(Irving Penn’s twin lens reflex Rolleiflex camera)
I teach a short street photography class in Brooklyn about once a month. Usually I get around 8-10 students on a good day. It’s a fun class I got to create myself and I’m responsible for all the class materials and the presentation content.
The way I structure the class is to give a slide presentation and then, just before everyone falls asleep (insert Powerpoint joke here), we go out to shoot, come back and show some of the work we shot. Then, if there’s time, I show off how I process my images. It’s only a three-hour class. At the beginning I say I’m going to try to cram over 40 years of my photography learnings and experience into the class. Pretty much an impossible task.
My slide presentation includes a bunch of classic photographers and a handful of contemporary shooters. I start with Henri Cartier Bresson. Usually I ask if anyone has heard of him. 95% of the time, no one raises their hands. I go on with Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Davidson. I can see my student trying to write down all these names because very few of the students have heard of any of these photographers. Then comes Vivian Maier; surely someone has heard of her? A few hands go up this time. Well, that’s something.
(taken at the Irving Penn exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)
Back to Bresson: I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that very few people know of him. Why? Because the people who come to my class are not students of photography. You see, what has happened, what is happening, is that people want to learn to be photographers without necessarily learning about photography. And I’m not talking about learning the skills of photography. That’s something they very much want to learn about. No, it seems very few people seem to want to know about photography’s past.
Now, some will argue that you don’t need to learn about the history of automobiles in order to learn how to drive or the history of cooking in order to make a burger. Of course you don’t, but photography isn’t driving and it isn’t cooking. It isn’t just a skill to be learned; it’s a form of art. Of expression. I’d bet that Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows a lot about the history of NASCAR racing (certainly more than I do) or that Gordon Ramsay probably has a pretty decent understanding of the history of cooking.
(Photographer Gordon Parks photographed by Arnold Newman)
I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t want to spend the time, or doesn’t have the time, to learn the history of photography. It’s a huge subject and there are certainly a lot of photographers who take great images never having ever looked once at one of Bresson’s images. One can pick up a camera and dive right into it without opening a book or going to a museum or knowing anything about the master photographers who’ve preceded them.
And I’m sad about that. Well, not sad like I’m going to cry, just sad in the way of seeing missed opportunities.
Look, I grew up with photography (because my dad was a photographer) and I went to school to become a photographer, from high school all the way thru college. During all that time I learned a lot about the history of photography. I remember thinking that it was of a pain in the ass because I really wasn’t a big fan of history back then. Now that I’m older and have been a photographer for so long, I actually enjoy the history of photography. There is so much to learn from the photographers of bygone days. There are so many fantastic images to ponder over. There are endless ideas for techniques and processes.
I really appreciate knowing something about the history of the art form I’ve chosen to dedicate myself to and thinking about what small part I may play in this history. Learning more about photography’s history is exciting and drives my curiosity.
Isn’t this why we take pictures in the first place? We’re curious about how things look like when they’re photographed. And if we’re truly curious, then maybe it’s worth spending some time learning about our past.
Photography has a rich past, full of surprises, learnings and so many things we’ve never seen before. We stand on the shoulders of so many photographers who’ve come before us and they truly give us a view into the past which is second to none.
Stay curious. And learn.
Here are some photos of mine and the photographers who I believe influenced me in their creation.