Has it All Been Done?
“For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.” ~ Kurt Andersen
While indulging in the rabbit hole that is YouTube one recent afternoon I happened upon an interview with Ian Anderson, aka Jethro Tull (apropos of nothing I am a huge progressive rock fan). At one point in the interview he stated his belief that all the breakthroughs and creative epiphanies in rock music happened from its inception in the 1950’s through the mid 1980’s and since then there has been nothing new, that over the last 30 years the trends in rock music have been nothing more than rehashes of past styles. He was not speaking to the originality of contemporary music artists, rather the dearth of new movements within the rock genre (e.g., R&B, progressive rock, heavy metal, punk, new wave, etc.). What about grunge, you say? Well, he argues that grunge is a recycling of the “fairly basic, rugged rock music” from the 70’s with some updates. Surely there are those who disagree with the assertion, and no doubt that disagreement is largely spread along age lines. Still, it naturally had me thinking of creative movements and breakthroughs in landscape photography. Have we seen it all?
Anderson’s belief is that we can’t endlessly expect things to be as creatively new and exciting as they once were. He goes on to say that most of what one can do has been done in rock music and perhaps even jazz and classical music. Sound familiar? With regards to landscape photography, there have been many movements and breakthroughs over the years, from pictorialism to straight photography to the advent of color photography and so on. There are those who believe that everything that could be photographed has been photographed, and I think that’s largely true. On the surface it sounds downright depressing. However, the silver lining is that not everything has been photographed by you. You have the potential of seeing a familiar object in a completely original way. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But, let’s be honest, aren’t there only so many ways of seeing something? When a million photographers worldwide have photographed the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley, are there really any new creative epiphanies happening? I don’t mean personal epiphanies, but rather with respect to the genre. As a whole, are we bringing anything new to the conversation, or are we simply seeing things as they’ve been seen before? Painting continued to evolve over centuries, has landscape photography already hit a wall after only 150 years? Will landscape photos look different 50 years from now? It’s difficult to imagine how as they don’t look all that different from 50 years ago when 35mm became the dominant format. Certainly the process of making photos will continue to rapidly evolve as it has thus far in the digital age. But, process doesn’t guarantee new creative epiphanies, just a new and different means to a familiar end.
I realize of course that none of us entered into landscape photography with the goal of inventing a brand new style or movement, to do so would be ludicrous and ultimately futile. It’s not about reinventing the genre, it’s about us, our own personal journey, discovering our own epiphanies. Personally speaking, I consider myself a good photographer. But, in no way am I the most creative photographer out there. I look at my work and wonder, is it just a recycling of the work of those photographers who inspire me? Thinking that gives me something to work toward. I can continue to explore the limits of my potential and work to push past them, hopefully adding something of my own to previously established ideas. It is certainly a challenge. Maybe innovation of the form is not as important as excellence of individual execution. Will I personally invent a heretofore unknown style? Doubtful. I think of the Allman Brothers, blending blues, rock, and jazz into a new and unique “sound,” what became known as Southern Rock. Alas, I am no Duane Allman. Dammit.
I find I am inclined to agree with Anderson, especially considering the myriad innovations in rock music in the 70’s, something we are unlikely to see again. Likewise, it is hard to imagine radically new breakthroughs and big ideas in landscape photography in the years ahead. Again, I am referring to ends, not means. Will the next generation of landscape photographers oversee a revolution in landscape photography? And if not, is that okay? What happens when an art form stagnates? Does it not ultimately die? A question I will continue to ponder while I listen to King Crimson.