It happened to me again a few days ago. I stumbled across yet another major name in photography that I felt I should have known, because of that name's stature. Never heard of the guy.
My wife gets the Saturday Wall Street Journal (when the delivery people remember), which is an excellent paper if you ignore the loopy editorial pages. Sometimes it comes with a glossy fashion and art magazine, which is really quite wonderful. The Journal is making a play to be the Vogue of yesteryear, I think, and doing a half credible job. Anyways, they do semi-in-depth pieces on contemporary artists, and this one featured Thomas Struth.
Apparently, Struth is huge. He is a Big Deal. He's Düsseldorf school, so that's the Bechers and Gursky and those people. Looking over his pictures, he certainly seems to be in that area of work that appears to be willfully difficult to make sense of and, in this case, I simply haven't got the time or energy to make the effort. I dare say there's something there if you soak in it with an open mind, and so on.
The point is that this happens a lot. Some luminary from somewhere between 1950 and now is pointed out to me, and I think ""oh my god, I am an unwashed savage, how do I not know this artist?""
I have decided that the trouble lies not with me, but with the size of the pantheon. It turns out that the art world is absolutely crawling with second-tier photographers. The top tier being, for our purposes here, the photographers that get talked up regularly in mainstream press. What I mean is the difference between a highlighted piece in a general interest section of a major newspaper, and a short "this event is happening" squib in the arts-and-events section. It's a fuzzy line.
Now, if I were a professional critic, and spent all day every day living and breathing the Art Press, I dare say I could be faulted for not knowing most of the second tier, but damn it, I'm a civilian. As an interested civilian, I claim that I ought to be roughly familiar with the "top tier" and with a random smattering of "second tier." Conveniently, I simply declare anyone I've never heard of as "second tier," see how neatly that works?
Anyways, I have decided to stop worrying about the fact that I have never heard of so-and-so, and to stick with being delighted when I find that so-and-so is interesting.