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I’m half way through an online course offered through Coursera and run by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It’s called ‘Seeing through Photographs‘ and it’s introduction to both the history and the aesthetics of photography from the beginning, with an overall bias towards works hosted by MOMA. Thus it tends be orientated towards New York by locale and towards art photography by nature.

Not that this really matters. There’s more than enough depth here to gain a solid understanding of photographic principles and the course has been revelatory in expanding my own knowledge of masters of photography beyond the household names (Ansel Adams for example).

It’s also been a salvation as well as a revelation, for I’ve found myself loving the works I’ve been studying. These are real photographs, full of individuality, personality, engagement and opinion. They rise so far above the cliches and fads that dominate today’s popular photography that it is not surprising to learn, as one digs into their history, that they were frequently ridiculed or spurned by many contemporary judges. A prime example is the superb photojournalist book, “The Americans”, Robert Frank’s 1950s journey through the backwaters of American life. Now enshrined as a highly influential commentary and blueprint for much photojournalism that followed, contemporary reviews were not encouraging. Popular Photography magazine notoriously slagged off the book, characterizing the photographs as afflicted with “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness”.

Precisely, I’ll postulate, the type of criticism that today’s popular photography aficionados will apply to anything that crosses current contemporary standards of ‘quality’ photography and a sad reminder that any artist developing an individual vision is always going to have to fight orthodoxy and cultural conservatism. As true now as it has ever been. Is it any surprise that mimicry and emulation continue to dominate popular photograph sites? No, but perhaps what is more lamentable is that today’s internet forums, with their easily administered ‘likes’ and ‘loves’ accumulated from both the thoughtful and thoughtless viewer with no differentiation, serve only to reinforce this cloying conformity. Photographers, seduced by such prominent markers of popularity, scramble to reach these peaks, only to find themselves looking out over landscapes populated by clones, technically magnificent and utterly sterile, each either waiting their turn on the summit or beginning the rapid retreat into anonymity.

This is not art.

Nothing has reinforced this perception more than the discovery, long overdue, of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills“, a collection of black and white photographs featuring Sherman in a series of poses and attitudes drawn from cinema, commercial photography, a whole pantheon of stereotypical portrayals of women in the mid 20th century, yet each separate from their source – a commentary rather than an hommage.

These are magnificent portraits, worlds away from the plastic emptiness of real commercial and popular photography even as they draw intimately from the fads, fashions and assumptions lying behind such work. Referencing themes prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, the photographs themselves place themselves squarely within that historical context, yet the concept – one Sherman has explored over the course of her artistic life – remains as relevant today as it ever did. If you understand this work, it is virtually impossible to take most popular photography seriously. For me, it has acted as a real tonic, stimulating my love for photography and leading me down new or nearly new avenues of technique and concept. Not that I’ll ever be a Cindy Sherman, but it’s given me a context apart from the one I get from my photography clubs and friends and one that is much more appealing to me.

Of course, the photo club is great for friends and other fun. That counts too.

Photo Club Meeting by Richard Keeling on 500px.com