In Response to Brooks Jenson: Lens Work 'The Work of Other Photographers'

SFMoMA Abstract


On the whole I like the Lens Work podcast and I've been listening to it for a number of years. In a large part it is due to its format which is slow and considered, especially when compared to most other photography podcasts which are long winded and rambling. That said I always cringe at Mr Jensen's scripted chuckles and his precious approach to photography seems out dated. As a result I usually find his point of view interesting but rarely wholeheartedly agree with what he has to say....

... until this week's podcast on The Work of Other Photographers.

Mr Jensen's proposal was that photographers who deliberately avoided the work of other photographers to keep themselves artistically pure were self-delusional. I'd go one step further and say that they're lazy liars. I talking here about photographers who have pretensions to be 'serious' not your average camera club member or shutter mom. I'm talking about people who want to be seen as artists.

In a previous life my wife was a poet. She worked hard at her craft and studied hard to keep up with contemporary poets and poetry. As her chaperon to poetry readings and salons I always encountered young, cocksure poets who avoided reading other poets for fear that it would somehow corrupt their own innate talent. I call 'bullshit'. They didn't read other poets because they were so self-involved they didn't have time for anyone else. They didn't learn about the giants of modern and classic poetry because they were too lazy to work through the backlog of poetic history that took work and could be tough to digest and understand.

A lot of artists have innate talent but very few are savants that don't need to develop their craft or to learn from the history that defines their time and place. If you don't really know who your influences are you are almost doomed to make sophomoric mistakes - I'm not talking technical mistakes I'm talking about artistic blunders. Even worse than knowing no photo art history is knowing very little and then basing your understanding on half-baked ideas. There are so many more photographers that deserve your attention than saint Ansel and HCB. Both of them were great photographers but they are not the start and end of art photography history.

Stop reading those camera magazines and PhotoShop tutorials and get out to a real photography show or go to your library and spend and afternoon going through some photography monographs. The history of art photography is not nearly as expansive as the history of poetry - the first real photo was 1826 and there aren't so many names between then and now as to be totally overwhelming. Photographers are influenced by everything they see weather they cop to it or not. You may as well know what you love and why (and what you can't stand and why) or you are going to just be influenced by photographers and movements secondhand via advertising hacks and Flickr imitators. Go to the source, not the copy.

Punk was seen as a movement that threw away all prior influences and rejected everything that went before them but that was only a half-truth. They still stayed within a well defined song format and they knew what they were rejecting and why (the excesses of prog rock). Punk wasn't mindless - far from it. Knowing your history does not make you a slave to it but it opens your mind to the possibilities and allows you to avoid making many mistakes. I'm not suggesting that you have to know entire academic history of art photography before you can make anything approaching art ... but it might help.

Posted on Wednesday, 13 April 2011 | Canon EOS 5D II, Editorial, ,