Have you ever wondered what makes a successful photographer? History can teach us a direction we should consider taking, and it may mean upsetting some along the way. But perhaps they deserve it.
A while ago, a small local newspaper posted on their website photos of a foxhunt. Foxhunting is a divisive subject here in the UK. It’s against the law. Nevertheless, the toffs still dress up in red coats and gallop through country estates with their hounds, pretending not to chase and kill foxes. The photos attracted abusive comments online, not aimed at the hunt, but at the newspaper for supposedly promoting the hunt. In fact, all the paper had done was show the pictures stating that it had happened. They had made no commentary in favor or against it.
Similarly, I’ve seen abuse thrown at people who photographed climate protestors, bullfights, royalty, fishing, vegan food, and a whole raft of other potentially contentious subjects. The photographers are accused of supporting or glorifying their subjects. Reactions are usually those of outrage, and they invariably say most about the person making the comment.
Of course, sometimes that is exactly what photographers are doing, supporting a cause with their photos. One wet morning seven years ago, I certainly supported the campaign to stop the opencast mine that the people in the above picture successfully protested against. Consequently, I received abuse from those in favor of mine when I published images of the march.
Maybe we should accept that our images reflect our personalities. After all, aren’t we compelled to photograph subjects in a way that moves us? Moreover, if we have an outraged minority screaming at us, then we have succeeded in eliciting an emotional response. That’s what good art does, whether it’s painting, writing, dance, acting, sculpture, or photography; it arouses feelings.
Photography becoming available to the wider public coincided with the birth of modernism in art. Prior to the late 1800s, artists were mostly commissioned to create specific paintings. However, by the Twentieth Century, the Modernist movement saw artists painting what they wanted, and how they wanted it. Modernism encompassed a wide range of styles: the impressionists Monet and Renoir, through the Dadaism of Duchamp, to the abstract impressionism of Pollock. In any of those styles, artists could express their own feelings and beliefs as opposed to being told what to paint. All of them had their detractors too.
Around the same time, a similar diversity of photographic styles resulted from the mass production of the camera. Photography became egalitarian. Consequently, modernism fitted perfectly with early photography; experimentation with this new art movement sat comfortably alongside experimentation with the fledgling camera. But, as happened throughout the history of photography, the elitist establishment tried to dominate the art with rules of what was right and wrong. Nevertheless, those photographers remembered and celebrated today are those who challenged and broke away from the norms.
Then a change came along that gave the photographer even more freedom.
Most art movements are tied to a philosophical ideal. The philosopher Jaques Derrrida challenged modernism, claiming there were still artificial cultural restrictions in place that could be broken down and analyzed. Thus, by the 1960s, the post-modernist era had arrived. Followers of the movement rejected any restrictions, especially the conservation of economic and political power. Instead, they used irony and called upon many theories, styles, and ideas. They dismantled the barriers of what the establishment considered art should be.
This approach was reflected in the work of the likes of Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. In music, it saw the emergence of John Cage, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and Pink Floyd. Whereas, within photography, exciting young artists like Jean-Marie Périer, David Bailey, and Linda Eastman broke free from the expectations of the establishment with a more spontaneous style. One only needs a cursory glance at the history of the 1960s to see the overlap between these artists and how they influenced one another.
Once again, they were doing something different and, consequently, were rejected by the stale establishment.
As George Harrison sang, all things must pass, and we moved out of the post-modernist era. But where did that leave us? There have been numerous attempts to coin terms and definitions for that which came after postmodernism: post-postmodernism, meta-postmodernism, trans-postmodernism, and so on. Whatever we call it, and like most art movements, it was a dismissal of what came before.
Within photography, that rejection of post-modernism could not have come at a worse time. The invention and widespread use of the digital camera should have released the art to explore and create in ways hitherto undiscovered, and further challenge the established ideas. Yet, photography is now held back once again by conventions that dictate what we should photograph, and how we should photograph it.
Who is holding it back? It’s the photo competition judges, the gallery curators, the photography establishment, and especially those that shout in outrage at the photos of topics that don’t suit them. Those bullies stop new talent from poking their heads above the parapet.
If you want your artistic voice heard, then stretching the boundaries and challenging commonly held beliefs are essential. It is necessary that we ignore the dissenting voices. More importantly, just as most camera manufacturers have now adopted a new look that harks back to the 1960s and ‘70s, moving away from the shapeless utilitarian plastic blobs that dominated the start of this century, then so too should we adopt the free attitudes of the post-modernist era. Once again, we should escape from the restraints of those who place boundaries on our photography. If this upsets the conservatively minded who are determined to restrict progressive photography, then that's a good thing.
How do we create photographs that reject the established paradigm? We must constantly evolve our approach to photography. Not least because if we do find a new and unique method or style, then that will be seized upon and adopted by the multitudes and, consequently, a new set of restrictive rules come into play. Then it will be time to move on again.
There is one rule that it is impossible for good photography to ignore. It’s what all good art does, no matter what period or movement it is from. It provokes an emotional response. If others are uncomfortable with your work and try to knock you down for it, then you should not only ignore that, but actively continuously challenge their beliefs. Like those coal mine protesters, you may successfully change the world.
Do you deliberately not choose the same methods and styles as others? Is your photography restricted by norms and expectations of your genre? Has anyone tried to hold you back? It would be great to hear your views and experiences.