Photographic Literacy



Here's the editor of Lens. Work Publishing Bruce Jensen. Let me confess right here at the beginning of this podcast that it's not always necessary to know where you've been in order to look ahead and know where you're going but it's awfully useful sometimes to know the history of what it is that you're about to attempt and to know how other people have tried to do what you're about to try to do and to learn from them as they say if. I've seen farther than others is because I've stood on the shoulders of giants. What would this in mind? You can imagine my reaction when the following story occurred. I was attending a photo review session. I was doing reviews there and I was looking through a body of work from a young woman and in the course of normal conversation talking about her work. I said well. This work reminds me a lot of the work of Edward Weston which I intended sort of a compliment but also to indicate to her that what she was doing wasn't necessarily as new and innovative and revolutionary as she thought it was and I was absolutely nonplussed. When her response was who's Edward Weston she had previously explained that she had an MFA in photography. So I wasn't quite sure how to respond to the fact that an MFA graduate in photography had never heard of Edward Weston and didn't know who he was explained a little bit about Edward Weston and the history of photography and she then explained that in the program that she was involved in she did not have to take the history of photography as that was an elective in her program. And I I suppose that's okay but as you can imagine. I was a little bit discouraged by that. But I've softened over the years and I realized that maybe maybe there's more to this than meets the eye because the problem is there's no limit to that train of thought. Okay so maybe you've heard of Edward Weston but you haven't heard of Mortenson okay maybe you've heard of Mortenson but you haven't heard of Ph Emerson. How far back do you go? How much knowledge do you have to have? How obscure a photographer is necessary. In order for you to have what might be considered a legitimate excuse for not ever having heard from of course. Edward Weston's very famous photographer but fame is also something that is curious in this regard. For example I just recently discovered of novelist from the nineteenth century named J S Fletcher. I'd never heard of J S Fletcher and turns out. He was during his lifetime practically the most popular crime novelist of his generation. Rivaling Sir Arthur CONAN doyle and Sherlock Holmes. And all of that J S Fletcher wrote two hundred thirty some odd books and I just discovered I'd never heard of him never heard him referred to in any conversations but yet in his day he was incredibly popular so the farther we look back in history the more some people are going to be obscured by nothing more substantial than time and collective memory that does not however mean that photographic literacy is unimportant in fact. I believe photographic literacy is very important. And here's a good demonstration of why I think so a few weeks ago as in my local library looking through some of the books. They had for sale as part of their fundraiser. And I found an interesting older volume called the reader's digest reader. It's an anthology selection done by Theodore Roosevelt. Not The president. But the president's son I think Published in nineteen forty. The president died in one thousand nine hundred ninety nine so I'm assuming it's Theodore Roosevelt junior who died nineteen forty four. According to Kapiti he anyway so Theodore Roosevelt Junior along with the editors of Reader's Digest. Put together this election published. This book and Roosevelt explains in the forward that he'd stumbled across a box of old copies of Reader's digest which tempted him and he says and I quote. I sat reading back copies for hours every time I finished an article which was off my main course in which I shouldn't have taken the time to read. I thought that I'd read only one other well. At least only one another and then another short run that followed it and another subject piqued my interest and lured me on. Eventually he continues. I dipped into an issue ten years back. But here the interest was even greater the forgotten world came into being not reminiscent Louis but with touches of unmistakable reality. I was astounded to find. How much of the past decade? I'd actually forgotten and how much more I remembered only vaguely. Yesterday's heroes and manners changing social complexions penetrating vignettes tell the story of Art Politics Science and business to find. These things is to have passed before ones is the cavalcade of American Life. And as you refresh your memory. Here's the key phrase by the way Roosevelt says and as you refresh your memory you improve your present perspective. The current scene gains new significance. Close quote what a marvelous way to look at work from the past and couldn't everything that he said about these articles he was finding in old copies of Reader's Digest. Couldn't they apply equally? Well to looking back. At the history of photography that is to say if it's true for the stories in Reader's Digest. Wouldn't it also be true for photography and it motivated me to go back and look through some of the jewels that I have in my photographic library book that I haven't pulled out for a while and I was amazed at what I found for example? Some of those books that I may be purchased thirty or forty years ago seem much more relevant today than they did back then because they were looking ahead in such a way that now in the benefit of hindsight we can see how right they were. And how brilliant? The photography was in. How far ahead of their time? Those photographers were other books. Do don't fare as well. There are others that I have in my library that I looked at from thirty and forty years ago that now I sorta scratch my head and say I wonder why I was so motivated to purchase those books in either case as Roosevelt said the current scene gains new significance. So there's a reason to look back at what other photographers have done. And what the trends in photography have been and we need to recognize that not only is there value but there's no end in that because new photographers from the pastor. Being discovered all the time their archives are being uncovered think. Vivian Maier and that kind of story. But also there's a lot of people a lot of historians who are doing research and discovering really terrific photographers who weren't popular in their time. Maybe they had no audience very small audience and now in the perspective of time we can look back at their work and see. How really terrific was so the idea of developing photographic literacy as a part of our creative life I think is incredibly valuable. And here's another example of why while I was doing all of this digging through my library and looking back I ran across a reference to Henry. Fox Talbot's the Pencil of nature which I had heard about thirty or forty years ago I've known the existence of this very very historically important publication but I never actually looked at it or read it and partly because I didn't know that it had ever been published although I have no doubt that it probably has been

Coming up next