Have It Your Way!
If there is one aspect of their work which photographers (and photographic writers) cherish above all others, it is individuality. The photograph/article may not be a perfect expression of purpose, may not be instantly and urgently needed by others, may not be recognized for its historical significance and may not be cherished by anyone, ever. But at least, we believe, it is singularly and uniquely our own. However, originality is, in most cases, of dubious provenance and I point the finger of accusation at myself. Years ago, I wrote a short piece about Bill Brandt, which was published in an issue of a photographic magazine. When another periodical requested permission to reprint it, I read it again in order to see if it needed any revision. I say to you, immodestly, that it sounded just right. I hoped it would entertain and inform other photographers interested in Brandt’s work but, if nothing else, I thought it had the ring of authenticity. It was mine. While congratulating myself on a piece well done, I stumbled across a photocopy of an older article about Brandt written by another author whose name I wasn’t able to read. With a palpable shock I recognized a distinct similarity of tone and even the use of identical phrases between this article and my own. The point is that I seemed to have no memory of that piece, but there it was… What I had thought of as “mine” owed a great deal to someone else. Obviously, I must have read the article when it first appeared and then appropriated what I wanted to retain while expunging the remainder from memory. I tell you this experience not in order to absolve myself from a charge of plagiarism but to illustrate the point that this process is happening to all of us, relentlessly, continuously and subconsciously. Our cherished individuality is largely an amalgam of a myriad of forces and influences which, only occasionally, can be sorted, seen and acknowledged. But even when the connection between present act or attitude and past experience remains hidden, the directness of the link is the crudest form of influence. Far more powerful and mysterious are the forces which seem to bypass the word, image or event and which shape our minds merely through the act of being human. The most potent influences result from existing at the same time in history, sharing in the phenomenon of telepathic group-think. The Germans have a word for it: Zeitgeist. Like a flock of birds instantly and simultaneously changing directions on command from an unseen choreographer, issuing orders at the deepest levels of nonawareness, we whirl in synchronous patterns. And these patterns are manifested in our medium as styles, even subject matter. There was a time when these patterns were broad, sustained sweeps and lazy curves, when photographers acknowledged shared ideals. In recent decades the patterns have become increasingly jagged and frenetic with photographers more anxious to escape the group-mind. I cannot imagine how these forces operate, only acknowledge their results. Think of all the short-lived “movements” in the medium in recent years, when dozens of photographers simultaneously made almost identical images. The examples are legion. The scratching/mutilation of the negative prior to printing; Industrial buildings on construction sites; Flash combined with daylight; Constructions in the studio; Interior corners of abandoned buildings and garages; And so on, and so on… Each “movement” can even be dated by their ascendancy. For example, the spring of 1979 was characterized by color pictures of bushes at night lit by a strobe, while the one of 1989 was marked by photos of dead animals. . . What is the process by which the zeitgeist becomes transmuted into such specific photographic techniques and subjects? Why do these manifestations appear to be occurring simultaneously? I do not know the answer, although I am intrigued by the question. During a conversation about these issues, one of my colleagues saw nothing mysterious about the process. According to him, the phenomenon can be explained by nowadays’ more rapid communication between photographers through journals, exhibitions, internet resources etc. Ideas are now quickly disseminated, used up and discarded. A less charitable colleague explains it as the “Bandwagon Syndrome”: Someone else is getting attention from a particular idea so jump aboard the latest trend before being left behind… Yet another colleague suggests that pluralism, by definition, is differentness for differentness’ sake. When so many photographers are striving for uniqueness, certain solutions to photographic problems will be shared. These individuals will be “grouped” by critics and galleries as if they were members of a movement, thereby creating artificial styles. I feel sure that all these explanations are appropriate in some cases. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that another, more mysterious, force is operating, providing similar images to various photographers simultaneously, without any warning, directly connecting all individuals. Personally I find the idea a comforting one. Although it seems to diminish our much-beloved contemporary notions of individuality, it also suggests a cosmic-scale connectedness which includes human behaviour right down to the microcosm of shared interest by photographers in specific subject matter, beyond the realm of mere coincidence. Around the end of the XIX Century, a brilliant Viennese experimental biologist, with the delightfully photographic name of Paul Kammerer, spent 20 years studying coincidences. His results turned on its head the usual meaning of the word. He concluded that “The recurrence of identical or similar data in contiguous areas of space or time is a simple empirical fact which has to be accepted and which cannot be explained by coincidence, or rather, which makes coincidence rule to such an extent that the concept of coincidence is negated.” He believed that a mysterious force acts on everything (and everyone) to bring like and like together, which he poetically compared to a cosmic Kaleidoscope, creating patterns “In spite of constant shuffling and rearrangement”. Changing the analogy, “it is,” he said, “the umbilical cord that connects thought, feeling, science and art with the womb of the universe that gave birth to them”. Incidentally, a recent television program dealt with the new Chaos Theory and, as far as I could understand, revealed that even unpredictable actions and events always produced distinct patterns, which seemed uncannily similar to Kammerer’s Kaleidoscope idea. The point is that photographs, like everything else, can be expected to fall into specific, synchronous “patterns” at any given moment; But because these patterns are unpredictable and out of the individual’s control they are not useful in any practical sense. Much more controllable, and therefore useful, is wilful influence. As we are constantly influenced by the ideas and images of others anyway, perhaps we should make greater effort to make these influences more overt and direct. Lionel Trilling said: “The immature artist imitates. Mature artists steal”. So, I admit: I do borrow from other writers, shamelessly! And, in my defence, I can only quote what the shoplifter said to the judge: “I do steal… But, Your Honour, only from the very best stores”.
One day I’ll find out who wrote that article on Bill Brandt and then I will unashamedly write to the author and say: “I stole your words because I needed them. Thank you”.