Why are ‘photographers you should know’ always on Instagram

Quite often on Youtube, and I do watch a lot of Youtube photography videos, you get a video called something like ‘5 Photographers You Should Know’, or something along those lines, and they’re always interesting to watch. However one thing I do find myself thinking is that these videos, generally by younger photographers with social media accounts tend to feature other younger photographers with social media accounts. Okay, let’s be clear on this one, there is nothing wrong with being a younger photographer or with having a social media account, both of them are admirable things; I’m not a younger photographer but I do have a social media account so I’m ticking a 50% of the boxes myself. But over the decades there have been many, many great photographers who date from before the time when social media accounts even were an idea, let along an actual thing. Why aren’t they featuring in these videos, why aren’t the 20 somethings suggesting that it’s really good to look at Adams, or Bailey, or Duffy, or Avedon; even Rankin seems to have slipped off the lists. I think it’s down to a simple thing: they’re in print.

I’m not buying into the idea that young people don’t read, that’s reactionary rubbish which too many old fogeys like to peddle, usually I suspect because they don’t actually understand the 21st century and like to be sniffy about things like social media. But what I am saying is that there is a tendency, and I can’t prove this, for younger people to not go looking for things outside their preferred media. Conversely, I think there is a tendency sometimes for older people to do the same, that dividing river has steep banks on both sides (wow, that’s an impressively pretentious metaphor). I’m lucky, and it is luck, to work in a school so I’m surrounded by teenagers, which really keeps your brain young I can tell you. We offer digital photography as an exam subject and lots of kids take it. The subject head has made a reasonable investment in nice books over the past few years, and I do like a browse on the office shelf and borrow a couple over the holidays. Well we got to the end of the Christmas break and I said on our return that I was sorry but I hadn’t got her Ansel Adams book back, to which she replied “hang onto it for as long as you like, I can’t get the kids to even open them”.

The course requires them to produce work ‘in the style of’ a photographer of their choice, and I found myself the other day looking at the exam work and thinking that if that were me I’d be getting out the plain white background and trying to do portraits in the style of Bailey (who I admit is my photographic hero), and then realised they’d never have heard of Bailey, or probably seen his work. Or Avedon’s “American West”, or Edward Weston and his peppers; if I could photograph vegetables like that I’d be totally a happy bunny. They’re not crossing the divide, they’re not seeing these photographers. Don’t blame the teachers, they can show them the work but they’re not engaging with it. There’s no colour, no filters, no effects and no sense that in 30 seconds you can flick off it and forget it existed.

None of them are going to get one of their classmates to kneel on the floor with a stuffed squirrel, ever.

Failing to find (another) Vivian Maier

I got around to watching the film Finding Vivian Maier, which if you’ve not watched it then you definitely should as the reviews are accurate, it’s a great film. It’s probably most fun if you’re a photography enthusiast, but you don’t have to be. Beyond saying it’s worth watching, this is not a review though.

The central story, as you possibly already know (and if you’re a photography enthusiast will definitely know) is that Vivian Maier spent her life taking great photographs, never showing them to people and nobody knew she was a great photographer until she’d been dead for a while. Only now has she gained the recognition as an artist she didn’t have when she was alive, and may not have wanted when she was alive in fact.

Which makes me wonder about how much the idea of being a great artist (or anything in fact) is tied into recognition for it. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears..etc etc etc. If Maier’s negatives had never been discovered, or discovered by somebody who wasn’t aware of what they had found, she would still have been as good a photographer. Her would wouldn’t be diminished by her lack of recognition.

Which means of course that there are n more Vivian Maiers out there, and pretty much n squared though history. People who have worked away producing great art of all kinds without anybody knowing about them or their work. Of course with the advent of Instagram and other social networking sites there are also many thousands of people producing work which isn’t great about which we do know; that last isn’t in any way meant to diminish their work by the way. Anybody who lets their creativity out into the public domain, who takes a photo or does a drawing, or whatever and is willing to embrace the label is to some degree ‘an artist’ or ‘a photographer’, and kudos to them for putting their work out there where it can be seen. What I’m talking about is that there are almost certainly great photographers and artists and composers and so forth out there working away for their own pleasure, or driven by their own inner demons, and who never put their work out there in the public eye.

Some people never want their work seen, and that’s fine. But for many others it’s about not knowing how to access the online platform, or just about not having the confidence in their work and that’s something society must address. My personal view is that sometime in school the phrase ‘you’re good at art’ is uttered to some kids and not others, ’you’re creative’ is said to some kids and not others, etc. Some kids ARE naturally gifted at art, and some are late developers, or haven’t found a medium that allows them to express their creativity, or lack self esteem, or just don’t fit into the mould which school art requires.

I think that leads down the road to more unfound Vivian Maiers.