I’m a big fan of history. I believe that only by paying respect and looking to our fore fathers can we move forward. The answers to most of our questions lie somewhere in the past, and the solution to most of our problems are probably hiding in aging literature. When inventing something original, we often look back at our previous experiences in order to know what steps to take, or rather what steps not to take.
But in a creative business such as fashion photography, does one need to know the history and traditions of the trade in order to be good?
I have pondered on that ever since I got into the business, and the academic in me says ‘yes.’ But on a daily basis I keep getting proved wrong. As the evolution of technology has given us good affordable cameras, the evolution of new media has at the same time given just about anyone the opportunity to publish work before an international audience through channels such as Flickr and Facebook. Because of all this there’s currently an overflow of people with cameras calling themselves photographers, let alone fashion photographers. And as some might say this ubiquity isn’t a good thing, it has certainly handed us many talented artists that it is unlikely we would have discovered only ten years ago.
Artists that would most likely never have found out they were good at taking pictures if it wasn’t for the availability of necessary tools at an affordable price, and the numerous tutorials and forums on the web.
But as the evolution has blessed us with many wonderful promising artists, it has also changed the general profile of the professional photographer. A few years ago, fashion photography was synonymous with names such as Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, and Peter Lindbergh. Today the fashion photographer could be Joe down the street who just happened to pick up his father’s old Yashica T4, took a few pictures of his girlfriends, posted them on Facebook, and then all of a sudden he’s shooting campaigns for Converse and Urban Outfitters.
He has some, or maybe no, knowledge of how Edward Steichen in 1911 was “dared” by Lucien Vogel, the publisher of Jardin des Modes and La Gazetta du Bon Ton, to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. The shoot that is now widely considered as the first ever modern fashion photography shoot. Nor is he very familiar with the works of iconic artists such as Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, or Helmut Newton.
This leads me back to my initial question:
does one need to know the history and traditions of the trade in order to be good?
As much as it saddens me that a great amount of today’s arising photographers don’t know how Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar’s house photographers in the 1920s and 1930s transformed the genre into an outstanding art form, it simply doesn’t matter. If Joe can pick up a camera and shoot frame after frame of astonishing photography, who’s to say he isn’t a good photographer?
The path an artist takes to become who or what he or she is, or the knowledge of the history or traditions of the art form the artist does or does not possess, will not necessarily decide whether he or she is a good artist or not. There is no right or wrong path in becoming a good fashion photographer. What concludes whether you are good or not will always be the work you produce. People will discuss the quality of your work out of what the end result is (in this case your photographs), regardless of how you got into the trade, your knowledge of the history and traditions, or philosophies and thoughts that might or might not lay behind your artwork.
History is always important, but not as important as I wish it was. If Joe takes great pictures, I’m a fan. But he sure isn’t what I used to look up to.
[This article was published in REVS Magazine #1]