I offer an ageist and unwoke proposition: Old people make the best photographs. That’s right, the age of photographic wisdom begins at forty, give or take. Before you report me to the thought police, here is why I would say such a terrible thing. I have the good fortune to meet monthly with a group of wonderful photographers. It’s an informal gathering to share prints, news of the arts, stories, and of course coffee. There is no agenda, we have no rules, no points, and no contest winners. There is a nice diversity of gender and age in our group although a substantial portion of the regulars tend to celebrate birthdays with more than forty candles. I’m always inspired by the prints shown at the meeting because each print has a character and a style that is clearly unique to the photographer.
Recently, I went to a regional art fair that included several booths of photography. Technically, most of the work was very good. Many of the prints were stunning captures, colorful landscapes with dramatic lighting rendered in well-executed glossy prints. However, as good as they were, there was a “sameness” to the work. The saturated images of familiar regional scenes felt cliché because so many people were doing a similar thing. It reminded me of the sameness of images that I see on social media.
Back at the coffee shop, here is a small sampling from just a few of our members. Rebekah shared silver gelatin darkroom prints, Jennifer showed hand-colored prints of flowers and portraits, Reid handed out contact prints from paper negatives, Kate is working on a series of large format portraits, and Ann gave us a preview of the digital print that was going to the State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. What made these photographs interesting to me was the diversity of subject, process, and style of the finished prints. It seemed to me that quality doesn’t come from the much-touted 10,000 hours dedicated to honing a craft, it comes from a unique artistic sensibility and the accumulated wisdom from living for more than 40 years, or 350,400 hours!
There are of course exceptions, those people that are born with the genius to make great work at a young age. However, most people aren’t Mozart, Stevie Wonder, or The Beatles. Like many humans, I took a long time to mature emotionally. I consider myself fortunate to have waited until middle age before making serious attempts at portraiture and especially nudes. Who knows, maybe I could have made images of deeper substance earlier if there had been a mentor guiding me. On my own? I don’t think so. I lacked the vision for the finished work and the maturity to express connection with a photographic print.
This is obviously a generalization that can’t be taken too seriously, but I’m conveniently convinced that in the modern era, especially because we are bombarded with imagery, the quality and character of artistic works is generally enhanced by extended survival. When experience, vision, tools, and subject matter come together, a unique and compelling photograph can be made.
About prints: Our meetings highlight the importance of printed work. The next time you see a printed photograph, hold it in your hands if you can. Think about the subject matter and feel the thickness of the paper. Observe the texture of the surface and the tonality in the photo. I never tire of the process to create photographs, or the joy of handling a fine print.