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Jim Bullard

Go get them Brooks. :-) Seriously though, I agree with you. I see so much work today that looks just like everyone else's work, the latest whiz bang look, technique, etc. I'm convinced that most of them don't know what a really good photo looks like.


I'm sorry, but judging a kid so harshly on his lack of knowledge of one photographer is the vapid and stupid move. I could give a shit who he knows about if his work is wonderful, and alternatively I don't care how much he knows if his work is terrible.

Yes, it is good to know the history, but there are gaps in all of our knowledge, and let's be thankful that some people just get on with making work as opposed to spending some much time intellectualizing about what has already been done.

This kid may be a twit, but your specific example here makes you sound like a pompous grumpy grandpa that can't handle the new generation. You don't know what choices dictated him not taking "history of photography" and they may have been justified. Why can't more photographers just be happy that people are making more work. I swear this is the grumpiest field of people with the absolute least reason to be.

Barry Cunningham

New aesthetic?

You mean like PhotoShop plugins and Instagram apps to make photos look more painterly?

Didn't we secede from that secession nearly a century ago?


Gaps in knowledge? Being a fine art photographer and not knowing Edward Weston's work is not a "gap in knowledge" — it is a black hole of ignorance. What if an animation artist had never heard of Disney? What if a novelist had never heard of Dickens? What if a rock musician had no knowledge of the Beatles or U2? What if an actor had never heard of Shakespeare or even Dustin Hoffman, for God's sake? Don't be so willing to accept mediocrity!
I am a pompous grumpy grandpa, and I'm proud of it — although I might phrase is more like, "knowledgeable discriminating elder." I also think my handling of the new generation speaks for itself in the pages of LensWork and how many young (and deserving) photographers we publish and bring to international attention.
It has become fashionable in this age to avoid any sort of criticism or judgment. Sorry, but I don't buy it. I see this far too often leads to eroding standards and the presentation of crap with a bow on it. Artmaking is supposed to be hard. Artmaking is supposed to challenge us. Artmaking is supposed to ask us to rise above those who went before us. Art is one of the highest forms of human expression and to accept of it anything less is an insult to art and to the generations of artists who have laid the foundation upon which we merely living souls are standing.

There, I've said my piece. I shall now return to my jovial and elfish self.

Chuck Kimmerle

Speaking of Weston, I'm halfway through rereading Daybook #1 and am, again, simply amazed at how much he knew of the art world, both contemporary and historical. He made an effort, in his 20's and early-30's, to not only meet and befriend other artists - painters, photographers, sculptors, etc. - but to read and study about art and artists. Even though he lived hand-to-mouth while living in Mexico, he still managed to find money to buy books about art. Amazing.

That lust for expanded art knowledge seems to have diminished as of late. Perhaps it's that 21'st century academia has too few photographic historians, or that, as was inferred earlier, technology has taken priority. Either way, while the students share a hefty part of the blame, the true culprits are those working as supposedly informed and intellectual college professors.

To be honest, I find this lack of historical knowledge and context sadly ironic as MFA programs are chalk full of students, encouraged by like-minded faculty, practicing late 19th and early 20th century processes.

As for the tone of Brook's post, I thought it spot-on. Mediocrity and ignorance are traits which are all too easily accepted and, as evidenced by Peter's response, rationalized. Anyone who has ever studied the words of Edward Weston knows how much he hated mediocrity.

Richard Man

@Peter, um, may be one doesn't need to know all the good or even great photographers, but shouldn't an MFA would have seen mentioning of the name "Weston" even without taking a Photo History class?

Someone has a tagline that reads, "I don't know the heroes, I just take photos" and it always drives me bonkers.


That is unfortunate but please don't lump all of us photography students into the same stereotype. I am fortunate enough to be studying in a program that not only requires a two-semester course in photo-history but also a two-semester general art history course as well. And our teachers include a plethora of classic and contemporary photographers in their lectures. Part of the problem stems from a curriculum that thinks it's okay to include photo history as a mere elective. I've even heard some photographers claim they don't like to see others work for fear of that influence. Yet there are those of us who embrace and live it. We're out there, I can assure you.

Chris Burdett

I'd say a certain amount of pompous grumpy grandpa-ism is justified here. I mean, we're talking about a person with a graduate degree in the fine art of photography, not a guy with an A.A. in commercial photography from Gopher Gulch Community College, for pity's sake. He should have at the very least heard of Edward Weston. (Actually, I'd say that about the guy with the A.A., too.)

Frankly, I worry more about his MFA program than about this one graduate. If this master of the fine art of photography has not heard of Weston because he didn't take his program's elective in the history of photography, then I would say many of his teachers failed him--studio courses in an art form should also include viewings and discussions of the works of the great masters. At least some base amount of knowledge of the history of the field should suffuse any discipline.

Guy Tal

Perhaps the ire may be better directed at the school this person attended. What kind of MFA program makes art history an elective or graduates photography majors without such kowledge?

Do you happen to know which school it was?


For the record, I agree that art making should be hard. I also hate mediocrity, I don't think my post is in any way justifying the acceptance of mediocrity. People take different educational routes through their lives and dogging on this student for not knowing someone that you hold in such high regard is ignorant, even if it is Weston.

What if an animator never heard of Disney? Does it matter if he is doing groundbreaking animation? I bet if he is he knows who his influences are, whether or not they are the "names." I sure as hell don't care. You can't just know something if you're not exposed to it. Do you know how many amazing artists have worked in a vacuum and created groundbreaking work because of it?

Perhaps the problem is in the school allowing the student to slip by without being exposed to Weston, but it's really a matter of the professor's tastes, and not all professors will touch on everyone that is a big figure in photography. This kid may have been able to tell you the biography of Edward Curtis but you're calling him vapid based on the omission of one name from his vocabulary, and that's what I think is silly.

That in NO WAY is a justification for mediocrity. High standards are necessary. Keeping high standards doesn't always entail a full knowledge of all of one's predecessors. I mean, the kid just finished school, his real education is just about to begin. I know I've learned about more photographers and art history AFTER grad school than I did while in it because of my continuing curiosity for it.

Richard Man

@peter, what does it matter whether he is brilliant or whether you hate mediocrity?

If he's from a non-US country, that's different. I disagree it's the school's fault. If for 6+ years, someone who professes to like to do photography, did not chance to read anything that mentions Weston, what did he read?

He doesn't have to be an expert, or like Weston's stuff, and he may even be brilliant in his arts, but your reasoning sounds thin.


The crux of what I'm saying is that to judge the kid based on the lack of knowledge of one photographer, even if it is Weston, seems short-sighted to me.

The kid could have been reading any number of valuable things. He could have been getting inspired by Bach, Raphael and Schopenhauer instead of by looking at photographs. If he is serious about his work, then I would imagine he will eventually stumble on to the works of Weston, it is only a matter of time, but an MFA grad is still young, and there is just so, so much work to wade through that he may have been exposed to many other worthwhile things.

Obviously my opinion is in the minority here and that's fine, but I just hope that I never dismiss and insult one of my students, peers or anyone for that matter for the simple reason that they can't relate to me about someone I (or even many people) hold in high regard, which is what this article smacks of. Maybe there's more to the situation and that might make more sense (for example if the student is too arrogant to care about Weston after he has heard of him) but as it stands, it just seems like a shallow way to treat a student. There's a huge world of things for a photographer to be interested in and influenced by and like it or not, not everyone will familiarize themselves with Weston on their journey.


I feel his "program" in part failed him. The passing of the baton was missed. I am not the biggest fan of Weston, but I have never looked at a pepper the same way since I experienced the magic of his souvenir.

Dick Monahan

A couple of years ago, I asked my dentist a question about his field's history. He had no idea. As far as he knew, Tufts dental didn't even teach such a course. However, he found out that there is a museum of dentistry in Baltimore, so he drove down there, checked it out, and bought some books. Score one for the curious.


@peter: An MFA is a terminal degree in the arts. Whether or not the student is young and/or you learned a lot after grad school is irrelevant. The student in question now has the credential (on paper at least) to teach photography at a college or university. Whether or not you intended it, you are making excuses for ignorance and mediocrity. Unfortunately you'll find plenty of company in the "art world."


That MFA graduate's response "... History, after all, is about old, unimportant, obsolete, insignificant, inconsequential dead guys." makes me think he wouldn't be reading anything longer than 140 characters. Plug-ins and instagram effects are mediocre by default and to transcend that a person has to actually figure out what those effects are trying to emulate. A history of photography - what a good place to start! There has always been a tension in photography between the technical/gadget side of photography and the fine art side of photography. It's no different now, just more of both have MFAs.


I totally agree that it is the student's university that has failed him. I just graduated from a university that does not have a master's program but I can assure you that every student that graduates from our school with a BFA or a BA knows who Weston was and has been required to take an in depth history of photography and several other art history courses. They are prerequisites to any of the serious hands on photo classes and all of our professors tie our work to those that have gone before us because after all, isn't that why we can do what we do now?
Regardless of how "talented" this student thinks he is, his "art" may turn out to be "thin" if he doesn't build something under his work as a foundation. None of us should be proud of what we don't know, and we should continue to learn about the master of the past - and the present - whether in school or out!


Do people need a masters degree to take photographs? Talking about Edward Weston and history is weston not the photographer who was busy photographing pebbles while the world was been torn apart by the 2nd world war? I bet Weston didn´t know the name of the General that lead the American forces.


I bet he did. During WW2 Weston worked for the U.S. Defense as an air-raid-plane spotter.

Stan Bowman

I look at this differently. This persons ignorance was/is HIS fault, not the schools. Before I went off to a graduate MFA photography program I had already purchased and read Weston's Daybooks, I was entirely familiar with Steiglitz, the Photo Secession, Dorthea Lange, Atget, etc., etc. I had read and absorbed Adams book on the zone system. When I became really motivated by photography I could not get enough. I spent many evenings and weekends at the local library, fascinated by photographers as well as the techniques of the medium, the chemistry, as well as the history. All this while I also had a full time job and was photographing when I could, mostly weekends. And then I went off into an MFA program to get even more.

My point here is that if you really get turned on and excited by photography or any area of fascination you also work at learning about it. Education is not just something you go to school for. It is a lifelong experience. Even still I frequent libraries as much as museums and galleries and also read discussions like this and look up artists and photographers on the internet. This keeps me aware, thinking, interested, and alive. And it is up to me to do this, by myself, because I perceive and want the benefit. Moreover I also keep making photographs.

The story of this student is a story of someone who has yet to really discover what education is for himself nor does he realize that it is his job, not someone else's.


Their seems to be one big problem here...lack of curiousity!
I suppose it killed the cat, but fuels the photographer.
He won his MFA did he not, MFA means not a thing in the real world of content.
Mr. Weston sure supplied us with content...all with out a MFA, how in the hell did he do it?

Myself, I quiz my assistants over beers after a long day of shooting about their photo heros and
Photographers of note. We even have a game, which famous photographer would win in a fist fight.
Minor White vs Duane Michals, Dorothea Lange vs HC-B and a heavy weigh Capa vs Davidson.
Silly, sure, absolutely but we all stand on these shoulders...like it or not.

BTW, who is this Edward Sheriff Curtis person?


yes, I have an MFA... yes, I currently work as a commercial photographer, and yes, I've taught as an adjunct at 3 different colleges....

BUT I hate to say it.... I've known an excessive number of MFA students who don't know what a guide number is, who don't know how to use a speedotron 2401, who couldn't relax a nervous portrait sitter if their lives depended on it and who could probably have great difficulty dealing with dueling publicists who fight against the art director's idea while the time clock is ticking and we all have to finish the shoot and keep people happy.....

but of course.... they're fine artists, not commercial producers....

Yes, I also see MFA students with little originality... those who seem to want to copy certain german photographers with big prints and bigger egos, or certain 8x10 photographers with movie studio lighting crews and all day to setup one shot... .i.e. people can be derivative....

Yes, I suppose people should be erudite, worldly, interestingly aware of the art world and all it's accoutrements, that's a good thing, but it's not the only thing....

I'd rather see the work of a great photographer than a greatly knowledgable not-so-great photographer.... yes, it's great, but not the only thing....

I do love to hang out with photographers who can see an image and mention a great photographer's work that it reminds them of, it's flattering to the ego to have one's work compared with HCB or Davidson...

I do think we're encountering a generational changing of the guard.... and we have to get used to it... the Gen-Y people may look at us the way the Baby Boomers looked at the WWII generation... time to deal with it and not complain....

Yes, there are "digi-babies" out there, MFA people who've never shot film and who know more about photoshop than anyone should know.... but that's a straw man to shoot down....

I say shut up and check out the work....

yes, when I was assisting, I sometimes knew more obscure photo history than the photographers I assisted, but I learned not to brag about it, as they got the gig, and I was the assistant....

Chuck Kimmerle

"Do people need a masters degree to take photographs? Talking about Edward Weston and history is weston not the photographer who was busy photographing pebbles while the world was been torn apart by the 2nd world war? I bet Weston didn´t know the name of the General that lead the American forces."

Ummmm...in 1941, the start of WW2 for the U.S., Weston would have been about 55 years old and would soon be, if not already, suffering from the onset of Parkinson's Disease.

David Blanchard

Count me as supporting Peter, but not necessarily the "kid", the school, and his ignorance.

In the end, no customer will ever care whether the "kid" knew who Weston was. They will only judge his work. In general, real photographers t/make "pichers", but they don't buy 'em. They only argue about other's work over beer.

I never read the "Daybooks" so I went googled Weston and looked at quite a lot of his images. Like all of us, almost all are inconsequential drivel.

Bob Dart

Peter made the comment " Do you know how many amazing artists have worked in a vacuum and created groundbreaking work because of it?", and I would say that the answer to to that question is most definitely ZERO! I would maintain that anyone producing artwork, of any form, and claiming to have worked in a vacuum is out of touch with reality. And anyone buying into that notion is equally out of touch with reality. An artist cannot, in my view, produce work of any sort, meaningful or not, without having been influenced by life, the world around them and artists that that have gone before and with them.

I am certain that had Brooks not been so nonplussed in the moment and ticked off a list of other greats in addition to Weston such as Stieglitz, Steichen, Atget, Man Ray, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Marjorie Content, etc, etc. this student would have offered up equally blank stares to most of those as well. It might have been equally as interesting and enlightening to have asked him to offer up a list of artists that he was familiar with and/or influenced by in some way.

I think it is easy for those of us in an older generation to hold an vision of what a sphere of influence should consist of and have that be lacking in more contemporaries. How insightful would it have been to learn what influences this young artist has had thus far?

Once more, I will maintain that it is not possible to produce anything in a completely uninfluenced vacuum. Anyone making such a claim should spend more time reflecting on the body of work that they have created.

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