Photography’s Golden Era 2

February 4th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Photography’s Golden Era 2

(CONTINUED FROM BLOG POST, “Photography’s Golden Era 1“)

Are We Currently in Another Golden Era of Photography?

HEY, THAT’S NOT ART!!!!!

Volcan From South of Colima, Mexico, 1995, by Philip Hyde. A "contemporary" Philip Hyde photograph, the last time he traveled in Mexico before he lost his eyesight. This less landscape and more landscaping image will not be printed for some time. It will eventually be part of the Mexico Portfolio, that contains many architectural and travel style photographs with a more "post-modern" feel.

After the first post on Photography’s Golden Era, one of the responses has been rolling around in the back 40 of my vacuous mind. A photographer named Derrick Birdsall of “My Sight Picture” said he enjoyed the “walk back in time,” and when I asked him what else he would like to see covered on the subject he wrote: “David, as a historian (and neophyte photographer) myself, I enjoyed the perspective you shared. Gotta know where you’ve been if you want to know where you’re going. As for future topics… why would you say that the “Golden Era” was in the past? Some could argue that with all of the technology more or less readily available and affordable today that we are currently in a Golden Era today?? I’m not arguing the point, but I’d be interested to hear your views on the matter.”

Interesting questions, and put to me in an open-ended, ‘let’s see what you think’ manner. I couldn’t resist. I decided to offer my take on it here. It would be fun to hear what others think too. Are we in a new Golden Era, or in the pits of the cherries now? Here’s my response, edited again…

Hi Derrick,
Great questions. I did not label the period from 1946 to 1955 at the California School of Fine Arts when Minor White was lead instructor and the time just before that in the San Francisco Bay Area when Group f.64 formed. Photo historians and curators including Ken and Victoria Whyte Ball in their forthcoming book, The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-1955 (written about in the blog post, “The Golden Decade: California School of Fine Arts Photography“) have called it the Golden Era because the energy, creativity, optimism and serious commitment of the G.I.s coming out of WW II and looking to get on with their lives, meshed with the gathering of the greatest teachers and innovators photography has ever seen. At a unique time when there had been no fine art photography before, it all came together in one place and brought forth photography that will endure “forever” if that is possible.

Definitely a good point you raise about the current day. On the internet synergy occurs, though at times it seems much less like a coming together of the greatest talents and more like dispersion in a million directions. See also the blog post, “Is Landscape Photography Thriving Or Dying.” I’m new to the forums, though my impression is that they are mainly a training ground for the accelerated honing of new photographer’s skills. Certainly the old pros are around in places too. Photography is changing faster than ever. The technology is allowing for just about anyone to make a good photograph now and then. However, does that define a Golden Era? The various directions will have to settle out a bit to find out.

Lorraine Anne Davis, in her Black and White Magazine column “Curator’s Corner” interviewed Lynne Warren, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the April 2008 issue. Lynne Warren said, “I was getting pretty cynical about the emphasis on large-scale color work, often poorly executed—it just seemed all the rage. Too many artists seemed to think they could just pick up a digital camera and shoot, knowing nothing about photography. But I’ve seen a change. Younger photographers seem to be getting very serious about their craft, and realizing that if you want a photo to look a certain way, you had better be able to consciously achieve it rather than accepting whatever comes out of your digital camera.” A lot of excellent work is out there. However, forgive me for being blunt, and I certainly don’t think this is always the case, but there are too many sunsets, sunrises, contrived drama, over-saturated colors and people following formulas they read in somebody’s 17 quick tips.

My father, master landscape photographer Philip Hyde, often quoted Minor White who said sunsets are cliché. Both Minor White and Philip Hyde, and Ansel Adams for that matter, taught that photography is more of a Zen-like practice of stilling the mind, opening the eyes and seeing deeply. There isn’t anything quick about it. Also, Dad said that in order to photograph nature, it is necessary to understand something about the subject, to spend time out there away from the iPod, iPad, iPhone, IBM, IPO, ISP, IMF, IOU and IRS.

Another issue that Lynne Warren and Lorraine Anne Davis did not even touch is the effects of Photoshop on the medium. Will the transformations of photography through digital technologies ultimately improve the quality of the best art? Hard to say this soon. Ansel Adams’ silver prints, Philip Hyde’s dye transfer prints and Christopher Burkett’s Cibachrome prints have yet to be matched by anyone printing in digital. It will be interesting to see later if the beginning of the digital era will indeed be seen as a Golden Era. This may be a settling out era. It may bring about some kind of Renaissance, but has the Renaissance already started? Hmmm, we’ll see. Because many of the big scenes have been done, now many museums are collecting mainly quirky, bizarre, experimental stuff. It may be “Golden” or it may be merely the birth of what is essentially a new medium, searching to find itself.

Much of what I also see are various ways of changing photographs to look more like paintings or some other related visual art that is not straight photography, but is more like a reincarnation of the pictorialism that held photography back from becoming its own art form. Alfred Stieglitz in New York, and the members of Group f.64 in San Francisco, set photography free with Straight Photography. Lorraine Anne Davis is also a prominent appraiser with another column in Black and White Magazine called “What’s It Worth.” In a piece about the work of Edmund Teske, she wrote, “After photography broke from Pictorialism at the beginning of the 20th Century and embraced Modernism, it soon became stuck in the trap of Straight Photography.” Many people believe that the parameters of realism hold photography back, but everyone is free to create whatever they choose. If you paint over old photographs, you move into a different art form altogether, as with many of the new directions in digital, often inspired by Photoshop. Read more on the effects and techniques of Photoshop in the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Photoshop For Pros.” More power to them, but they are not what Ansel Adams and Edward Weston called “pure” photography and they are more experimental than “great” at this juncture, in my opinion.

So how do you feel about the current era? Is it a new Golden Age? Or the doom of everything grand? Take a gander, what will the future hold?

(Continued in the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 3

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34 comments

  1. The problem since the advent of the digital process, everybody is a photographer. They don’t know or give a damn about the history of photography. When you see someone who calls himself a photographer, with a small camera up to his face, ask and he will respond. Course I am a professional. We are overwhelmed with images. Just, pick the one you like. Its the excess of images, too much, far too much. Gone are the days when we used to relax and work in our darkrooms and listen to classical music and ponder the quality of the print. God, I miss that so much. We have become victims of the instant age. Nobody has time anymore. we fear that the end is certain, and we must act quickly. The cell phone instant communication. The highways. many motorist use the fast lane at 80 miles per hour. Got to get here on time so we can wait. As to photography, we are unfortunately in the inescapable race to nowhere. What can we do ? Just slow down….. use a timed exposure.

  2. Richard Wong says:

    I would say the Golden Era for photography was probably in the 80′s. Obviously we can’t know what will happen in the next 100 years but to date, I would say that it is in the 80′s because that is when film was at its peak amongst consumers yet it was still easy to impress people if you had “professional” quality work because having that level of talent was still relatively rare. You can still go places that label specific tripod holes as “Kodak” photo locations and I’m sure that originated from that time period.

  3. Thank you, David Johnson, for commenting. I am honored. David was in class with my father, Philip Hyde, at CSFA under Minor White, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston et al. Your perspective is much appreciated and hopefully will trigger some re-evaluation. I don’t think the future is hopeless, but it is interesting that many of your sentiments parallel some of the comments Dad used to make.

  4. Thank you Richard. I appreciate your participation and comments on this blog. You have brought good ideas to the table, or the platform, screen, or whatever. I also am grateful to you for your behind-the-scenes advice on blogging and learning this program. What you say about the 1980′s is something I never would have thought about before. After all, Ansel Adams and many other late masters were still around at that time, teaching themselves, not to mention photographing and PRINTING the old way. Some people argue that photography is not even photography any more. If anyone can make a quality photograph with an iPhone, then what’s the point? Nothing distinguishes quality from shlock, at least not on the surface. On second glance, there is a great deal that still distinguishes good from great. By the way, you are certainly right in regard to Dad’s career. His real heyday was in the 1950′s and 1960′s when he was exhibiting with the greatest masters and in the best venues around the country. However, his crowning achievement in publishing, “Drylands: The Deserts of North America” came out in 1987.

  5. The problem with the internet is that it homogenizes the art. Huge, saturated, dramatic landscapes are valued. If you participate in online critique, you are often encouraged to increase saturation and contrast without any consideration of the intent of the photographer. It often seems like the Black Velvet Art era of photography to me, especially with the popularity of HDR. I am becoming more interested in projects that explore feelings and ideas and less interested in producing another greatest hit.

    Sharon

  6. Interesting Sharon. I have been exposed to art all my life by my mother, but never paid much attention until lately when I realized if I intend to talk about photography it might be a good idea to know something about art too. I have been reading up on photography since 2002, but have never heard of Black Velvet Art. Just did a search and though some of it looks intriguing, I see what you mean. It will be interesting to see what is said about the photography of this era. Will historians in 40-50 years sneer at the overdone color the way they did at Pictorialism? I like what you suggest as your new explorations.

  7. I was a lifelong Texan until a few years ago. You can find black velvet art paintings for sale outside of gas stations etc.

    I watched a great interview with Stephen Shore where he discussed small photographs providing a more intimate experience for the viewer. I love finding this type of antidote to the bigger, brighter the better view – although there certainly is a place for that also.

    I’m way off-topic, I’m sure. :)

    Sharon

  8. Not off-topic at all. Adds to and ties in with what Lynne Warren from MoCA said in Black and White Magazine.

  9. Jane Strohmaier says:

    Yes, it is a golden era now.  With digital there is no need to spend money on developing so people can shoot off 500 frames like the pros do and pick out one outstanding photo.  Kind of the 10,000 monkeys typing theory.  Also, the digital equipment and computer retouching being available to the average person, not just the darkroom owners, makes processing far more tangible. In the end, the most difficult thing is to filter though the sheer volume of photos to find the few with genius and talent. You asked, Jane

  10. Thank you, Jane, good to hear a differing opinion. There certainly is a populist appeal to having photography in everybody’s reach. The “shooting off 500 frames” applies to many types of pros, such as sports, fashion, photojournalism at times. However, it does not apply to landscape/nature/wilderness photography as much, or even any kind of fine art photography. One of the main distinguishing characteristics of art versus non-art (if there is such a thing), or “good art” and “bad art,” in the past was the emphasis placed on careful analysis, selection, attention to detail and meticulous arrangement of composition in good landscape photography, rendering the process artful, rather than subject to random chance. Anyone today can accidentally get a few good photographs if they fire off enough rounds. My dad used to chide people for even using the word, “shoot.” He would encourage people to say they “made” or “created” a photograph. Leveling the playing field has its attraction, but it also discounts the work of those who are trying to make a living from their art, besides devaluing the dues they have paid over the years and the training they have. Can you imagine if there were a technology that allowed people to be dentists, engineers or contractors without any training? As much as I disagree with some of what you have said due to my upbringing, you have made some good points too.

  11. Topher J. Hansen says:

    What a cool Shot. I love the color in the front juxtaposed to the sky scene. It is a picture that you can feel.

  12. That was the only photograph he made in that Garden.

  13. Mark says:

    Nice post David.

    I am currently working my way through the excellent book, Camera, by Todd Gustavson. It is basically a complete history of the evolution of the camera, with a lot of wonderful photographs of the cameras of yesteryears from a variety of collections.

    Looking back on the effort it used to take to make one single photograph in the mid 1820s and late 1800s, versus the effort now, is quite an extraordinary contrast. It was the true dawn of the photographic image. We take so much of that for granted now.

    I would be hard pressed to label anything the Golden Era while personally being right in the middle of it. It seems like something for historians to judge and label. There is no doubt things are changing rapidly today however, and I am quite enjoying the ride.

  14. When I searched Technorati, the search engine for blogs, for “Landscape Photographer” one of the top rated blogs in the entire “blogosphere” was “Graf Nature Photography: Notes from the Woods.” I am flattered to have you comment and compliment on my blog, Mark. I’ll have to put “Camera” on my list.

  15. Steve Sieren says:

    It seems just too early in the digital age to really call it a golden era or know if it even will be. It’s probably a golden era for the average person to pick up a camera and learn how to use it since the learning curve has been wiped out from what it was years ago. It has not even been ten years since a digital camera has replaced a 35mm camera and it’s presently encroaching the medium format film quality in comparison for the average consumer. Either way with film or digital RAW capture we have the oppertunity to keep our pixels intact or destroy them in photoshop.

    I highly agree with Lorraine Anne Davis on the fact that there is a surplus of sunsets and contrived drama etc. out there now. It’s quite the common thing to photograph a sunset almost to a point where it has become a devalued item. Uniqueness is what would be remembered in time wouldn’t it? If something has a contrived feel wouldn’t it take away the enjoyment of it being called a photograph? Of course it is still art by subjective opinion. When I see a photograph I want to connect with it’s own connection to a natural moment not the way it was photoshoped and how I can relate to spending that amount of time to achieve that certain look. I want to lose myself in a wild landscape and not be reminded of my own time spent behind a screen. I can still enjoy a photograph that was turned into art in a digital darkroom but I do lose the connection with the natural world that I spend too much time hiking in, camping in, backpacking in. If it can spark a memory that I had once that is golden.

    There are two forms of photography one which is easy for a human being to know that this is something that exists in reality without it being a voluntary thought and photography that has a feel that does not connect with reality, possibly by not using photoshop or overuse of photoshop, either of the two are only viewed as art by the veiwer of the moment whoever that may be, then the next and the next.

    If this is a golden era, wouldn’t it need to produce a new memorable photographer that will be just as memorable compared to the greats that are written in the history books. If there is a soul out there that will fit these shoes, I doubt he or she even has a clue. It could be a photographer or a graphic artist or both? In this era it seems that is another question are you a photographer or a graphic artist? Nowadays you must be somewhat of a graphic artist but where do you spend most of your time? This is why I think it’s too soon to tell.

  16. Good points, Steve, especially about the memorable photographer. Certain other eras have produced numerous memorable masters that have been appreciated by every era since.

  17. Ed Cooper says:

    There are so many hundreds of thousands of people posting photos on the internet in either websites or Facebook (I have a site on Facebook) and other networking sites, it is hard to gain any traction unless you stand out outstandingly for some reason (which I do not.) I haven’t had much feedback from my website, maybe once a month someone will contact me about a photo of mine that has been published somewhere in the last 40 years. The Facebook site has piqued some interest, but almost no sales of prints. So the only thing I can suggest is continue printing and exhibiting Philip’s photographs in exhibitions. I never did this, but it may result in some sales. My approach has been to author several books in recent years, and I am continuing on that track. It hasn’t resulted in many print sales, but it has validated a portion of my work. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor.
    Ed Cooper

  18. Hi Ed, I appreciate a pioneer mountaineer such as yourself writing and sharing some thoughts. Others have mentioned print sales being slow, particularly after the downturn. The galleries are seriously hurting. I plan to write a post about this in fact. The reason this is the case, as many know, is because public PERCEPTION is that photography or any fine artwork for that matter, is a luxury purchase. However, reality is, in a downturn, art can be a good investment, potentially holding value or even continuing to go up when other commodities go down. Of course art and even fine photography has gone down some now, in the auctions and elsewhere, but fine art photography prints by reputable masters have gone up far more in the last 30-40 years than anything else, except perhaps Google stock. Prints by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston have doubled, tripled and quadrupled in value. More importantly in the downturn, they have not fallen off much. If people are looking for a smart place to put their money, they can’t do any better RIGHT NOW than in a fine art photography print by the right artist. Now this is drifting a little away from the Golden Era topic, but it says that perhaps this is the Golden Era, in some ways. I would probably hark back to Richard Wong’s comment, to say that the 1980s and the 1990s were probably the Golden Era in recent history.

  19. Norman Koren says:

    This may be a golden age for photography but not for photographers (at least those trying to make a living at it). The art has been democratized to a degree nobody ever imagined. Anybody can make reasonably good looking images (there are millions out of all the billions taken)–and it’s easy to follow the footsteps of the masters. There are real talents out there, but it’s not so easy to get noticed in the crowd, though the internet helps. But it’s never been easy for photographers or artists of any sort. Every age has its unique challenges, but we’ll be judged by how we respond to our present day challenges (not the challenges of the past.) There are always new challenges, for sure.

  20. Hi Norman, thank you for the reminder that it’s never easy in any age, nor is any age without its Golden-ness or Gold lining to mix metaphors. Norman Koren and his two sons are tech geniuses. One son is a computer wizard in Boulder and the other is designing the green transportation of the future in London. Check out this amazing You Tube video: Ultra Pod Personal Rapid Transit. Norman’s site is a powerful and content-rich resource for Photoshop and photography. Norman is also launching a new technology that could revolutionize lens quality testing. I found him while surfing the internet and discovered he lives right in my neighborhood. As for the fate of photography as a career, there is a lot of bad news right now. Earlier this decade due to reorganization and mismanagement of the largest stock agencies and repercussions throughout the industry, many stock photographer’s incomes have been cut in half or less than one third of what they used to earn. Now with the downturn, print sales have also dropped. I don’t see how the present time can be considered a Golden Era for photography, perhaps for the hobby, but not for the profession. Still, photography will survive in one form or another. Even if the entire monetary system were to collapse and we were to change to another currency, photography would go on. The only question each of us have to answer for ourselves is: “Will I be one of those who go on with it.” Either way, it will be an interesting, though possibly painful, adventure.

  21. I would only call it a Golden Era for federal bailout recipients. Who or what else is actually thriving right now? It will all come back around, and I’m confident that PRINTS will still be the output that represents our medium as Fine Art – not digital picture frames, not 30” LCD screens, and sure as hell not iPhones.

  22. Prints will live on even if the whole civilization collapses, and if it doesn’t, those who make top quality fine art prints will be ahead.

  23. *gulp* Wow, thanks much for the link – I am somewhat overwhelmed to think that my earlier question prompted such a thought provoking post from you and your readers!

    From my perspective as a complete and total neophyte, I notice that the folks that seem to be of the mindset that the golden days were in the past are the folks that have been doing this the longest. On the other hand, the folks that appear to be relative newcomers (here and elsewhere) seem to think that the golden days are either now, or in the future.

    I recall an article I read recently that focused on portrait photographers – and basically stated that with the affordability and accessibility of digital, anyone can take wedding pictures and that as a result, the pros’ businesses were suffering.

    I take the opposite tack. Good photography will continue to stand out while crap will always be crap. You could hand a good photographer a disposable camera and the likelihood of that person taking a good image is much greater than someone who has no idea what they’re doing shooting with the latest and greatest technology.

    The pressure is on, surely, but I like to think that the cream will always rise to the top.

    As for me, I hope to continue to learn how to see, and then capture what I’m seeing with my camera in a way that I like. If someone else likes it too, it’s a bonus. I have the ‘luxury’ of saying that since I have a “real” job that pays the bills and taking pictures is not something that has to put bread on the table.

    Thank you for the thought provoking discussion!!!!

  24. Thank you, Derrick, for asking the question that began the discussion. What you say about a good photographer making great photographs with a throwaway camera, reminds me of when I went out photographing in Marin County last fall with Stan Zrnich, who also went to CSFA two classes after Dad and knew him. Stan Zrnich’s camera was not complete junk, I think it was maybe a $150-$300 digital camera he bought as an experiment. However, watching what he saw, what he observed, what he noticed. That was a great experience. I love being able to look at prominent landscape photographer Carr Clifton’s new images when he returns from a trip to Alaska or Canada. It is an eye-opener, so to speak. There is certainly a difference between the average work out there, but the photo buyers don’t seem to care any more who they buy from. Many of them would just as soon get their images from a new guy for less, than cultivate a relationship with a professional.

  25. Now that would be an interesting post! Being a complete outsider, I’m interested in your thoughts on how a professional (landscape photographer in this case) builds relationships.

    And, playing the devil’s advocate, if you can buy a quality print from a new up and comer for less $ than from a seasoned professional – is that bad? The seasoned pro had to start somewhere and was an up and comer at some point… How does one make that transition from up and comer to seasoned professional?

    I understand completely that we all must pay our dues in whatever we are trying to do in life… but other than simply putting in the time, how does that transition work?

    How does a photographer develop their style so that it’s clearly recognizable?

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  26. Derrick, your questions have been good instigators of thought and discussion. This one screams for a good reply, but is not that easy to answer. I will give you the short-take now and more in another post. Dad (and Mom) met workshop participants or other people he/they traveled with, etc, that they got along with well or wanted to buy a print. They would invite these people up to their home in the mountains. After eating my mom’s cooking and spending time with her and my dad, nobody walked away mad. They usually left with a print or two or three. My parents both had a good sense of humor and were great fun to be around (most of the time, unless you were their independent-minded son). Mom was very charming and you may have heard about Dad’s quiet charisma. They built relationships by being themselves. I am not sure their brand of “relationship building” would apply today, perhaps it would apply even more so, with the right people. Ansel Adams, from his early days in photography, intermingled his social and work life, founding relationships on generosity and having people over for drinks at his house. He threw parties and entertained politicians, visiting dignitaries, movie stars and other influential people, his students, staff, friends, neighbors, even strangers. I have learned that people buy prints, like many other tangibles and intangibles, from people they like. My parents both had that likability factor naturally. It is of course natural that you can buy a print for much less from a new photographer. A painting by Picasso is higher priced than one by Joe the Painter, not because of materials, paper, paint quality, or even technique or composition, though the latter two have more to do with it. What I would suggest is that you make a study of why a Picasso is higher priced, or why an Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Philip Hyde print is worth more than one by a guy or gal who just started. Perhaps you have already begun this study and know that it will give you many of your answers. I hope this helps and at least puts you on the right track to learn what you want to know, if you aren’t already on it. The process of developing your style is for another blog post.

  27. Henry Stutes says:

    Useful information shared. I am happy to read this article about the current era. Fantastic walk-through and comparisons.

  28. Hi Henry, thank you for the compliments and for visiting.

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