OpEd: Old/New

Miles Davis © Dennis Stock 1958

I never listened to Miles Davis until I was in my early twenties. A friend recommend Kind of Blue as sort of an introduction to jazz. Until that point, my musical taste occupied the space between Led Zeppelin and Nirvana.

When I listened to Kind of Blue, Miles Davis became a new artist to me even though he’d been playing music and influencing musicians for decades.  This happens all the time. We’re constantly mining the past for new inspiration. It doesn’t really matter when a piece of art was first presented to the public, when you discover it, it becomes new.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is mining the present for work that hasn’t been widely exposed the public.  Nowhere is this more observable than in music, where there’s a constant race to discover the next new band.

The majority of photography blogs/websites work on the principle of exposing unknown work.  We’re constantly filtering photographers and pushing them through networks.  Even with all the filters, it becomes nearly impossible to process all the work that’s out there.

When it becomes too much, I think some people retreat into the past, and to what they know and are familiar with.  I’ll do this from time to time.  The Friedlander big yellow book is one that I go back to because it’s so dense and there are always ideas that I’ve forgotten about. Even though I’ve seen the photographs before they become new to me again.

This exercise of going to the past is a good habit to get into, however, I try to keep it to a minimum.  With work that is well known I find it rather easy to determine whether I like it or don’t.  There are times when I can’t make up my mind, but typically the work has been well defined, and the photographers vision refined to a point where it either clicks or it doesn’t.

With new work it is more difficult.  If the photographer’s vision isn’t refined,  you might only be viewing glimpses of what’s to come.  This is one of the reasons I enjoy following photographers on Flickr and personal blogs.  You can watch them evolve and refine their vision.  The majority of people I’m guessing prefer to view refined work. Not me.  I find a raw stream of imagery more challenging these days.  When taken as a whole, you can choose your own adventure.  You’re not at the mercy of an intentional sequence which can be powerful but also inhibiting.

There’s much that’s frustrating about looking at photography on the internet, but having access to an unmediated stream of work from photographers is one of the joys for me.  When it becomes too much I know I can always dig into the refined work of the past.

Discussion thread on Flickr