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.
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.