“That process of alteration is one of the things I love about photography. In essence, through the process of recomposing the work, the photograph is revitalized as something that is contemporary—now.”
I have been thinking about old photographs. Not faded photographs taken by an anonymous photographer of yesteryear, but photographs captured, crammed into a shoebox (hard drive) and put in a drawer to be forgotten.
I wonder, do dead pictures tell tales?
It’s All About the Juice
From time to time, I come across a blog post about revisiting old work. Usually the article talks about how to change an old photo into a new one with some new fangled technique, or software, or new version of Adobe camera raw. I suppose this can work (rarely), but most of the time adding a bit of grain, contrast, or a filter is not going to give an old photograph “juice.” The old adage of polishing fecal matter comes to mind. That said; when I look at my old photographs, many of them have the same themes and ideas I am working on now, however poorly resolved. At the very least, looking at old work helps me find out how far I have come and where those ideas originated.
On the other hand there is value in moving forward. It keeps one creating new work, preventing ideas from stagnation, preventing creative death. This is especially important for procrastinators (present company included), who do well to live up to the phrase; “An artist only gets work done, when the pain of not doing becomes greater than the pain of actually getting it done.” Going back, exhuming those personal tombs chances are good you will only find cobwebs, but you might get lucky and stumble over an unexpected treasure.
The Rarity of Originality (Brett Walker)
I love street photography and most of the street photography done today is not any good. Most of it is derivative, unoriginal, and does not say much to me about the world. I will not even comment on form. Occasionally, I see a photographer doing work, which is original and unique, and it makes me jealous. Recently I have been looking at Brett Walker (on Flickr). If you do not know his work, you should. I do not like everything he does, but I will say his voice is present in each image he posts. Specific images rise above others – this is true of all photographers, especially when you are following a photographic stream* – but there is an authenticity to all his work, which is rare.
(*I think of a “stream” as a personal sketchbook. The problem is a photo-stream is public. It is one thing if you do your shitty photographs or drawings for yourself as a kind of exploration, it is something else entirely if you show it the world.)
There are some real gems on Flickr, Tumblr, and Blogs; it is hard to find them in glutinous onslaught of daily images. But, if you can sift through and find a few photographers you like and follow their work it can be rewarding. One specific benefit of looking at streams is you can see how a photographer works out his or her ideas. Certain themes reoccur, in better or worse forms, you can begin to see how a photographer sees, but more importantly how he or she thinks. This is rare gift, and a relatively new experience. Before the Internet, students of photography dealt with hefty monologues featuring curated selections. While this can make for an impressive presentation (who doesn’t like photo books or a gallery show?), it made it difficult to learn. Studious photographers could learn a great deal about form, but it was difficult learn about a photographer’s process.
I appreciate Brett’s work because he does not seem bound by dogma. His requirements are his own, whether aesthetic or otherwise. He does whatever he wants to get the results he wants, which end up in a huge swath of aesthetic styles and ideas: different aspect ratios, processing techniques, croppings, abound! This is not to say the work is haphazard, it is not. Other photographers, the history of photography, and a wealth of experience inform the decisions he makes.
History & Potentiality
If I think about possibilities of photography, the potentials available to the medium, it is staggering. Standing back for a moment and looking at the history of photography reveals a huge swath of possibilities and methods for constructing photographs. A multitude of ideas and techniques have been explored and investigated, some of which extraordinarily well, and they are all laid out to be investigated. If you compare this to what is being produced today, what is popular and shown, you begin to realize the paradigm we function in is so limited as to be pedantic and is informed by only a couple of people and styles.
Looking at my black and white street photography of New York City (what could be a more an inundated genre!?) I often ask myself: “is this any good?” and “is this any better than what has been done before?” also, “What is new about this?” or “does it reflect my intentions?” but most importantly “does this drive at the things I want to say?”
This is where revisiting your old work can be a real asset. Especially if you have become more clear about what you want to say.
We are all slaves to our education and experiences. By not defining ourselves in the narrowest of parameters – of what your work has been in the past, the general thrust of current photography trends, self proclaimed experts and rules – you can revisit old-work, explore new the possibilities, and redefine the limits of your photography. I think of it like an archaeological dig. For whatever reason, an old photograph may beckon your attention, though it is not technically right. Perhaps if you look at a photograph not as a sacred object but as an excavation, you can scrape away the grim and grit to reveal something more honest than your original interpretation.