Monday, October 15, 2012

Have all the photographs been taken?

Have we come to a world in which all photographs have been, in some meaningful way, taken? Certainly we have a lot of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the moon is tidally locked, there really only are a couple dozen pictures possible of the moon. Do we need more Ansel Adams inspired mountains?

I don't mean to tell you to stop taking redundant pictures for your own pleasure. Indeed, I think it a fine pedagogical device. Making it your mountain rather than Adams' certainly may satisfy some personal desire. There is nothing wrong with that. Decorating your home with imitation Avedons isn't a bad thing to do at all, nor is selling them. These are fine things, but what they are not is new or original.

The question is, though, what kinds of things can we do that are actually new work? Can we, in fact, do fundamentally new work? The camera is hampered by its perfection, here. Any painting of the Eiffel Tower is arguably a new work, but another photograph of it is most likely indistinguishable from at least one other that has been taken. Obviously if we can take photographs of new objects, these might be new work. Can we take photographs of old objects in new ways?

New objects certainly include people. We keep making them, so there will always be the possibility of a new portrait. People invent new fashions, new fads, new buildings and cars, so probably "street" will always have the potential for fresh and interesting work as it both records and comments on the current state of mankind (or something similarly fatuous). These works of man, buildings, streets, factories, homes, bicycles, and toasters continue to be created, to age, to decay and rot. There will always be something to be shot here, surely. Imitating an existing photograph with new things in it isn't particularly new, but perhaps there's some novelty there. Creating a new photograph around a new idea having to do with the new things, well now, that would be something, wouldn't it?

What about old objects? Can we take a fundamentally new photograph of Half Dome, of the Empire State Building, of the Grand Canyon? Perhaps. Our attitudes and ideas change and evolve over time. It may be that a photograph of Half Dome might be able to express and clarify a more modern idea of Half Dome, or Yosemite Valley, or the planet we live on, somehow. It will not succeed by merely aping Ansel Adams, although it will surely fail if it does not acknowledge Adams work. It will probably only work when a photographer with a genuinely new attitude toward Half Dome photographs it. This in itself is a job and a half, since Adams has long told us what to think about Half Dome, hasn't he?

What isn't new is imitations of old work. The river of photographs in which we now live makes the old work extremely thick on the ground, avoiding imitation is increasingly difficult.

In the early days of photography you could stick your lens anywhere and create something new. Later, we had arguments and rebellions about sharpness, color, lighting. Artists with various ideas formed cliques and created art based on specific technical and aesthetic ideas. These, in the large, in broad and general terms, have been mined out. Subjects have, again in the large, been mined out.

To create new work now requires a greater clarity of vision than ever, whether that vision be conscious or unconscious. To be new, a photograph must be motivated by a laser focused idea, must be fully and powerfully expressive of that motive.

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