Monday, May 21, 2007

It's Been Done Before

An important issue in serious photography is whether it's valid to try something which has been done before, or possibly been 'done to death'. It's fairly obvious that it is impractical to eliminate entire categories of photography on the grounds that 'it's been seen before'. By this logic we'd eliminate all nudes, landscapes, portraits, architectural shots, flowers, and virtually every other topic, leaving us to photograph extraterrestrials (assuming they visit), and not a hell of a lot else.

OK, what if were a bit more specific - what if we were to photograph nudes with high key lighting - sorry done before. So does this mean we can never ever again shoot a nude with high key lighting? Harry Calaghan did this 50 years ago. Should we then criticize every photographer since who has used this type of lighting to photograph nudes.

I think that categorizing images is the problem here. We need to evaluate images for whether it adds something to our understanding of the world or creates a reaction in us, even if we are fairly educated about the history of photography. Should it do so, finding another image by a different photographer with similarities really doesn't matter.

Think of writing instead of photography. Shakespeare used pretty standard plots, situations and conflicts in writing his plays. He's famous not for his original plots, rather for his fleshing out characters and use of language.

Frankly, if the only thing to recommend one's images is that they are new, then I for one don't think that's good enough. In fact I will predict that they won't last or be remembered, except possibly in a history of photography.

I'd rather be known for taking a great photograph of Yosemite rather than for taking the first photograph.

Rather than spending your time pigeonholing an image, stop, look and enjoy it. If it happens to be very similar to another image you have previously seen and is even better, well isn't that wonderful. If it adds nothing to your experience, well don't bother looking at it again.

Which brings up an important point, photography isn't a contest (or at least it isn't most of the time and probably shouldn't ever be).


Howard Grill said...

I've always been...well, perhaps troubled isn't quite the right word... by people who feel that what makes soemthibg 'good art' is, that if you point your camera at soemthing that is not typically photographed, that immediately makes it important art, whether or not the images say or transmit anything at all.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me the most about this post is it puts way too much value/importance on the viewer's reaction and almost none of the photographer. Sure, I guess many photographers take pictures for the viewer - sales/praise/etc. But to me, that approach kind of leaves the photographer as an automan, as someone who has given up his standards and handed them over to others. What's missing in this view, I feel, is what the act of photography can mean and do for the photographer, regardless of what others think. The effort to see, to create, to respond to one's own instincts and values and the like, is so much more important to me than what anyone else out there thinks. This view seems to be missing in this post, and that's unfortunate.
Howard Lane

Chuck Kimmerle said...

Howard, you might have taken George's post wrong. I think he's saying the same thing that YOU said. In essence, that the photog should shoot what feels right, the viewer (and conventional wisdom) be damned.

In general, I don't have a problem with that premise. However, I've heard a lot of so-called fine-art photographers complain that they cannot find a prominent venue to display their work, while at the same time shooting either in Yosemite or the desert southwest, areas that have both been shot to death.

Like I said, photographers should (must?) shoot only for themselves. However, if aspirations exist for peer accolades or professional recognition - where third-party opinions are THE deciding factor - then subject matter is a definite consideration. This gets back to Georges final thought about photography as a contest.

Howard Grill said...

Chuck, I was agreeing with George..I guess I worded my response in a confusing way!

George Barr said...

We have a Howard problem. I think Howard L generated Chuck's response, not Howard G's. I think both points are valid. I confess when I read Howard L's response, my reaction was to feel guilty that I care what other people think about my work, then I thought, don't be rediculous, of course you care. Now I I'm not so sure.

In terms of newness, if one photographs entirely for oneself it doesn't matter a hoot who has done it before except possibly the satisfaction of coming up with an original idea - of course I don't happen to think that photographing something that's been done before precludes and original idea so it doesn't really matter.

Chuck Kimmerle said...

Ooop...sorry Howard. I was referring to Howard.

Dave New said...

Brooks Jenson (of Lenswork) has pointed out that if one needs freedom of expression in their artwork, they also need the finances to support that way of life.

In other words, you gotta' sell a few, so you can go out and shoot what you want.

Some folks are born independently wealthy, so the above doesn't apply.

The rest of us, whether we care to admit it or not, need to please an audience with money to spend, at least part of the time, expecially if you want to afford all the newest equipment, software, papers, ink, chemicals, etc.

Therefore (at least for the part of the time we are thinking about where our next meal is coming from) we must care what others think about our work.

By the way, remember that what others think about our work tells us much more about them, not us (or our work).