Vive la (Creative) Révolution!

Some photographic movements have had a following in America, but none has ever held sway for any length of time. The Photo-Secession, documentary photography, photo-journalism, f/64, all made valuable individual contributions, but they all had to give way to the self-assertive individual photographer. Of course, individual photographers do bind themselves to certain limiting systems of aesthetics, as well as to habits, from time to time, but when they are good photographers, this debilitating condition does not last long.

—Edward Steichen

In his book, Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm suggested that most people, despite having the freedom today to act as individuals, have not yet outgrown the need for tribal conformity evolved in times when social cohesion was crucial to human survival. Fromm’s theory is that people become anxious and lonely when isolated from a group, which is why they often choose submission to (and/or dependence on) others even when there is no rational reason for it, and sometimes even to the detriment of pursuing their own desires and original ideas. In Fromm’s words (with apology for gendered language in the original text):

“Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless.”

Eric Hoffer was blunter in his assessment of the same phenomenon, writing, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

The field of landscape photography is as good a case study for such theories as any. Despite photographers being free to choose what and how to photograph, most choose to imitate (or outright plagiarize) compositions, styles, and traditions set by others. Although worsened by the conformist culture of the internet and social media, this is not a new phenomenon in photography. In 1909, Alfred Stieglitz was so annoyed by it that he wrote an article titled Twelve Random Dont’s. In the article, Stieglitz admonished:

“Don’t plagiarize if you can help it. It can’t give you any real pleasure to know yourself akin to a thief. Plagiarizing does not carry with it penal punishment; for that very reason it is more abominable than stealing in the ordinary sense. (N.B. Photographic editors should discourage the vicious habit. See prize-winners in numerous magazines.)”

Some seek to justify limiting themselves to unoriginal ideas and to common norms believing that they have no choice in the matter—that “everything has already been photographed”; that their creative hands are tied by an inviolate allegiance to factual representation or to the former limitations of now-obsolete processes; that rules imposed by some publications or contests should be regarded as divine law; or that there is such a thing as a singular definition for “real” photography that unites all past, present, and future products of a camera.

Such views are ultimately just opinions and rationalizations, and only hold true to the degree that one believes them to be true, or simply fails to question their truthfulness. In philosophy, such views may be regarded as manifestations of essentialism: the belief (commonly attributed to Plato) that for anything in existence there is some ideal form beyond the realm of material existence; and that material things are just reflections or embodiments of these pure essences. In the last couple of centuries of philosophical thinking, essentialism has generally been supplanted by, among other theories, existentialism, which posits that existence precedes essence: that things (e.g., photographs or people), once in existence, may assume independent qualities of their own—qualities not dictated by some transcendent essence or template they happen to embody.

When it comes to definitions, philosophies, and methods, perhaps no pursuit is as liberal as art. Photography, when practiced as art, may claim the same freedoms for itself as any other artistic media, and should not be restricted to limited and/or anachronistic notions of there being some immutable qualities that alone make for an “essential photograph” that all photographs should aspire to. Photographs first exist—are brought into existence as products of creative minds, free to apply the photographic medium in any way, and for any purpose, they see fit.

The history of the evolution of art is carried forth by constant revolutions in thinking, constant pursuit of novelty, constant breaking and transcending of former traditions. As Paul Gauguin put it, “In art, there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists.” Judging by how pervasive plagiarism is in our field, I think landscape photography is long due for another revolution. Arguably, the last time the photographic world was rocked by some disruptive new idea, that idea was “straight photography,” now dating back more than a century!

How sad it would be if by the inaction, fear, or lacking imagination of those of us working today, photography will fail to evolve beyond “straight”ism, and will remain shackled in “Prison f/64” for more decades yet to come?

In this age of political correctness, I must offer the obligatory “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Likewise, there’s nothing “wrong” with chamber music in the age of Rock; nothing “wrong” with Elizabethan novels in the age of science fiction; nothing “wrong” with making daguerreotypes in the age of digital photography; nothing “wrong” with the legacies of Rembrandt or Michelangelo in the age of post-modernism. There is, however, something very wrong with drawing arbitrary lines of acceptability in art—in hindering or disallowing the evolution of new styles, sensibilities, and philosophies. As if our generation has some special privilege to stunt, halt, or confine art to our own sensibilities for all the generations to come. For this reason, “nothing wrong” cuts both ways: for the same reason that there’s nothing wrong with adhering to, say, straight photography, there is also nothing wrong with abstract photography or with ICM photography or with “Photoshopped” photography, or with any creative idea in photography that may in time usher in the next “big thing,” no matter whose sensibilities may be offended by it.

Most new styles and philosophies in art were initially greeted with skepticism and ire, primarily from those in positions of power and authority in the art scenes of their day (sadly, the very people often trusted and assumed qualified to pronounce judgment on questions of validity in art). As Robert Henri put it, “History proves that juries in art have been generally wrong.” Bertrand Russell articulated the same danger in his book, Proposed Roads to Freedom, writing, “It is impossible for art, or any of the higher creative activities, to flourish under any system which requires that the artist shall prove his competence to some body of authorities before he is allowed to follow his impulse. Any really great artist is almost sure to be thought incompetent by those among his seniors who would be generally regarded as best qualified to form an opinion.”

In historical perspective, prolonged periods when art did not evolve beyond certain rules and canons were generally periods of tyranny and strife—dark times for humanity, in art and in other aspects of life. On the other hand, diversity and flourishing in art—new techniques, new subjects, new “isms,” and new ways of thinking about art—generally have correlated with times of prosperity and freedom. This is no accident. In such free times, the greatest risk artists faced in introducing new styles and philosophies was the risk of offending someone’s taste, perhaps the risk of receiving a scathing critique, or of limiting the audience for their work. Certainly, these may still be formidable barriers to many, for the reasons Erich Fromm named: anxiety and a sense of powerlessness in the face of broad consensus. However, comparatively speaking, this is a low bar for any would-be revolutionary. We are fortunate today to live in such a time. Revolutionaries, come forth!

Who may be considered as good judges of one’s artistic work? There are two ways to answer this question. If pursuing your work in any manner that pleases you is rewarding to you, and so long as this manner does not impose on others’ freedom to pursue their own work, then the only judge you should be accountable to is yourself. This doesn’t mean others will accept or agree with your judgment, or that your work will someday be considered of any special value or importance, but so what? If it is of value to you right now, that is all the value needed to justify it.

However, being your own judge comes with the risk of blinding yourself to knowledge, techniques, and modes of thought conceived by others in the course of millennia of art making: things that may enrich your work immensely in ways you may never realize on your own. For this reason, good judges of art are eminently important, and bad ones eminently dangerous.

Art being by its nature prone to (useful and necessary) revolutions and rebellions, who can we trust to be a fair judge of art without hindering art’s desirable ability to constantly change, grow, and adapt? The thought had occurred to David Hume, as well. In his dissertation titled, On the Standard of Taste, published in 1757 (a testament to his prescience and genius), Hume conceded that “few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art.” Nonetheless, Hume believed that good critics, while rare, do exist. Their qualifications, according to Hume, are these: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice.” Although few will argue that proven subject matter expertise, experience, sensitivity, and openness are desirable qualities in a judge of art, arguably it is the latter of Hume’s qualifications—the freedom from prejudice—that is most responsible for the rarity of good critics and judges. Alas, most who judge art these days do so by subjective preference, rather than by acknowledging and consciously setting aside their prejudices.

Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, in an article titled The Triangle of Creativity, wrote, “Creativity is, in large part, an attitude toward life. The attitude is one of defiance of—active assertion against—conventional views in favor of a new view.” In the article, Sternberg identifies three kinds of defiance: defying the crowd (openly expressing beliefs and values in a given field), defying the self (moving beyond one’s own previous beliefs and preconceptions), and defying the zeitgeist (resisting the unconsciously accepted rules and paradigms in a given field). The highest form of creativity—what Sternberg calls “consummate creativity”—requires all three. As examples, Sternberg offers that “Monet’s Impressionism or Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism would be examples of consummate creativity in art.”

Imagine how exciting it was to be a part of the art scene at the onset of the Renaissance, during the rise of impressionism, in the early days of Jazz music. How affirming it was to see the world changing by a creative revolution in artistic expression—a revolution not of power plays or  coercive impositions but of new aesthetic understanding and liberation from former constraints. It is my wish to witness something akin to such creative revolutions in photography in my lifetime. Preempting the question: I may venture some guesses, but I can’t say I know what this revolution might be. Certainly, I don’t presume to bring about such a revolution, although I may well join its ranks when it makes itself known.

As we await the next revolution, we must keep in mind that some attitudes pervasive today may hinder and thwart revolutionary thinking. Adhering too closely to traditions and to the zeitgeist is one such attitude. Taking for granted any statement starting with “photography is” or “photography is not,” is another such attitude. Also, accepting the judgments of others—no matter how popular or prominent—without question, is another. Revolutions will not likely come from those invested in the status quo: those sponsored by commercial entities, those profiting from positions of authority, or those preaching traditional values as gospel. Revolutions will most likely come from defiant rebels, from risk-takers, from individualists, from those unafraid to offend and to challenge norms.

We’ve had realism; we’ve had “epic” light; we’ve had straight photography; we’ve seen all the famous views in all the national parks done in all the traditional ways, and some with the Milky Way on top or looked down upon from the air. Is it not time already for our generations to (paraphrasing Walt Whitman), contribute a verse or two of our own?

These days, photographic technology is growing in leaps and bounds. Millions of new photographers are minted each year. Publishing and sharing photographs is easier and more democratic today than it ever was. If not now, when?

Let It Storm!

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7 thoughts on “Vive la (Creative) Révolution!

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  1. Gaugin: “In art, there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists.

    Actually, I think there is only one kind of artist: the revolutionary plagiarist.

    No artist that I’ve ever met or heard of, in essentially any artistic field, is completely original, unmoored to any previous work. In fact, virtually all begin by intentionally _trying_ to emulate some prior artist. It is a myth, as far as I can tell, that there are “blank slate” artists who are purely original, unencumbered by any reference to history or predecessors.

    This is not, of course, to say that there are no original or even revolutionary artists. Plainly, there are. But when you look more closely at them, what is fascinating is how they built upon, responded to, repurposed and recombined those roots into something new built out of the old.

    At some point, we all “plagiarize.” That’s a nasty word primarily because it implies not just borrowing, but _uncredited_ borrowing. In fact, an artist who IS influenced by predecessors (and I believe all are) but does not acknowledge this is plagiarizing in the traditional sense.

    There are really only two ways to avoid plagiarizing.

    One is to be a purely original creator working without any reference to anything we’ve seen and incorporated — to be the artistic blank slate. I think that is an impossibility.

    The other is to build our own creative worlds while acknowledging our sources rather than denying them.

    1. Thanks Dan! I agree completely, but I didn’t want to dwell on the subject of originality in this article (I wrote about it in other places). No doubt, all artists are inspired and influenced by others, and often start off attempting to imitate others. But some evolve beyond that. My point is it’s been a while since we’ve seen any real evolution in photography beyond just technology. Oliver Sacks wrote eloquently about this. Here’s a snippet:

      “Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement—such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind? It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.”

  2. Guy,

    Some very thought-provoking insights, which has led me to a couple of questions regarding the revolution.

    Who is to say that this revolution has not taken place or is not happening now? With the number of images that are posted on the internet on any given day that are considered or hope to be considered art, how would any of us know that some new movement is not afoot?

    And who would recognize it as such? Perhaps the artist is working in relative anonymity and has yet to be discovered by those who profess to know such art as revolutionary. I look up at the night sky here in the Dallas area and there are few stars to be seen because of the light pollution that is nearly inescapable even though I live over 20 miles away. And yet there are galaxies whose light appears as stars in that night sky shining. Just because I can’t or don’t see them does not make them any less real.

    The same with any artist who is creating. Just because they may not have the same opportunities as many of us to share our vision with others, does not mean they are not real or relevant or sharing some ground breaking vision we cannot see. How long did it take for many photographers to recognize or appreciate the photographic art being created outside of the United States? As you alluded to, we too often lock ourselves into one way of seeing due to group think and miss all the other viewpoints that would expand our vision further and even spark a new way of seeing we would not have envisioned.

    And who among us is to be the judges of some new revolutionary photographic landscape art movement or concept? Are there certain critics, museums, galleries, internet sites, groups, or individual artists who will proclaim we are now witnessing or are part of this revolution?

    But maybe we have been part of a revolution for some time. Digital images have led to the creation of not just art, but led many to embrace their own personal creativity, leading to a creative life. All of those images allow us to see many parts of the world some of us will never have the chance visit, of vistas we could not image in “our neck of the woods.” Maybe the revolution is in bringing us closer together and letting us know we are not so different in what we love and cherish and call beautiful on this planet that is our home. Maybe the revolution is in seeing all these landscapes posted everyday and saying “hey, this is worth keeping. Let’s do something to save it and save ourselves.”

    I am sure there are many other considerations we would need to address to recognize this revolution or how to come up with the parameters articulating said work as being part of the revolution. Perhaps the biggest revolution is the one that takes place internally in slowing down and looking before we push the button and asking if there is another way.

    John

    1. Thanks, John! Excellent points. Of course, there is no recipe for revolutions. They come in many forms, some more obvious and disruptive than others.

      The kind of revolution I’m thinking of is what we saw with impressionism, the Linked Ring, the Photo-Secession, cubism, surrealism, etc. The artists who brought such revolutions about knew very well they were perpetrating a revolution. They explicitly rebelled against the zeitgeis, rules, and sensibilities of their time. I think the last time we had something like that in photography, it was with “straight photography,” and that was more than a century ago.

      Today we have all the ingredient for an art revolution: lack of political coercion, better technology than we ever had, fewer limitations imposed by mechanics and processes. I think it’s time. Photography as art has always lagged behind movements and philosophies in other media. We have some catching up to do.

  3. Thank you for introducing me Erich Fromm. I once wrote an article titled “the echoes of photography” where I honestly made some questions on why do people are so prone to copy compositions, moods, places in landscape photography. Other than “I can do it” I couldn’t find any other evidences on why this copycat paranoia exists. Tribal belonging did cross my mind and it’s wonderful to see some evidence on that.

    That said, thanks for this article and all the precious references on that. It’s a thing I once asked you to do (to insert references on your articles) and I am very happy that you did this on this particular article, because this subject really interests me.

    Like you, I am close connected to landscape photography. I try to know how is happening in this genre, which photographers are references, which ones are breaking new grounds, what the people are doing and saying. But the truth is that I don’t do out of this bubble quite as often as I liked.

    So my question is, how do you know that this is not happening in photography as a whole? Because you talk about photography all the time and not landscape or nature photography. If you mean landscape photography, I agree 100% with you and with some contests appearing, backed up by some of my references, completely excluding creativity and revolution, my opinion is that this is getting worse and worse.

    Thanks,
    Luis

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