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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Great Men of Photography

The so-called "Great Man Theory" is really an approach to writing history as a series of biographies. History is seen as, essentially, a series of accomplishments of particularly potent individuals. WWII is the struggle between Hitler and Churchill.

This theory is not particularly well respected in these modern times, although the layman continues to conceive of history in this way. A modern interpretation of WWII (I am not a scholar) might explain it as the inevitable consequence of vast cultural and economic forces. It would have occurred without any of the great men. Had they all died at birth other figures would have been thrust forward to play those roles. The details of the event would have changed, but the overall shape of the thing would have evolved in largely the same way.

I have argued in the past that the "invention" of photography occurred in much this way. Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot are usually trotted out as the inventors of photography, with varying degrees of implication that "but for these men..." In reality, as is obvious to anyone who looks, the knowledge and the will had simply coalesced in western Europe at that time, and the invention of photography in some form was inevitable. The details would have varied, as the parallel development in England and France illustrate, but the end result would almost certainly have ended up more or less exactly here.

At this point allow me to divert your attention to a recent Colberg piece, on Stephen Shore's latest book (from MACK, naturlich, Jörg being apparently their in-house reviewer now.)

In it he draws a somewhat outré parallel between Shore, Strand, and Moholy-Nagy. I think I get it, though. He seems to be making the point that each of these three men represent a departure from earlier "photographic seeing" (by which he means "photography") and that each is thus some sort of a pivotal figure. A "great man" in the classic historiographic sense. He's not wrong, here, except in how he relates the narrative.

It is indeed traditional in Photo History to use the Great Man approach, because Photo History is written by amateurs who don't know any better.

Photography is such a chaotic mass of influence and borrowing, it is so easy to steal a method, a look, an aesthetic, that the Great Man approach is guaranteed to be wrong.

In reality, these things are always happening in a morass of cross-influence. Strand, Moholo-Nagy, and Shore (as well as everyone else) were simply artists plucked from the flowing stream. The people doing the plucking (the curators, critics, and so on) tell us that each of these men was seminal, was perhaps the clearest exemplar of the new voice, the new look, the new aesthetic. Was Moholo-Nagy really the shining star of Bauhaus, the one who not only led the way but was also the clearest voice, the most talented of the photographers working there and then? Or did he simply talk faster, schmooze better, and sell himself more effectively? Did he simply choose his friends more carefully?

I don't know, but I do know that Bauhaus wasn't exactly a bunch of yahoos, and I do kinda know how the world works.

Shore's antecedents are at least to a degree obvious and explicit. He grew up, like everyone of his age, surrounded by color snapshots, and his work obviously derives from that. To suppose that he was the only person who made a serious effort to make serious photographs that looked like color snapshots is insane. I know exactly nothing about the Serious Photographic Art in this vein at that time, but it is inconceivable that Shore was alone (and yet the Standard Narrative insists that he was.)

Strand, Moholo-Nagy, and Shore certainly seem to have had ability and clarity of vision, but I think we must allow that in addition they had luck and good PR. We must allow that they do not represent vast revolutionary leaps of aesthetic, of photographic vision. They are, rather, simply good examples of what was going on around them at the time, selected by a somewhat opaque process, and anointed.

None of these players are causal, to suppose that they are is simply ridiculous, but is also the standard narrative. Neither, of course, are they merely swept along by trends outside of their control. Everyone takes part in their own culture, and when one is anointed as a Serious Influence in ones own lifetime, one's influence naturally increases. Each of these photographers certainly was influential, each one bent the course of photography.

Still, if Strand has never picked up a camera, we still would have had Modernism. If Shore had become a banker, color photographs that look like snapshots would have happened anyways. Collage would have been fine without Moholo-Nagy.

Rather than treating Churchill has a prime mover in the Second World War, we see him through the lens of modern historiography as the man who happened to be the leader of Great Britain at that time, and whose actions did shape the conflict to a degree, but always within the confines of the vastly larger forces that caused it, that defined the larger shape of the thing. In the same way, we ought to treat Famous Photographers not as the agents of change, but rather as the most visible objects of change, the victims of change, as it were. They are less the creators of change, and rather more the indicators of it.

It is unfortunate that Moholo-Nagy (and Churchill) left more citable detritus than their contemporaries. Hannah Hoch left us nothing like the 60 Fotos Colberg cites that we can point to as an artifact of that place and time. Churchill, likewise, could not be prevented from writing and writing and writing, and so the bureaucrats who effected the changes demanded by the vast gears of history are forgotten, and Churchill is left to tell us how great he was.

It is curious to see Colberg, who likes nothing more than to rail against the Macho Cult of photography, and to complain about the dominance of Male Gaze in the standard narratives of photographic history, fall into the same patterns. He ought to know better.

He has a platform, of sorts, and he ought to knock off this Victorian way of relating history which is as dated as Pictorialism, and a lot less attractive.


  1. Colberg's piece is more critical of Shore than you make it out to be: "Shore is mostly discussed as one of the pioneers of art colour photography. I feel this interpretation owes more to the art-photography world’s insularity and preference of some artists’ work over others’ than to its actual merit."

    You do make some valid points about art historiography as a debased form of hagiography, but it's one of his better essays. An enforced sabbatical from academe may be doing him some good.

    1. My purpose here was really to address this way photo history is written, and only peripherally to point out that Colberg is slavishly following tradition on this point.

      You're right, his thing isn't bad. I rather liked the bundling together of Shore, Moholo-Nagy, and Strand. If you accept the shoddy historiography that it's built on, and we mostly do, it's a pretty solid thesis.