What happened to the mid-career artist?


General Photography

Might we not argue that it’s the mid-career artists who expand photography slowly, yet steadily?

There’s a big debate over at Alec Soth’s blog about the best creative years of photographers. He writes “taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person’s game” and provides evidence in the form of research/writing done by Dean Keith Simonton. Who would argue with smartly presented graphs? Well, I would but I will spare you my concerns. But even if Simonton is correct I just can’t get myself into a state of worry. I would now be in the declining phase of my creative life. Somehow I must be too busy working on many things to realize that I am not supposed to be doing that any longer. (more)

But all that aside, the one big problem I have with the debate about age is that it is so tiring (maybe that’s a sign of old age?). It is true, there is a cult around youth in our society, and that cult is clearly reflected in, for example, those emails I occasionally get about this 16 year old photographer who is already shooting for fashion magazines, or that 25 year old photographer who just produced the next big thing. Mind you, that’s nice. But you know, it’s nice. The fashion work I probably don’t care so much about, and the next big thing often turns out to be the next big fad.

A lot of the artists whose work I admire kept (or keep) working until old age, and some of their best work was done while they were (or are) older than I am now. I’m thinking about Tom Waits, for example (who just had a new album out - he didn’t get the memo on age, either), or Francis Bacon, whose later output seems much more interesting than his earlier one.

But age aside, what’s interesting for me is how these artists not only kept working but matured in a variety of ways. You can say whatever you want, but if you’re 16 or 25 there’s no way you have the life experience of a 50 or 60 year old. As artists age, a larger portion of their output seems to come from the combination of their talent/skills (and hard work, of course) and their life experience. Seeing this in photographers excites me.

There seems this curious gap between all the young guns (presenting the next big thing) and the dignified old timers (presenting that one big thing that many years ago was the next big thing) - at least in terms of what we talk about. Make no mistake, I have no problem with seeing new, exciting work and revisiting old, classic work (this lately seems to be getting a bit out of hand, though).

But why don’t we spend as much time looking at what’s happening in between? It’s almost as if we can’t process that. It’s almost as if as a photographer you more or less quietly work and work and work once you’re, say, older than 40, waiting for that moment when you’re old enough for people to take notice again. When would that be? When you’re older then 60?

Of course, if you are a photographer just “emerging” when you’re, say, 40 or older you’re totally out of luck, which is unfair, if not outright discriminatory. That’s another story - the only people you will hear talking about this are the artists in question.

I had been thinking about this recently after reading a couple of interviews with German photographer Thomas Struth (who is 57 years old). Struth didn’t come across as the kind of artist whose creativity seems to be way on the decline. Instead, I had the impression of hearing from an artist whose work - and thinking - was steadily evolving, producing new, interesting work steadily.

I’m interested in the next big thing, and I’m interested in the classics. But I think I’m even more interested in the Thomas Struths - photographers too old to be one of the young guns and too young to be one of the old timers: The mid-career artists. You can find all kinds of interesting developments here. You can find life experience entering work, you can find artists re-shaping earlier work to produce more mature variants, you can find artists making experiments grounded in experience and in a willingness to grow. Watch, for example, the documentary What Remains about Sally Mann, and you’ll find out what I’m talking about.

In fact, might we not argue that it’s the mid-career artists who expand photography slowly, yet steadily? Why don’t we talk about them more?