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Friday, February 25, 2022

On Photography Communities

This is probably just me trying to rationalize the fact that I'm not really a joiner. Probably also I'm reacting to stumbling over several recent attempts to form "communities" which appeared to me more about "audience capture" so I'm grouchy.

I'm not talking about just being friends with some people, or ephemeral events like portfolio reviews. I'm talking about things which are a sustained grouping of people around photography, photographs, and so on.

But anyways let's think about groups of people in general, let's say roughly structured around doing or making something. Could be photography, could be swing dancing. Doesn't matter.

The group is likely to coalesce around some pretty specific orthodoxy around how to do the thing. There are likely to be some opinionated voices willing to get a bit loud, a bit pushy, and people will generally find it easier to fall in line. Some people will just leave, either quietly or in a great uproar. Maybe the group was even formed around a very specific way to do whatever it is.

Regardless, the group is likely to define a more or less narrow envelope for how the thing is to be done.

If you are someone who flourishes within that narrow envelope, you're going to do great. The wiggle-room left within the envelope, whether a little or a lot, is maybe just what you need to express your vision. It's going to be awesome.

If you don't fit in, it's going to be hell. You're going to either capitulate to the orthodoxy, and find yourself not flourishing at all, or you're going to spend all your time fighting the orthodoxy, or you're going to leave.

If what you have is a collaboration of 3 artists, you probably came together around a vision anyways, and there's a pretty good chance it's going to work out wonderfully for all involved. Yay!

The more it's an ad hoc group that's just "about photography" or whatever, the more likely it is that some will flourish, and others will not.

You could, for instance, probably make a fairly sturdy argument that Group f.64 was dominated by a couple of pushy assholes (Adams and Weston) and that the orthodox vision was set to that particular modernist style that's clearly visible in the work of both. The people who couldn't or wouldn't do quite that, although perhaps they rejected Pictorialism, didn't flourish. Which is why everyone today thinks "Ah yes, Adams! Weston! And.... um. Cunningham?" and doesn't know anyone else.

Conventional wisdom is some combination of "well, women were oppressed" and "Adams and Weston were more talented" which, ok, whatever. I'm not going to argue, but I think the dominant orthodoxy may well have played a role as well.

I don't know the group dynamics of the Photo-Secession as well, but damn if their shit doesn't all look pretty much alike, and Paul Strand had a bit of a go of it fighting that when he turned up in the Stieglitz orbit with his not-at-all mushy photos.

It's human nature, right? Like hangs out with like. But at the same time, like encourages like, and discourages unlike. It's not a bad guess to suggest that maybe the Photo-Secession guys were not all "totally valid, just not our cup of tea" with Strand, but rather "you suck, get out of here." I don't recall the details, but I do think there was a fair bit of shade thrown when "Camera Work" started to feature Strand's photos. And that audience had been warmed up already with a bunch of Rodin drawings, of all things.

To this end, I think, "collaborations" tend to work better than just ad hoc collections of "photographers who get together to discuss photography."

The collaboration begins with a vision, and a set of people with a reasonable chance of flourishing within it. The ad hoc group does not start with a common vision, but will (usually) create one, and only some members will flourish within it. All too often, those people will be the pushy assholes. As a pushy asshole, I can't get behind that.

But in the end, it's not really a "collaboration" versus "ad hoc" distinction. It's just a recognition that groups produce orthodoxies, and if as an artist the orthodoxy doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you.


  1. Photography has often seemed a "lone wolf" pursuit, but I did collaborate with a group of five photo friends on a fall trip around Alaska once (we lived there). It was a ton of fun. Temporary collaborations can work pretty well. I did a lot of photography I normally wouldn't. I don't know about Adams' personality, but Ted Orland worked for/with him, and he very much does his own thing photographically. Of course this was in later years, when Adams was probably more at ease professionally.

  2. Your ideal photographic community is something along the lines of "Fight Club"?

    1. My ideal *anything* is something along the lines of "Fight Club"

    2. Couldn't be any duller than what it got going on now.