Recently I was sitting with a group of photography teachers who were discussing the sharp drop in student enrolments at their university and the necessity for cutting out several classes. One of the academics (the one with the biggest name as an art-photographer) was clear about the course of action: Eliminate classes in the history of photography.
“History is irrelevant” is not a new prejudice and it is a particularly stupid assumption that is voiced by either the truly ignorant or the pseudo-intellectual. It is a particularly dangerous assertion at this point in the medium’s development when the history of photography is beginning to be discussed, written about and taught with increasing frequency. I would like to offer a few words of encouragement to those who are finding themselves intrigued by their medium’s past and do not consider themselves crassly ignorant, pompously academic in attitude, or excessively bigoted, which, of course, means every reader of these words.
1. An interest in the history of photography is a natural, inevitable, result of being a serious image maker. I have never met a really committed photographer of any stature who was not fascinated and fed by knowledge of the medium’s past. To the truly committed photographer everything is relevant and directly useful. Go to movies with photographers and hear how they relate the style, character, plot or whatever to their art; listen to them discuss the books they last read, recent events in their lives, newspaper stories, concerts attended, and so on. Whatever they do has a direct and immediately applicable relevance to their own passion. How much more relevant, then, is the history of their own medium? A natural corollary of being interested in any subject is for the mind to “spread out” and absorb the surrounding topics. True concentration on any subject vibrates the web-of-connectedness until the idea of irrelevancy becomes an absurd notion. Therefore, to say “History is irrelevant” is unnatural and deliberately perverse.
2. In the field of the history of painting there is an unbridgeable gulf between the practicing artist and the academic historian, with their mutual suspicion and dislike, and language and attitudes which have grown so far apart that they are deaf to each other’s screams for recognition. Fortunately that stage has not been reached in photography. But we must face the fact that it is coming. Up to this point in the medium’s history, all the best photographic historians have also been practicing photographers. That is important. Photography aesthetics are rooted in process, and it is essential that the historian has an intimate relationship with the equipment, materials, chemicals and practical problems of the medium. The alternative is a dry, aloof and irrelevant history. That is often the result when “pure” art historians approach the history of photography. A single example will suffice. I once heard a lecture by an art historian who examined several photo-albums of the 1860s in which were discovered a large proportion of prints of trees without leaves. The lecturer, in a detailed, scholarly paper, concluded from this fact that the photographer was a romantic fella, brooding on death and destruction. But this observation missed the main point. Anyone who knew about photography would have guessed that the cause of the leafless trees was rooted in process, not art. The simple fact is that the collodion process necessitated long exposures (commonly 20 seconds for a landscape), during which time the leaves of a summer tree blew in the wind and produced blurs on the plate. In those days, blurs were abhorred and so the photographer waited for winter when the production of a sharply detailed image was more practical. The point is this: Historians can become excessively academic and irrelevant, but that is not a condemnation of history itself.
3. Photographers of the past have always been the medium’s most energetic and successful “historians”. For example, we owe our recognition of Eugene Atget in large part to the efforts of Berenice Abbott, while the astonishing early work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, the boy-wonder of photography, was brought to our attention by John Szarkowski… And now we are led to believe, by some pseudo-intellectuals, that all their efforts were “irrelevant.” What incredible arrogance!
4. To say “History is irrelevant” makes no more sense than to say “my birth and subsequent history to date are meaningless”. There is not a photographer alive and working at this moment, no matter how indifferent to history, who is not profoundly affected as an inevitable result of the accumulated images of the past.
I believe that every photographer should be Janus, the two-headed Roman god, who could not look forward without looking back.