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.
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?