I like this article about Robert Frank, in that it attempts to address Frank’s viewpoint and method, touching on how difficult people with issues work towards art by bringing ugly things from deep down to light without dressing them up with absurd excuses, uncovering realities that are so true they can’t help but be beautiful.
In this age of constant connectedness and constant self-presentation, however, when one mistweet or inappropriate instagram can bring down global shunning, the dynamics of fame in any field, not just photography, have shifted. Back in the day, one would often find in any successful photographer’s bio the phrase “…fortunately happened to know (insert famous, influential individual here),” not to mention “…came from a wealthy family.” Other than those, and the work produced, not much else mattered. Connections, wealth, talent and luck, in that order.
It puts a dent in my admiration for photographers like Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, and increases my respect for photographers like Moriyama and Kertesz who hauled themselves up, though of course the work is the work, and the photographer is the photographer. I know talented photographers who produce excellent work but who are impossible to deal with, just as I know wonderful people who are kind and just and warm invididuals, whose photography…well, isn’t. The two aren’t necessarily connected, but I suspect that those people who are disconnected from society are better able to see society for what it really is. You have to go out of the house to see the house, as it were. If you’re constantly thinking of how you appear to others, making sure you’re socially acceptable, ensuring that you present the right sentiments at the right time, you’re not going to have the time or presence of mind to observe your surroundings with an eye to what’s really happening outside of yourself.
Frank was a terrible person to many people, by many accounts. Like Eugene Smith and Vivian Maier, he wasn’t cut out for family life or even social life…he couldn’t work with others; he couldn’t stand many other photographers; Magnum wouldn’t touch him. Some may think that his photography was brilliant despite these things, but I’m certain it was brilliant because of these things. If Maier had had a champion to maneuver her beyond her social and financial limitations, would we have seen her emerge as one of her era’s preeminant photographers? Likewise, if Frank had pissed off Walker Evans earlier, would we now be seeing stories like “Lifelong janitor’s road-trip photographs uncovered at yard sale will BLOW YOUR MIND (#37 made me choke up)”?
It doesn’t seem to work that way these days, however. For one thing, there is the deluge of online imagery, which doesn’t seem to have increased the amount of good photography by as much as people were expecting; if anything, it might have even somehow reduced it. But the Great Image Flood has managed to produce a different paradigm for judging value. Now we have contests for images taken with a certain machine or in a certain place, or by people of a certain age. People sit in front of computers taking screenshots of Google Streetview and call it photography. Others write about the latest gear and accrue huge followings, while more and more governments strive to demonize photography by their citizens while increasing their own surveillance capabilities, two phenomona that are not unrelated, crowing about the End of the Private when what is really happening is the End of the Public. And amid all this are the constant articles about the Death of Photography, as if to paraphrase a Pixar movie script, saying that when everyone is a photographer, no one is.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “Image Flood” photopocalypse theory, however. Why bother looking at anything if there’s so much out there, people seem to be saying. But we can only view so many images a day, just as we always have. If a billion images are uploaded in a forest, do they make a sound?
These are no doubt confusing times for someone who is interested in photography. I’m not singling out studio/model/business/sports/wildlife/landscape/HumansofRandomCity/yourlastmealatChipotle/whatever images, but actual photography. A lot of good work is being done, but any metric we once might have had evaluating it, much less finding it and appreciating it, has largely been replaced by counterproductive niceties and artspeak. It’s great and it’s there if you can find it, but don’t expect an easy path or anything approaching valid agreement of its worth. A flash on your screen and it’s gone. Offscreen, out of mind.
The death of photography, as well as many other things, could really only be the result of our refusal to observe and, as Georgia O’Keefe said, “make our unknown known.” Robert Frank did this, and his unknown was beautiful. It couldn’t not be. Unfortunately, in this knowlege-driven age, ignorance has become our greatest power (all you have to do is open virtually any comments section to see just how eager we are to wield it). There are modern-day Franks and Cartier-bressons and Smiths and Maiers. There are artists producing amazing work that transcends all of those, but they’re not the ones you know. The ones you know are concentrating on making sure you know them, and they don’t have the time to not suck.