Yesterday, in the comments, a reader wrote: "One important rule I learned early on: Everything has been photographed. Every thing. There is nothing new to photograph. Be it sunsets or waterfalls or people standing in front of red phone booths."
That's one way to look at it. And it might be true of standard subjects, whether you call them conventional subjects or clichés or whatever. But in another way of looking at it, it's obviously very much not true.
I heard a wonderful lecture long ago by an early proponent of Eastern religions in the West, Alan Watts (his 1957 book The Way of Zen was one of the earliest books about Buddhism to affect the youth movement of the 1960s in America. It's still in print). He made the point that the physical world is a river, always changing, and that nothing is permanent...only changing at a greater or slower rate.
To say there is nothing new to photograph is true, in a way. But it's just as true to say that every photograph is new. To see how it's so requires letting go of the idea of permanence (classicism, or Plato's ideal "forms," or Jung's archetypes) and surrendering to the specificity of photographs. Digital imaging is less instructive in this sense because it's an illustration medium as well as a photographic one—that is, it's more easily modified to conform to the ideal form or archetype, or to ideas. But the difference is merely relative.
The more deeply you are willing to see something, the more singular it becomes. The pursuit of the pictorial and picturesque is the pursuit of the generic...we want a picture of a sunlit field to not be a specific sunlit field at a specific time, but to stand in for all sunlit fields and indeed the very idea of sunlit fields. But it's really not; really it's one specific place at one specific time in one specific set of conditions. Photographed by one person who will have a defined lifetime on earth (a window of existence, you might say) with a particular set of equipment and materials that have distinct properties. Bernd and Hilla Becher made a career out of exploring the interstice between buildings as both embodiments of a type of structure and as specific individual realizations of that type. In every deliberate cliché there exists that tension.
In the 1840s it was commonplace to photograph some things just a bit too late. Photographs are still a means of holding on to precious or
wonderful things that no longer exist.
You don't have to look very far to know that almost nothing has been photographed. If you have a two-year-old child, your child has not been photographed at age four or seven or twelve. Before the first cellphone, nobody ever took a photograph like Martin Parr's that I posted here yesterday. And why go on photographing fashion? Haven't there been enough fashion photographs already? Because fashion changes, of course, and tastes change, and people do new things. You haven't taken a picture of the day after tomorrow yet. At this moment, June 6th, 2015, has never been photographed by anyone! Imagine.
Why go on photographing fashion? Haven't there been
enough fashion photographs already?
Looked at the other way around, you can see the value in thinking this way. In 1920, three out of every four cars on the road in the United States were Ford Model T's. So here's your assignment: go photograph a row of them parked on a city street like Walker Evans once did. Or go make a new portrait of Mary Ellen Mark. That building that was torn down last month was never photographed adequately; go do it now.
To say everything has been photographed is to say, in a sense, that life has already been lived, that time is used up, that the world never changes or the changes are paltry. That nothing is new, or news. That nothing significant can happen in the future because significant things have already happened in the past.
As the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, was there an amateur photographer somewhere saying that everything had already been photographed and all possible pictures had already been made? Photo courtesy U.S. Navy.
In any case, we have our own lives. We have a limited number of days left on Earth, and almost none of us know what the number is. Will you not look forward to living fully and richly in those days because you already have lived many days in the past? Every day is new. Everything is always changing. Something can always happen. You'll go on seeing, and surely some of the things you see will please or delight you. The astonishment of the visual world never ends.
So take heart. Most of the great photographs have yet to be made; only a few have been made so far. We can look at it this way too.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Duncan Simey: "The current generation of digital cameras with their crazy low-light abilities are creating photographic opportunities that were not previously possible. I think these count as new images.
"The obvious example is night-time landscapes that include the Milky Way as a dominant part of the image; these are now common place and we are used to seeing them, but when they started appearing a few years ago I was completely blown away.
"I've accidentally landed in my own little niche. I decided to take images of the local caves in support of a long-term project I'm working on, but found there is almost nothing available about how to get the best from a modern digital camera in these challenging conditions. I'm now six months into the project and have been evolving my technique; the images I had in mind are finally starting to come through. A combination of ending up with a non-standard technique and having relatively few images to compare my results against is resulting in new views of relatively well-known caves.
"With hindsight, my cave photography project was a crazy idea and I'd probably have never started if I had understood the challenges; the lack of cave photographers is completely understandable.
"Advances in equipment is opening up potential for finding new subjects and creating radically different images from existing subjects. I'm looking forward to what the future offers!"
Andrew Molitor: "While it's true that each photograph is different, I think this is kind of facile.
"Virtually all photographic archetypes have been shot multiple times, sometimes millions of times. If you're going to simply shoot the same archetype again, well, that's fine with me but you're not making anything particularly interesting except in one case that I can think of.
"So there are, really, a handful of things you can try out:
- simply reshoot the archetype in a not particularly new way. Lots of people do this and take great satisfaction in it. It is not mandatory that one's fettucini alfredo break new culinary ground to be satisfying, after all.
- Find something inherently interesting/new to put in to your archetypal shot
- Invent a new archetype (extremely hard in this era)
- Step beyond the archetypal photo
"The easiest way to do the second one is to shoot people. Lord knows the headshot with the requisite Main/Fill/Hair/Background light combo has been done a few times. But people are inherently interesting, to us, as people. 10 identical portraits of 10 different people strikes us as 10 different photos, instantly, without any effort at looking deeply.
"There's probably other ways to do it, but they don't pop to my mind.
"The fourth one is where the meat is, to my mind. Create not iconic photos but bodies of work. Each photo is probably going to be "yeah, that's kind of like that thing" and "oh, that one is just a cliche" but the entire body of work taken as a whole can step beyond that and make something substantial and new.
"I've said it in the past and no doubt will say it again: Sure, every photo has been shot. But not every photo has been placed beside every other photo."
Rodolofo Canet: "Just two weeks ago I spent two days in Segovia, one of the most visited cities in Spain for the sake of its huge and very well-conserved Roman aquaduct. Every single stone, building or nook of the city has been probably photographed many times, some millions, so I didn't even want to take my camera out of its bag.
"But, you know? At the end my photographer's soul imposed on my reason and I couldn't help taking some pictures. Many were very similar to muy friends', some nearly identical but what the deuce...I enjoyed a lot! Isn't that what a passion is about?
"Let this picture be an example of uniqueness within homogeneity (three friends shot the same place with the same shadowplay, but with very different results):
"Even if everything has been photographed, has everyone seen all photos? Great post, Mike."
Mike replies: But I bet not everybody gets the guy with the stripes on his sleeves. Nice touch.
PiotrB: "Another excellent article. I think that maybe people worry too much abut clichés and stuff like that? I suspect that having the "everything has been photographed" mindset can actually be damaging one's creativity. One might end up chasing ghosts in pursuit of "uniqueness" only to miss the important things. Also, I find it interesting how photography made me much more aware of the changes in the world I live in. I've made quite a few photographs that are now much more important to me than they were at the time of creation. Why? Because they show the world as it no longer exist. Nobody can replicate them now, because the stuff depicted is no more.
"I now don't care about clichés, tired subjects or uniqueness. I just try my best to capture the scene as best I can, because I now know that it's not as permanent as you'd think. But I have it easy. I'm not in the business of doing photography for a living, so I don't have to conform to anyone's wishes or tastes. I do not seek recognition as well. I don't have to care. Doing photography for your own satisfaction is nice :-)"
Gordon Lewis: "In Zen philosophy, the mindset you describe is called 'beginner's mind'—the ability to see something as if for the first time. A jaded mind tends to produce photographs that reflect that mindset: commonplace and boring. A mind that sees the world as full of wonders will produce [better] photographs...."
Dillan K responds to Gordon: "The Buddhist observation you've identified here was one of the primary reasons I picked up a camera in the first place. Buddhism opened my eyes, and my camera was to slow me down and help me see. Every moment is precious and will never return again. Of course, I didn't truly understand that until I had a child, but that is another story. Thank you for the reminder of a basic truth in my life. It makes everything more beautiful when one understands it."