Chasing the “New” Saps the Passion from Photography

Not too long ago, a friend of mine showed his portfolio to a curator at a local museum. After sifting through his photographs rather quickly, she handed them back to him and said she saw “nothing new” in his work.

Nothing new?

When did being “new” become the overriding factor in determining the quality of a photograph or other work of art?

Celebrating the New

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in celebrating the new in art, when change is organic and authentic. To study art is to study the natural evolution of human creativity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the Secessionist movement held that a photograph’s value should be based not on what was in front of the camera, but on the ability of the artist to manipulate the image to achieve a subjective vision.

In the ’20s, the arrival of the Leica changed everything and all of a sudden, journalistic photography was the “new” thing. What the artist saw was now more important than how he manipulated it.

Over time, newer movements have come along to replace the older ones. That is what art is all about — or what it should be about.

New for New’s Sake

Lately though, I believe that “new” has begun to replace “good” in photography.

The obsession with discovering the next “new” trend has given birth to a whole generation of mediocre work, as natural creativity takes a back seat to artifice and gimmickry.

Take vernacular photography, for example — the photography of everyday life and common objects.

Museums have been trying to find something “new” in vernacular photography for years. Unfortunately, when you are simply photographing things that lie in front of a camera without any regard to composition or expression or passion, what are the options, really?

So what we’ve seen is photographers making their photographs larger, changing the format from rectangular to square, and authoring more loquacious artist statements. This is the new “new.”

The subject is as boring as ever — but look, it’s so much bigger now! That should be worth a gallery opening and a higher asking price, shouldn’t it?

Dry and Bloodless

Today when I view most fine-art photography, I feel like I’m reading an academic thesis rather than experiencing a work of art. There’s no passion there; just increasingly dry and bloodless attempts to explain why I should care about what I’m witnessing. Why I should care that it’s “new.”

That’s OK. I’ll just look at Kertesz’s “Satiric Dancer” for the thousandth time and still feel something these “new” images will never inspire.

20 Responses to “Chasing the “New” Saps the Passion from Photography”

  1. Amen. So the right term is "Vernacular" eh? I'll keep ignoring such "photography" but now I know how to call it.
    I'm afraid people confuse "spontaneous" with "uninteresting" and "careless". That's the trend with most "street photos" today: hey, look, I took a picture of a zebra stripe but i tilted the camera and applied a fake lomo effect SO OMG THIS IS ART!!!111oneeleven!!1
    Thanks for your interesting thoughts.

  2. Direct and to the mark.

    It's sad, really. Technology has empowered everyone with a casual fancy to declare themselves photographers.

    Technology is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; however in this case, it removed experience, study and skill as a barrier of entry. I'm dating myself, but in the 1970's, you had to learn how to use a light meter and to decide what what the focal point, because the term "automatic" had a different meaning at the time.

    I'm glad the cost of the average image is close to zero (over time), which allows more people to explore their potential as digital artists (or photographers, the line of distinction being blurred) or at least take snapshots.

    As I see it, the web is heavily saturated with bad photography and the reference points are vanishing. The standards (expectations) of acceptability are being lowered towards the lowest common denominator.

    Art directors are no longer seeking out new talent; they don't have time because they're flooded with requests.

    The pay for licensing an image has dropped through the floor (personal experience).

    Also from personal experience, after doing a recent pro-bono shoot for a non-profit organization and being assured of a credit line when the shots ran in print, I was subsequently told they may not have room for a credit line. This was done without an apology. Ignoring my professional work.

    I *did* ask, though, if the reporter was foregoing her byline because of a similar reason. I never got an answer and I'm not surprised.

  3. I could not agree with you more. It's just sad.

  4. I don't know if it's an obsession with the "new" so much as the idea of conceptualizing -- a gimmick if there ever was one.

    I've been to many a BFA/MFA graduate art show and seen pictures that had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to commend them. But they were "art" because the so-called artist had a concept. I guess art schools have to find some way to justify the money they're charging these incredibly untalented people they're supposed to be educating.

    As for the focus (pun unintended) on the vernacular -- plenty of artists (Atget, Cartier-Bresson, and more recently Winogrand, Eggleston-- talk about spontaneity! -- to name a very few) have been able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and transform into something new and wonderful and exciting, but except for the Egg, they're sadly absent nowadays. What's even worse is the total disregard for craft and beauty.

    I have to wonder if the current move towards larger and larger prints is an effort by those who don't quite believe that photography is a true art form, like painting, and are just trying to compensate somehow.

    As for artists' statements -- goes back to the photography mill that so many art schools have become. You can justify anything, it seems -- any crappy photograph -- if you've got a concept and can write about your purpose in your artist's statement. Imagine asking Ansel Adams for an artist's statement!

    Thanks for a great blog!

  5. "As for artists' statements -- goes back to the photography mill that so many art schools have become. You can justify anything, it seems -- any crappy photograph -- if you've got a concept and can write about your purpose in your artist's statement."

    That will be the subject of my next blog

  6. David,

    I'm looking forward to reading your next piece. I'm an admin for several groups on deviantArt - an online artist's community - and I have voted to decline photographs that couldn't stand on their own merit (and were dependent upon an explanation). And I told the submitters why I did so.

    I would never put it in these terms directly, but bad art is bad art.

    Pieces that have no congruence or tension, are overexposed, out of alignment, out of focus, have poor use of color and/or tone or are simply nice snapshots of family are different from images that intentionally break some of the rules to achieve a purpose.

    Unfortunately, many of today's artistic youth don't have the background in basic art to make things work. And photography has become more of a technology toy than a tool.

  7. Mark, the old saw is that you have to know the rules before you break the rules, and that is so true.

  8. Everybody is an artist; no matter that you haven't even bothered to fine out what art is about or even taken the time to view classic art.

    Don't we need to define what an artist is and what the qualifications are, and it is not a crafperson, although they can rise to the level of an artist but it depends on the quality of their work.

  9. Scott, one of mantras:

    Learn all the rules really, really well. Then you can -- and should -- break them with impunity.

    With the greatest of apologies to Mark Twain.

  10. I can't restrain myself. I have to comment again because there have been some great comments and this is a subject that really clogs my craw.

    I travel a great deal because all of my photography is outdoors and nature related. On the road you meet a lot of people. In the "old" days people would often ask "And, what do you?". To which I would reply I'm a photographer and they would think that was somewhat fascinating. Today 99% respond with great enthusiasm "Me too!"

    I have always believed that photography was an art not a science. Yes, one needs to know the basic technical aspects but a person of average intelligence should be able to pick those up pretty quickly.

    I came kicking and screaming into the digital age and now I embrace it but my shooting discipline has not changed all that much. Yes, I shoot more shots but not that many more. My point is: with digital and Photoshop "photography" has become technological commodity. People fire away with reckless abandon and the idea they can "fix it" on the computer.

    Where oh where has the artistry gone?

    I may have wandered off topic. But, I had this rant that needed to get vented.

  11. I love looking at pictures where the rules are broken. Blurred images, over/under exposed, lopsided, slow shutter speeds, etc. They all can be interesting. Its what is in the frame that counts. Its either interesting or its boring. A good image is not anally following the rule of thirds, striving for maximum sharpness, and perfect exposure. Those images can be just as dull as those I referred to in my article. For instance, I am not really a fan of landscape photography just because of those reasons—they try to be perfect, and perfect is not always interesting. But every now and then some landscape images just grab my attention. They are original and the photographer looks at the subject in a totally fresh way. Its the "new" in art that I love—not just "new" for new's" sake.

  12. Well said! Quality and feeling have been missing for years, thats why I can't get shown anywhere.
    No one is interested in strong images now.

  13. Good read and a lot to think about.

    The good will outlast the new. Good images will still be around long after the "new" have come and gone.

  14. I seem to have hit a nerve.

    Interesting that no-one mentioned the words "passionate" and "intensity", although I think both are alluded to.

    I'm showing my age, but when I had a couple of rolls of 120 or 220 film, I was very conservative in the way I worked. Film was expensive; processing more so - and I only had a limited amount on hand.

    There's still really good, innovative and creative work being done, but it's hard to find amongst the photos that are casually tossed-off.

    Not that they don't stand out immediately - because they do. But you have to wade through so much material to find them.. And that's just the works the artists have made public for critiquing or to show.

    It doesn't look like a lot is being sold.

  15. If this upsets you, get used to it.

    The fact that technology has empowered many new photographers is not sad. It's inspiring and motivational. If you're put off by having to work harder to stand out then it says more about you than these democratized photographers.

    Remember that photography is about more than just the final picture. There are some emerging qualities in photography that are overtaking pixel perfect photography.

    The response of the curator, in my eyes, was one that said nothing in the portfolio stood out. Nothing in the portfolio was exceptional and extraordinary. Good is not good enough. This gallery curator doesn't care if you've been taking photographs since you were in the womb.

    I totally support the democratized photographer - yea the ones shooting camera phone photographs and finding creativity and interest in photography. Who are we to put that creative expression down?

    Things change.
    You better be willing to try new and different things because other people are and they might be the ones that don't have your decades of bland photography experience.

  16. I agree with Scott Web. New has been the prize in art since time immemorial. Michalangelo was new, Leonardo Da Vinci was new as was Picasso, Dali, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, James Dyson etc., etc., etc., the list goes on.

    You can't expect to get ahead if you're producing the same images everyone else has already seen. People want an edge in their images and if you can't give them the edge, be prepared to fall off it.

  17. good article
    I agree with most but...
    as far as the old. if i see another picture of a heroin addict, the homeless or children in third world nation hanging in a museum i might puke.

    but i can certainly appreciate a well composed and exposed image new or old.

    Just remember the context of the image you are looking at. If its in a modern gallery or a school. i want to see the new not the old ie heroin addict.
    i want to see mixed media. new lighting techniques. new processes. wow me.

    and i couldnt agree more. the daily shots or "vernaculars". blah there is nothing cutting edge about that. yuck yuck yuck.

  18. I just read this interesting rebuttal to your article here:

  19. Wow! As a grumpy old photographer, i am rarely impressed by the ravings of these young whippersnappers.

  20. Very simply, the problem isn't the "new" -- the problem is that all too often, the "new" is simply NO good. Not only is it NOT good, it's downright garbage.

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