Hunters and gatherers versus farmers and factory workers.

I'm not a cultural anthropologist but I'd love to play one on TV.  I do have some theories about humanity in aggregate that explain to me the vast differences in the way we think.  The theories also extend to the reason some people hunger for the safety of the group while others prefer the practice of solitude and personal action, divorced from complicit coercion of the hive.  People who study humanity say that for the first 99% of mankind's existence we survived in very small, family tribes and made our way in the world as nomadic hunter/gatherers.  We ranged far and wide, ate mostly vegetables, fish and small animals and we spent time embroiled in adventure.  There were dry spells and disasters but there was also plentiful free time and solitude.  Most decision making was left up to the individual.  You rested when you were tired and ran after game when you were hungry.  And it was the hunters who were the early artists in places like the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet.

At some point our people experienced a split.  Agriculture was discovered and with it the promise of a buffer from future hunger.  Many grain crops could be harvested and stored for long periods of time to offer a hedge against the uncertainties of nature.  Mankind had to choose between adventure and security.  Between the individual and the group.  Between shared sacrifice and autonomy.  Between spirit and subjugation.  Bellies were fully but diseases were more easy spread.  The concentration of populations gave rise to hierarchies of privilege and control. And the world has been spinning out of control ever since.  Our world population growth was turbo charged by the family farm and the community farms of the past 5,000 years.  More offspring meant more hands to till soil and gather in crops. Now the patterns remain but the need recedes. The equation has turned and now the surplus of workers threatens to upset the whole apple cart.

On a global level you can argue that agriculture, geographic stability and the like are what led mankind to make discoveries and inventions and even art and music and I'm not here to argue which state of existence is better but I do strongly believe that, like a tendency to be left or right handed or a proclivity for adventure or conformity, that each human carries inside a genome or DNA for one or the other type of living.  The farmers and stabilizers were, early on, able to concentrate numbers to create overwhelming armies which pushed nomads out of their territories.  The farmers and grain accountants now far outnumber the hunters. But there still exists a part of population that finds it impossible to conform to a lifestyle that many more people find perfectly acceptable.  Even preferable by dint of it's stability and security.  They are farmers and, the modern analogy/permutation, office and factory workers.  They are interdependent.  Not just for food and shelter but also for thought and intention.  

You hear the mantra all the time: "Team Work! Team Work! Team Work!"  That means "Think together, sit together, eat together, band together."  Great for building the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or the Hoover Damn.  Not so great when it comes to re-imagining existence and creatively re-ordering our existence.  Which we are obligated to do with each new generation.....

And, as civilization continues to homogenize, the outliers and hunters seem more and more strange and different to the masses.

So, where am I going with all of this?  I really believe that non studio bound photographers in general, and photojournalists and documentarians in particular represent the expression of the hunter/gatherer gene.  And without them society and civilization, as a whole, would capitulate to their own self-serfitude.  (I'm pretty sure I made that word up...)

Why else would millions sit at home, even on their days off, and watch TV?  Why do the masses throng to the malls to buy the same stuff as everyone else?  Why do they stampede out to the sports arenas to cheer on total strangers who they identify as "my team."?  They do it because they've been trained from birth to depend on the mass, the hive, the extended tribe to provide purpose, organization and relative security.  In exchange they surrender their creative freedom, their individual initiative and their curiosity.

Now, I'm obviously making sweeping generalizations because, of course, the mix of our genes is nothing if not convoluted and mixed up.  We all have the species memory as stored in our DNA to function as hunters and gatherers as well as farmers.  But within the general population their are propensities that are obvious and can be plotted.

We've become so interdependent that it's (nearly) impossible not to have a foot in the "Borg" quicksand.  And it's the relentlessness of the campaign to snuff out dissent and opinion that scares me.  Artists seem to be classified as "unusual" along with serial killers, saints and people who talk to invisible people on the streets.  In American culture you are less likely to know about art history than calculus and, damn few people in our country are up to snuff in calculus.  When we squish out the outliers we make life more emotionally comfortable for people who fear change and challenge because we eliminate scary, aspirational role models.  When we lampoon artists or paint them all with a wide brush we are doing what we do with the monsters in fairy tales.  We are trying to rob them of their power.

But instinctively we know that we need the outliers to push our society into continuous evolution and change.  Without the Steve Jobs hunter gatherers we have only Scully's who measure and horde without moving the game forward.  Without the Picassos we have only the status quo and blue bonnet painters.
Without Ferrari we'd have only Chevy Novas.  Without Jeff Bezos we'd all be lining up under the lime green glow of the Walmart ceiling fixtures looking for the approved products.  Without Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank we might still think our role is the vacuous documentation of cat whiskers and sunsets over suburban backyards.

Cities know they need art to survive.  They need people to metaphorically walk in the desert for years and then come back to tell us what it's like.  Someone needs to climb into rockets and let themselves be flung into space.  And it's the same in the arts.  Normal people flock to cities that nurture artists.  Museum spring up eternal.  Television and movies haven't replaced live theater.  People still play musical instruments and artists still make paintings.

I single out photojounalists and documentarians because it's imperative that they operate outside the system in order to see it clearly and reflect their observations back to their audiences.  They are the outsiders who report on the insiders to the insiders.  They call mass culture on their foibles.  And they do it with images.

But nothing reminds me of the legacy of our ancestors more than the urge to pick up a camera, put on a pair of walking shoes and head out the front door in search of individual adventure.  To track down an image and later share it on the wall of a cave to remind everyone else that adventure is as important to our civilization as air and water.  And you'll find plenty of both out there.  That content is at least as important as the technology used to create it.

Is it any wonder we're fascinated and drawn to the smaller tribes and cultures in our midst?  Like Rappers and Navy Seals and Athletes.  (and by athletes I mean real athletes who challenge the clock or race against others, not a bunch of people who do gladiatorial teams sports for cultural mind control).
Tiger Woods is fascinating because he plays golf really well but also because he only plays golf, does it on his schedule and reaps the rewards for himself and a small tribe.

I think the sudden interest in this century in photography coincides with a breakdown of the consensus culture.  People are resisting becoming part of the "giant team" because it seems to represent a walking death.  The rise of entrepreneurialism really represents a repudiation of the mega corporation model and a harkening, a desire for the autonomy of our ancestors.  The camera, worn on a strap for efficient travel, has become a symbol and artifact of our pent up desire to push away from the cloying crowd and rediscover what it means to make your own decisions about what is good and beautiful.

And even if you work for a big company at a "real" job you understand when you throw the camera over your shoulder and walk outside your front door to find adventure that this single act is helping you achieve a personal voice, a freedom of choice.  To be a good or bad artist isn't the question.  The real question is:  Will you create on your own terms or will you capitulate to what society at large has to say about what's beautiful and what's not?  The hunter gatherer would counsel you to smell the wind, read the signs and find out for yourself....

The more we bring art inside the corral the blander and weaker it gets.


Bold Photography said...

Wow. An interesting post. The natural tendency is to follow the masses, utter "moo" with everyone else in the herd, and copy/paste from whoever's hot.

But, I *do* understand that when I put on the camera, I chuck the 'corporate' world, and for a while, I define my own destiny, make my own art, and redefine beauty in my own way.

Paul Glover said...

This post hits home for me. I enjoy company, sure, but I've always been the sort of person who could spend a lot of time alone doing my own thing and be happy. I've never really found any joy in doing the same thing everyone else is doing. On the odd occasion where I sit down to watch something on TV there's a little corner of my brain which, in a quiet voice, will insistently remind me that "you do realize this is pointless, yes?"

In my youth, I was most at peace sitting at a computer, dreaming up new and cool pieces of code to work on, with no set goal but to create things which made me happy. Of course that turned into a career, a day job, and I have no interest in it outside normal office hours any more as a result.

Now I find myself very much at peace when wandering alone with a camera and no fixed agenda on what to point it at. If anyone else enjoys the result, I consider that a bonus but really, I take photographs for me and only me.

kirk tuck said...

fascination is wonderful. Sharing it is secondarily wonderful. We're all hunters at heart.

theaterculture said...

Thought provoking read, just the sorta thing that keeps me coming back here.

My own three-penny observation would be that the real damage to the human spirit wasn't inflicted by the agricultural revolution, but by the industrial one. Farming is more regular than hunter-gathering, it's true, but in both cases there's a relationship to time that places the human being in sync with something bigger than herself, whether it's the rhythm of migration and wild-plant flowering for the nomad or the cycle of seasons through cultivation and the harvest in an agrarian culture. Industrialization - the electric light, the 24-hour clock, the 9-5 day (which was, of course, much longer at the dawn of industrialized capitalism...) pretends that time can be rationalized to be subservient to human activity. We can do exactly the same job every day, regardless of the season, the only difference is whether or not we walk out of work to find it dark and cold or warm and sunny. We can eat the same foods all year round, regardless of what the weather's like outside. This FEELS wrong, to a lot of us, but an elaborate ideological apparatus has been created in the last few centuries to convince us that the problem in this feeling is our failure to be industrious enough, rather than the fact that we're being forced to live in a way incompatible with our nature because it's so drastically different from what shaped us evolutionarily.

What's left to the artist is to be the person who most acutely feels the arbitrariness of our over-planned lives and gesture back at the something-outside-ourselves that we used to live in tune with, the big mystery at the heart of existence. That, to me, is why the best art doesn't (just) entertain and comfort but also provokes and creates a little touch of disquietness, why it doesn't answer questions but asks them.

atmtx said...

Fantastic article Kirk. One of my favorites. You have brought together so much knowledge from different disciplines and masterfully put them together.

Paul Kelly said...

Most interesting.

Gregg Mack said...

Wow, Kirk.... this hurts:

"Why else would millions sit at home, even on their days off, and watch TV? ..... Why do they stampede out to the sports arenas to cheer on total strangers who they identify as "my team."?"

Yes, I sat at home and watched "my" Texas Longhorns loose this week, and this occured during the same times as your presentations was the only reason that I didn't make it to your talks on Saturday.

Do I feel like I'm part of the herd? Maybe in some respects, but certainly not in others. I really enjoy going to the football games, and I could care less what others feel or think about this physically brutal game. I enjoy the heck out of the buzz in the stadium, the ebb and flow of the change of momentum, and the true celebratory yell and high-fives when they score.

I also love to go out with my camera, with no agenda, and only a vague plan of what I'm going to photograph.

Maybe I'm the decendant of both farmers and hunters. Don't know, really. I do know that I'm not completely one or the other - rather a blend of both.

I do truely enjoy reading your thought provoking blog, and admire you greatly, so please do not think in any way that my comments above are attacking yours.

Ian said...

Must control and regulate photographers, for security .

kirk tuck said...

Ian, nice summation. Right on the money.

Gregg!!!!!! You couldn't Tivo that game? it's just the Longhorns. Aren't they busy having a losing season? Again?

Now, if there had been a UT swim meet that would be another story.....

Mel said...

Introverted exceptionalists of the world unite! Oh, wait, that would be a grouping behavior....

Love the "Equivalents" photos - nice subtle reinforcement of your topic. Do you think Stieglitz was talking about this?

kirk tuck said...

Mel, I thought the clouds represented the equivalent of being out in the open, away from human structure and in connection with nature. The antithesis of the two days I spent shooting at a hospital recently where there is no day or night in most of the operational areas....

Poagao said...

And yet, within the so-called group "photographers" we have the various tribes of Canon, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic, etc. It seems that there is a portion of the agricultural demographic that wishes to dissolve itself of such an identity without the actual work of doing so, resulting in sites like dpreview.com

Brad Burnham said...

Wow, photography and anthropology in one post! You have a very interesting point of view and it was a delight to read.

@Poagao-So true about the brand tribes. I try to not do that and shoot lost of different camera, based mostly on whim.

Orchard Light said...

Thanks Kirk, I got a lot out of this post. I guess I have an interesting view on this because I grew up on a farm and spent my youth in the fields spring through early fall, and hunting in the winter. On top of that I was an only child so 'Team Work' is an odd notion for me. Now I'm sitting here a 6am with a light-blue collar corporate job where I don't even see the sun for eleven or twelve hours a day. The thought has been on my mind a lot lately that it's time to go out of the metaphorical cave and drag home a kill again.

Giving up the security for my family of a steady pay check isn't an easy decision to make. It's even harder to carry through with. It's come to the point though that spending sixty hours a week plowing someone else's fields makes it kind of tough to give my own work the time it needs to really prosper.

Heh, I could get a lot more work done if I didn't have this job in my way.

John said...

The real horror is when the artistic hobbies we pursue in our own unique eccentric manners end up victim to self-inflicted "group think". The gravitation of those seeking to wield a camera to the Big Two, Nikon and Canon. Fad-of-the-year visual styles like Photomatix HDR. The same standard lighting styles used by multitudes of JC Penny and SEARS photo studios. What is supposed to be an artistic exclusive has suffered its own commoditization, and the masses flock to it like traditional artists flock to Prismacolor markers and colored pencils and 70% recycled 85 pound drawing paper.

Personally, I think this past decade's surge in photographic interest correlates directly with its vicious commercialization. The only benefit has been that the few artists out there who might have not realized their potential as such have been given an accessible avenue in which to pursue their eccentric viewpoints through artistic communication. The rub is that there is a vaster sea of group thinkers muddying up the sea of photographic art with trends and fads, making those few extra artists bred that much harder to find in the sea of clown vomit HDR and bad bird photos.

Wil said...

Very well said.

Of course, a few of us watch the football games awaiting those moments (increasingly rare) when the secret hunter in the team's midst will explode into individual action, ripping away from the farmers/workers around him and be a loner for a few brilliant seconds.

These are probably our greatest thrills in watching games of the masses. Vicariously, through that one athlete, we can for a brief moment feel that soar of: "Yes! The hunter is still among us!" and forget that we spend most our lives trapped in the cities/factories/farms.

Joe said...

I have recently(the last couple of weeks) come across your blog here and now find myself hooked. Not so much on the gear reviews but on your thoughts of life. This post on the hunters/gatherers vs the farmers/stabilizers was particularly fascinating. It reminded me of a something I saw on a poster a number of years ago. At the time the internet was still being conceived so researching the source of the passage was formidable. However I kept a copy of the essay and have since learned that it was extracted from Appendix 1 of the book "The Laws of Form" by G. Spencer Brown. Here is the piece. I'd be interested in your comments.

"Discoveries of any great moment in mathematics and other disciplines, once they are discovered, are seen to be extremely simple and obvious, and make everybody, including their discoverer, appear foolish for not having discovered them before. It is all too often forgotten that the ancient symbol for the prenascence of the world is a fool, and that foolishness, being a divine state, is not a condition to be either proud or ashamed of."

"Unfortunately, we find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt. It is corrupt not only because pride is in itself a mortal sin, but also because to teach pride in knowledge is to put up an effective barrier against any advance upon what is already known, since it makes one ashamed to look beyond the bonds imposed by one's ignorance."

"To any person prepared to enter with respect into the realm of his great and universal ignorance, the secrets of being will eventually unfold, and they will do so in measure according to his freedom from natural and indoctrinated shame in his respect of their revelation."

"In the face of the strong, and indeed violent, social pressures against it, few people have been prepared to take this simple and satisfying course towards sanity. And in a society where a prominent psychiatrist can advertise that given the chance, he would have treated Newton to electric shock therapy, who can blame any person for being afraid to do so?"

"To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them."

"In these circumstances, the discoveries that any person is able to undertake represent the places where, in the face of induced psychosis, he has by his own faltering and unaided efforts, returned to sanity. Painfully, and even dangerously, maybe. But nonetheless returned, however furtively."

Archer Sully said...

Great post, Kirk. I'd love to sit in a cafe and discuss it. Are you sure you can't come up to Boulder to hang out at the Dushanbe Teahouse?

I think that even hunters need teams, as much as we might like to think of hunting as a solitary activity: it took teams of hunters to take down a mammoth, after all. We're all interdependent, but the hunter has a different sort of interdependence than the farmer.

In the meantime, I'm taking my team to the Grand Canyon (rafting, three weeks), to stalk images with manual cameras and film. There's no way I'd be able to do this trip without the support of my band of nomads. and yet the images will be mine alone.

kirk tuck said...

Thank you so much for posting that. Far quicker to the point than my essay and so cogent.

Spiney said...

I'm lucky to live in a time that allows me to be in both camps. After going through a life changing event I was able to embrace the artist side of me by carrying a camera with me wherever I went and by actively playing the drums again. I worked at the time as outside service doing computer repair. One night I went to a Jam session wearing my "Die yuppie scum" t-shirt and a wild pair of RnR pants when I was busted. Someone there said wait a minute didn't I just see you earlier today in a shirt and tie driving a Saab? I was caught straddling both camps. The great thing was I could and still do easily navigate in either. We don't have to be only one or the other.

Kepano said...

Kirk - I enjoy your blog, and I'm glad you decided to keep writing. Bought your book on minimalist lifting for location photography before finding your blog.

You write a lot on the business of photography. Do you have any thoughts to share about Behance.com?


kirk tuck said...

Kepano, None.