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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Huge Pantheon

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.


  1. Well, I would think that Thomas Struth is pretty much top tier, but that doesn't really matter. What bothers me personally along the lines you addressed is the fact that I don't seem to be able to tell one photographer from another photographer anymore. The ones I usually have no trouble spotting are those that were either totally from the era of film photography, or at least had more than a foot in it. I now find that among the new, emerging photographers, I can't tell one from the other. Perhaps there are too many? However, I don't think that that really is it. I just simply can't tell their work apart, and I am not blaming it on digital, because, although I am an old fart, I have gone over to digital, and greatly enjoy it.

    1. Maybe we're seeing some modern form of "school" which is more strict than ever, but less spoken of?

      I dunno. I see stuff all over the place from wanna-bee up and comers, but mostly they're doing blends of appropriation and shoddy snaps, so, hmm, maybe they all-look-same too now that I think of it.

      Or maybe we're both stuck looking at the work of little enclaves (possibly different ones!) that only refer to one another, so it's hard to get that first reference to anyone from outside the enclave?

      As for Struth, yeah, the WSJ piece seemed to think he was top class stuff. I'm also OK with not knowing who a small number of the top-drawer people are, I guess. I HOPE I can keep track of most of the top ten, though!

  2. "...Maybe we're seeing some modern form of "school" which is more strict than ever, but less spoken of?...."
    Hmm, I think there may be something to that. One thing for sure is that photographers these days are looking at a lot more photography, every day, than ever before. Before digital. especially if one lived in the hinterlands, getting a chance to see interesting and good photos was pretty difficult. During the Life and Look years the style of those publications was pretty pervasive, but after they disappeared the easiest way to look at contemporary photography was through the glossy fashion magazines.
    After the Soviet Union collapsed and we were able to see more work form that part of the world, I was struck by how good, and in many ways, different that work was. I believe a good part of it came from the fact that photographers behind the Iron Curtain were fairly isolated from photographers in other parts of the world, and vice versa.

  3. I wouldn't worry about it, though not having heard of Struth does make you an unwashed savage, I'm afraid... I have a similar experience with modern American poets -- there always seems to be yet another major figure who has just died and I've never heard of.

    Mind you, I think part of your "problem" is your educational path. One thing you learn as a humanities bluffer is to identify the key figures, even if you never intend to read them (I have yet to read a Jane Austen novel), and have interesting things to say about them. "Canons" exist for this very purpose, though the contemporary canon in a field as densely populated as photography is a fluid work in progress, obviously.