History is a story with no ending. You read it from the past to the present.
Then you make history.
Funny thing happened on the way to educating our country. We lost track of how important history is and we lost sight of what it really means to be educated. Somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that the only really important thing was to have a career and get a job and make money and be comfortable. In order to do this most efficiently we took our universities, which previously had subscribed to a mandate that good education meant well rounded education, and turned them into big trade schools. Mostly for the benefit of big business.
Each "discipline" narrowed down its focus to transmit only the rawest and coarsest base competencies. Engineering students learned their math and physical sciences but lost the institutional mandate that required what used to be considered basics. Things like literature and a foreign language became roadkill for the sciences. Business majors never see the inside of a philosophy or art history classroom on their rush to riches. Our forefathers knew that it was in our society's best interest that people understand the value of good novels and poems, become civilized by appreciating important and time tested music and also to understand the arc of art history and art in general.
It has been said that "Art tells us what it is to be human." And I would say that any society that doesn't value it's art will soon cease to be creative, cease to produce truly creative products and will live a meaner existence. To not know history is to be doomed to endlessly repeat it.
Many people flock to photography and practice it as a hobby or a business but so few of them know anything about the history of the art. Or the history of its technology. Without knowing the rich past of photography we have no base line to understand its arc and its depth. And we're left with a generation of photographers who are re-interpreting the same wheel in the same (concurrent) time period, over and over and over again.
No wonder people are fascinated with Instagrams and Hipstergrams. It's just a recycling of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations and Polaroid transfers. Most of the current practitioners weren't old enough to have been around for the first iteration but its aesthetic has been kept alive by advertising references and rehashes for decades. Would the new iterations be anywhere near as popular if the people doing it now knew that their parents and grandparents did the same thing, analog style, so many years ago? Probably not. They would shun it and perhaps go in a new direction. They might seek new ways to speak with their cameras instead of copying stuff that their aunt did when she was their age. ( And, by the way, Ben Lowy's work is interesting because of the content, and context, not the trendy presentation.....)
Would the photographers who think they are being cool by taking images with their tiny cellphone cameras be surprised to see a portfolio of Helmut Newton's fashion work done on a beach with a 110 (mini-film) interchangeable lens camera from Pentax back in the 1970's? It was primitive and the film was primitive so it was all about the talent of the photographer. Would people be as impressed by Chase Jarvis's oh so kinetic Ninja shoot if they had already seen the work of Phillipe Halsman's Jumpology from (gulp) the early 1960's? Would they be amazed by the Photoshop work of hundreds of thousands of worker bees if they had spent time looking at paintings by Salvatore Dali or even Brueghel's Tower of Babel ?
And who doesn't understand that our modern ideals of beauty were invented and presented by painters Botticelli and Michaelangelo and especially Leonardo Da Vinci? And that no one has created a more beautiful three dimensional work in all of human time than Bernini's Apollo and Daphne?
Our rush to decimate all of the non-essentials of learning in exchange for training will eventually destroy our entire culture because it takes away the reasons and rationales for all of the hard work we, as a culture engage in; to be captivated, enchanted and mesmerized by art and music and poetry, romance and all the things we do because we love them, not because they bolster some bottom line. How do you put a financial value on falling in love with the lines of a poem?
Photography is interesting today in that we are constantly obsessed by the availability and constitution of the tools. We spend all of our time on the equipment and none of it learning the stories and legends and motivations of the guiding lights and historical figures of our own art and craft. We know nothing of the great works and the struggles against all odds that produced them. We say "good capture" to the weekend warrior who goes on a photo walk and takes a sharp picture of a cat but we've never learned of the struggles of the Civil War photographers (Matthew Brady: Sketchbooks of the Civil War) who had to coat glass plates in the field for film and then make sharp images with long exposures on cameras that weighed over 50 pounds and had no functional controls. People made exposures then by uncapping a lens, counting down and estimating exposure times and then recapping the lens. The chemicals that made the final images were often times toxic and deadly and yet, the artists were still able to make images that would shame all but the greatest photographers of our current time; if we could distill our current masters from the vast fields of chaff....
Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our own craft? We are so busy honoring our current "teachers" that we can't even see around them to the incredible contributions that came before.
I wrote a book on lighting with small flashes. It sold well. People were ready to hear the message. David Hobby preached the same message on his website. And the vast majority of our customers and followers wrongly give us credit for "inventing" small flash photography or, in David's case, Strobism. But the reality is that our work, for the most part is a shallow scoop into the work done by a person who was there before us named, Jon Falk. He wrote a book back in the 1980's called Adventures in Location Lighting and he let us in on the secrets of using radio triggers, optical triggers, external battery packs, minimalist light stands, all kinds of flash modifications and much more. He was an amazing source of information about all this stuff. (Thanks Jon!!!).
And I have no doubt that his knowledge was built on the information and inspiration that came from the generation just ahead of him. And then all the way back to Dr. Harold Edgerton.
The primary difference is this: His generation invented stuff to be able to say what it was they wanted to say. They had a mission. It was to get a certain style of image. Now the mission is to play with the gear. When is the last time someone told you about a subject they were intent on capturing in a new way? And when did they tell you about their new lens/camera/flash?
Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created. The same ones we build on today. By knowing the past we can prevent spinning our wheels by reinventing them over and over again. By studying the history of photography and the history of art we'll all benefit by being able to create new work that inspires a new generation. Otherwise, to use a musical analogy, we'll just be stuck in the same elevator listening to the same Muzak version of Hey Jude by the Beatles, over and over and over again until we die or photography becomes so stale and self referential that it dies.
So, you went to school and you got the job and you're financially successful. Now plow some of that capital back into some important continuing education: Dig deep into art and art history and you'll be rewarded beyond your dreams. You'll actually learn how we fit into the rich and endless swirl of history instead of just watching "what's cool right now" being recycled on the web.
If you're going to tell me that you copy all of the current stuff in your own work as some sort of learning process I'll tell you that you're copying the wrong stuff. Go for the classics. That's where the magic is. And the chicks will dig you more...
So many people work so hard only to come to the realization that they didn't make time during their working lives for the things that make us part of the human continuum. The shared joy of our art and culture. That's why so many older people take up painting, photography and expansive learning. Easier to do it all along. And, like compound interest, more valuable.
This is my 1,000th Published Post. And it was finished at 9:30 pm on Weds., May 2nd 2012.
my favorite post: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-is-to-make-life.html
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