The importance of original source material

My daughter was recently talking to me about her growing passion for studying history, primarily through what she said were the best part, original source material. That reminded me of two points in my early life as a photographer, when what is now known as original source material changed my perspective on photography.

In college as I was studying the history of photography, I encountered a lot of original source material, though I did not think of it quite that way. Actual prints by master photographers are obviously what we now call original source material. I was fortunate to see many of these, first hand during a semester of independent study at the start of my junior year. On a small grant from Pitzer college, I traveled across the United States and some of Western Europe, going from photography archive to photography archive. As a “scholar” I was allowed to see work in some of the world’s great photography collections, assuming I made an advanced appointment. I spent days looking at (and even handling) original photographs at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the British Library, among others. Though it is a cliché, there really is nothing like reviewing the real thing.

This point came home to me in one particular case, among the many, during my college study of the history of photography. I had often read about the early 20th century photography publication, Camera Work, published by Alfred Stieglitz. To quote from a good Wikipedia entry:

“Camera Work was a quarterly photographic journal published by Alfred Stieglitz from 1903 to 1917. It is known for its many high-quality photogravures by some of the most important photographers in the world. Its editorial purpose was to establish photography as a fine art.”

Before my traveling independent study, where I would see a great deal of original source material, I read numerous books and articles about Stieglitz and Camera Work as well as the creative circle of photographers around the publisher and his magazine. Each gave me a bit better understanding of the publication and its importance in the history of photography. I am not sure why, but still I was a bit doubtful. I felt that my understanding was less then complete.
During my traveling independent study, in the British Library in London, I encountered my first great career-altering set of original source material. The Library actually had the entirety of Camera Work, in original form, from beginning to end. I could not take it out of the library, but I could visit the library and read them all, which is exactly what I did. Over a couple months, I read every single issue, cover to cover. I should stay I studied them looking for clues.
What I learned became the core of the research paper I submitted for college credit for that independent study, as well as for subsequent research papers. The gist of what I learned still guides me to this day.

Simply put, I learned, always be very suspicious of the contemporary anointing mechanism. This is true certainly in photography, but equally in any human pursuit. What do I mean? The system by which any act of photography (or anything else) is celebrated, honored, marked or denigrated, is highly suspect. The folks who make those decisions are what I call the “anointers.” They are subject to all sorts of human, political, personal or intellectual prejudices, errors and faults. This applies today as well. The critics in the art publications or the New York Times are just as fallible as the writers featured in Camera Work.

If you were to read that publication from beginning to end, as I did, you would be stunned at what they considered great work at the time they were writing. You would be equally surprised at what work they slighted or even denigrated. They certainly were on the mark in terms of what they said about some work but they missed the mark plenty of times too. The books and articles I had read about Steiglitz and Camera Work highlighted their insight, but they all but ignored their errors.

Work that was spectacular then has faded into obscurity in the history of photographic, as it should have. Work that was considered insignificant, or worse back then, has stood the test of time and come to stand as important work in photographic history. If you replace the word photography with music or almost any other human pursuit (including politics) you can learn an important lesson. I certainly developed much fuller perspective by going to the original source material.

A few years later, I had an equally stunning encounter with other original source material. As a photojournalist, I was always told that Life magazine was the paragon of publications for photojournalists. In the mid 1980s I came across an advertisement for a man selling a complete collection of Life magazines, the weekly version, from start to finish. This presented me with my second great opportunity to review an entire publication’s original source material. So I bought the set, he delivered it to my then in-laws basement and on various days spread out over two summers, I reviewed every single issue of Life magazine.

As earlier, what I learned still guides me to this day. Simply put, most of Life magazine’s photography was utter crap. The process by which they celebrated, honored, marked or denigrated various people, places and things was similarly shaped by trends of the day, prejudices, stereotypes, laziness, etc.

If you were to read that publication from beginning to end, as I did, you would see some first rate photojournalism. First rate! But that was rare and much of that work has already been “anointed” by historians and writers. In my review, I did find a few new gems. In the end, I kept the copies with the great work in them, such as Eugene Smith’s work or Larry Burrows’ Vietnam essays.

After two summers of plumbing the depths of 36 years worth of mainstream American popular culture, I was left with a box of about 100 issues I wanted to keep. That is out of about 2000 issues. I still have those selected copies to this day.

Then I contacted a dealer in old magazines. He was happy to take the remainder off my hands. When I told him what issues I had taken out, he laughed. He was going to resell the issues featuring historical events, movie stars and athletes, at a handsome profit. As he drove away with his van-load of boxes, he reminded me of two things:

Life Magazine was at its core about profit for the publisher and popular culture for the reader, not photography. And, America was about profit, the kind that I made when he paid me twice what I had originally paid for that collection of original source material.

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