A story: When I was a very young man and not so smart (hah! lol) I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the country's finest art schools. I was admitted as a third year student, a junior, and was told right out that I needed to take a photo history course. I argued that I didn't need it, that I'd had the equivalent course in the two year art school I'd come from. Of course, I hadn't taken photo history at all. That year I won and didn't need to take the course. I believed that I didn't have to know photography's history, that if I was copying something that came along before me, at least I didn't know I was copying it. Big mistake. My senior year they wised up and made me take the photo history class taught by Dick Lebowitz, a justifiably famous course as he was a wonderful teacher. OMG what wonderful things I saw! Now I had a strong base from which to be an artist, at least the beginning of an understanding that what preceded me that was important. Cluelessness is not so good, informed is much better. I learned my lesson way back.
As I talk with and look at younger artists' work these days I am struck by how little many of them know of what precedes them. Robert Frank's "The Americans"? Blank stare. Edward Weston's nudes? Nope. Diane Arbus's "Child with Hand Grenade"? No. Alfred Steiglitz's "Steerage"? Never heard of it. Fred Sommer's amputated foot? No. Judy Dater's "Twinka"? Nah.
I am and never have been that much inclined towards cynicism, or glass half empty and an outlook on life that is negative but this can get to me. I understand: youth wants to move on, to not dwell on the past and to not linger on past statements made however significant but I know my life is richer and my pictures are better informed by knowing what preceded them. If you're part of this group that doesn't look over your shoulder as you are too busy looking ahead, your pictures will be better if you look back often and study what preceded you.
Alfred Steiglitz "The Steerage" 1907
Diane Arbus, "Child with Hand Grenade".