Nestled at the base of a red rock cliff just north of the Utah/Arizona border, Goulding’s Trading Post offers a commanding panorama of Monument Valley — it’s every photographer’s dream vista. It also invites travelers, through prominent signage, to visit “John Wayne’s Cabin”. Now, to a sucker for kitschy Americana like me (who also just happened to be moseying through on a recent 1700 mile southwestern photography trip), that sign was magnetic.
John Wayne’s final film (The Shootist, in 1976) came and went before most of the current US population was even born, which is why my amigo Heratch mentioned his surprise at seeing his face on the cover of a tacky supermarket tabloid recently. We were sitting around bellyaching about all the saddle sores we’ve accumulated as photographers and teachers over the years, and he wanted to know just who the heck, in 2015, wants to read a gossipy article about a movie hero from two or three generations ago. Haven’t several newer silver screen idols come along in the years since? Why would anybody under 40 still give a hoot about John Wayne?
His question got me thinking, not so much about yesterday’s movie stars as yesterday’s photography stars. Heratch and I have been dragging ourselves hootin’ and hollerin’ through the technological Wild West since the early 1990’s, but neither of us have been able to let our old photo heroes rest in peace. As adaptable as we’ve tried to be, progress sometimes feels less like an orderly march and more like the cavalry charge in a John Wayne western, and we’re Navajo Nation. And we all know how that turned out.
“Boomers in particular”, wrote Tim Cockey in The Boston Globe last week, “are having a difficult time saying goodbye to their past.” His article Don’t Bogart Those Cultural Touchstones pokes at our generation’s false belief that cultural icons from our past should retain their relevance to younger folks simply because they were important to us. (“Bogart” refers to another long-dead matinee idol, Humphrey Bogart, but has also come to mean “to selfishly appropriate or keep”). He recounts a speaking engagement before a younger audience that resulted in blank stares when he referenced Bogie and one of his most famous movie lines, “Here’s looking at you, kid”.
And why not? Bogart died in 1957, for crying out loud.
Still, it’s a feeling many of us know well. A photographer looking for inspirational heroes today might be as impressed with work like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity as she is with Robert Frank’s The Americans, maybe even more so. Is it sacrilege to suggest that some of the images that seemed so important to us a half century ago or longer might look a little…pedestrian to her in 2015?
Why shouldn’t they? It’s her generation’s turn to define what’s important, to assess and build on the foundation laid by others and to discard what doesn’t fit. If, as Napoleon supposedly said, history is just “a fable agreed upon”, this generation is now giving the nod to new players. We may believe that our cows were somehow more sacred, but, all things considered, they probably weren’t.
Whether it’s John Wayne, John Lennon, or John Szarkowski, we all have a soft spot for what was cool when we were taking everything in for the first time. We geezers bow down to the usual suspects from the canon of twentieth century photography not just because we’ve learned to see them in artistic, cultural and intellectual context, but because they also remind us of why we wanted to become photographers (or movie stars or rock stars) in the first place.
Let’s face it: today’s new crop of photographers see things differently than we did. Just take a look at this eye opening survey of the current state of the news photography business, recently commissioned by the University of Stirling, the World Press Photo Foundation, and the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Among its more surprising findings is how many young photojournalists admit to enhancing, altering or staging their work, and how they believe that journalistic ethics must evolve with technology. As summarized in TIME magazine’s report on the study, they’re breaking old rules and making new ones:
Nearly 30% of photographers admitted to altering the image content, other than by cropping, at least sometimes. When asked if they stage images by asking subjects to pose, repeat actions or wait for them to shoot the picture, 36% said ‘never’ but 52% said ‘sometimes’—with 12% even saying they did at least half the time. What’s more, 57% of the respondents said they use their own standards instead of following their company’s guidelines.
Capa, Weegee, and the rest of the “f8 and be there” gang all look a little long in the tooth in the face of numbers like that. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ve been kidding ourselves about a lot of this stuff all along.
They also learn differently, and again, why shouldn’t they? Diminishing enrollment in traditional higher education in general, and at for-profit vocational schools in particular, is partially the result of serious competition from online resources and virtual classrooms, downward pressure on a professional photographer’s perceived value in the face of crowdsourcing, and the uphill struggle for brick and mortar institutions to adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape.
Specifically pointing to the lack of sufficient multimedia, web design and writing/communication/presentation training in most photo curricula, it’s disappointing to discover how many working photographers feel that their education didn’t provide them with the competitive skills necessary to pursue their careers:
Asked whether their formal training had equipped them for their chosen profession, less than half of those who had received training agreed that this was true (47%). A sizeable proportion (16%) felt their training hadn’t equipped them at all…
The truth is, the jig’s up! Anyone who cares to look can see the man behind the curtain. A self-motivated student with a high speed internet connection and a higher speed BS detector can download all the “secrets”, any time, anywhere, and often for free. But that’s the easy part. Until we start seeing video tutorials about what it takes to put those skills to work (persistence, hard work, sacrifice, business smarts and dumb luck), traditional educators may still have a role to play.
Finally, today’s photographers buy differently, too, a reality that hit those of us here in Boston pretty hard last week. After nearly 60 years serving the region’s pro and amateur photography community, retailer EP Levine closed its doors for good.
This is nothing new — great old stores like Levine’s have been shutting down for years now. The owners made a heroic effort to modernize the facility and hold onto the reins of a business that felt much more like a local institution, but the cascading consequences of the economic crisis of 2008 coupled with intense pressure from well-stocked internet retailers and rental houses took their toll.
“This is what happens when everybody buys from Amazon to save a few bucks” was the unsurprising sentiment expressed by loyal customers on social media. But if we’re honest with ourselves, even in light of recent press reports detailing employee complaints at Amazon and even B&H, why shouldn’t we?
How can we expect a local camera store to survive when other resources deliver a level of inventory, convenience and reliability unimaginable just a decade or two ago? Film and photofinishing, the traditional cash cows of the industry, went the way of the dodo bird years ago. Profit margins on hardware alone are slim to none.
Pride in a knowledgable sales staff wasn’t enough anymore, either, not when they were up against more authoritative, well informed blogs, review sites, “gurus” and paid spokes-shooters than you can shake a selfie stick at. In the end, a loyal local customer base just wasn’t enough.
Artists thrive when we push against convention — in fact, that’s our job. We march to the beat of our own drums, which may explain why so many of us wear black and sport more tattoos than a drunken sailor. So why do we circle the wagons whenever a new idea, a new technology, or a new way of doing business threatens the status quo?
Progress doesn’t march in place or go backwards, and it’s far from tidy. “Disruptive technologies” are designed to rock the boat — we either do our best to hold on and paddle or we go over the side. The term “creative destruction” was coined to justify the collateral damage caused by new ways of doing things, but words don’t help much when the names and faces are all so familiar.
Silver halide holdouts, whatever the hip term for “hipsters” is nowadays, and “get off my lawn” grumps surely will disagree with much of what I’ve written here, but for anyone willing to learn and grow, progress has always led to more opportunities for creative individuals than it has destroyed.
In The Shootist, John Wayne portrays an aging gunfighter dying of cancer at the turn of the 20th century. The Old West was on its way out, too, and his character knows it. Determined to die with his boots on, he arranges a final shootout with some ornery varmints at a Carson City saloon. He rides in, not high in the saddle, but on a dainty pillow in a trolley car just after one of the black hats waiting for him inside chugged up in a gas powered Oldsmobile.
Wayne glances at the shiny new jalopy parked at the curb, shakes his head and sighs, then ambles inside. Gunplay ensues, he’s badly wounded but kills the bad guys anyway, only to have the bartender shoot him in the back with a double barreled shotgun. His idealistic young friend, (played by Ron Howard) picks up Wayne’s six shooter and plugs the bartender. The kid looks down at the pistol in horror, then throws it through the window as Wayne nods, smiles, and expires.
A real cry-in-your-beer Hollywood ending if there ever was one, and a nifty metaphor for me to let this here little dogie git along.
Succumbing to cancer himself three years later, The Duke may have summed things up for us posthumously, perfectly, forever, with a quote engraved on his tombstone:
Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.