Little Brown Mushroom asks the age-old question—does it matter what age, or how old you are? Is photography a young person's game?
Seems to me that how you frame the question has a lot to do with the answer (LBM's framing concerns "most influential work"), and that the bell curve of most such data tends to merely follow the bell curve of greatest vigor in the human lifetime. Note that link they provide for philosophers, and how the curve flattens out at the ages of 60 and 70—isn't that because a fair number of humans throughout history simply didn't live that long? Putting it another way, how much did Archimedes accomplish as a geometer after the siege of Syracuse?*
Over the years I've seen various claims relating to this question; one such claim—I forget where it came from (I'm too old to remember, clearly)—asserted that great artists' peak periods last approximately ten years. When I taught high school, I did have the feeling that if I collected the best pictures from ten years' worth of teaching, I could have put together a book that would have been a masterpiece by any standard. I never made it that far as a teacher, as it turned out.
In any event the quote from the New Yorker article about fiction writers needing to be young seems blatantly wrong to me. Fiction writing might merely share with photography a simple expedient—that it tends to be one of the things people try when they're young and hopeful, before they get practical and more seriously pursue the demands of living. You know, like being a musician or an actor. It's not that young people do better, it's that young people feel they have plenty time to waste working on impractical things like art photography even in the absence of any material encouragement. I might frame a different question...the way I put it in the header to this post.
Generally, though, I do agree with Alec Soth when he says, "Of course I’d mention the exceptions, but taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person's game." Seems that way to me too—as a generality/stereotype. One thing that's always struck me is that young photographers in the flush of a youthful period of activity and production always think they're ramping up to an even greater future, when for most of them the "future" is right then—that is, the period they're in then is their most productive period. The problem more than anything is getting people to take themselves seriously and work harder at what they're doing, whatever age they are. That hasn't been the problem for Mr. Soth, but he's the exception there.
It's still an interesting question. Check out the post at LBM.
—Creaky Old Mike
(Thanks to Creaky Old Oren)
*"Noli turbare circulos meos!" Reputedly the last words of the great mathematician Archimedes—"don't disturb my circles!" According to legend, he was engrossed in solving his problems on an abax, a device used for drawing in sand, as the soldiers of the invading Marcellus were ravaging the city around him. Annoyed at being interrupted, he uttered his last words when a soldier burst into his study. The soldier promptly killed him (against Marcellus' explicit instructions).
According to an old joke, it's the only time a Roman ever figured in the history of mathematics.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Michel Hardy-Vallée: "I don't know how Alec Soth defines 'youth,' but if I look at the photographers whom I admire, their major work was published when they were at least in their thirties, which is at least a decade and a half older than the age at which pop musicians produce their magnum opi:
- William Eggleston's Guide came in 1976 (age 37)
- John Max's Open Passport in 1972 (age 36)
- Robert Adam's New West in 1974 (age 37)
- Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places in 1982 (age 35)
- Lynne Cohen's Occupied Territory in 1987 (age 43)
- Alec Soth's own Sleeping by the Mississippi in 2004 (age 35)
"And even though that's the work that broke their fame, what they did after is even more interesting if you look at people like Lynne Cohen, William Eggleston, or Robert Adams. Likewise, Yousuf Karsh's, Edward Weston's and Ansel Adams's most famous pictures were taken when they were in their forties and after.
"There are plenty of artists who hit the wall of creativity once the energy of their youth is gone, but I don't think it has to do with genius. It has more to do with whether they work in an art form that allows them to produce works tinted with maturity. Pop music has forbidden that since forever; in contrast, the visual arts allow for incredible works of maturity (the so-called 'late period' pieces).
"One would be remiss to consider that photography is a young person's sport: perhaps for certain genres it is the case, but there are plenty of talented photographers who hit their prime well beyond their twenties or even their thirties.
"Sad to say, I don't find what Alec Soth did after Niagara that interesting. Perhaps he was referring to his own work when he lamented the loss of youth's greatness, but I don't think his generalization is accurate."
Featured Comment by Bill Vann: "I think this is errrrr bullhonkers. Statistical manipulation of minimal facts to suit a predetermined outcome."
Featured Comment by Andreas Plath: "Well, someone once told me that life is divided in three parts: at first, you have time and inclination but lack money. Then, you have money and inclination but lack time. Finally, you have money and time but lack inclination. :-)"
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "Brooks Jensen a few years back commented on the link between age and artistic accomplishment, but he took the opposite tack, noting with relief how many great photographers did some of their best work at ages equal to or greater than his at the time. Certainly there are numerous energetic young photographers doing fabulous work, and plenty of older luminaries resting on their laurels and cranking out predictable rehashes of past glories. But there are also plenty of folks like Elliot Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, Albert Watson or the late Irving Penn turning out fabulous photographs at ages more commonly associated with rocking chairs and shuffleboard. I'm not quite ready to hang up my camera yet."
Ctein adds: Were this notion not so widespread and pernicious, I would simply ignore Alec's essay because it is so profoundly wrong and flawed (not the same thing). The notion that people do their best work when they're young is a persistent myth that is rarely backed up by the data. For some reason, people want to believe it, I don't know why, and then selection bias comes into play, where they think up all sorts of examples that support their case and ignore the ones that don't. It just doesn't hold.
That philosophers' plot that Alec presents as evidence doesn't even support his case. I binned the incidents by decades: there are 6 in their 20s, 13 in their 30s, 11 in their 40s, and 12 in their 50s. Aside from the fact that it appears people don't write great philosophy when they're very young (that doesn't seem like a profound surprise) it's pretty close to a flat distribution. It comes out a bit differently if one chooses the bins differently-- if I throw away the handful of events below the age 25, between 25 and 35, there are 9 hits; 35 to 45, 17; 45 to 55, 12; and 55 to 65, 9. Which is a modest peak. If you were a gambling man and placing a bet with someone about when some would-be future philosopher were to make their major contribution, you would do best betting on the 35 to 45 group. Except you'd still lose that that two thirds of the time! That particular decade has more than any other, but it is still only a modest plurality. It's a statistical bump, but it is a terrible predictor of individual performance.
Do this in almost any field that doesn't require extreme physical prowess and you'll find similar results.
As you note, age also biases the historical results In ways that have nothing to do with individual creativity. I pulled out my American mortality table from circa 1940. It's instructive to note that between the ages of 20 and 50, 25% of the population dies. Not a very high mortality rate per year, but it adds up. If you haven't done your work relatively young, you may not be around to do it at all. After that is another story. If you were 50 back then, you had a 1/6 chance of dying by the time you hit 60. If you were 60, you had a one third chance of dying before you hit 70. If you were 70, you had a two thirds chance of dying before you hit 80, and if you were 80, the odds were very very low that you would make it to 90.
Since then, that has moved forward by almost exactly a decade. Now, the mortality rate between 60 and 70 is around 1/6. Around one third between 70 and 80, around two thirds between 80 and 90, and don't plan on making it to 100. Even more significantly, that ineffable quality of life that has gotten much better. At age 62, I'm in middle age. And I don't mean that in the “oh my God I'm a baby boomer and I couldn't trust anyone over 30 and now I'm getting old and can't admit it” denial-of-mortality sense. I mean that I'm healthier, more active, and by just about every metric more youthful than my parents were at age 50. Even more important, I simply haven't started slowing down. My body and my brain aren't exhibiting many of the changes associated with old age yet. I'm still in that broad amorphous group called middle-aged.
I don't even look particularly old. Don't let the nearly white hair and beard fool you; if I chose to dye them black, you'd be very hard-pressed to figure out what age I was within that broad group. (I wouldn't do that, although I have considered purple.)
Looking around of my contemporaries (which I think of as anyone between about age 45 and 70) I'm a bit more youthful than the norm, a little luckier that way. But not anomalously so. I don't stand out like a freak, I'm just a little more towards that side of the bell curve.
As for my work, I made some of my best work (arbitrarily defined as oh, say, my 20 greatest photographs) when I was in my early 20s. I made some more of it in my early 30s. And some more of it in my early 40s. And some more of it in my early 50s.
I lack sufficient data after that. It's possible I have run out of steam and the rest of this decade will turn out to be a total waste. I wouldn't make any assumptions.
Mike replies: And that's not even the half of it. First of all there's the problem of definitions. At one point Alec talks about "the best creative years for a photographer." Well, that's a very different thing than "at what age to photographers do their most influential work," because you can be trace the creative peak of many individuals who are not at all "influential." So you'd have to frame the issue very carefully to even begin collecting data about it.
Another thing nobody's mentioned is that artists don't work in a vacuum. It depends a lot on what society values (and rewards) at any given time, and how much encouragement people get (or need) for doing their work. Many people don't know this, but, in Shakespeare's time, theater was absolutely the rage. Something like one in six Londoners went to the theater every week. It was the hottest art form in Elizabethan society, and consequently it was the coolest thing for creative people to be doing. So naturally there's going to be an efflorescence of accomplishment during that time—and sure enough, there was. A handful of decades later, Cromwell closed all the theaters down—so how many great English playwrights were there during that era? I don't know, but I doubt there were very many.
In photography, there was a huge boom in the 1960s and '70s. Many photographers who came on to the scene during that time were lionized when they were young and many of them are still famous. But then there was a big bust in the market in the early '80s, and photographers who came of age later than that have had a much harder time breaking in. To demonstrate this you could analyze the demographics of photography teachers in academic programs. Virtually all college and university photography programs were started during the boom years—and photographers who were qualified to fill the many teaching positions were highly sought after, and locked down many of the available jobs. The result was that in the '80s and '90s, it was much more difficult to get a college-level teaching job. Not only had the earlier generation snapped up most of the positions—and weren't budging from their perches—but successive waves of their MFA graduates were all competing for the few teaching positions that did open up! Not until the '90s and early 2000s did many of the now-diminished positions begin opening up again, as the original teachers aged, retired, or died.
Next you have to look at how much reward there is available for people to do creative photography. In the 1960s and early '70s, pop music ("rock and roll") was in a renaissance: there was lots of attention being paid to those musicians by society, lots of money to be earned, and it was a great way for creative people to be cool. Over the years the field has been flooded with competition, even as the art form itself has steadily declined in popularity. In the past decade the paradigm has finally changed, with the advent of Napster and file sharing and iTunes and the constriction of hard-copy sales. It's going to be far more difficult for musicians to make it big in the next fifteen years than it was for them to make it big in the 1960–75 period—regardless of their innate talent.
Right now, for an internet-based digital photographer, there's almost no encouragement available—it's very difficult to get any kind of recognition, still more difficult to earn any money, and far more difficult still to make a living as a photographer. And there's just a huge amount of competition. Those who do succeed do so by becoming professionals and serving a market—portraits, weddings, commercial advertising. And while that might earn them a living, it's not creative work that will make them famous as art photographers. Nor is it work that's going to be "influential." (Except possibly to others in the same fields.)
I still remember how crestfallen I was when I saw a list of all the photographers who are independently wealthy. It's a lot. I just used the example of Linda McCartney as an example in my "naturalism" post the other day—well, she was an heiress of a significant fortune and married a very wealthy man. Few would deny that Eliot Porter was an important and influential photographer, but he was able to quit a promising career as a medical doctor and devote himself to photography because he lived on his trust fund—he even threw a small party to celebrate when his income from photography finally equalled his income from his trust fund—and he was in his 50s when that happened, if memory serves.
If there were some social mechanism for rewarding young photographers to do creative (not just commericial) work and get both material support (wealth) and positive reinforcement (fame) for it, you'd see a renaissance of creativity in photography. It wouldn't have anything to do with how young they are; it would have more to do with the milieu in which they happen to live and work.
The bottom line: way, way too much noise in the data for any trend about mere age to be reliably extracted. Even though I don't want to discourage young people from trying, Or from believing that it's possible for them to acheive great things...because I think it is. There's never a guarantee of success, and it's also never impossible.
Featured Comment by mark lacey: "I wish I could find the quote but I recall one of the National Geographic editors saying that many of their photographers were middle aged because "a lot of photographers don't get traction until then." I don't see why wisdom and experience of age should not mean you just keep getting better, but some just run out of puff I guess. Being 52, I reckon I've my best years to come. Well, hope so anyway!"