Our Place in History
I guess I've ruffled a few feathers with my comments about the importance of photographic history. This is an important idea for me, so I'd like to expand and perhaps explain my perspective.
It is an almost irresistible temptation for every generation to see itself isolated from the flow of history — or if not isolated, then at least separated from it by the eternal now. As individuals, it's not uncommon for our perspective on history to be tied to our personal memories — that is, history for us begins with our birth, and all that preceded us is some dusty tale as it were "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (That's a quote from history — Shakespeare, by the way.) We live in the eternal now and our "now" does not include all of the "now" that preceded us. At least that's the unconscious, intuitive feeling that every generation has. I have it, my grandfather had it, my grandson has it — it's human nature to feel this way. Of course, as tempting as this feeling of isolation in the "now" may be, it's simply erroneous. History is real, even if the historical narrative that describes it for us is not — but that's another story, and not my main point.
For artists, history is particularly important — perhaps more so than for the average human experience. You see, history is slightly more alive for us than it is for others because we have, as a part of our "now," the artifacts that have been left behind by the artists who preceded us. Their lives may have preceded us, but their artwork is still with us, here, available for each generation to understand and learn from. A part of Weston is alive through his work — one of the magical qualities of art.
I've always felt a part of a sort of "Grand Photography" as though it were a living, breathing entity. This entity is lasting, born in 1839 but now immortal, growing, changing, ever expanding. Each generation of photographers since its birth plays its part in Photography's maturity, passing down their inheritance to the next generation like the proverbial torch. We inherited this thing called Photography from countless practitioners who refined the craft, the aesthetic, the use, the understanding, the methodologies, and in doing so shaped this living, growing thing that it is now our turn to nurture. We will hand it down to future generations, slightly different — perhaps substantially different — than the photography we inherited. We may serve it well, we may injure it, but I suspect we will not be the judge of our impact because that will require a perspective that will only be available after we're gone.
That perspective is the one we now have looking at the previous generations. From the perspective of history, how could it be said that Emerson, Atgét, Stieglitz, Weston, Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, et al failed in their responsibility to carry the torch? We can't because their contributions in the flow of Photography's history were so substantial, so nurturing, such a contribution to us. To us. They all made their photographs for us. Do we not realize what a gift this is?
And, it's not just their photographs. In their turns, each made contributions which is made photography the wonderfully expressive and powerful force it is today – an inheritance we have a responsibility to treasure. More than that, we have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to that inheritance. As individuals, each of us has our opportunity to "strut our hour upon the stage," (Shakespeare, again) but when our hour is over the play continues with new players. The unfolding of that Grand Photography continues. We carry the torch for a very limited time. We make our photographs and our contributions for others not yet even a twinkle in their great-great-great grandfather's eye.
It is not accidental that we chose the name "LensWork" for our publication. From its very inception, we hoped we could escort that torch of Grand Photography a little further down the road begun by Alfred Stieglitz in his publication, Camera Work. That torch was picked up and carried a further down history's path by Minor White and his publication Aperture. We modeled our publication after theirs. We hoped we could add something to that grand tradition that would be useful not just for contemporary photographers, but also to future ones. We hoped we could produce something of our time that might give future generations an opportunity to glimpse back in their history to the photography we are living — precisely as we can when we experience the 1910s through Camera Work or those early Aperture publications from the 1950s. It is that sense of historic flow that is the foundation and inspiration for everything we do here at LensWork.
History is important — history is inspiration; history is a foundation on which we stand; history is an opportunity to learn from the wisdom of others so that we don't have to make their same mistakes; history is a background that informs our work. My sense of gratitude and responsibility to the photographers of history is more profound than I can express in mere words. Without them, this great passion that defines my life would not exist. I cannot imagine how different my life would be if — just to name one — Edward Weston has never existed. Perhaps that explains why I find it so important for young photographers to know something about the history of photography — and why I am incensed when they don't seem to care about it.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.