Is photography all the same today? What makes one image different from one another when not only technology allows us to rely on features that trivialise traditional skills, but the pool from which many learn new skills, is so easily accessible?
At a surface level this automation of foundational skills and us all having permanent access to a global knowledge pool that is continuously updated sounds amazing, but are we all becoming the same? If we all have the same tool and the same knowledge, do we run the risk of producing very similar work?
Photography has never been easier
The barrier to entry for photography is extremely low today as almost any digital camera made in the last 20 years is objectively excellent and due to their popularity, even cameras that are only a few years old can be acquired relatively cheaply. In fact, one of the best digital cameras ever made was the Canon 5D MKII and that can be picked up for less than £200 second-hand today!
Of course, all of this doesn’t even include the fact that we all own a mini-super computer coupled with an excellent camera in our pockets at all times. Almost anybody today can jump into photography and thanks to digital technology, there are no additional and recurring costs like there used to be with analogue film. Once you have your camera, you’re good to go.
Of course, owning a camera doesn’t mean you know how to use it. Right? Modern cameras have done away with the need for you to learn the skill of focusing, nor do you need to be a human light meter and remember things like the ‘Sunny 16’ rule. In fact, for the most part, pointing your camera in the general direction is quite literally all you need to do to get a great image, especially if you’ve ‘forgotten’ to turn off the film emulations the shot you’ve just taken is cover-worthy straight out of the gate.
Yes, your modern camera can all but walk the dog and render differential geometry of the shapes you point it at, but it’s still far from making any real creative decisions, right? It obviously can’t create art, right?
We’re all artists
We as humans have an innate sense of beauty and yes, I mean everyone. At its most elemental level, we all agree that sunsets, puppies and tropical islands are beautiful. But from here, we start to diverge. Some may think babies are beautiful, flowers in bloom, maybe brunettes, fast cars and even knives and guns can be beautiful to some. Herein lies the sense of self that makes us unique from one another and when we translate what we personally perceive to be beautiful to our own work. This is our art.
This innate sense of beauty is far stronger than you think too. Somehow you instinctively know what colours go well together, or at worst you definitely know what colours don’t go together. You know what tastes bad and what tastes good and whether you play an instrument or not, I could play you a note on piano and you’d somehow instinctively know if it was out of tune. So with your innate notion of beauty and your unique code of preferences, you’re able to create art. Right?
Yes, anything created and viewed by an audience can technically be deemed as art. For many, the intent behind the work is a stronger signifier of what art is, but for the most part, all of us are very capable of art as we all have a unique voice and vision. But is that uniqueness being eroded today as we’re all funnelled into what’s ‘trending’ at any one time? If we are all being inspired by a collective source, do we lose our unique vision?
Human history has given us incredible artists. The early Renaissance of the 1400s gave us work from artists like Domenico Veneziano and Filippo Brunelleschi as well as many others. They largely pioneered the idea of perspective and Chiaroscuro, two incredibly fundamental tenets of nearly all art today.
As the Renaissance period unfolded, we got geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in the early 1500s and although I’m sure they need little introduction, they made huge strides in understanding light-play and extremely detailed dimensional work.
As we moved into the early 1600s, the baroque style emerged with Caravaggio producing work with heavy contrast and deep colours, work that not only holds up today but is arguably still unsurpassed.
The 1800s saw the birth of neoclassicism, a style heavily driven by a need for realism as the Ancient Greeks saw beauty existing in the natural form.
The work created by artists of the time like John William Godward and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is nothing short of breathtaking as their ability to render skin in pale tones and soft light is incredible.
As we leave the twilight years of the 1800s and move away from the work of the ‘old masters’ we enter the 1900s and of course not only the introduction of modern art, but the heretical discipline of the devil worshippers now known today as photography.
Most of us are all too aware of the work of many of these more modern artists. In fact, most of this work is so iconic that we not only know the name of the artist but the names of the individual pieces they created. Work like Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Paul Cezanne’s ‘Les joueurs de cartes’ (The card players), Monet’s ‘Water Lillies’, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (you’ll know it when you see it). There are countless others I could list here, but the point still stands, that although all of these works are over a century old, we’re not only aware of them, but know them well.
From here we even know world-famous works that explored expressionism and abstract art from artists like Wassily Kandinsky and his ‘Yellow-Red-Blue’ as well as Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow’. And if we look just over our shoulders we can still almost taste the pop-art era thanks to the likes of Andy Warhol and his ‘Campbell’s Soup I’.
Although the photographic discipline is still in its infancy if compared to art in general, we still have many prominent artists who made strides where others hadn’t gone before. Nearly all know Ansel Adams, but most should also know other early pioneers like Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton.
As I say, you should all know those names, but they were all from the very early 20th century, as we move forward, we get far fewer influential names appearing. I’m sure David Bailey and Annie Leibovitz is among the ones we know, maybe even Mario Testino – Personally, I’m not sure whether we should include artists who are famous for depicting other famous people, but the old masters painted lots of famous people of the time, so I’ll allow it.
If it was up to me, I’d absolutely put Nick Knight amongst this lot and if you’ve somehow not heard of this incredible photographer, that only lends more credence to my next point. Why do we know a huge number of names from only the first half of the 20th Century? Are there simply fewer great photographers today?
The end of ‘household names’?
So where does that leave us today? Where are the Caravaggio’s and Van Gogh’s today? Where are the Picasso’s and Mondrian’s, where are the Avedon’s and Bailey’s?
I find it hard to believe scholars will be looking back at one of the most ‘famous’ ‘artists’ of the 21st Century, only to find out they were a TikTok star.
Of course, you could argue that it’s simply the discipline that’s lost popularity. Today we have cinema and computer games and there are certainly household names to some degree in those fields. Everybody has heard of Steven Spielberg and Quinten Tarantino from cinema and to a lesser extent, Todd Howard and Hideo Kojima in gaming. These are undoubtedly huge names, but they are also the figureheads of major productions and studios. I’m sure none of them would claim to have created what they have alone and some of these artists sit atop the hard work of hundreds, if not thousands of other contributors and artists. Many film directors are famous, but they couldn’t light their way out of a dimly lit room. Is their art really theirs alone to own? If I had a great idea for a painting and I hired someone else to paint it for me, am I still the artist?
So, has original art from the individual artist reached its saturation point? Have all the new revolutions in art been discovered and shared? Have we really seen the end of household names like David Bailey and Mario Testino? If so, why?
Insane or just an artist?
I mentioned at the start of this article/thesis/manifesto that photography has never been easier thanks to not only a very affordable entry point but also extremely intelligent technology that removes a lot of the guesswork and foundational knowledge that was historically required to even see a useable image in the past. I also said that even though we have all this technology, it still can’t produce art, after all, that is still a fundamentally human trait (put your pitchforks down AI zealots). So why aren’t we seeing any revolutionary work like we used to? To be clear, I’m not saying that incredible new art isn’t out there, but will it be remembered in a hundred years. let alone two hundred years?
Yes, everybody is capable of making art, but what makes some art ‘better’ than others? What makes some art stand out and be remembered?
Art is often the product of the self as I mentioned above, it’s what makes it unique, but for it to be really unique it has to stand apart from the norm and outside of the populous. It has to be revolutionary.
Why do you think many of the legendary artists I mentioned above died penniless? Why do you think they were often seen as mad or treated like pariahs? You don’t get to be unique AND hang out with the cool-kids. It’s simply not possible. If you’re producing work that is outside of the social norms and standing out, you’re doing something unique and original. This is why much of that historic art is heralded today as it was often well ahead of its time, this is why many of those artist were never famous in their lifetimes and many only scraped by. Van Gogh only sold a single painting in his lifetime before committing suicide at 37, yet in 2022, his ‘Orchard with Cypresses’ piece, sold for a record-breaking $117 million!
Claude Monet, the founder of French Impressionism, had his work at the time described as “formless, unfinished and ugly”. Consequently, he and his family lived in poverty for much of their lives, yet In 2019, his Meules (Haystacks), sold for $110.7 million.
These artists were producing work that was far from trendy, they were producing work that was very personal and unique to them and in certain cases, this work was different, because they were different. Many scholars today herald these great artists as geniuses, but the line between genius and insanity is often dangerously thin.
Van Gogh, who as I mentioned earlier tragically committed suicide at 37, famously cut off his own ear, wrapped it up, gave it to a prostitute and then went on to paint a self-portrait. Genius? Absolutely. Would you want him babysitting your kids? Maybe not.
Caravaggio was a convicted criminal who spent time in prison. He was also notoriously violent and even stabbed a man to death over a tennis match before going into exile while continuing to fight and paint. -I swear I’m not making that up and although I’m not trying to ‘romanticise’ it, movies have been made with plots far worse than a rouge artist on-the-lam from the law fighting and painting his way across the Roman countryside!
Picasso, who in my opinion is arguably one of the most influential artists in human history, was also known to be a ‘bully’ and ‘womaniser’ and I’m being kind here.
Einstein was clearly a genius, but that came with a brain that worked differently to yours and mine and he’s famously seen as being ‘quirky’ or ‘eccentric’ today, yet he was reportedly often ‘dishevelled’ and did everything he could to avoid socialising. Today many diagnose him as being autistic, but those eccentricities of the time made him different to most.
Andy Warhol, arguably one of the most famous artists in recent memory, was also frequently reported to be exploiting those around him for his art, misogynistic and abusive towards women. Andy Warhol has had an immeasurable impact on the art world, but there are certainly those who felt used during his stratospheric rise.
And, have you met David Bailey?
I’m not saying that you need be clinically insane to be an artist, although, yes, it certainly helped Salvador Dali. Nor do you need to be a womanising asshole and yes, you can still be all of those things and still not produce a single goddamn thing of note. But to create something different, it certainly appears that being different can help make you stand out and I’ve not even mentioned the horrendous curse that afflicts so many phenomenal musicians. Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and Ian Curtis all committed suicide often at the height of their success and that’s just the few in recent memory with a surname beginning with C!
If the likes of Picasso or Warhol were alive today, would they simply be ‘cancelled’? This is tough to answer, right? What is the true cost of great art? Was Warhol reportedly a dick because he was famous thanks to his art, or was his art famous because he was an extremely driven individual with a seemingly limitless passion that simply wouldn’t take no for an answer?
This is often easier to answer in hindsight, but what would we have lost if Picasso had been ‘cancelled’? What is the human cost of Caravaggio’s talent? He killed a man whilst trying to castrate him over something as benign as a tennis match? Is, arguably some of the most influential contributions to human culture, worth a man’s life?
Cancel culture has no doubt stopped some heinous acts from happening, but are they also stopping culturally relevant art from being created? Right now you’re likely either chuckling at the absurdity of the very notion that art is more important than stopping laws of decency and actual real laws being broken, or you’re thinking about trying to cancel me for even suggesting it. But if we cancelled every socially awkward misogynistic lunatic murderer we came across, how much art is left?
Don’t misunderstand me here, we as the populous today should absolutely stand up for those who may not have a voice. Violence and mistreatment towards others should never be an acceptable cost of art. If we want to call stamping out bullies, ‘cancel culture’, then so be it. My point here is not to argue against cancel culture, far from it, I simply want to highlight that historically, great art has come from people who may appear different to you and I and we shouldn’t always be so quick to categorise them as social outcasts for that.
The Era of Homogenised Art
I’ve spoken about how great art has historically come from those who are at odds with others. Sure, mental illness was sometimes a catalyst for this, but many artists were simply a product of their time and surroundings. For the most part, they learned their craft via personal experience. Today we quite literally have the resource of global knowledge in our pockets. There is no denying that this reserve of knowledge is incredible, but what happens when we all drink for the same well?
The internet is clearly a vast resource, but it’s now becoming so vast that tools are in place to make sure we can actually find what we’re looking for. You and I know these tools as algorithms and as amazing as they are at delivering us what we ask for, they are designed to please and when that happens, that’s the only content the next person who looks for the same thing gets. In its simplest form, this is the start of a trend as the algorithm repeatedly serves the same supposedly engaging content to multiple users. This is great and (mostly) harmless when we need a little endorphin hit with our morning coffee. After all, remember when I said we all have the same baseline appreciation for beauty? A quick cat video, a beautiful shot of a sunset, easy wins for all involved and we can all enjoy the same great things together. It becomes more problematic however when we want to educate ourselves on a topic we aren’t familiar with.
If I want to learn about photography, I don’t know what I don’t know, and here in lies the problem many self-taught artists can run into. What on earth do you search for?
Historically, many young artists would be taught by the previous generation. Years ago, mentors would share their decades of hard-earned knowledge with their pupils and in recent memory, you went to college or university to again learn from the previous generations. Today, you have inexperienced artists teaching other inexperienced artists as they are the ones who are leveraging the tools of the internet to their benefit.
Before you ‘x’ out of this in fear of listening to ‘yet another grumpy old man shouting at the moon’, hear me out for a moment longer.
Let’s put aside the fact that there are thousands of terribly inaccurate hours of inexperienced knowledge being shared for the moment. In fact, let’s just assume that this free knowledge is actually sound and useful and not just a grab at jumping on the latest trend for now. If that’s the case, then we really do have a wealth of information at our fingertips. This is great, but we still need to be equipped to look for it and like I said before, we simply don’t know what we don’t know. How do we know what to look for and better still, how do we know where to look?
We need some form of direction and impetus to form a knowledge structure and simply copying money-see-monkey-do is rarely a great catalyst for creativity.
Historically this structure has come from our mentors and whether that was professors or elders sharing wisdom with the previous generation, they had been where we are now and they had the experience to understand what was valuable to grow and sometimes what we need to know isn’t always what we think it is.
I’ll admit, I’ve been extremely fortunate with my education. I was blessed with incredibly enthusiastic and very creative tutors and mentors, but they didn’t always teach me things I liked or even wanted to learn.
For want of a better term, I was ‘classically trained’ and by that I mean I was taught how to paint, draw and ultimately read a scene in front of me. I was taught those skills well over 20 years ago now, yet I still use those same skills today. Paint, charcoal chalk or camera, I was taught how to read the light and view light and shadow objectively. I was taught to look at dimension through light to see how light sculpts depth and texture as it transitions to shadow and more importantly, I was taught how to interpret that into my own work. I appreciate this may seem very airy-fairy to some, but I assure you, my ability to create new ideas today comes from my ability to accurately render light in my mind before even picking up the camera and ‘hoping for the best’. That skill was given to me a long ago and it’s a truly invaluable one to me in my work today, but even with what I know now, I couldn’t search for that skill online today.
It’s often in the areas we think we don’t need help that often helps the most. I had assignments that made me go out and shoot street portraits of strangers. Approaching strangers and asking to photograph them is hard (granted it was more bizarre approaching strangers with a camera in the late 90’s than it is now), but it taught me to rapidly build rapport and quickly understand a character in a short space of time before taking a portrait of them. I also had to learn architectural photography on a large format 5×4 bellows camera. I had zero desire to learn about how to photograph a building, but the skill involved in trying to make a building look straight when photographed from the street is substantial. Not to mention the battles with focusing on an upside-down and inverted image on a ground glass plate with a black cloth over my head on a busy street and couple that with the exposure latitude of large format E6 being about half a stop! Note that modern cameras have an exposure latitude of 15 stops today! You really have to be dialled into what you’re doing to take that one shot. Did I enjoy it? Hell no! It was horrendous and I don’t recommend that absolute madness to anyone, but did I learn a lot about checking and verifying a scene? Absolutely. Did I learn about parallax, perspectives and composition within repeating patterns? Absolutely.
It’s this very broad base of knowledge that ultimately makes us unique and its this uniqueness that allows us to unsurprisingly create unique art.
Hell, I’m loathed to admit it, but even the ceramics course I hated probably taught me something about light and texture, just don’t tell my tutor that.
The internet is clearly incredible, but when it’s designed to repeatedly feed us pleasing content, especially when it’s from those who are young and inexperienced due to their ability to leverage that algorithm in their favour over more experienced artists who are out of touch with the latest delivery platform, we have an issue when that content is supposed to be educational. We’re left with a generation of children teaching other children and this trend may well continue as technology and its delivery method changes faster than the knowledge being gained.
The well of the internet is not quite as deep as we’d like to imagine as ‘trends’ are the only knowledge that makes it to the surface and what’s worse, we don’t even realise what we’re missing below.
In the words of a great sci-fi icon who was concerned about the proliferation of the self being lost into a sea of digitisation, “Overspecialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death”. (20 points to the cultured few who know who said that).
The homogenisation of knowledge seems amazing at a surface level, but it’s most certainly a slow death for creativity.
Mistakes are the seeds of creativity
I’ve just spoken about how the younger generation is the first in human history to actually teach one another art. I also mentioned that we all like to simply ‘Google it’ over actually trying to learn something for ourselves. I get it, if someone else can tell me now over figuring it out for myself, that saves me time, but that shouldn’t be the way we learn how to be creative.
Put aside for a moment that you’ve essentially walked up to a total stranger on the digital street and asked them to teach you something, but I assume the goal when Googleing for someone to teach you something, is to copy them, right? I’m not judging, but if you’re being told, you’re not technically learning how to do something, you’re simply copying them.
Think about the distinction between being taught how to do something and then being given an assignment to put said skill into practice over simply watching something and then copying it. What did we really learn here that set ourselves apart from everyone else doing the same thing?
The tool we photographers use today is just so good that imagery begins to look the same when we simply copy one another. As I mentioned at the start, even bad cameras are amazing today, so the gear isn’t really setting us apart. Photography isn’t like many other mediums as their tools require far more skill to use than ours does today.
If I got you all into a room and gave you all a pencil and asked you to draw the apple I’d placed on the table, all of those sketches would be vastly different. If I’d asked the same of you, but instead of a pencil I gave you a modern camera, how different do you think the results would really be? Copying is not the skill it used to be, but implementing learned skills in a project of your own making, however, will ultimately yield very different results from one person to the next.
Sadly though, you may not always be happy with those results.
Fear of failure is in all of us. It sucks. But it’s also an extremely necessary part of the individual creative process. When we make a mistake, it’s in our very nature to want to make a change to that process and ultimately, to get a different and hopefully better result. This change is us doing something new and this action is the very seed of a creative decision. Mistakes are quite literally the seeds of creativity, yet I see so many young artists being afraid to make them. I get it, we all want to be brilliant straight out of the gate, but getting it ‘right’ isn’t always what we actually need to make us better artists.
One reason the newer generation may be hesitant to make these necessary mistakes, is their desire to share absolutely everything they create with the world. Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s an amazing attitude to have, but don’t let the fact that a bunch of unqualified strangers may not like what you share stop you from making bold work.
I know I’m not the only artist who has grown and developed a look or idea from what was originally a mistake or undesired outcome. Mistakes are a very necessary evil and we as artists should never be afraid to make bold decisions with our work or be shy to try something new, just in case it doesn’t fit with what our online audience of unqualified strangers thinks. Ultimately, we don’t have to share everything we create and it’s not your audience’s right to see everything you make. Just be sure to microwave all your old hard drives containing all those HDR portraits you took in the early 2000’s or the vultures will try and repackage them as ‘unrelesaed art’ when you’re gone as they did with Amy Winehouse and the Beatles!
What an incredible time to be alive as an artist!
If you’ve waded this far through all of the doom and gloom above pertaining to the current state of art, I assure you I’m not exasperated with the creative process just yet, far from it. In fact, this is a truly incredible time to be an artist and there are undoubtedly some unbelievably talented artists out there right now and I thank the modern state of the internet for being around so I can simply find that art and enjoy it.
If you’re an artist today, then your barometer for success will be different to someone else, but if some form or fame is a part of that success to you, then remember that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and even if you have a moderate audience today, more people will see your art than saw Shakespeare’s during his lifetime.
The internet is a truly incredible tool for not only sharing your work with a worldwide audience but also as a tool to learn from other artists from around the world. At no point in human history has so much human knowledge been so readily available to so many. But as the internet grows moment by moment, it will become harder and harder to be truly surprised and inspired by it as we will individually struggle to find qualified knowledge that sits outside of the popular or ‘trending’ ideas.
If you’re a young artist today or even a new artist looking to truly develop your one voice amongst the noise, I’d urge you to seek knowledge from artists that truly inspire you or at the very least, artists that have been doing it significantly longer than you have. Don’t be too quick to simply chase the ‘likes’ and online approval if you have an interesting idea you want to pursue. Remember, they all told me I was mad for turning beautiful young ladies bright blue and pink all those years ago too. Now everyone does it and it’s the norm. Never be afraid to make mistakes and never feel like you have to share those mistakes if you don’t want to.
Sadly, I don’t have some master solution to all of this that I’ve been waiting until the end to share. This article was an amalgam of ideas that I’ve had swirling about in my ADHD artist’s brain for some time and simply put, I just needed to get them out, if only as a way to exorcise them and move on. One of the original thoughts that triggered all of this was the notion that household artist names will likely never be a thing again and I was simply curious as to why that was. In hindsight, this is not necessarily a bad thing, far from it. In fact, there are likely far more artists alive today making a successful living at what makes them happy, what makes them get up in the morning, and what inspires them, than ever before and that’s simply incredible!
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts though. Do you think this is the death of household names for artists? If not, whose work today do you think will be remembered in a hundred years? I’ve been puzzling on this myself and the closest I got was, Banksy. His work is a perfect storm of the time. His bold, very graphical style is instantly digestible and it transcends all language with his very easy-to-understand messages. Plus, his work is of the people. It’s mostly made on public streets and is accessible by all. There is no gatekeeping, no admission fee nor pomp surrounding meaning or class and this work came at a time when the internet made the world a much smaller place. With all this in mind, I do not doubt at all that Banksy’s work will be discussed in a hundred years. Who knows, maybe his pieces will be encased in perspex, walls ‘n’ all, in art galleries for future generations to marvel at why on earth we thought giant rats scrawled on walls was ‘art’.
But, again, I’d be interested to hear thoughts on who you think we’ll remember when we’re gone.
Lastly, I just wanted to clarify that this piece wasn’t supposed to be an ‘elitist’ post that diminishes the hard work that many extremely successful YouTubers and other online artists do. As I said, if you make a successful living doing what you love, you should absolutely do it. Nor am I trying to undermine the ‘self-taught’ artists out there who use YouTube as a way to enjoy practising their passion. Education has never been this free and the internet (although not completely free), now enables so many people the possibility to enjoy their passion and to see what’s possible with their tool of choice. Again, this is an amazing time to be an artist and I have great respect anybody who has the passion to pursue what they love.
About the author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF, and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.