Legacies in Peril

| October 21, 2016

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. ~Elie Wiesel

Like many, I have come to enjoy the convenience of electronic books. Certainly, in many ways, electronic reading devices will never quite replace the experience of viewing well-printed photographs, the tactile sensation of leafing through a printed book, the scent of fresh ink, the aroma of old paper, the joy of rummaging through the aisles of a used-book store, etc. However, there is no denying that the electronic format lends itself better to many practical uses, not the least of which is the ability to travel with an entire library of reference materials, as I do. It is with this intent that I set about perusing the sites of electronic book vendors wishing to acquire some of the classic texts of photography. To my great disappointment I found that practically none is currently available in electronic format.

More troubling is the fact that some of these books are also out of print, and some gained collectible status placing their used prices out of reach for many. Regrettably, it seems that those who own the rights to these books are not very motivated to sustain the legacies of their authors.

Alfred Stieglitz’s CameraWork? no. Edward Weston’s Daybooks? no. Anything by Ansel Adams? no. Minor White? no. Robert Frank? Brassai? Robert Adams? Henri Cartier-Bresson? no, no, no, and no. Aperture Magazine Anthology? hardcover only. And the list goes on. The only book on my list that I was able to find in electronic format is “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by Walker Evans and James Agee, and the only electronic version available contains embarrassing typos and no(!) photographs.

I generally consider it a distraction, perhaps even an arrogant one, for an artist to worry too much about their legacy. I find it much more productive to work not in hope of posthumous fame, but out of a desire to grasp more intensely onto the present; to sense and to feel as profoundly as one is able to; to seek meaningful encounters; and to give creative expression to those things one finds most significant about the living experience, and with as little regard as necessary to how well such expressions are accepted or preserved. Good, meaningful, work tends to find its audience. My own work and musings, for better or worse, are expressions of my life and the things I find important. Whether it is  considered of value to those who will follow is for them to decide. However, as a scholar and educator, I consider it eminently important to honor and to promote the great contributions made by those whose shoulders I stand on. Also, as a practicing artist seeking to make my work and my life meaningful, inspired and productive, I find invaluable the stories, ideas, wisdom and contemplations of those who chose such lives before me. I worry that so many such contributions are in peril of being lost if those who own rights to them are not motivated to make them available in electronic format.

Photography’s nature and history present some unique challenges when it comes to the legacies of photographic artists, starting with the unusual fact that the most famous photographer in history is enormously more so than any other. Although well deserved, no photographer has ever accomplished anything resembling the celebrity of Ansel Adams. Even the works and writings of giants of photography, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, often are unknown today to the general public, and regrettably also to many present-day photographers. It is as if Picasso became so ubiquitous that few would recognize the works of Monet or Rembrandt; or as if Mozart’s popularity made Bach and Vivaldi virtually unknown. The fact that these great photographers have little or no presence in the digital world would only hasten their transition to obscurity, and we will all be poorer for it.

Consider this a plea to the Weston family, to the Adams estate, to the Center for Creative Photography, to the Aperture Foundation, and to anyone who owns rights to the works of great photographers of the past to please make the investment in making these available in electronic format.

Vincent in Wood

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Photographers, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (12)

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  1. Michael Berg says:

    In your case, Guy, the issue is to get more of your writing and imagery on to paper as well. I’m a geezer, and that certainly colors my opinion, but while I find a utility in the electronic document, it does not have the gravitas or tactile satisfaction of a traditional book. I would love to have Weston’s Daybooks with me as I travel, but I would like more of your work brought out of the electronic medium and into a traditional binding for when I am home. Cheers.

  2. Herb says:

    Point well taken, Guy. I have a friend who is an art professor at East Carolina University who has at least 500 photography books, if not 1000.
    The problem I think, is that digital has made everyone a “photographer”
    thus removing some mystique.
    Hope springs eternal, however-I run into young men at the camera shop who
    are eager to learn all about film and the greats who used it.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Undoubtedly there are many excellent photographers out there and many who are looking to become more creative and knowledgeable. I’m grateful to meet them on my workshops and talks. But I do worry about the legacies of some of those who made what we do possible and who today barely have mentions, anecdotes and poor-quality images at best, on various poorly designed web sites. These people write books and essays and created masterful works that deserves to be showcased in the best means and technology we have.

  3. lpk2 says:

    I have to agree with both Mr. Berg & Herb. Having the works of those great photographers available to us in either electronic or print/book form is so vitally important for 2 reasons. First, so everyone can see, appreciate, value & be inspired by the creativity and vision of their works and thoughts. Second, is that the works of those before us are the tools and textbooks for us. The artist and their works teach us how to see, how to apply and/or ignore the rules, how to find our own artistic voices. They are our teachers and our mentors! I personally am partial to the print because it is not subject to the vagaries of how my monitor is calibrated.
    I agree too that everyone with a smartphone now is a photographer, and with the technology in those phones, they can be amazingly good photographers!That means that we as photographers have to work even harder to achieve our own photographic goals, to help the viewer share in our experience or our message. Photography whether fine art, commercial, or photojournalism, is about capturing an image and using it to communicate a message: go to the woods, buy this brand of soft drink, witness the triathlete at the finish line!

  4. I got my first tablet a couple of weeks ago and was horribly disappointed not to be able to get Weston’s Daybooks or most of the half dozen other books I looked for (at least I could get Susan Sontag). On the bright side, some of the digital photo magazines are infinitely better than their paper counterparts. A glimmer.

  5. Robert Moore says:

    Commoditizing older work may make it more accessible but may also diminish
    its impact … nothing like looking at silver prints and marveling at their glow
    and presence.

    Hard to capture with an iPad …. color is another issue which makes the transition
    without difficulty.

    I cannot imagine that most of the trustees of the artists would endanger the currency
    of their “brand” by embracing digital distribution …. all those prints sequestered in the
    attic … better than an annuity.

    The technology is there … the trustees are not.

    Bob

  6. John W. Wall says:

    Some of the older books have such poor photo reproduction that it could be great to see the images in digital format. I think of a couple Eliot Porter books I have. I agree it would be great to see the images reproduced by modern printing processes as well, but I also agree a digital archive must be produced. I only just encountered Weston’s Daybooks for the first time a year or so ago, borrowed from a friend. What a revelation. I suspect Adams is to photographers what Yosemite is to national parks, only more so.

  7. Peter Higdon says:

    Congratulations on yet another wonderfully thought provoking article, probably more so because I cannot wholly agree with you.

    As a matter of personnal taste, I prefer books to computer screens. But I fully understand your frustration at not having access to those major photographic works in digital format.

    That aside, I do not believe making these works available in digital format would have any significant effect on the prolonged visibility of the artists among the general public, or for that matter among amateur photographers.

    Why am I so pessimistic? Because, culturally, photography is about the here and now, and doesn’t have a tradition of old masters. In writing this reply, I was thinking about our local library. Probably 90% of the photography section are how-to books, the remaining true photobooks probably number less than monographs on the Impressionists alone. Our local museum hasn’t got a photography section at all, in fact, I cannot recall having seen any photographs in the museum at all. Amongst the members of the two camera clubs I belong to, probably only about 25% are in the least interested in past masters, and some of those will look blank at the mention of Gursky or Burtynski. The giants on whose shoulders they stand on are the ones who won last year’s competition!

    Sadly, I can understand why the keepers of these works are not rushing to make them widely available.

  8. Nara says:

    I still feel eBook readers haven’t reached yet, to bring the same user experience derived from reading a photography book.I prefer eBooks during the travel, yet,i like to hold the printed ones and read in the evening surrounded by classical music.Nevertheless, Making available the masterpieces at affordable prices(both electronic & traditional) is the best way to create quality photography.