Monday, March 26, 2007

The only good photographer is an old photographer?

I'm a little cautious about blogging about blogs - it all starts to get a little incestuous and easily leads to some kind of internecine strife.

But then someone says something that articulates a vague thought that has been tumbling about in the back of your mind and - well - it just makes sense to point it out.

Over on Hiding in Plain Sight, George LeChat has this to say:

Writing in L.A. Weekly last fall, Holly Myers created a minor tempest with the following: "In thinking about Diane Arbus, as one does from time to time, I came to a distressing realization: that I couldn’t name a single photographer subsequent to Arbus (and Frank and Winogrand and Friedlander and Eggleston and the other greats of her generation) who ranked on anywhere near the same level, which is to say, who thrilled me near as broadly, deeply or consistently."...

...Myers attributed the decline to the elevation of concept over feeling. I think the problem is that contemporary photography too often lacks formal elegance or distinction. In its place, many photographers appear to believe that a clever, or topical, or referential subject will itself suffice. It seldom does.

George then goes on to give a couple of example of what he means using some photographs - Brian Ulrich and Lee Friedlander; Alec Soth and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

Now, as LeChat admits, there are dangers to this sort of generalisation, but it certainly got me thinking.

While I like a lot of work from contemporary photographers - indeed, I'm obviously enthusiastic about a lot of it - when I sat back and thought about Myers' comments, there seemed to be a kernel of something there.

My list of photographers "who thrilled me... broadly, deeply or consistently" came from the same sort of group Myers describes. And despite all the contemporary books on my shelves, I really had to work hard to come up with even a couple who lived up to this description in the same sort of depth I think she's talking about.

The two I did come up with (and her choice of Tillmans didn't come anywhere close) were Thomas Struth and Martin Parr (I'd also pick John Gossage, though I think he sort of bridges these generations - and as much as I'd like to pick Sugimoto, sometimes he's just a little too cool and detached).

But for me, it became pretty apparent that the majority of photographers I'd pick whose work "thrilled me... etc" came from at least a previous generation. What about you? (Perhaps we could set the dividing line for current generation at the Baby Boomers onwards - say 1946 to be generous, though that may seem ancient to some of you...)


Stan B. said...

Although I generally tend to think along similar lines (b.'55)- I really do love much of today's work. That said, it doesn't seem to resonate quite as much as some of the "older" work. Is it because I first viewed the latter in my "formative" years- just as I am still partial to much of the music from that era? Or were they truly the last visionary trailblazers, whose passion and artistry have yet to be significantly challenged?

Likewise, I would study and restudy my photo monographs back then ad infinitum. Now I scan current monographs and venture off to the next. Is that simply because there is just so much more work of note to be seen today? For reasons given, I don't think I can give a truly unbiased answer...

Anonymous said...

Well, I too tend to be more thrilled with the old. But lately I tend to buy contemporary. I think that when I buy old it is for pure pleasure, period. When I buy contemporary (it´s not necessarily like that but) there can be a more utilitarian angle to my decision on why I get a book, besides pleasure. I like to study how contemporaries present a body of new work, for example. It speaks to me more directly and can help me find my own avenues into building a certain series.

tim atherton said...

stanco, federico - both of those things played a part in my own thinking on this as well

Anonymous said...

Lately, I've been confronted more and more by conceptual photography. I've had to think about it, and having done so find most to be trivial. As an idea or philosophy it's interesting. In execution, it's bubblegum.

I am also a fan of emotion and beauty.