« Print Offer Starts Next Thursday | Main | Not So Spooky Night »

Monday, 31 October 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Each artist blossoms at a different age. Lampedusa, the greatest Italian writer since Dante, starting writing at 58, died at 60 without seeing his masterpiece, The Leopard, published. Another famous Italian intellectual, Christopher Colombus,at the age of 56 was taken off the street, pennyless, and given shelter in an abbey. He convinced the prior that his idea of "sailing west to reach the east" was worth an investment. He went on to discover America and became a millionaire along the way. I found a very interesting statistic from the English military. They discovered that older men survived more shipwrecks than younger and healthier sailors. The reason? The older guys had wives and kids so survived longer in the icy water because they refused to die and "leave their families fatherless". My 2 sense. Cheers.

To my eyes, no one has really achieved photographic greatness. Perhaps in a few years, as we are in photography's golden age.

You see, photography has yet to invent someone bigger than itself. You and I know great photographers, but if you ask someone on the street, "who is the greatest photographer?", you get a lot of blank stares. Ask the same person, "who is the greatest painter?", or, "who is the greatest composer?", and a litany of responses ensue... Van Gogh, Picasso, Beethoven, Mozart...

All of the names I mention transcend their medium, they tap into the human condition (whatever that may be) and expound upon its myriad possibilities.

I think, because of the new tools, and because of the proliferation of ways for photographers to distribute their work in a variety of ways, we will soon see real photographic genius emerge, people who are completely unhindered or burdened with the technical challenges of the past.

Stuff like this is the reason I keep coming back! 'Stuff,' of course, being things that make me think.

I think the reason it tends to work out as a young person's game has more to do with the excitement that comes with youth.

A young person tends to still be learning and trying new things. There is an excitement that comes with newness, as well as desire to master a new skill. There are also fewer demands on time, either from necessities (food, sleep), or personal (family, responsibility).

As people age, we tend to settle into routines, priorities change and so do interests. The people we associate with are those who have similar opinions and interests. We may become better at our work, but the feeling of doing something new has dulled.

If you accept the idea that art is supposed to engage your emotions, then it is easy to see that a young person's work (while their emotions are still set to 'boil') would stand a better chance of engaging an audience than the work of an older person (whose emotions may be closer to 'simmer').

Which may go a way to explaining why some forms work better at different ages of the creators. Or even the age of the audience. Think of the music you listened to as a young adult, which still resonates with the 'younger you,' versus how your tastes and appreciations have evolved.

At least that's the way I think of it...

This is an odd coincidence, coming on the heels of the post I made in the naturalism thread that referenced Galenson. Galenson doesn't address photography in his book, but he does apply his theory to novelists, poets, and directors. I don't see why it wouldn't apply to photographers as well.

Annie Leibowitz seems like a good example of a conceptualist: she creates works rather than finding them and most of her best known stuff is from the early stages of her career (early to mid 80s). Same with Ansel Adams. I believe he felt that his creative peak was in the 1940s and 1950s, and he's another example of an artist who had a very clear vision for what he wanted to create rather than relying on serendipity.

I can't think of any great examples of experimentalists/late peakers at the moment. Maybe W. Eugene Smith?

As someone who wrote when he was younger, but doesn't write any more, the reason is pretty simple: I don't feel like doing it now that I'm older. When I was younger, it was important. Now, it's not such a big deal.

I think it's simpler; I think greatness is a young person's game in general. Some carry on doing new great work longer than others, but it's terribly rare for the FIRST great work by somebody to be later in life. (And some professions give more scope to carry on being great; actors and musicians have perhaps the best chances there.)

Possibly the definitions of "young" and "later" are also kind of fluid. Seems like truly great work before 25 is fairly rare, and doing your FIRST great work after 35 is quite rare. ("Rare" doesn't mean "nonexistent", either.) ("Fairly rare" is less rare than "quite rare")

This seems to me to apply across arts, sciences, and business, too.

I suspect it comes from single-minded obsession. And that youthful bodies tolerate that better; perhaps youthful families as well. And that, if you have it, it makes its mark fairly early, and if you don't have it, you can't really develop it.

Interesting discussion. I believe this is one of the cases where there are only two kinds of, shall we say, artists: those who are most prolific when they are young and those who need decades to refine their art and gather experience and wisdom. Picasso vs. Cezanne to mention only one example. The problem with the first kind is the painfully futile years of repetition after the peak. The problem with the second is the relatively short period of joy before old age and illness. Curiously, I can't think of a single artist who became great in their thirties or forties.

I think Alec Soth's statement is just weird, Mike. Until the advent of digital, photography required both more technical expertise and more money than most young-uns could amass.

Look at Adams, Weston, Sexton, and all the other "darkroom greats". Learning technique and craft took them into their 30s or 40s.

And most really good photographers seem to me to produce excellent work pretty steadily until they die - especially if they do magazine work; look at Avedon and Penn. Galen Rowell's work was spectacular up until literally the day he died. McCurry and Salgado are still doing great work - as are most of the Magnum shooters. Mapplethorpe's very last self-portrait is one of his greatest works.

"... photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person's game."

Bull----! No, we have a youth-obsessed culture, a culture of "the new," and the truth is that a lot of these "great" photographers were producing garbage from the beginning. Once the shinola of the garbage wears off, the art clique says that they are past their prime, and ignores them. But nobody pays attention to the pertinent part: were they ever really great to begin with?

Artistic productivity doesn't stop until a person is physically unable to continue, i.e, dead. An idea starts in your head, either "make this" or "find that." You know what you want. You have an idea of how to get it. What prevents you from getting it? Nothing. Except for death.

Look at Vivian Maier. She stopped photographing when she couldn't do it anymore. Plenty of people laud her, even though she'll never hear a word of it. She photographed because she needed to do it, needed to do it like breathing, eating, and sleeping.

What prevents anyone from doing that? Seriously, now? Nothing. You have no roadblock. There is nothing in front of you. Pick up your camera.

Go forth and photograph.

The writing world sounds just like the art (i.e., painting and sculpture) world. I just finished reading Sarah Thorton's "Seven Days in the Art World" and it seems obvious to me that both genres are operating on an accelerated mode. Collectors are buying contemporary art pieces without any idea whether or not they'll become time-honored masterpieces, and often "flip" their collections based on trends (fads). Sounds as though both writers and other artists work to become businesses as soon as they can, so it's the pace of business, not art, that matters.

BTW, I had a successful career in writing for about 20 years and now that I'm 60, feel even more creative as I pursue my hobby of photography in earnest!

Mike, no need to publish this comment, but if you edit your link to LBM to remove "#comment-3395" from the end (i.e., end with "...work/") the link will go to the top of the LBM article instead of jumping to the bottom, where that comment is. (Unless there's something specific about that comment that you want to highlight.) Just a little usability tip! :-)

Assuming that you are not about to die you can't know whether you are in your most productive period. You can only know what came before the current moment. Anyone is free to radically change the terms of personal productivity at any time. What you are anyone else may view as productivity may have almost nothing to do with how the individual you are evaluating sees productivity in their own terms. Testing and measurement of things like productivity is about standardization not about personal achievement.

Can you name any great photographer whose best work came after they were 70? (Besides me?)

"(And some professions give more scope to carry on being great; actors and musicians have perhaps the best chances there.)"

Really? I'd say the exact opposite. Youth is currency in music and acting. For every Barry Manilow or Ozzie Osbourne who manages to carry a career into middle age, there are a hundred if not a thousand flash-in-the-pans who have a few hits or careers with a short arc in their youths, and have to do something else for a living for most of the rest of their lives. Just consider all the truly great musicians who lose their recording contracts later in life. And you could practically count on your fingers the number of interchangeable ingenues-o'-the-moment (of both sexes) who bridge the chasm into lifelong acting careers.


I'm 52 and by my reckoning, I'm doing my best work right now, today. Of course, taking a long-term perspective, being 52 would have once qualified me as an old fart, but today, I'm merely considered an old fart in training...

I'm surprised by the results. I always thought that artists would improve with age. I studied a lot classical music and great composers almost all got better when aging. There were some notable exceptions but they were just that, exceptions. Almost everybody think that Mozart would have been better past 35. Even Shostakovich died too young at 69. I'm sure that if an analyzing chart was produced for composers it would be skewed towards the end of their lives for most of them

But I can imagine some reasons why photographers would peak earlier. It's easier to learn than music composing and even easier than painting. It also needs some physical endurance; it's not as bad as professional sports but still. And it may ask for artistic risk taking that suits younger people better in general.

Mike, I'd suggest that most of those 'flash-in-the-pans' were never great in the first place. Meanwhile, both theater audiences and movie directors continued to benefit from Laurence Olivier until he died, for example, and are continuing to work with lots of other people of considerable age.

Similarly, Richard Thompson recorded some remarkable music in his teens, and is still doing remarkable music today. For that matter, most of the bands I liked in the 70s are still recording and performing today (along with many of the ones I didn't, like the Rolling Stones).

Athletes have the shortest "great" periods of course.

Mike, Barry Manilow? Really? :) And in the same sentence as Ozzie Osbourne at that...

I do think that it depends on what you want to say. If you don't find anything to say anymore, it's over, regardless of how old are you.

Of course, there are some things that younger people do better. Or at least are physically more suitable for those things. All of photography is certainly not just for younger people.

"Noli turbare circulos meos!" Reputedly the last words of the great mathematician Archimedes—"don't disturb my circles!"

This reminds me to ask an unrelated question: Why do digital sensors disturb the circle of light? Why are they rectangular (including square) and not round? Wouldn't a round sensor capture more of what the lens transmits and allow for more freedom to crop?

P.S. here's another way to look at the misunderstood philosophers' table. The median age is 45. HALF the philosophers listed did their influential work when they were "over the hill" by Alec's logic. They were much less likely to do it during what he called their "peak period" than later in life.

So much for the predictive power of age/youth.

Or, as James Taylor put it:

"Never give up

"Never slow down

"Never grow old

"Never, ever die young."

pax / Ctein

Mike wrote: "...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."

I suspect you are remembering something John Szarkowski wrote about the creative 'lifespans' of photographers. Of course, he had his blind spots -- Kertesz, Haas and Smith, to mention just three.

Bill Mitchell asked: "Can you name any great photographer whose best work came after they were 70?"

To name just one: Milton Rogovin, who didn't begin his serious work until McCarthy and HUAC hounded him into retiring from his optometry business.

Jim (still photographing at 74...)

I'm sure that mentioning exceptions is not what this post is all about ... but how about Bill Brandt as an example of a photographer who did a lot of his most interesting work later in life?

Mr. Soth says 25-35 is the peak. Well, I turned 25 on Saturday. I haven't shot any photos since Friday, but I can say I certainly don't feel any different. If I take any pictures today after work, I better be blown away by my own greatness. Of course, I'll probably just get distracted by video games and forget to shoot at all.

I read an old article (2008) about on this topic in the New Yorker. I think their treatment of it is more on target - it seems a matter more of having access to the right tools to create the vision. I don't think youth or its passing has anything to do with it a priori. One thing that should be considered is that Western societies have a bias towards lionizing youth. Others may as well, I sadly haven't had as much experience of them :)


Really worth the read.

Now is all we have. I've never felt more creative and alive. Damn, jinx.

I think it's easy in some ways to confuse greatness with popularity/success. I would think that many of us would agree that most of those current pop stars and ingenues are not great musicians/actors, how many will we remember in 10 or 20 years or will our children remember?

If we are going to talk about great artists' works, we need to limit our supporting arguments to great artists.

Quantity of work, quality of work and success are all separate in my mind.

I agree somewhat with Andreas Plath...

...certainly as an 'older' person, it's almost impossible to find the time to do anything, but also the money to do it...if you aren't making a living in photography, it's a hugely expensive enterprise, even digitally. It's pretty tough to keep the wolf from the door, even in old age, and especially for many of us that have whole, long, commercial photographic careers with meager incomes. It's tough to be in your late 50's and be worried about every expenditure you make taking away from your ability to pay the rent.

Much of the photographic subjects I see on all the sites and in small galleries, are also youth oriented subjects. Is that because that's what the public wants to see, or is that because young people unencumbered with family responsibilities and more responsible positions in businesses are just out there grinding it out and sleeping five hours a night. The young and fearless rarely pay medical insurance or try to put away money for retirement either (just got a letter from my insurance broker raising my health insurance another 30% after the first of the year, there goes that new lens); they devote enormous amounts of time, and large quantities of their small salaries, to artistic endeavors that have little chance of paying off from a financial sense. When you get older, it's tough to carry on with that sensibility.

After working in high stress corporate media management for a while, I realized it's far better to have spare time than more money, even if it's used to just sit on a park bench and smoke a cigar.

Someone mentioned Vivian Maier, but that's a different case altogether. Limited time responsibilities, no personal family, and just photographing in all her spare time, but it was almost like a personal mania. Few will refute her genius, but she basically took care of kids, and then photographed to the exclusion of almost everything else in a 'normal' life; and never marketed herself to the art market or seemed to interact with peers. It's certainly one way to do it. But is that the definition of the life we want for ourselves?

My inherent distrust of economics and art collectors makes me want to call bollocks on any assessment driven by auction prices (such as the survey Soth refers to).

I hit 57 two weeks and still I'm waiting for the time to do my photography right. After 10 years of trying and progressing from Landscape/Nature to Street, Abstract and a bit of documentary I finally feel I'm settling on a style. Or maybe a style is settling on me. Anyway age be damned and big middle finger to Father Time. I'm not done yet.

Photography needs seeing not looking. Seeing is a proces that takes experience. Some achieve that goal young but most of us take time, a lot of time. Some of us think they can see but they are only looking. I think mr. Brautigam summed it up quite nicely. When photographing Wisconsin he wanted to photograph HIS Wisconsin. Not Mike's not even mine but HIS Wisconsin. When you achieve that you are at the peak of your powers and for that independence can be tought by good teachers (as Mr. and Mrs. Becher seem to have been). Without such gides, it takes time and for some a lifetime ain't enough to reach that state of intelligent awaraness needed to depict what you want to see not what you see.

Surely most of us believe that our next series of photos will be our best,no matter what our age is.
Kerry Glasier (71)

Are we looking for an artist's "peak", or are we looking for when they first do great work? At least some of the time, people recognized as "great" keep getting better, so these aren't the same.

Also, it's not at all obvious that "minor" artists would have anything like the same curve as "great" artists in this regard. So the fact that some of us (me, certainly) think we're doing our best work "now" doesn't necessarily even provide a data-point about how that works for great artists. (Not to say I'm sure nobody here is a great artist; I don't know everybody here, etc. But I'm confident, statistically, that few of us are great artists, and certainly do not consider myself of that stature (art isn't my big photographic interest, it's something I do with the camera for fun).)

By your "youth" criterion, I am well over the hill, still there is hope-I may soon be entering my second childhood. Will thamake me a better photographer? Somehow I doubt it. The basic problem to me is:
What are your criteria for greatness???
In pop music, it is popularity. And its largely the young who buy/download/attend concerts. In other art media, such as painting, sculpture and music, there are fads as well. One decade Miro is great, a few decades later he's 'eh'. Yes there are a few constants -da Vinci, Mozart, etc, But in photograpy, with less than two hundred years of total history, we haven't reached a point of consensus. Perhaps Ansel Adams, Elliot Erwitt, and some others will eventually reach the consensus of "great". Perhaps not. In the absence of objective and testable criteria, which we lack, it is really only an idle time debate without a crear winner.

Malcolm Gladwell had a terrific article about Galenson's theory in the New Yorker a couple years ago.

One thing to keep in mind is that Galenson's book is about more than just the age at which an artist peaks; it's also about how the different types of artists approach their work. The early peakers, conceptualists, seem to have a very clear sense of what they want to accomplish, use studies and drafts, and produce a few really well known pieces. Some classic examples are Orson Welles, Herman Melville, and T.S. Eliot. The late peakers, the experimentalists, often don't have a clear sense of what they want to do and have to feel their way through each piece. And instead of creating a few great works they tend to produce a very large body of work that needs to be viewed as a whole. Some examples are Cezanne and Hitchcock.

Galenson also argues that he's describing a spectrum, not hard and fast categories.

The thesis may be true, statistically and in a practical sense, but it doesn't mean that anyone has to take it personally, does it?

"the period they're in then is their most productive period."

Whether this is true or not in general, the fact is that this could be potentially true for any fresh photographer. Best reason to be scrupulous about technique and process no matter what.

I wasn't young when I started photography, but I screwed up a lot of good photographs with a very unserious attitude. (On the other hand, I got some good shots because I had a very unserious attitude.)


Regarding flameouts vs longevity in artists, it seems to me that the artist's personality has at least as much to do with it as anything else. Some artists simply give up on pushing their boundaries and horizons, or burn out, and either turn away or milk their early achievements. Others keep striving and reaching. Sure there are one-shot wonders, but there are also the likes of Edward Weston, Tom Waits, Helen Mirren, etc.

Of course, economics, health, luck and other factors have their impact, but no one who isn't driven to keep evolving as an artist is going to evolve as an artist, and drive can be hard to sustain.

Attrition is natural, and some fields are more difficult to stick with than others. In most creative professions, the field is going to thin out rapidly as we look at older age groups. That may not speak to any particular individual's potential.


There was a cute book that came out in the 80's called "The Brain: A User's Manual" which was more or less a compendium of interesting facts about the amazing brain and humans in general. I remember a dubious table of average peak ages for various professions: 40's for opera singers, early 20's for mathematicians; those are about all I recall. I don't think there was an entry for photographers.

The title question 'At What Age Do You Have the Most Free Time?' can have only one answer, me thinks: NOW.
The past free time is not at my disposal any more, and about the future free time can be completely unpredictable anything between null and 100-age years.
As I am a big procrastinator myself, I try to make the insight about NOW penetrate my brains, with mixed success however.

I think there may be something to the hypothesis, but more from a practical situation. Young may not have kids, mortgages, spouses, life insurance... Young have less baggage from failure/success.

But I do not believe at all that it is endemic, I know of too many older (50+) photographers who are kicking butt, and being very creative.

There is less of a tendency to stay up to wee hours testing models for the book - but maybe that comes more from a 'been there, done that' world view than being less creative.

I am also a musician. I once heard a comment about a composer who was "young" and would be maturing in a couple more decades. The composer was 44.

In all things art, there are tremendous young people with amazing skills and talent... life weeds out the ones who may not want to work as hard, even though the talent could be enourmous.

I'm a better photographer than I ever was as a kid. I do share one thing with my earlier self. That's my ever abiding love of the craft of photography. I've seen old super 8 footage of myself as a child. In it I'm standing with a slr at my confermation dinner chatting and snapping guests. I never knew I'd make a career out of photography at that stage. Later on in my youth I devoted more time to playing guitar to photography. I haven't stopped playing guitar and at 41 years, my passion for photography hasn't ceased.

Maybe some folks with much talent and a little luck get to somewhere in their careers that they spend the rest of their lives figuring out. But raising two beautiful children tells me where my choice really lay. The most consistent body of work I have is that of my children growing up. All my paid work has shrunk in comparison. Now when I go on a tramp with my kids into the hills, they ask to photograph me, each other and whatever they fancy. It's a beautiful thing to be snapped by your kids and see the face which smiles at them and recognise it as your own. So, my most influential photographer, would be either of my kids. Especially when they hold up the mirror to me, and that mirror says; 'keep up the good work.'

Hi Mike,
My impression from reading science books is that new discoveries/theories are generally made by young people, especially in mathematics. Whether this is due to the brain still developing into your mid-20s and hence being receptive to new ideas or a willingness to query the older generations mind-set I don't know, but Einstein and Stephen Hawkings had their best ideas while young. As people get older they can use their increasing knowledge to build and expand on ideas, but not necessarily have radical new ideas themselves. I'd be interested in Ctein's take on this.

Translating this to photography I'd expect that younger people have more creative ideas and so experiment more creating new techniques, whereas older people are more proficient by using their increasing store of knowledge, but in more limited aspects of photography.

all the best phil

Popular culture has icons that burn brightly and fizzle out. Those forms of art that define popular culture have trends with a very short sell by date. If you are "surfing the zeitgeist wave" you will eventually wipe out.

But there are many other artists and writers who never attempt to shape culture, only to comment upon it. This is a lot less stressful and can support a long and prosperous career picking over the flotsam and jetsam that each breaker washes up on the beach.

Mike said "Youth is currency in music and acting."

Mainly I think for the female of the species. We never could forgive women for getting old and wrinkly.

But there are many MANY men whose acting careers blossomed in middle and older age, from Jack Nicholson to Paul Newman. Even dear old Arnie will be back.

Where are all the female equivalents?

The same is largely true for music (if one discounts the obviously short lived popular trends).

I'm not sure which decade will win the photographic creative output award- nor do I really care. I am forever grateful however, that IMHO, Lee Friedlander has probably produced his greatest work, in terms of both output and creativity, while in his seventies.

I write (for a newspaper) about regional art here in the Northwest. Most of the NW artists I know who are doing very good work are in their 50s and 60s, with a few young folks still in their 40s. Visual art, as a profession, seems to take some time to mature into, even for the very talented.

Once upon a time I set off to do a story that would be headed, roughly, "10 local painters in their 20s worth knowing."

I worked at it for some time but never got beyond four on my list at any given time. By the time I found No. 5, No. 2 had turned 30, No. 1 had quit painting and No. 3 had moved on to a bigger city.

Many of my favorite, albeit now dead, photographers dedicated much of their lives to photography, and were productive for long periods throughout. This includes folks like Strand, Kertesz and W. Evans. A common thread among them was a singular dedication to the craft. Each sacrificed a great deal, and each was able to shift photo gears along the way.

These are exceptions to be sure. Most of us have 'real jobs' and photography fills some gaps. For others, including these greats, photography was the only real job. Commercial work helped in many cases to fund the personal work.

Time helps. And so of course does talent. But neither is sufficient without putting in the requisite work. Most of us aren't willing to do that; time is just the excuse.

Answer: not when you have young kids to care for (whatever age that is). Gotta go...

I got started in photography at 37 and i'm about to turn 42 and I keep getting better and better. I feel like i'm just getting started so age is a state of mind.

Anyways, I figure I should peak at about 65 - just in time for "retirement" :)

This is a great discussion and all I can say, Mike, is that you are in your peak as a blogger.

Some people are just busy with other stuff until later in their life. Cervantes was 57 or 58 when he published "Don Quixote", which is still considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest works of fiction of all time. It was a post modern novel before there was even a modern. And one that could not have been written by a young man.

Of course, this is yet another anecdotal piece of evidence. But I always think of Cervantes as a great inspiration whenever I start falling into the trap of thinking that I am too old to be creative.

I have always had a theory that age and originality are inverse constants. In my teens and 20s I naturally thought this was because old people were, um, old. Late in my fifth decade, I think that the greater a persons' sphere of knowledge of others' works (in whatever field of endeavour), the harder it is for that person to create anything outside that sphere. The tendency is for one to copy or derive from what one knows rather than create afresh. Hence, I define genius by an ability to create continuously. Or maybe I'm just getting, um, old.

As someone who knows a bit about art, and photography's history, I'd say that there is far too much variety to make generalizations. Off-hand I'd say that young people do tend to produce the most creative works, probably due to being unfettered by most of life's burdens and "teachings".

But many artists who continue to be (able to be) productive use life's experiences and revelations that come with age to ignite new creative spurts. In photography the artist that immediately comes to mind is Barbara Crane. She's a genuinely remarkable person who has been, and remains, a veritable explosion of creativity for 60+ years. You'll have to Google her name to even get a glimpse of the span of her work.

I have met Alec Soth. He's a very earnest, driven, creative fellow who lives and breathes his work. Whether or not his association between youth and greatness holds stats is irrelevant. He is absolutely accurate in suggesting that old fart photos don't sell. The art world continuously courts and grooms every year's batch of "talented" new MFAs in its insatiable appetite for new product to sell. Just visit the upcoming Paris Photo if you need verification. If you're 35 and are not yet "great", or at least noted, in the art world...

alex wrote,
Each artist blossoms at a different age

David Dyer-Bennet wrote,
Possibly the definitions of "young" and "later" are also kind of fluid.

Reminiscent of thoughts I had many years ago, at which time I concluded, Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't pay any attention to the mortality (chronological timeline) of us humans, and just focus on and enjoy what we create!



keep in mind that LBM's audience is on the younger side. maybe he's just trying to be encouraging.

While my sons were in college at CCS and Hampshire, nothing excited me more than seeing exhibitions of student work - they lack the inhibitions
they will develop when they grow more sensitive to commercial or societal expectations..
But I offer two examples of creative youths, Einstein and his friend Kurt Godel. Godel started in math and moved to philosophy after proving what I use as a slide in my lectures: "All generalizations, with the possible exception of this one, are false!"

I know another myth:

The best achievements are made when you are still a free single guy.

As a general principle, and valid only as far as general principles ever are, the human mind tends to peak in "big picture" imagination early, and "detail" imagination later. So, different strengths for different ages.

Is there also not a case that if people achieve success when they are young - maybe they just get lazy, and sit on their laurels. I'm not specifically thinking about Alec Soth here....

Edward Said's "On Late Style" might be wirth looking at

I never got past the "free time" part of Mike's question. Forget the age part. A few minutes before I read his post, I was in my parlour looking out at the absolutley stunning late afternoon light raking across the autumn scene outside my window. And I was wondering why I wasn't rushing out the door, camera in hand, the way I used to twenty years ago.

The answer: less time. Even though I was working full time twenty years ago and doing a lot of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing, what I wasn't doing was spending a couple of hours every day browsing/shopping/banking/emailing, nor was I doing a complete restore of data and programs on two computers as I had to this past week, nor did I spend a morning trying to get a glitchy inkjet printer to work as I did today, nor was there any need for me to work my way through a 250-page camera manual as am now doing for my latest digital camera, etc., etc. Computing may be the greatest boon to mankind ever, but in my life it's soaking up way too much time.

As I sat there in my parlour I imagined what it would be like if I simply unplugged. I think I'd be rushing out the door towards the good light like I used to...because I'd have the time again.

I think we use the wrong "rules" for evaluating "Best Work." When I was much younger (20's-30's) I exhibited in the international salons and was successful enough. Prints were submitted based on who would be judging them not on what I considered my best work. Now I am in mt 70's and am producing my best work as it is my true expression not based on the rules of others. THElmo

It gets even more complicated if you move away from chronology and instead measure based on mental age. Hard to define, I know. Even though I'm 58, mentally I'm stuck at 33 or so. That'll skew the data big time.

Mike, I think you've hit upon another possible story/blog that has been needing to see the light of day for some years. In your comment to Ctein above, you refer to how disappointed you were to discover how many photographers have independent wealth. My crew has been talking about that for thirty years!

Whether the person is an 'artistic photographer' or a commercial photographer, the amount of people working in this industry that rely on, as we always said, "income from another source", is staggering. As far as I'm concerned, any story in any magazine or on any blog, that talks about a photographer regarding their career or work, and does not cover how they are financially able to accomplish that work, is fabricating a total false view of the persons life.

The ability to not have to worry about money in any sense, and just concentrate on improving your photography, or spend inordinate amounts of time out on the street 'seeing' and shooting, or even, as a commercial photographer, to have the luxury to turn down assignments that don't showcase your strengths, is of incalculable value. The amount of truly good photographers beat down to exhaustion by having to take horrible assignments for poor money, just to make this months rent; well, it's probably wrecked more photographic geniuses than I care to remember.

When I was living in the Chicago area, it's almost like every Chicago Board of Trade guy had their little artsy trophy wife, with her converted carriage house studio up in Kennelworth, hanging with all the alt band guys down in Bucktown and picking up the hipster shooting assignments. I once heard one of these 'photographers' bitching about another one of these 'photographers' because her husband was able to finance her to a higher degree!

Lets put it this way, if you subtract those totally financed photographers like the ones I mentioned above, and the trust fund babies, then you subtract photographers that are relying on some aspect of their spouses income and health benefits, and you subtract those who make their income from another job and are basically shooting pick-up assignments when they can; how many are left?

How many people are solely engaged in the business of photography for a living, solely supporting themselves or a family with no additional outside help and only on the profits of that business? And then how many of them are self-assigning months long photo stories with no chance of ready remuneration?

I suspect there certainly is a statistically relevant correlation between innovation and age. Which causes the sleeping Ezra Pound rubric of "make it new" to raise its tired head and howl.

As against that, current research suggests that it takes some ten thousand hours of dedicated practice to attain a level of mastery at anything. So when you start and how diligently you practice matters and might lengthen or abbreviate the time line for any individual.

And two last points: 1) statistics? bah humbug! and 2) I'd pay (not much, mind you) to see Ctein with purple hair (and beard, of course)!

Markus, you've certainly nailed the situation with regard to what plans I can sensibly make for myself. I've been telling people for years that you can't "do something tomorrow"; all you can do is not do it today.

In terms of discussing why people find the time for things when they do, though, how things change at different stages of life is an important factor, I'm pretty sure. Statistics on groups show patterns.

I've heard various things about "peaks" over the years, one of which is that our brains reach peak ability around the age of thirty, so that many accomplishments that rely on pure mental horsepower are made by people near their 30th birthdays--including those of many great scientists and mathematicians. But experience, knowledge, and especially wisdom/judgement can continue *potentially* to improve even into old age (although many people get hidebound, bigoted, and inflexible in old age). Science appears to be good training for a flexible mindset in old age; I've known a number of people of a scientific/technical mindset who were still very open to new things and technologies into their 80s. Some, more so than I was in my 40s.


Re National Geographic photographers, mentioned in a preceding comment, see 60 Minutes With Chris Johns: A conversation with National Geographic's first field photographer editor. A couple of quotes:

“Our new director of photography, David Griffin, and assistant director Susan Smith are making a much stronger push than we have in the past to identify young, emerging talent. They're not necessarily age-specific either. Often photographers start to find their traction in their 50s.”

“To quote one of my best friends David Allen Harvey, ‘the cream rises to the top.’ I know that a photographer has breaks in his or her career, but the best photographers keep doing great work and getting better all the time. It's up to us to identify that talent.”

Hi Mike,
Definitely agree that experience, wisdom etc improve with age and I'd hope that we are all still improving photographically as we age - I'm more aware of telegraph poles growing out of heads! - but I also find that I stick more with what I know and sometimes find myself thinking 'that won't work', rather than 'I'll try and see what happens', which means some of the spontaneity is lost.
I tend to be (slightly) anti-authoritarian so I do like new ideas and alternatives, which means your recent B&W posts have got me thinking more about B&W rather than colour which I normally do.

Where maturity in science might soon have an edge is cross-over ideas where people fuse ideas from different disciplines, for which you need years to learn several subjects.
It must be tough to spend years building a reputation and career on an idea and then have some young whipper-snapper come along and overturn it with an intuitive leap; even Einstein couldn't get his head around quantum mechanics.
(As an aside it niggles me to see the recent dinosaur programmes with multi-tonne theropods walking with bent legs - I'd expect them to be straighter to better support their weight. They might be related to robins but they're still built like elephants...)

best wishes phil

After reading the comments, I hoped perhaps Ctein could figure out the distribution of people who think either youth or age is important in creativity, by age group. My instinct is that old people think age isn't a big problem, while young people do. Duh.

There's also the possibility that photography just isn't particularly creative, but is sort of a "casual art," like really good whittling. (You don't see much really good whittling anymore, but there's a whole museum dedicated to it in Shell Lake, Wisconsin.)

One test of the "casual art" proposition might be Death.

Ask, "Who can be judged a great artist (in photography) fifty years after he died?" So, right now, what photographer who died before 1961 is generally recognized by the public as a great artist?

In painting, of course, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of them, going all the way back to the Renaissance. Who hasn't heard of Leonardo? That's even true with Americans, like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock, etc. Where are the photographers? When you say 'Stieglitz,' how many people jump up and shout, "Love those cloud photos!"

So might not a two-axis age/greatness distribution in photography be rather flat -- because nobody is exceptionally great? Is it possible that "great" photographs are simply a random collection of snaps, with temporary greatness favoring those who snap most?

Kirk Tuck took a shot of half of his morning coffee today, and wrote a blog about it...That could be in MOMA tomorrow, but I bet not in fifty years.


"Ask, 'Who can be judged a great artist (in photography) fifty years after he died?' So, right now, what photographer who died before 1961 is generally recognized by the public as a great artist?"

That's a disingenuous question on several levels. First, the medium was only 122 years old in 1961, and the original generation of practitioners were considered technical innovators. Second, the requirement "by the public"—how do you define that? What percentage? Any qualifiers? The undifferentiated hoi polloi probably can't name any photographer period, living or dead. Third, photography hasn't been accepted as an "art" for most of its history. The fight for legitimacy happened in three waves--first in the 1890s, second in the 1930s, and finally in the 1960s, when it was finally admitted permanently in the galleries, museums and art schools...at which point it promptly bifurcated again, into a small subset of "photographers" who were acceptable to those institutions, on the one hand, and all the rest of the medium's practitioners on the other, who were mostly still left out in the cold.

In a sense, the individuals who died before 1961 who are considered "great artists" had that approbation conferred on them retrospectively, in or after the 1960s. Ask most art scholars in the 1870s or 1920s or 1950s whether Southworth and Hawes, or Timothy O'Sullivan, or Julia Cameron were "artists," and the question probably wouldn't even have made sense to them...and it would have made even less sense to members of "the public."


Hahaha brilliantly controversial. And brings me much hope. Cheers!

@Michel Hardy-Vallée: Just FYI, the plural of magnum opus is not magnum opi, but magna opera. Opus is a third-declension neuter.

Mike, said (in reply to a previous post):

"That's a disingenuous question on several levels. First, the medium was only 122 years old in 1961, and the original generation of practitioners were considered technical innovators. Second, the requirement "by the public"—how do you define that? What percentage? Any qualifiers? The undifferentiated hoi polloi probably can't name any photographer period, living or dead. Third, photography hasn't been accepted as an "art" for most of its history."

Okay, I'll take that on. Call the public the "typical, college-educated, engaged businessman or professional who is not an art professional." I would suggest that I could name a minimum of ten paintings that the person would recognize -- might not be able to nail down the name of the artist in every case, but would recognize the painting. They could do so because the paintings are part of a typical educated persons' cultural heritage. Many of these paintings would be from well after photography was established. Could you do the same with "art" photography?

You might be able to with *news* photography (the little burned girl in Vietnam, the execution of the Viet Cong, the Challenger explosion, the flag at Iwo Jima, the assassinations of JFK and RFK and MLK, and a few others...but those are news photos that nobody ever claimed for art. Is it possible that some form of news photography IS the photographic "art?"

Dear JC,

"Recognized by the public" to me denotes "famous," not "great."

But putting that aside, my nominee for someone whose work has withstood the test of time (and death) as great work would be Prokudin-Gorskii.


pax / Ctein

The way you've got it parsed now, you're putting at lot of emphasis on "art" photography vs. "all other" photography. Again, the answer really depends on the phrasing of the question, doesn't it?

You're also rather arbitrarily cutting out a lot of people your defined public WOULD recognize as "art"--Weston's Pepper is allowed because Weston died in 1958, but Adams's Moonrise is out because he died in 1984, even though "Pepper #30" was taken in 1930 and "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" was taken in 1941, so both are more than 50 years old.

And what member of your public wouldn't recognize Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"? Taken 75 years ago, but disqualified because she died four years after your cutoff. And is that picture "art"? Or is it news, or documentary? Or propaganda...or a portrait? Is Gardner's Lincoln a portrait, or a PR photograph? Or art? It seems to me that if Rene Dykstra's girl in the bathing suit standing on the beach is art, then Lincoln gets to be, too.

If you're just saying that more people who don't care about art would probably recognize a smattering of random paintings than would probably recognize a smattering of random photographs, then you're probably right. I guess I don't get the point of all the distinctions, though...maybe I've just lost the thread, and need to go back and reread your original comment again. [g]


P.S. Also, how many people in your public would know paintings that meet the same criteria photos have to? I.e., made after 1839 but the painter died before 1961? Picasso is out, Matisse is in. Photography might do a lot better in the comparison (even limited to photographs somehow assignable as "art") if all the Old Masters were declared ineligible too. No Rembrandt, no Mona Lisa, no God touching Adam on the ceiling. (And if you show someone a Braque and he says "it looks like Picasso," does he score +1 or -1? lol....)

Interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell: "Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?" (I mistakenly originally posted this article under the Quote 'o the Day. It more properly belongs here.)


I don't know. I'm still young.

The plural of "opus" is, of course, "opera".

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007