You Can’t Know Everyone, But You Should Know a Few!

We are living at a time when bookshelves, reading and history have taken on a new importance so, let’s talk photographic history and more specifically focus on the photographers who provide the staging points in the medium’s evolution. Talbot, Atkins, Fenton, Steiglitz, Steichen, Nadir, Weston, Evans, Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Penn, Avedon, Klein, Frank, Capa, Callaghan, Shore, Eggleston, Arbus, Parks, Salgado and so on. I’m sure you can add to these and so you should. My point is that it is important to be aware of these photographers and their work. They should be an essential foundation of any photographic education and their work should be respected, analysed within the context of the time in which it was made and understood. It does not need to be liked but it does need to be recognised as important.

However, these photographers are not the history of photography, they are part of that history but they are not the whole story. In a sense I see them as gateways to the medium at different stages of its development. Gateways that can lead to a multitude of pathways and photographers who are perhaps less known but as important as the recognised masters. More of the masters later, but for now I would like to concentrate on those names we should know rather than those we might know.

It seems to be increasingly fashionable to destroy the past; to dismiss the makers who helped get us to where we are today in favour of ‘over-promoting’ the new and the latest trend/fashion/aesthetic.

I have no issue with young and upcoming photographers, why would I? They are the future of the medium. However, I believe that it is impossible to create a sustainable career within a knowledge vacuum. Knowing the work of photographers who came before us provides the foundation we all need to progress our work from a position of understanding and insight.

It is therefore vital that we promote, explore and seek out photographers who came before us. Also that we share the names and work of photographers we know and that others may not. 

The more recognised names are starting points, but from a personal perspective it has been from the work of the photographers long forgotten that I have learnt the most. Their work exists online but also within dusty, long forgotten books that deserve to be on your bookshelf and regularly read, considered and returned to for inspiration and grounding. What I mean by grounding is a sense of existing within the evolution of the medium. 

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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.

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