On Senior Creativity
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 205, August 2017
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in the grip of a shocking yet simple thought? For me I am often haunted by the horrific futility and brutality of US federal executions (these nocturnal ‘awakenings’ have led me to become a regular contributor to the work of Reprieve who campaign against capital punishment). But another frequent ‘night-shock’ comes from the thought of getting older and what will happen to my creative drive and my output as a photographer and printer. A curious mental effect renders these nocturnal disturbances so bleak during the dark hours but, as the sun rises, so often do the solutions to these fears.
However, this latter ‘night shock’ is often on my mind during waking hours – why is age related to a diminution in ambition, creativity and risk taking? Is this what awaits me? I am 47 so, not necessarily that old – yet still old enough to contemplate my creative future. Is there some unwritten contract with the cosmos that age shall make us ‘settle’ for mediocrity? Dillon Thomas wrote about the need to engage with mortality head on – this surely is the only way to deal with it. We have a pervasive culture that speaks of gentle seniority, jovial acceptance of life’s brevity and the ‘creative zenith’ of looking after grandchildren. This image of old age can be deadening. The time when a person benefits from the accretion of wealth, the abundance of time and the wisdom that comes from a life lived, is the time when these advantages should be exploited over the conditions faced by the younger generation who are deskbound, wage slaves and often physically and mentally engaged in the raising of the next generation.
A place where many senior photographers choose to congregate are camera clubs. I am not an expert or even very knowledgable about the work of these organisations but I have heard from many readers that they feel stifled by the attitudes and ‘group think’ of the creative conditions that pervade these valuable institutions. So much of the work that is shown and shared in these clubs is valued in how closely it emulates the work of other photographers, how technically accomplished it is and how it fits within the established aesthetic of one club or other. Any photographic institution should be dedicated to the furthering of photography not the entrenchment of time worn technical and artistic values.
Photographers have a job to do. Having a camera and taking pictures is not enough. Everyone with a camera should use it to interrogate the conditions of their life because life is uniquely lived and universally experienced and precious. Why be satisfied with a picture that pleases other people when you could produce an image that pleases you? When we think about our photographic (or artistic) heroes we can easily take the genesis of their work for granted – assuming that the qualities that we love about it were generated by some god-given talent unachievable by the likes of you and me. But that is simply wrong – the work is always the result of (usually) two things; risk and selection. And perhaps you could add a third – huge quantities of exposures.
Lets break these three attributes down. Risk is the nature of the relationship you have with the conditions in which you make your work. It is not about physical endangerment rather a mental state. For example, if you feel very comfortable taking pictures of people on the street but wouldn’t have a clue about shooting something static and posed then that is a good reason to engage with the thing that makes you feel awkward and unconfident because this is where good work happens. Take a look at Don McCullin’s recent images of the remnants of the Roman Empire (Southern Frontiers). They have a freshness to them that would never be achieved by a photographer who had spent his life shooting rural landscapes.
And now ‘selection’ – this is, for practical reasons a bit harder to nail down but it is essential to persevere. Curating your own images is always hard but it is here that the gems are unearthed and untethered from their duller counterparts. Being one’s own greatest supporter and harshest critic is essential in the drive to make (and show) better work. If the picture is duff chuck it – do not make excuses for it. Reduce the number of images that make the final cut. As fledgling photographers in New York, Joel Meyerowitz and Tony Ray Jones would meet in Meyerowitz’s apartment to go through their latest attempts. They would criticise each others work meticulously and through this process of critical selection they took essential steps towards becoming serious photographers.
And lastly the question of quantity or volume. Matt Stuart (who is a Magnum nominee) shoots hundreds of thousands of photographs a year. Gary Winogrand died leaving 300,000 unedited images. The ICP in New York houses some 20,000 of Winogrand’s fine and work prints, 100,000 negatives and 30,500 colour slides of his work. This shows that greatness is achieved by determination.
So much art made by young people is not worth the paper it is printed on because there is no wisdom – only attitude. People with a few years under their belts know the difference between a pose struck and the real thing. But why is this innate sensibility not often reflected in the creative output of our world-wise cohort? Everyone has a unique view. To own a camera, to possess the time to take pictures and to possess the wisdom gained over years of living means that we owe it to our younger selves to try to do something better than ‘good enough’. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
NOTE ON ACCOMPANYING PHOTOGRAPHS
This article is illustrated by photographs I made of the photographer, Paddy Summerfield and his partner Patricia Baker-Cassidy in July 2015. Paddy has lived in the same house since early childhood and his book, Mother and Father (Dewi Lewis, 2014) is a classic work of documentary photography. The book is a “chronicle of loss and abiding love” and is a searingly honest and brave study of his own parents as they grew older and declined.