Prior to a recent lecture I asked a large group of students to compile personal lists of their ten favourite films of all time. The results were interesting. The lists contained no Raging Bull, no Citizen Kane, no Last Picture Show, no Dr.Strangelove, no Taxi Driver, no Casablanca, no Some Like it Hot, no Shawshank Redemption, no One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and no Vertigo. They contained no films by Orson Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Bergman, Bigelow, David Lean, Agnes Varda, Coppola, Kurosawa, Goddard, Fellini, Jane Campion, Billy Wilder, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Jean Renoir, John Huston, Lynne Ramsey, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, James Cameron, Herzog, Frank Capra, Sidney Lumet etc, etc. Their were a few Tarantino’s and the odd Wes Anderson but the greats, the classics, the heroes of the medium were conspicuous by their absence.
Only one student included a film pre-1980 and that was the somewhat surprising inclusion of the 1962 Mervyn LeRoy directed Gypsy. Most of the films chosen had emotional relevance to the students charting their own childhoods through the 90’s and early 2000’s with anything ‘vintage’ being seen as an 80’s release experienced through DVD viewing or streaming.
This is of course quite normal. We all have films that we love and that transport us back to our childhoods. For me it will always be the Stanley Kramer directed 1963 comic masterpiece It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend that you do! – but despite my love for the film I would never include it in a ‘best of list’, it means a lot to me but it pales in comparison if judged against Apocalypse Now or Good Fellas or Seven Samurai for example.
Such lack of awareness of a creative medium’s history would be unthinkable to a musician, to an artist, to an architect or a filmmaker and so should it be to a photographer. But in a world in which photography is so often experienced through Instagram, PinInterest and Twitter uncredited and out of context the creator of the image is unknown and displaced in time.
That information needs to be sought out but how can it be without the basic information to begin the search. Just as the students whose lists I saw were unaware of the great film makers so they are largely unaware of the great photographers. It is not their fault merely a result of how both films and photography are presented to them.
I often write and speak to students and young photographers of the need to develop a popular culture awareness and I make no apology for writing another article that once again stresses the need to study and absorb the visual history of both film and photography. As the writer H.G.Wells stated, “Human history in essence is the history of ideas” and to be unaware of those ideas is to be ill-informed of what is possible and how forms of visual communication can be evolved from what has gone before. I think that the British poet, peer, politician, and leading figure in the Romantic movement Lord Byron put it best, when he said that “The best prophet of the future is the past.”
In a fast moving, throw-away culture it is important to remember that the creative past didn’t start with our childhoods and with our personal memories. It is a valuable resource for us all to learn from but to ensure that it is not forgotten we have to step out of our personal sphere of influence and make sure that we find the heroes we all need to move forward.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry www.wokeupthismorningfilm.com.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay has been screened across the UK and the US in 2018 and will continue to be screened in 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019