography didn't just start in 2003 or whenever it was that Canon introduced the D30 and Nikon introduced the D100.  Nope.  Many people were taking photographs even earlier than that.  And we're not anxious to relegate everything that we did before last year to the deep archives.

In fact, if you look at the work of Robert Frank in, The Americans, you'll see that people were doing great work before I was even born.  And to ignore it is a form of "hyper present time" chauvinism.  In fact, I'd conjecture that before people were inundated with social media, cable TV, cellphones and instantaneous news they actually had a lot more time to work on their hobbies, their passions and their core professions.  It may be that the 1950's and 1960's (before my time as a photographer) gave birth to nearly all the social constructs and road marks we hold dear as a culture today because their focus was more intense and more acute.  Their time less fragmented.  Their anxiety less lethal.  Their lack of pressing and immersive contact may have given artists of that age the space they needed to understand themselves and by extension their relationship to their vision and their art.  A golden age of humanistic introspection mirrored by art?

Why else would the Beatles and the Rollingstones still be relevant?  Why else would Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson and Richard Avedon still be influencing each successive, educated generation of would be photographic artists?  With the exception of Annie Leibovitz (who arguably straddles that generation and my generation) can you honestly name a new artist working today as a photographer who has even a small percentage of the influence and sway of so many image makers from the age before hyper cultural consumption?

I'm not saying that this snapshot I took of Ben, with a Contax G2 and a 45mm lens, on Tri-x film, is in the same league as David Bailey, Irving Penn or Victor Skrebneski but I am making the assertion that almost all of the work we see today is entirely derived from a generation that's passed and left a legacy that we've yet to match.

Argue all you want but today's carbon fiber cellos and violins don't compete with the instruments made over a century ago by Stradivarius and today's frenetic lighting geeks don't hold a candle to the work done by men of their grandfather's generation.  Sure, there will be exceptions that people will put forward, but it's almost as if we're in the middle of a de-evolution of photography, which is braced up and given credence by the ease with which the masses can achieve technical proficiency.

I've said it before and I'll repeat it here, crowd sourcing art on a grand scale, with an inexhaustible feedback loop, serves to homogenize vision and rationalize a pervasive complicity wherein everyone copies everyone else to gain a universal sense of approval.  That's why each day's "style of the day" goes viral by the end of the day.  The quote from Dash, in the movie, The Incredibles, says it best,  "When everyone is special, no one is...." (paraphrased).

If you are an Ayn Randian you've come to know that phrase as being the distillation of 1100 pages of, Atlas Shrugged.

Am I saying that nothing new can be done and that we should close the patent office?  Of course not, but while I am being hyperbolic I do believe we could move the game forward by sharing less on a day to day basis while working diligently on subjects and points of review that are more organic to ourselves and less affected by the overwhelming momentum of narcissistic oversharing.   Just a thought.


Kurt Shoens said...

There is an advantage that the great artists of previous eras have: we remember them because they were special. I'll bet there are artists working now who will be remembered as especially talented and influential, but we don't have the perspective to see it yet.

You're right. A lot of people (like me no doubt, although I'm reluctant to admit it) are overly influenced by what they see going on around them. I'll bet that a lot of artists did derivative, unoriginal work in the past, too, so we forgot all about them. We'll forget all the current copycats as well.

I don't see why anyone would complain about you posting work you did years earlier. For one thing, it's not necessarily the case that we progress in a straight line getting better and better. For another thing, many of your subjects from the past (like a very young Ben) are no longer available to photograph. And finally, just as we see artists from many years ago with better perspective, we also see our own work in better perspective with the passage of time.

In fact, your old work benefits from the winnowing you've done. You're comparing your best work from the past to the raw take from today. Today's pictures have the benefit of your experience while yesterday's pictures have the benefit of the edit.

This is just my opinion but I really do appreciate seeing your work from across the years.

You're probably also correct that with the Internet sharing machine we're exposed to more images that are fad-of-the-day than to great images. A lot of what we can see today would never have been made into books in the past and would therefore have less of an audience.

If we're lucky, the ho-hum work becomes background noise and only the best work captures our attention.

Craig said...

Bravo! I personally love the way you mix new and old material in your posts. Keep it up!

Paul Cooklin said...

Hi Kirk - I agree with your post! Film, to my eyes, is timeless and I personally much prefer to see your analogue work than your digital as it seems to have a certain 'magic' only film can offer. (That't not to say I dont like your digital photography).

I know a lot of people who still shoot film and some of them, myself included, exclusively. This is not a digital versus film debate, it's just a thumbs up reaction to your analogue film posts.

Danny Chatham said...

You need not concern yourself with posting past
work when the work speaks for itself.criticisim
and flattery are like a costly perfume,its fine
to get a wiff of it,but dont swallow it.

Dave Jenkins said...

The last time I checked, Kirk, it was your blog. Post what you like.

Wink of an eye Digital said...

Nice Read Kirk with digital making more frames per secound just getting in the way of good stuff and only slowing us down because we have to wade through the junk? Hummm Nice read

Tobias Key said...

I think current state of photography has become mesmerised by the pace of technological change over the past few years to an extent that I think some almost believe (or want to believe) that no one took a decent picture before the 5D was introduced. There is also an increasing tendency towards group think, the idea that there one way of doing things, one brand of camera that's the best, and one best lens for that camera, until the next one comes along.

Forums particularly, seem to polarise so that debate is largely among like minded people striving to the same thing the same way.

I think great art is often has dissenting or dissonant voice, but the way we communicate now seems to stifle that dissent.

kirk tuck said...

They should build drink holders on the side of laptop computers so I don't have to balance my coffee on the edge of my chair while I type....

Mel said...

Cup holders - yeah, that's technology I can get behind. Isn't that what that little drawer with the hole in it that comes out of my computer for?

I'm with Dave - post what you like. No one's putting a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to tune in.

BTW, I tune in a lot - love your comments and photos. I forward periodically to my classmates from photo school, just so they'll have a perspective on the real world of photography.

kirk tuck said...

Mel. Mine doesn't have the dealy with the hole. Dammit. I think I've got more than enough USB plugs. Maybe I'll design a USB cupholder that plugs right into the side....

Raianerastha said...

Kirk, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment.

I believe that one aspect of the "de-evolution" of photography has been long standing. That is, the attitude of some to equate gear-induced technical excellence with the ovarching impact of a photo when assessing an image's merits.

I think some people are so focused on how well their gear can perform that they forget that the ultimate goal of any photograph is to communicate ideas or emotions to other people.

This is what makes photos timeless classics. Regardless of technical merit, they become classic because they captured a moment in time in a way that can be appreciated for the ages, and by nearly anyone.

Raianerastha said...

Oh yeah forgot: Kirk, you should know from visitign dpreview forums that the reality of photography is that as soon as a better model of camera comes out, all the photos you took with older models automatically lose resolution, color balance, proper exposure and even pick up unacceptable level of high ISO noise-including the film shots. LOL

troutcane said...

The majority of photos in the world are new photos. It doesn't matter when they were made. If it was shot in 1889, and I haven't seen it, then it is new to me and I might enjoy looking at it.

Post what you like. And that photographer should check out shorpys.com. If the photographer checked out the full size images, he/she might be amazed at the quality of some old 8x10 glass plates and the lenses used to make them. ;)

Michael Ferron said...

Yeah too many equipment junkies are more worried about "what" camera you took that photo with. "you mean it was on film??" "under 8 megapixels??" "it can't be worth much." LOL Tell me has anyone ever seen a good photo at DPReview? It's the home of the 100% crop.

Robert Bell said...

In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you'll agree,
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

-- W.S. Gilbert in The Gondoliers

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

I agree with you Kirk. Ironically, I think that one of the uniformization tendencies as how a picture looks, is related to the difusion of profiles and preset adjustments, as the ones you commented on your preceding post about LR. Maybe we have potentially conflicting requirements: predictability and repeatability at one side, originality on the other...As we let information technologies to take control of our work, for the sake of convenience or necessity of communication, our leeway for self expression recedes. I'm not bashing digital, just questioning some unwanted collateral effects from this technology.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

I got so carried away with my rant that forgot to comment the beautiful photo of Ben. Without curly hair, he looks still more like you (I even thought it was a picture of your childhood)

Dermot said...

Bravo Kurt!!, as always, so well said. Funny you posted this yesterday. Cause I just picked up a new book on Bresson (Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century)Gosh, if all we care about is new work, then I guess I just wasted my $50 bucks on a very new book about a bunch of old B+Ws.

... fantastic btw, I know there are so many, but I recommend for anyone looking to get a little re-invigorated

Anonymous said...

Thought you might enjoy this site of fellow Texan Arthur Meyerson: http://www.arthurmeyerson.com/
Don't think much of it was shot on digital or in this century for that matter.

Robert said...

"comment on my photo please,please. why hasn't anyone commented, maybe if I hit refresh multiple times"

kirk tuck said...

What did you shoot today?

Robert said...

well I haven't shot anything since the 4th. I've been working 60 hrs a week in a very non creative atmosphere. but that is coming to an end soon and I'll be shooting more often than once per week. and it will be art for the sake of art, and if anyone likes it besides me that will be a nice bonus. I'm inspired by every non technical post you make, even the business stuff. thanks.