What are the measures of sustainability? Is it income, recognition, Instagram likes, self-satisfaction, specialisation, a signature style?
What is it about the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hurn, Robert Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Cas Oorthuys, Cecil Beaton, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon that makes them relevant today?
I believe these, and others sustained their practices because they were almost all versatile and adaptable photographers. They each had an eye for the moment, both in terms of composition and story. In the end their practices were sustainable because they made good work and their subjects were relatable. Not every photo any of the above made was perfectly in focus or even of great significance. Most would not win a modern competition, and many might not even be published today, but they each produced huge bodies of work throughout their careers and we are still looking at that work today.
That said, despite the substantial increase in technical quality in contemporary photography, I am not convinced that people will be looking at the work of Juno Calypso, David LaChapelle, or Edouard Taufenbach 50 years from now. The subject matter for a marked amount of contemporary photography in my opinion is not relatable to most people and in fact is, often for me, undecipherable. Much of the work carries no weight and seems to strive for the bizarre and absurd, the frivolous, superficial and fashionable instead of showing the realities of the world and the people in it. There are of course as many exceptions. Laura Henno’s work in Africa took years of research and effort. David Chancellor’s work on the relationship between wildlife and communities likewise will endure because of its subject matter and the quality of the work.
Among the first pronouncements of this module was a statement to the effect that one’s worth as a photographer is measured by how much money one earns and how prestigious the client base; that journeymen photographers are somehow less talented, less motivated, less successful and less worthy. By these measures Richard Prince would be considered extraordinarily successful, even though his work is largely crap. No one will be looking at his work in 50 years other than as case studies in misappropriation.
So how can we measure sustainability? Is there only one measure? I think sustainability comes in different flavours. The avantgarde contemporary photographers who are fortunate enough to garner attention and sell some high-priced work may meet a financial measure of sustainability during their lifetime, but their work may not endure. Instagram and other social media followings and likes are not in my opinion indicators of sustainability. How many flashes in the pan have gotten their 15 minutes of fame and promptly disappeared into oblivion? A working commercial photographer who can stay busy with commissions and make a solid living certainly has achieved a degree of sustainability, even though their work may be relatively ordinary and have not lasting significance. Another measure, and perhaps the worthiest in my opinion, of sustainability is work of lasting relevance or interest during and beyond the photographer’s lifetime, regardless of whether that photographer was financially successful during their career. These are the photographers that make a difference in the world and in photography it would be the category to which I would aspire were I 40 years younger and beginning a career.