We used to have titans in the photography world. I’m thinking of William Eggleston. Robert Frank. Diane Arbus. Garry Winogrand. Stephen Shore. I think it was all because of John Szarkowski, the photography director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He mounted shows featuring their work and they ended up with book deals and worldwide fame. They were the tops in the monograph book world. How did that happen?
Who is the Szarkowski of today? Who is becoming a household name in the photography world?
Vivian Maier in 2009 took the photography world by storm. Everyone knows who she is, and not just photographers. Her work, beautiful as it is, plus aged, made for a great story and showcased a time no longer seen. Who doesn’t like to look at people dressed in their 1940s best?
Ansel Adams is the quintessential photographer universally known and with his work loved. Photographs and posters hang throughout the world. His photo of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico–how did he get so well-known?
Annie Leibovitz is possibly the highest profile photographer because she photographs celebrities and has for decades. Take away their fame and she’s just another excellent, creative portrait photographer.
Alfred Stieglitz was also the director of photography at MoMA. His own work is excellent, though probably few people nowadays know his name. He was a tireless champion of photographers through his publication, Camera Work.
Platon, Gregory Hines, Martin Schoeller, Dan Winters, all very good celebrity portrait photographers today. It’s their subjects’ fame that elevates their art and makes them highly-paid and in-demand. Yet most people never heard of them.
Where is the Scarkowski of today? Is Clément Chéroux, the current MoMA photography department curator bringing new talent to light? Showcasing modern masters?
It seems I am constantly finding photographers after their career has ended or they’ve been at it for years, though mostly unknown. Recently, I’ve discovered books by an early 1900’s photographer, Lora Webb Nichols and a more current wonderful portrait photographer, Judith Joy Ross.
I don’t think it’s possible now, without a Scarkowski, to have the superstars of photography like we did in the 1960s and 1970s. We can’t find those photographers and have them become household names like they did then. Maybe it was the product of the times and now there’s too much noise to get through. Now, it’s too difficult to be seen. The playing field was smaller.
So, with the idea of fame out of the way, the goal has to be to make our work for ourselves. To revel in the fact that we get to have full say over what we make, what we create today. Many don’t. All the celebrity photographers work with art directors and publicists and there’s a limit what they can get their subject to do.
We have “final cut” on our photography show edit. We aren’t successful because of the fame of a MoMA show, because of a giant press run of our monograph, but because we get to do this every day. Make the work.
We get to live as working artists, making the photographs we want to make. This is the reward right now. We are making it now. We are successes because we love our work.
Whether there is ever a discovery of our work and we get celebrated, that’s for the fates to decide. We have no control except to do the work. Fame may not be what any of us would want. Respect from our peers, sure. Celebrity status, not so much.
Rest assured that even if your circle of admirers is only a few handful of local neighbors, you’re making work that’s getting seen. You’re making the work that you set out to make, not work that a client ordered.
You’re doing you. And that’s a wonderful world to live in if we can let go of the, “I’m not worthwhile if I’m not bigger, more well-known” and just celebrate that we get to make the work today. The reward comes today, not someday. Given to ourselves, not by someone else who validates us.
We’re our own validation. We are creatives. That makes us among the richest on the planet.
Where will it take us? What will we create? Today.
I write these posts, these articles, for one person. I don’t know who that person is that needs to read what I write but somebody does. Maybe it’s you. I’m not looking for an audience of millions, I’m looking for one person. Just one. That’s one thing I will have created today—words that connect to someone who will go and create, too. Words that can make a difference to one.