Thoughts on Age


General Culture

There was an article in New Yorker magazine about genius and age and their relation. The question of age is actually a very important question, and discussing it in the context of “genius” unfortunately is like trying to observe stars during the day: People are so obsessed with the concept (idea?) “genius” that everything else just fades away.

Most people aren’t geniuses. That is, of course, an incredible trivial statement to make since, by definition, a genius is “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music.” So talking about geniuses is talking about a very small number of people, and usually it’s not very interesting at all actually.

However, it is worthwhile to talk about age, especially in the context of photography. I don’t think I’m going on a limb when I say that emerging photographers are always young. If a group of emerging photographers, presented in some magazine, say, is not explicitly picked with age as a criterion (“25 under 25”), you’d still be surprised if one of the emerging photographers turned out to be fifty years old, wouldn’t you?

Why is that? Why can’t a fifty-year old person become an emerging photographer? Imagine someone decides to pick up the camera at age forty eight, say, spends two years practicing and shooting, finds that she or he has enormous creative urges, and produces the most amazing body of work. I wager that that fifty year old person would then have a very hard time to be seen as an emerging photographer (in case I’m overlooking that one case that you have heard of, the exception as always proves the general rule). And it doesn’t have to be fifty years. It could be forty years or sixty years. In fact anything that doesn’t have a “2” or a “3” as a first digit (the thirties appear to get a bit iffy the closer you get to forty).

The other day, I talked to my friend D. about this. He said that in principle, instead of looking for young photographers we should actually be looking for older photographers. He argued that unlike in painting, where a painter’s technique often evolves significantly with age, photography usually doesn’t show such an evolution - in part because of photography’s very technical nature. So, he argued, young photographers are technically as competent as older photographers, but what really makes a body of work is not technique but “everything else.” It took me a while to make him specify what he meant by this, and it basically came down to what one might call “life experience”. In essence, D. argued that if you’re very young you are usually not able to see as many facets of the world as when you’re older, and, crucially, that translated into what kind of photography you are able to produce.

I thought about this for a while, and there is a certain truth to this, isn’t there? Of course, it depends on the kind of photography. But it seems that the evolution of an artist with age does not only include technique (which, as I noted, as usually obvious for painters) but also what you go through in life.

Seen in that light, the idea that emerging photographers should be young would just be a cultural bias - the same cultural bias in overabundant display everywhere we look.

If we allowed this to be true, it would mean that we should, in fact, be looking for emerging photographers of any age. And if we come across someone who is, say, fifty then that person should not be excluded from emerging photographer surveys just because of age - actually on the contrary.