Jacques Henri Lartigue
Just about anybody who’s been in my company for the last couple of years has heard me yammer on about photography and aging. The best creative years for a photographer, I’d proclaim, are 20 to 40, but the peak is 25 to 35. Of course I’d mention the exceptions, but taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person’s game.
The thing that got me started on this train of thought was reading a New York Times article from 2010 entitled How Old Can A ‘Young Writer’ Be?:
They (fiction writers) often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking,” Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.
Reading this at the age of 40, I began to picture myself as Wile E. Coyote still running after he’s off the cliff. The decline seems inevitable.
But is it? From in-depth quantitative studies, University of Chicago economist David Galenson has proposed two kinds of artist greatness. One he calls Young Geniuses (conceptualists who do their best work early in their careers). The other group he calls Old Masters (those who work by trial and error and improve with age). According to Galenson, Picasso (Young Genius) peaked at age 26 whereas Cezanne (Old Master) peaked at 67.
Does Galenson’s theory apply to photographers? I have no idea. What I need is data. Here is a chart analyzing the ages of philosophers and their influential contributions (peak age is 38-44). What would such a chart look like for photographers? I have a funny feeling my 25-35 guess might still be right.
What do you think?
258 Replies to “At What Age Do Photographers Do Their Most Influential Work?”
Walker Evans published American Photographs at 35
Brassi published Paris de Nuit at 34
Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment at 44
Robert Frank published The Americans at 34
Ed Ruscha published Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations at 26.
Daido Moriyama published Bye Bye Photography Dear at 34
Nan Goldin published The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at 33
alec..this is an interesting discussion…and one i have had with myself many times, yet never coming to any conclusion nor even really thinking about it much….i have never stopped working since i was about 14…now, i am 67 …and i must have myself all faked out, but i swear i am about to do my most landmark work now in Rio.. even break some new ground…by the numbers shown here and using logic, unlikely….but it “feels” like it…from just a personal living life standpoint, i suppose if you think you are doing it , you are doing it…actually i think you get to ring the bell at the bar if you just believe you are rolling at my over 40 age…i do believe it….i am around mostly younger people than myself…most my age cannot handle it….wimps…i usually do look at someone my age and see older, yet for myself i feel like i have defied some sort of gravity…delusions are not all bad….peace, david
Hey David…I loved your reply….my work has never been better and guess what? I’m moving away from photography for a second..and telling you about the Mazu stuff I’ve been taking for a couple of months….I ordered it to help the gout in my feet…and so far no improvement….but no pain and no worse, so I’m hopeful….but my miracles have been…the little lines around my eyes are GONE….and my hands are looking younger….It is wonderful stuff going on with me!!! now…back to photography..I want to join a club and the only one I could join is 40 miles away…so I’m thinking of starting my own…and see what happens…wanna join? you would be on the ground floor, so to speak! and….. Youth is not appreciated until it is gone…but being ageless is not all that bad either. I’ve never had so much fun in my life…as now! This note looks like it was written by a 4th grader with ADD…lol….have a great day. Call me…(714) 870-7977…Norma Spinney, so calif.
I am with you david. I have just turned 65 and believe I have done my best work from about the age of 50 and feel that even now I am improving with each new challenge. I work mostly in theatre production photography, especially movement, and the challenges have increased year by year.
Check out the participants of this Young Photographers Contest: http://littlebrownmushroom.tumblr.com/post/11840231099
Let me refer you all to The Online Photographer, where this blog post is re-blogged, so to speak, and the “Featured Comments” pretty much debunk the premise entirely. Good reading: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/10/age-old.html
I think it depends on how good they are at ping-pong :-)
Edward Weston made some of his most amazing work at Point Lobos in his late 50s/early 60s
Ok but how is this information useful to me as a photographer? What’s the point? All it seems to do is make me panic a little.
Glad I’m not the only one thinking that!
It’s not useful, it’s debilitating. You can make yourself sick from worrying about this crap to the point of becoming unproductive and useless at whatever age. America is unhealthily obsessed with youth.
I think that’s why I surround myself 40+… They’ve passed “the youngest” whatever benchmark and enjoy what they do: create and create wonderful things. You have no idea what that does to my mental libido! (grin) And I think I’m gonna blog about this very topic. :) good post though. Interesting.
I have heard that in Asian culture the difference between the intelectual abilities of young people and those over the age of 60 is very little compared to what it is in western countries. Analysis showed that it is due to cultural differences – in USA or Europe older people are often treated as reatrded (so their intelectual abilities dicrease), while in Asia they are treated with more respect and considered wise due to their age (and that is why they stay that way).
Older people, in Japan at least, are given respect due to some remaining influences of Confucianism. Difference in intellectual ability between young and old is no different than it is amongst humans anywhere. If you ever get to see and hear what people actually say about the elderly when they are out of hearing range, you will find that in truth, there is no more real respect toward age than in the West.
Wisdom, however, does tend to increase with age and experience. Everywhere.
Well here’s a chart http://fotografiskskole.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/fotograf-stadier.png
I think this chart is way more helpful! Thanks!
I’m torn – there might be some truth to this, but at the same time, I believe passion is ageless.
I second that Katrin. If you love what you do that love should shine through in the work no matter what your age.
Hej from Sweden,
Katrin and Kathryn, I am with you on that! 100% I also believe if you love what you do, it shines through in your photography or what ever it is!
I am by no means a professional photographer but I do enjoy so very much to photograph my animals.
You are most welcome to look at my little blog and my photography. I photograph my animals and they very seldom pose for me, so there are a lot of candid shots. Some I just love, subject matter and lighting made them special.
Yes!! The key word is passion.
The exceptions are often more fascinating than the rules. But, for better or worse, the rules always prevail.
Good point Charles. By the way, I still like your idea of the Cyan Foundation (pre-teen emerging photographers). Maybe there needs to be a 50+ foundation too (Brown Foundation?)
That was the other guy’s idea. You know, the older one who thinks he’s happy doing the least important work of his life for what remains of it. Delusional bliss. He totally would love the Brown Foundation.
I actually sort of agree with your logic but I believe the peak range is more like 30 to 40. Take Ruscha off your list ‘cuz Gas Stations was not his zenith as an artist. And let’s not pick on Nan.
Eggleston – published Guide at 37
Basilico – probably his late 30’s/early 40’s
Bill Brandt – mid 30’s to early 40’s
August Sander – his 50’s for sure
Atget – probably his late 50’s. Arguably his very best work was done in his 60’s especially the second half of his 60’s.
Probably better of comparing photographers to Architects or Poets in their prime…
Atget is definitely the go-to guy for Old Master. There’s a reason I used an image by Lartigue to illustrate this post. He peaked at about 11, I think. There are plenty of exceptions. But what is the average? And why?
I can see no good reason to heed this at the ripe old age of 34. I’m a nobody but plan on being a somebody. F the stats. Flip a coin 6 times you could get 6 heads. I’m sticking with that reality.
To my mind there’s a subtext here, a subtle one; one that is all over the ‘net’. The idea that somehow a great artist, in this case a photographic one, is soon or yet to be ‘discovered’. Very few people make ground breaking work and realise it is ground breaking at the time they are making it. It is the critics and theorists who make the work ground breaking in hindsight. Most people are just following instincts or other creative urges and end up with a ‘satisfying body of work’. Eventually a critic, historian or theorist sees the work and applauds it, elevating it to such a status as to make it iconic. Sometimes some people work deliberately to this end and marketing yourself is integral to this, but few set out to be ‘great’. As an example, Robert Frank’s cantankerousness is well know, as is Tom Waits, neither of whom seem to me to walk around espouses their ‘greatness’.
Now of course with such a proliferation of cameras ‘everybody’ is an expert and thinks they can spot genius. I argue that being discovered now, doesn’t mean your work will have any impact now, or in 10 or 15 or 20 years time. The measure of great work, is timelessness. Unfortunately time on the internet is distorted and unreal, particularly for many people who have experienced all their creative input via screens/the net.
You perfectly articulated my feelings on the matter.
Exactly, s2art. Also, “most influential work,” besides being an after-the-fact construct of theorists can easily be confused with “successful work” with all the market-based self-delusion that implies.
If you look at all the work of all artists, good and bad, across the last 3 centuries, I bet the “average” period of greatest work lies somewhere between 20 and 80. With interesting exceptions of course.
Interesting post Alec, it is also something I have considered. My thoughts are that you evolve with age, It’s all a state of mind… I’m 33 and only now am I comfortable with the direction my work is taking. If I reach 53 and don’t find that my work has taking on a deeper meaning and is not aesthetically pleasing in some way, I will be more than a little disappointed! I do feel that younger photographers tend to follow fashions and only hit their stride at a certain point, I once got a fortune cookie that read “Fashions fade, but style is eternal”. Probably better to liken yourself to a fine wine!
I hope you kpet hat fortune cookie! And I agree that style is more important than influence…my favorite photographers, musicians, etc. I enjoy over time for their approach and could care less when they “made it big” or “became influential.” I hope all of them continue creating and exploring new work for a long career!
I think you are just seeing statistics at work. At any moment in time there will be a field of people, mostly in their late teens/early twenties, who decide on a career path (in this case photography). It takes time to master any craft. There are always the freaky geniuses who are brilliant from day one; but most people have to do something for a while before they are able to produce unique value. “A while” seems to be fairly consistently about a decade or so. Hence it’s not uncommon to see people hitting their professional stride in their 30s and 40s. I don’t think that is specific to photography. If you looked at virtually any profession you would see a similar curve.
Then things get tricky. Success tends to limit innovation. When you hit a point in your career where people seek you out for your specific talent, and are willing to pay accordingly, there are expectations associated with the work you perform. It becomes harder to do breakout work because people want to hire a known quantity who will produce predictable results. Consequently a lot of people continue to produce quality work, but never achieve the “breakout” status they enjoyed in their 30s.
For every person who follows the pattern and reaches the apex of their productivity at middle age, there are exceptions. Some people change careers and follow the same bell curve, just with an age shift. Others seem to have a talent for continually reinventing themselves and avoid getting locked into the “known quantity” pigeon hole. Still others are shaped by circumstance — something happens to change their work from average to brilliant.
Bottom line, I don’t think it’s wise to generalize. We’re all working in the present regardless of our age. There are always examples of people who do not fit the conventional pattern. I think it’s important to try to keep your mind open and see the work people produce and not be clouded by demographics.
I’d suggest that as with most creative endeavours it is precisely this fear of aging (and death) that propels many young people to make work in the first place.
Perhaps, though, the art world’s love of The New and all its agist biases are doing a wonderful job of poisoning many 40+ artists into the mindset that their best work is behind them.
I believe it is quite difficult to get any sense of what an artist’s ‘best’ work is whilst still under the influence of relatively contemporary surveys and modern obsessions with youth, generally.
Sorry, Alec but this train of thought is just a bullshit parlor game. I could name and I’m sure you can as well – many artists that make work at any point in their life. Pinpointing it on a specific age or a range doesn’t end up getting us anywhere.
It may be a parlor game, but I don’t think it is bullshit. The psychologist Dean Keith Simonton (in the book Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity) has said that poets and physicists often produce their best work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age.
Why is this? And where does photography fall on the spectrum? To me these are worthwhile questions. And, yeah, the answers can be a little troubling. But, hey, at least we aren’t ballet dancers.
Here’s a graph by Simonton:
I’d love to see such a graph for photography.
Hold on a second, have we even defined what we’re talking about when we say ‘best work’?
I think a graph for photography will be a more flat line.
And… maybe you would ike to see 2 graphics.
One for Analog photo`s, one for digital photo`s.
I still think you are asking for the impossible.
Perhaps it`s better to select the most influentual persons. Not there work.
Lets say a list of 100 photographers.
Then select there work. Give the persons a rank and a % of importance.
Then the graph.
Please don`t make fun about my English, or i will make fun about your Dutch. *joke*
The chart was created almost 30 years ago and the data set used is much older still. Let’s say it illustrates a correlation that existed 40-50 years ago.
Life spans were much shorter then, the distribution of access to relevant tools and knowledge for any particular career was very different to today, and for art related careers the “taste makers” (collectors, galleries, institutions, etc) had very different traits and characteristics to their equivalents today.
For art careers, past patterns of success are likely to be a poor guide to the future. The bad news could be that art careers are peaking even earlier. As populations age, youthful artists become relatively rare and thus more valuable. Conversely, older artists may find that their point of view is more easily relevant to aging taste makers.
Bottom line, too many variables for past correlations in artist careers to have much predictive power. For scientific careers, the past pattern is probably more stable as achievements are more objective.
Depends of what kind of photography and depends of the person too. Eugene Smiths did Minamata over the 50’s. Eugene Richards told in the book Witness in our Time by Ken Light, that “It’s hard to sustain the vigor of youth. There are certain art forms of expression that improve with age. Very often musicians don’t mature until late life. Same with writers. Dance we know is a killer; you have it when you’re young, then it’s pretty much over. So it varies. Photography is tough. With photojournalism, your ass has to be on the street. And as you get older, there’s no doubt about it, a certain physical energy fades, and it becomes tougher physically to do the job. Financial concerns also multiply; photo markets are declining (This book was printed in 2000). So the results is that not many social photographers after the age of fifty are still social photographers”.
Another point that we can’t forget is that when we are young we have more time, less responsibilities or less to lost and an inherent curiosity for experiment different experiences. This is a good moment to take risks that can traduce in an excellent production of photos. When we are over the 40’s we have more experience, more knowledge and, I believe, the same passion and curiosity. The problem for me is time. And I started to feel the limits of my energy to put my ass in the streets after I end my job, that is put my ass in the streets but for things that mostly I have no interest.
Obviously I am talking about the peak we can reach in our own limitations of talent or abilities. There are some persons I think that are geniuses, they are the exceptions that talk about Charles. For this few people I think there are no age limits.
This theme make me feel a cold in my spine cause I am in my 44 years old and I started late my professional career.
Keep yourself young, keep yourself alive and mesmerized, don’t stop looking, don’t waste time making a comparison or a competition with other photographers (that’s really a waste of time).
At any moment in your life you can produce amazing work if it’s sincere, honest and is coming from the deepest part of yourself.
There is no age for photography or for art in general, and every statistic is a false indication. If you think you cannot produce new great work for this planet, you’ll not produce it for sure.
Don’t be afraid of facebook or flickr. Visual artists have been writing and discussing of the proliferation of images since the 15th century. Don’t bring yourself on the wrong path.
Keep worrying only about life and keep being an intellectual.
Love your work and the people that can understand it and support it.
nothing more to worry about…
We have a winner. Thanks Giulia — well said. I hope others have read your response and moved on, as I am doing now.
Cant agree more.
At 20, i dont perform as good as geniuses, and if should i feel disheartened…
by 40, and ‘past the age of peak (as of the article)’ then i would feel sorry.
The comparison is interesting but any results from it may only stagnant and limit oneself.
Keeping fresh, young, alive and curious throughout, that even at any age or point of stagnation, we can learn with an open heart again.
Word is studies on psychedelic mushrooms have been showing them to be a font of psychological youth. If any of you are looking to extend the deadline for producing your good work..
Doesn’t age bring benefits? For myself, I’ve just turned 43, have no children and feel like I’ve hit my stride. Maybe I’m contrary to the norm; I graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Visual Arts (at 30) and after travelling and working I didn’t begin photographing seriously – in a professional artistic sense – until around 2008.
And.. Australian artists Bill Henson, Polixeni Papapetrou and Robyn Stacey are still producing work, are doing well and they are in their 40’s to 50’s.
For myself, I’m feeling very contented.
again all this is curious I suppose. But as an artist I’m not sure what this does to help. Keep pushing and looking. There is plenty more to do. I know he is not a photographer but I keep thinking about Steve Jobs. I doubt he stopped working long enough to think will I ever be able to top the original Macintosh? No, he made Pixar an amazing animation house. Then came back to Apple and helped bring in the iMac. Did he then wonder if that was it? No, there was music a music industry to master and he made an iPod. The list goes on. He was working up until he died. Because he loved what he did. My question is why are artists, writers or biologists any different? Sure Jobs was rare but rare in the best ways.
I’ve tracked this sort of thing obsessively, and with increasingly desperation, over the last two decades, and I can’t deny that it depresses the living fuck out of me. I remember that moment when I recognized that there was no longer a single Major League baseball player older than me, and it was a sobering revelation. It remains a sobering revelation. The Major Leagues, however broadly defined, are a young person’s game. I’m not a young person anymore, and I guess I regret that I was too busy being a young person (with zero ambitions) to attempt greatness. There now seems to be only one field left for a geezer like me to make my mark: Outsider art. I’m going to have to find God and build a sanctuary out of all the garbage I never managed to make into anything else that was worth a damn. I’m already working on getting crazier and more inscrutable, and have every confidence that God will find me and provide the blueprint for some batshit monument to my squandered life.
This is precisely the kind of desperation that awaits us all. Most everyone else in this conversation so far cannot get beyond their attempts to salvage their own situations. Thank you for this mortal blow to my narcissism. Now where is my bloody bottle of sleeping pills?
Hey, wait a minute, isn’t 45 the new 30? You gotta slide that scale a little. My tongue in cheek comment may have some actual truth to it based on relative health of people of a certain age today as opposed to 40 or 50 years ago which may also relate to plasticity of the brain and general energy levels. Sorry, pure speculation, no evidence to present but I was surprised at the amount of literature out there on aging and creativity with a quick search. I do think the classic mid-life reevalution phase can be a springboard to new bursts of creativity … or gold chains and hot cars. Both?
Okay, thinking about I’ll concede I did some of my best work in my 20s (which was creative environmental advocacy) by sheer force of will, energy , determination and simply because I did not believe I couldn’t. Start obsessing about your age and what you can no longer do and giving into the belief that you are getting too worn down by life may be a self fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps many just stop being born.
We can only look at this historically – surely no one will admit that their best work is behind them? Also, as someone else has said, what qualifies as ‘best work’? Again, this can probably only be judged over time (thinking about initial reactions to New Topographics etc)
Tom , the classic photographers mid life evaluation is that unlike the smaller hotter cars, the cameras just get bigger and more reliant on age , experience and cunning..rather than nervous energy..each has it’s place I suppose.
I was feeling pretty old,stiff and cynical at 28 but more flexible and pliable 14 years later, go figure?
This might make you feel better. Edward Siad had the same question.
minus the photographic angle.
Looking for an average? Average is boring…
Yes it is!!! Or may not?
I think there’s some truth to the statement; I think a lot of famous/successful/influential people in the arts do their best work when they are young. In fact, a lot of them die when they’re young too. However, everyone also develops at his/her own rate, so there are also exceptions, I think. One of the most influential factors in my mind is a person’s life experiences as well. If someone who is in their 50s or 60s experiences things for the first time that most people experience in their 20s or 30s, I think that they could produce some of their best work yet. In fact, it may be even more mature and articulate given their age. Of course, this is just speculation.
I think sometimes younger people are more creative; they’re less jaded by the world. However, as someone who loves the arts and being a creative spirit, I would like to think that perhaps there is a possibility I could retain my creativity and continue producing quality work even at an older age. Obviously I cannot say for sure until I get there, but one thing I’ve been doing is keeping my creativity sharp by constantly feeding the beast, so to speak.
To me, it’s a similar concept to those adults who are very understanding and able to relate to children compared to those who have “forgotten what it’s like.” Or, if you want to look at it even more simply, perhaps someone who remembers certain concepts like math, science, geography, etc. for many years after their time in school, even if they don’t really need it anymore for their work or no one asks. These are the people who probably constantly remind themselves what it was like to be a kid, with the intent they don’t want their own children to develop the same resentment of them that they had of their parents, or the people who continue to practice the academic subjects in their own time, through their own studies, just so they don’t lose the information. (I’m suddenly reminded of the show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” — I don’t think people are necessarily stupider than 5th graders, they just have simple forgotten the information because technically they haven’t “needed” it in a long time.)
I suppose what I’m saying is, in my mind, if a person continues to keep up with their craft and is open to constantly “feeding” it and expanding it, my theory is that they could continue creating some of their best work yet, even long after most of their peers/competitors/whatever you want to call them have since dulled out.
Perhaps I may have been too broad though in my response, since I’m including artists of all mediums, and not just photographers specifically.
Shouldn’t it be more about peaks and troughs? This conversation is indicative of Photography’s inherent problem: it’s conservatism. Something that gets worse as we get older!
To coin a phrase “your only as good as your last image.” Money, time, commitment,experimenting, experience and knowledge all play a roll, put in my opinion an open mind is the foundation for a good image. (regardless of age).
As one from the “well past 40’s” group, I hope there is no age barrier to taking the great photo. I think it all has to do with getting the audience. Getting seen. There are so many photographers and so many sights. Getting published makes the difference.
I recently read (can’t find a link!) that the male brain stops developing around age 30, while the female brain doesn’t stop developing for another ten years or so.. ;)
I’m interested in photographers who follow a similar subject matter over decades. Maybe their best photos were taken at the beginning but the work grows in stature the longer they keep at it.
Camilo Jose Vergara, Nicholas Nixon, Eduardo Del Valle & Mirta Gomez, William Christenberry, Milton Rogovin, August Sander, etc.
I agree with what you are saying and i would say manly because at a young age you tend to experiment more and try things all the time since you dont know what the results will be for lack of experience.
Where as the older you get you tend to do things that you are used to do because you know the outcome and are sure of what they will look like. So you don’t try new things as much.
Just a thought – would it be different for men and women? Women tend to stay home with the kids and put off a career till later. Men make money as soon as possible to support their family. Women re-enter the workforce. How about the men and women who change careers mid-life? Perhaps it’s the beginning of a career instead of an age thing.
Enjoyable post. Congrats on being freshly pressed. We all waited over a week for your post. :-)
Interesting to see the peak ages for different creative fields. You would think more experience would help.
A single chart showing age and “best” will provide a univariate picture, when what’s needed is a multivariate analysis. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, in his “Outliers,” has this to say about age (related to success): “I actually have a lot of fun with birthdates in Outliers. Did you know that there’s a magic year to be born if you want to be a software entrepreneur? And another magic year to be born if you want to be really rich? In fact, one nine year stretch turns out to have produced more Outliers than any other period in history. It’s remarkable how many patterns you can find in the lives of successful people, when you look closely.”
It’s those “patterns” we might want to look more closely at. Here’s a link to Gladwell: http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html
Gladwell provides his own summary: “My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think.”
Yeah I’ve thought about this a gagillion times and it always just gets me hideously depressed. My dad can’t seem to understand why my primary concern is doing my own work and having the time to concentrate on my own stuff rather than sitting at this shitty job all day (from which I’m typing these very words right nwo) to make some money because 23 years old is just a blip in the scheme of things and yadda yadda and i’ve got all the time in the world when i get older and so on and so forth. BS says I. I look at all the incredible work coming out of people at my age, especially with the proliferation of self-publishing, and I know I’d better get on it and get on it quick.
I look at guys like you, Todd Hido, Evans, Frank, Eggleston, Jon Franzen, David Foster Wallace, etc etc etc and yeah, I’m totally on your page. Now is the time, I will be too old, the fire will be put out and if I don’t have something great to call my own it’s going to hurt for the rest of my life.
I think the one field where it’s sort of “the older the better” is in cinema. With the exceptions of guys like Tarantino and PT Anderson, most filmmakers do their best work from like 35-45 and I’d cite Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, and David Fincher as pretty obvious examples of this.
Then again Sticks and Stones might be Friedlander’s best book to date (albeit an almost pretentiously long one) and A Shimmer of Possibility just knocked me ass-backwards and upside down and Graham is getting on in years. Plus like A New American Picture is so obviously a great photobook and ASX is such an incredible contribution that Rickard would be a pretty good counter-example too. Parr’s work has just gotten progressively more contemptuous and unpleasant but his work about the photobook is every bit as important a contribution to photography as his early photos were.
So I guess my answer is who the fuck really knows. Back to you and Hido: you’re moving way away from 8×10 and he’s moving so far into these filthy lusty snapshot things and a total breakdown of what was really a borderline topographic style and form that there’s no way I could say you guys are anywhere near done; keep changing, shifting, responding to what’s happening around and inside you and I think the question of “peaking” gets a whole lot more complicated and iffy.
Who cares about age. Just get on with it.
This is an interesting topic that you bring up. Continue sharing, i might be back for more! :-)
Terrence J. White / My Joy In The Morning
25-35 is a good guess. Young enough to not be jaded yet and old enough to have something to say through art.
I love this topic as well. As a young writer in her 30’s and someone who loves photography, I have to say I am at my most creative spot ever so far. Stacks of filled journals however reflect my lifetime so far in writing. My father is 68 this year and is just peaking now in his photography. Freelancing and creative art for non profit is what he enjoyed the most.
I would have to say that my Dad has proven that you can peak at any point. :)
I’d like to think that my best photographs will always be my next. What would come out of thinking that my best work was behind me? Cerainly not great shots :-)
You know what is starting to concern me about this conversation? The fact that we all seem to be willing to accept the basic premise. This conversation has been civil, objective and somewhat academic, but there hasn’t been much rejection of the core idea — that age discrimination is acceptable.
If you look at professional photographers as a group, they tend to be overwhelmingly white males (at least in the U.S.). Yet if someone initiated a similar thread pondering why black photographers don’t produce the same levels of breakthrough work as whites (or why fewer female photographers seem to make it to luminary status in the industry) I’m sure there would be outrage over the fact that the topic was even mentioned. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I humbly apologize if anyone is offended. I’m just saying if a few details of this conversation were different there would be angry crowds with pitchforks surrounding Alec’s house right now.
I find it curious that we aren’t more outraged by this topic (and that NYT article Alec referenced in the base note) because both seems to accept a pre-conceived bias as being “just the way it is.” It wasn’t that long ago when black people were segregated from whites and the practice was largely accepted by society. I’m sure charts and statistics existed at the time to justify why segregation was a good idea. The biases we tolerate says a lot about who we are as a society. I think we should be more outraged by age discrimination.
I have to agree with you, Tom. I’m in my 40s, and just getting started. I do think we all hold a preconceived notion as to what is acceptable to do and achieve at a certain age. And our culture definitely does not put experience and wisdom up on a pedestal they way we do youth. I think that colors what we think of as “great” and what gets buzzed around.
I suspect there are older photographers out there doing awesome, ground breaking work, but nobody is looking. They’re too busy watching all the young ‘uns. Maybe that’s just natural or maybe it’s unintended age discrimination. Would like to see a study on that.
I disagree with this completely. This is a pretty valid issue, it’s not “age-discrimination;” no one’s being discriminated against here. If you look at the great preponderance of photographers, their books and exhibits, and when their real landmark books or exhibits hit, this becomes pretty clear. Think about the New Documents show or the New Topographics or Alec’s books or Todd Hido’s House Hunting. Consider Jon Franzen’s Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Obviously there are counter-examples to all of these, but I think that the combination of these works’ complexity and brazen difficulty in conjunction with the artist’s young age makes them that much more mind-numbingly powerful and overwhelming.
The fact is is that most artist’s best work (at least in photography and, contrary to what’s being said above, the real great fiction too) seems to come after they’ve been working in the medium for about 10 years, when they’ve spent enough time working at it to have finally “mastered” it and internalized what they’ve learned from it and how to work in it; for most artists that comes in their early to mid-30s because most of them start to seriously work at it in their college years.
I agree with you! I believe statistics are not rules. If we ask ourself the reasons for many artists producing the best work when they are young, maybe it’s also because getting older you do a lot more of commercial work, or work if you think you might sell. I believe we need to feel free to be creative and do not accept any rule or any preconceived idea about how our work should be. I heard many times that to be a mature photographers you need many years of looking and thinking and practicing and i still believe so.
and… on the other side: are we sure about our own definition of best work? we are western living in 2011. which will be the opinion in 50 years?
we are trying to pull out statistics about things that are an opinion.
regardless of age, the beauty of your photographs will gladly tell of having the most influential work!
I think it probably is accurate to say that most people peak between ages 25-35. But, you’d also have to qualify that with a few points…
1) Most people who peak during that age range have probably started studying in their field by at least age 18. So, we’re talking about 7-17 years of serious practice before you peak. Maybe those who start later also take that time to peak?
2) The 25-35 age range is probably also influenced by other factors which compete for the person’s time. Relationships with a partner, and children being the most clear. But also, for most people, the additional emotional concerns of watching parents age and then pass away. General financial and social security issue like taking on a mortgage and, therefore, wanting some financial stability to ensure it is paid off, can discourage further risk taking. How many people could balance all of that with the amount of energy they could give exclusively to their work as a single 25 year old?
3) Creativity is a muscle, like anything else. If we fail to exercise it, it will diminish. If we keep exercising it in the same way, we hit a creative plateau. To keep being creatively at your peak, you need to exercise it in different ways. But this can be difficult to do, especially after you’ve experienced success for a particular type of work. And especially when there is market pressure (your galleries, the general public, photo editors), to keep producing the same work.
4) It also depends how you quantify “peaking”. Take someone like Bertrand Russell. He no doubt peaked in his serious logic work at a fairly young age. But he went on to provide strong arguments about religion and politics. While I don’t personally agree with those arguments fully, they were a significant contribution to intellectual and cultural life. So, did he peak with his logic work? Or with his later cultural work? The logic work seems more demanding, but both were substantive contributions, and his later cultural work was more widely felt.
5) We should look for the people who peaked later, or peaked consecutively. Steve Jobs arguably kept peaking through his first stint at Apple, his time at Pixar, and his second stint at Apple, right until his death. Montaigne wrote his essays in later life. Iain McGilchrist is in his 50s but has only just published The Master and His Emissary, a very important book. G. A. Cohen did his most famous work on Marx in his 30s, but is taking that as groundwork for his current moral philosophy work which is, arguably, more original and interesting. Jeff Beck spent his 20s and 30s playing blues rock with the Yardbirds and then the Jeff Beck Group. His late 30s produced jazz fusion classics, Blow by Blow, and Wired. But it was the music he made when he was 40-60 that is really mind-blowing. Tracks like Where Were You, and his recent albums You Had It Coming, Jeff, etc, that push the boundaries of how a guitar can be used musically.
6) The data is possibly also skewed a little by the number of creative geniuses who die young. Take someone like John Coltrane. Undoubtedly a jazz genius. He also died of cancer when he was in his late 30s/early 40s. Had that not happened, who knows what he could have gone on to do. Same goes for Hendirx.
The question of when an artist peaks is an interesting one. But perhaps more interesting is the question why they peak. Because, if it isn’t intrinsically inevitable to the practice of an art form that you must peak, we can use that information to inform how we grow as artists.
YES. my thoughts exactly. thank you for sparing everyone my sure-to-have-been-less-eloquent reply :)
I wrote a paper about this (NBER working paper 15278). I believe there are experimental, visual photographers (examples: Atget, Stieglitz, Evans) who do tend to peak later than conceptual ones (Man Ray, Sherman).
I can only address myself and my own work, so I’ll say that I am 48 and feel like I have been sustaining and nurturing my own photographic and journalistic renaissance for some years now.
Oh my, the pressure is on to increase my photographic greatness!! It looks like, in 5 years, it’ll all go downhill for me! :)
I agree with Katrin earlier.. as long as it is driven by passion, creativity and success should follow
I think we all should stop thinking about this and get back to work.
It’s a solitary and unique journey for each of us…. there are enough greats who arrived late in life that I believe it’s possible for anyone. And if it’s not, at least you will have had the quest. Most people don’t ever begin anything.
I mean this in only the nicest way… who doesn’t think this way from time to time? But stop it, really.
Oh I think it’s all in your head. Your as young or old as you think. Yes the body ages. However the mind can stay just as curious at any age. Look at Architects. At what age are they doing their best work?
Today many over 40 _50_60 are just getting started. We are living longer and many of us old guys are just as fresh as our younger peers. Again it is all about whats in your head.
I like what you said! Thank you for the encouragement. I’m twenty but have convinced myself for so long that my “peak period of creativity and productivity” is over that it has inhibited me from trying my best, trying harder, and feeling accomplished. I appreciate your perspective; it’s how you think.. not what you look like or how long you’ve been here. Really, it seems like the longer you have been here, the better you’ll become?
This entire topic boils my blood. With all due respect and in full support of our right to free speech I in no way condemn the topic but I do have to ask this question… “what exactly does this topic serve other than to create divisions and empower more youthful photographers to ‘feel’ as if they are somehow more creative?” I picked up my first Leica at age 11. I am now 47 and after decades of intense professional work as cinematographer and photographer I can say with absolute honesty that my work now is infinitely more compelling than when I was 29. Wisdom, experience and countless challenges create enlightened visionaries. In my case this topic is hogwash and I’m quite sure I’m not the only guy in this boat.
I Produced, Directed, and was the Director of Photography on “The Erotic Traveler” series for HBO/Cinemax at age 44 and when I head over the age of 50 am convinced I’ll be eclipsing all of my previous work.
To those under 40 I say, “just try to catch me.”
Relax… I’m just having some fun! :)
Good Thoughts- Gary Orona
You are an inspiration. Thanks for sharing your experience! I hope that I can someday say the same thing in regards to my special pursuits: “I only got better with time.”
I’m just hitting my stride and I’m almost 43. I’m a Capricorn too, so that may influence my particular demographic. We’re known to be late bloomers. :-)
Everyone is individual you cannot put something like a photographers peak into statistics.. Every moment someone decides to photograph is completely unique there could only be an individual’s peak when they were in a certain place in time where photography came natural to them.
A very interesting question that made me think. As a musician, I recognize both artists that are just born talented and artists that disciplined themselves into what they are. Really the ideal ‘virtuoso’ is someone that has both ‘young genius’ and ‘old master’ qualities. So in that case they’d probably have to be older than 25 at least to train themselves long enough, and have to be talented enough to have at least accomplished something notable by 30-35. I don’t think ability declines after that though. However, I see a lot of artists that only do one style–which makes every release seem less significant. So while I don’t think 25-35 is the best age for artists, I think that’s a good age where you can tell just how good they are or are going to be.
Im 24, just in time. I’ll let you know how I feel when I turn 25. But I believe there’s no right age to reach “the best work” I believe its a matter of how you evolve and discover yourself wihtin your own art. Maybe the older the you get the better stories you tell and the younger you are the more risks you take, both sides of the coin might get to great results, or not.
I’d suggest that the “most influential” work created is the last work that one has created and hopefully, this work will inform and challenge what is yet to be made, and so forth.
Afterall, it really should not be about creating your “most influential” or “best work,” but rather work and a working process that is developed to reflect an engaged and sustained practice of exploration and expression.
Walker Evans started making photographs with a little Brownie in the 1920’s and finished with a Polaroid SX-70 in the 1970’s. Now that’s an engaged and sustained practice that is most influential that I’d imagine any photographer would desire to strive for.
I actually believe it is a matter of perspective. There are some people that have no opportunity to reach out in such artistic ways until their later years, while others have been within the artistic community all their life but do nothing with it. That desire, that drive to do something with your life will take you places, but only if you put it into action.
Yeah, now I’m meandering on the trail, but those that are “budding” or “peaking” are only people that dare to do something extraordinary. And when you have an individual that wants to give the world something extraordinary, why should age matter?
I don’t know about photographers but I’ve always felt good writers get better with age due to their experience and wisdom. As a freelancer I have far more assignments now in my 50’s than I ever did in my 30’s and 40’s. But, I think it depends on the person and not a general rule. I don’t feel there are any rules in the “arts.”
I have always been SO pre-occupied with comparing my age with my productivity, potential and promise. Ever since I can remember (as a budding 14 year old who just started picking at guitar and enjoyed writing in her journal), I thought to myself “that ten year old will be way better than me. I started too late.” Or “the best I’ll ever do is what I accomplish right now.” And with those thoughts I have always crippled myself — wanting to believe I could do great things but afraid to try wholeheartedly – thinking that if I did attempt doing my best and didn’t meet my idealistic expectations, I would know, for a certainty, the awful truth that I truly was incompetent.
Anyways, I digress — great post. It is hopeful.
My first thought after reading this post is about longevity. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Irving Penn, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson… these are some long and productive lives. What could be most influential is the steadiness of a career that spans decades- recurring examination of themes or methods, or conversely, as in a long (and still going) career such as Robert Frank, the capacity for change.
That’s very very interesting. Apparently 23 is the peak age for poets.
I wonder about writers in general?
Great piece! I love the post! Congratulations on being on Freshly Pressed!
Edward Burtynsky – 56 :
Online today new project
The research sounds good as applies to photo folks, but I have my doubt about creative writing. As I turn more to my Seventy years of age mark, I have noticed much improvement in my non-profit published poetry work. Perhaps Wisdom?
Interesting parallels to music. Most bands have a relatively short window producing good work after which quality tails off. In music, photography and all fields I think it generally has to do with people becoming less adventurous toward middle age. You get set in your ways as you age. And when that happens creativity naturally wanes. Of course there are exceptions, but generally that’s the path.
From the linked article: “Many Old Masters feel pressure to compete with them by changing subjects, which is a tremendous mistake.”
I can’t add much as it relates to photography but I’ve seen these properties, the phenom that burns out versus the person that gradually hones skill, in music. It possibly repeats in other fields, such as athletics, as well.
Every time I see people put into a box, any box, I cringe. I’m fairly sure that there is no such thing as an age which can be assigned to artists who do influential work. It seems likely that the 25-35 age group skews statistics horribly because by age 35, families and “real jobs” have taken away our ability to be prolific. That shouldn’t be confused with our ability to be influential.
Art is a magnificent expression of life that takes on a life of its own and in turn inspires both new art and new life. I cling to the belief that all of my art chooses me because I love it and because I’m thrilled to be a part of its birth, not because of how old I am. I will be very sad if my age ever diminishes my capacity for love or the thrill of creativity.
A graph is easy to read (for most) and people think this type of representation is providing them the answer. However, graphs do not examine the “why”. And isn’t the “why” what everyone really wants to know. I suggest that if the question were approached from a different angle, the findings wouldn’t seem so unusual.
So let’s ask … WHY would an artist peak at 25-35, especially a male? Well, he’s young. He’s healthy. More importantly, he is likely without significant burden to interfere with his creativity and craft. He probably doesn’t have too much family or responsibility yet and is free to explore and create. Older men, and women, often spend middle age and beyond dealing with the issues of family, sickness, elderly parents, and other adult responsibilities that take energy away from artistic passion. I would also suggest this is why you see the spike in creative activity and occasional creative genius for older people e.g., director Clint Eastwood, Grandma Moses, author Eugenia Lovett West, and many, many others.
Atget got sooooo much worse as he got older.
Little round muskrat
imho: contemporary photography is all about innovation and the writing is about wisdom. wisdom comes with age, when ability to innovate mostly declines, thus, if I may suggest, the productive age of philosophers and writers might not be comparable to productive age of contemporary photographers. on the other hand, if we leave the “contemporary” word outside of the definition for successful photographer, which may also mean no butter on his bread, to my opinion, wisdom would play a crucial role in his work and thus would raise the age for a peak in his career.
Wouldn’t creativity, imagination or artistic sens of reality be considered as depending of living contexts ?
Liberty, serenity, blooming, changes, confidence / versus / convenience religious social or profesional unconscious internalization, legal-rational submission, puritanism deviance, elitist goals/satisfactions/frustrations, regional dogmatism assimilation (and everything else described by sociology or psychology) ?
There is no manicheism in life, what I’ve opposed is an imaged comparaison.
And I am quite persuaded that it may break any “young genius” magic. As I think there is living choices to make in art… and more generally.
Fernando Pessoa and the sea!
I have always found graphs and statistics rarely if ever apply to my own experience of life (in my 70’s) and whilst I might agree that my most creative years were in the 35-45 range unfortunately the job and jobs I was in at these times simply did not allow me to express anything but very limited creativity within the confines of more senior directors. Most of whom, if not all, I found to be utterly without creativity.
Now retired of course I can major on what I want to do and whilst photography played a large part of my personal hobby times in my life, I have over the last 35 years devoted more energy and yes creativity towards Art – drawing and painting and now computer art. These disciplines I find infinitely more creative and satisfying than any photographic enterprise, I have to say and the more I do, the stronger that discovery holds true.
At my current age I am far more creative than I ever was at a younger age and this is confirmed every day by the responses I receive from others in the art.photography field.
Am I pleased by this? Well why wouldn’t be, but it doesn’t swell the ego one bit, for I have no financial gain only pleasure that perhaps there are others out there who can appreciate the effort, the creative effort that I now can manage without restraint.
The question one begins to ask is how to keep that creativity and passion flowing.. Is it possible to only continue developing, in contrast to suffering a loss? To a large extent I think the answer depends on where you pull your creativity from.
Great write-up and congrats on being freshly pressed!
Very interesting! This is something that I have never thought of before.
Thanks for sharing and congratulations on the FP!
From Martin Parr’s CV:
‘I read that you said you thought your best work was behind you?
Yes this was a remark in passing when I did an interview in 2000. I still think it is probably true and this remark could be said about many mid career artists and photographers. I think the energy and passion you have when you start is difficult to match. I still enjoy working but one reason why I try many new challenges is to stop me going stale and keep me on my toes.’
This is an incredibly quantitative discussion. Therefore a not very interesting one. In my opinion, you should stop talking about numbers and start looking at how emotional intelligece, sensitivity, and maturity change with age. The “peak” you are considering is an illusion… a public illusion.
Fantastic! I totally agree.
ciao alec interesting talking about age. two great example: david goldblat and graciela iturbide still doing great works. I think some of my best, cardinals or prison or jockeys, were made in my 30’s, but the 40’s were much deeper with white nature, horses and black sun. just finish the X edition of FOTOGRAFIA yesterday, and now a little rest and then go back on my personal works: more black suns, some single portrait, nature and horses. no fear of age at all, just waiting what is going to be next, with more freedom.
I think that by 25-35 most of us have experienced something really truly moving in our lives. We have a few ounces of real life experience and our perception of the world around us starts to change. We notice things we didn’t before. There are concepts and metaphors springing up that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have conceived or dreamed before. Photographers fall into many categories, I’d have to call the commercial greats old masters, but the artists are something else. I know someone who is a true homegrown photographic genuis, who started at 40 after a mid-life crisis. I’m starting to get into photography now that I’m approaching 30. I think your post is onto something.
I think I am doing the best work of my career now.
I had a professor tell me that those who endure will achieve success in art. I don’t know maybe he was just trying to motivate me, but if you never stop looking at the world you will keep creating. One unique individual always comes to mind; Van Gogh, what did he sell, two paintings, yet now we view him as one of the greatest impressionists of all time. I’m not sure if we can use statistics to predict outcomes that are based on emotional circumstances, just happenings and experiences. Photography is all about experience, the more you “experience” the better your photos will become. Some people find success at a young age and this allows them to settle down, settle in, maybe have a family, teach or disappear somewhere. I do think, like a band, we lose our “edge” once we wed, start a family and move our intentions towards another human being.
I don’t know, I’m just rambling, but I think it comes down to the “endurance of failure,” how often are you willing to fail, continually…no matter what your age.
A few years ago, I read in the New York Times a piece about a 90 year old painter, who just became famous. I think she was of dominican or puerto rican background. Thing is, she’d been painting since a teenager, but only got noticed recently.
I am all of 20 years old so i guess I haven’t “peaked” yet, but I’d like to think that with age comes wisdom and my creativeness will only grow from here!
I would say I certainly had more energy to go out and shoot anything and everything, often with little focus, when I first began my career as a photojournalist. Today, at 41, I feel more focused in my work with a greater sense of purpose than I’ve ever had. I’ve worked as a daily newspaper photographer for my entire career, but it’s the side projects, the long-term investments where I hope to truly make a difference with my photography. http://www.KKKproject.com
I’m a model working with older people who have chosen photography as their second career later in life and am seeing that their way of looking at things is more original, creative and 3 Dimensional than the younger photographers’ (their emphasis areas tend to the triangle of T&A). I think that a ripe old middle age is a sensible age for any career field. Once free of youth’s obsessions, insecurities the genius can finally be liberated.
There seems to be a rise in the popularity of photography amongst teenagers, yet I disappointingly only see the same generic, photographs being posted on facebook by my friends. They all do the same thing, no one really tries to have a signature style. It’s all a part of being ‘indie’…which is really annoying!
I love photography and that I have a natural eye for it. However, with that being said my eyesight probably will end my photography sooner than I like – it already affects and limits my driving, especially night driving. I am hoping for many more years and will keep on keeping on for now:) Congrats on being FP!
Well then, since I didn’t pick up a camera till I was in my 50’s I guess I’m shit out of luck, huh? But wait, don’t tell my publisher because he still thinks he can sell books of my photos. And wait, don’t tell several arts institutions that have ongoing exhibits of my work hanging in them. Oh yeah, and wait, don’ tell my agent or the gallery that represents me either, ’cause they’ve been selling my work for the past ten years.
Maturity, something which you know nothing of yet because you haven’t gotten there, has something to be said for it.
:) Smiling. Congratulations! You are an inspiration, sir. Every day, I like the “alittle bit more mature me” in contrast to the inexperienced, naive child I was the day before.
I think it’s been pointed out that if Goya or Cezanne had died at 50, we probably would not know their names. Likewise, Matisse, I think.
Picasso was still breaking ground in his 80s and later. Michaelangelo was active and still growing late in life.
I greatly admire Clint Eastwood, who seems to still be cranking out more than one movie a year, his most accomplished work – and how the heck old is he, anyway?
Excellent comment, greenman — Cezanne is probably the best example.
As a 53-year-old guy who has been a photography hobbyist since the ’70s, I have seen my work decay. Sure, I’ve become more technically aware and still passionately seek out great images but when I was younger I took more chances, venturing out into seedier parts of town late at night or spending my time at concerts looking through a viewfinder. Now life seems to demand that I’m honoring a commitment every moment I have off from my day job and I just don’t have the endurance to walk the streets all day or night looking for that great shot.
again, aging factor not too dominate in our life. just our body, not our soul. like my advisor, has wrinkled on her skin. but irreplaceable at least until now.
i do agree, 20-40 is the best value in life.
I must be the exception to this rule. I took up photography again in my mid-40s and I’m taking my best photographs ever. Maturity and life experiences assist me in photographing nature and urban life. Ditto for my writing. It takes several decades to master an art. The only artistic endeavor that relies on youth is dance and that’s because it’s physical and the body does weaken with age.
I suppose of a culture is obsessed with youth then people would think that the young artists are doing the best or their best work. As a mid-lifer, I don’t agree with this point of view.
I recommend an article called “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell. It addresses the issue well.
Ok, I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I’m a high school student, and I love to write. When I was younger (aka, Jr. High) I wanted to be the next Christopher Paolini, who published his first book at 16. I feel like my writing often times isn’t very good- like I could be some much better with more life experience under my belt, but people say it’s good.
Personally, I think that older people can sometimes do better things- you have life experience, you have seen a lot, and done a lot. You have had your tastes and likes refined. Besides, if you wait a while longer, you have retirement coming up. My grandma had trouble sitting still after she retired- she felt that she had too much time on her hands. With younger people, it’s raw talent and untamed beauty that people see. With older people, you guys have a lifetime of experience and finesse under your belt. That’s a good thing. :-)
Your question is simpel but not easy. What do you think?
I`m to old to think, that`s for sure.
The graph by Simonton is a fact.
I`m now at the same point as at age 10.
But… at age 10 i was the second smArtist kid in Amsterdam Netherlands.
Any age is a age to peak.
So, i think your question in a sign of genius. simplissity.
Has anyone mention Ansel Adams
And… at what age do you think he peakt.
The next question could be: “What do these atist think when they peaked.”
The best questions are the questions that can not be answered. I think?
Please forgive me for writing in poor English.
To old to learn better then this. *uche*
Practise, practise, practise and have fun in what you do.
I still hope to make the best picture ever.
I still hope to do that when i`m 99.
Good thoughts. Great things to think about…
Hey, You just wrote off me! And I thought I was both, a budding writer and a photographer.
I do agree though the enthusiasm quotient is way below than it used to be. And the ability to keep waking into the wee hours of the morning and still be oven fresh is never going to return. But I’m sure, my photography is improving as the time rolls on.
i’m just a lame student, but maybe another way to make sense of this information is to look at what age these masters first began to make work and how long it was before they made their most important work. also it could be wise to bring into account their age when they died (for example perhaps meatyard and arbus would have made more important work if they lived longer)
or maybe its just a case of ‘the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long’
This conversation applies only to the vincible. See ya.
One’s ‘best work’ may not be what is commonly thought to be one’s ‘best work’. It’s a rather subjective concept…but an interesting one none-the-less. I’m sure artist and critic often disagree about this very subject.
Given that the eye becomes more selective with experience, with age, I think the peak is not as young. The photographers I most admire, Robert Frank, Vari Caramés, Gilbert Garcin was the 50/60/70 that reached the top.
Perhaps as a young man to produce more amount of work. but the power of selection, to communicate with the image, is certainly in the dispatch ~ ence of life and look.
It’s what I think.
I wonder how the definition of ‘greatness’ overshadows the numbers here. There must be a million psychological, cultural, physical, mental, and social factors at play.
More than just wanting to see the numbers of ‘best works’ produced at an early or old age, I’d also like to see trends in what “Young Geniuses” accomplished through their later lives. One commenter said that many of them died young. That, obviously, precludes late-life strokes of genius. It’s interesting that individuals in non-artistic fields continue to grow and peak at later ages, while artists tend to peak ‘young.’
In looking at the numbers, is it important to establish a ‘truth’ that artistic gifts generally decline past a certain age? If so, within what context and understanding of life? I would find it really interesting to know more about the correlating factors and trends that we can learn about how these “Young Geniuses” adapt (and perhaps flourish in other ways) into their later lives? Is it important to know at what age their ‘gifts of fame’ wear out – or could there be more to learn from their after years? Did the work themselves into the grave trying to outdo themselves one last time? Or did they find other means of fulfillment?
Your post is very interesting – it just strikes at me in different ways. I know nothing about any of this…. but you’ve inspired in me some questions… perhaps my own battle against a potential theory of gloom and doom for the aging of artists. There must be more….. :)
I’m 22, but it’s a scary thought. I’ve already noticed my vision getting worse, and I can’t imagine how it’ll be the older I get. I really hope I get better the longer I work on it, but I’ve thought about the things you mentioned, as well.
They do say “practice makes perfect” so you would think the longer you continue working at something like photography or writing, the better you would get, but I suppose that’s not always true. Sad to think about. Either way, it’s something I am always going to work on, and I will continue trying to get better!
Very well said.
Peaking at that age perhaps is too easy an explanation. Many of the responses prior to this have been quite accurate in debunking this commonly held myth. Yes, in our youth, our imaginations do run wild with “what ifs”, only to not be full realized by lack of life experience.
Perhaps, as one wrote earlier, I too am a late bloomer. Thank god for that. My work now has a maturity that was lacking when I was younger. But it has not stayed in a rut. Simultaneously while I have my first book coming out, my next exhibit is so diametrically opposed to the book as to be unrecognizable as by the same photographer. Now, whether or not it’s any good, is for someone else to judge.
And lastly, the ideas keep coming.
Age is irrelevant to a youthful mind.
Got a lot of comments though!
I was told once that there are two kinds of people in the world. The first group are the people who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, then there are the rest of us. I think your question is just a device to say that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who’s time has not come yet, and those who are past their time. It is a view of pessimism, it creates two groups of losers. I have choose “none of the above.”
Interesting and polarizing thoughts on creativity. I wonder how many pictures it takes minimum until you produce a good one…
Isn’t it also a question which technology is available? Aren’t we all a product of our times?
A study such as this needs to allow for the life expectancy of the different cohorts, which is not time invariant. Our current reletavely long life expectancy is a recent phenomena. Put differently, I the poulation at large expects to live up to age 50, say, then you do not expect to see many “masters” at an old age.
I really don’t think that the question is about photography – Influential work is about being IN a position for the work you make to be seen and HAVE AN INFLUENCE.
I kinda reckon the good – no, great photographers are everywhere and can be any age, and can do amazing, even potentially influential work. It all depends on if they can get it out there …
Being influential is about being in the space of the gallerist, the editor, the publisher, the entrepreneur, the philanthropist — it’s all about luck and proximity.
It’s not about when you make the most influential photographs – it is about when you get the break!
I’ve been doing my best work for the past 2.5 years and I’m 48! ;) Still not got the breaks yet, though!
If you shoot a thousand photos a day, even though you are mostly blind, there is the quantum probability that you will shoot, by accident one or two great photos, like a million monkeys typing for a billion years, would eventually type out the works of Shakespeare. I have a few photos where an element vital to the beauty of the photo–I did not see when I was taking the photo.
I would like to express in another way. Age doesn’t matter so much in one’s way to become great. What counts is that the will of a people.
How extraordinary. I’m glad I’m not a photographer:)
As a photographer in my twenties I feel as though the ‘big break’ should it happen would most likely be in a couple of years time. I don’t have the responsibilities of a family or as much pressure to hold down a permanent job. Therefore I am free to go chasing after opportunities as they arise. Youth is the typically the stage for such dramatic things as impulsiveness and passion runs hot through you’re veins.
I started photography when i was 23, and hadn’t stopped since (I’m 50 now) and i can tell you that i feel much more excited about projects and have a multitude of ideas now. Perhaps i’m a “Old Master” that improves with age. I also know that i worry about producing work that is boring (to me) and losing the fun and joy of photographing (paired with the pain of editing).
Whether it’s your greatest work or not is most likely other peoples’ concern. It may help to detach pride in your work from the ego. As the saying goes “don’t believe your own hype”. Pride in your work is almost certainly essential, yet self-pride often blinds. You’ll have a better sense of actual reality and a keener sense of identity if you can express yourself creatively without attaching self-worth judgements and restrictive pride to the act of creating.
I disagree a bit!
No conditions of age and any such qualification can characterise creativity. It is a random occurence. Even non artists are artists at some point in their lives; whether knowingly or unknowingly is another matter.
Your post is thought provoking. I really do not think that there is an “age of genius.” I stand very open minded about changing my views; however, I see merit in your exploration of this concept. For example, the young (20’s-30′ ish) people are trying to find themselves- struggling with issues of identity, direction, and sexual tension. Maybe it is that the young work through those issues in their writing, photography, and other creative outlets.
You have posed an interesting question, one with no set in stone answer I believe. You can look at statistics, charts, graphs and trends all you like but that is all they are.
We are not defined by trends, statistics, graphs or genre, we are defined by our experiences and these influence our work. Some of us have no great moments, others have one, fewer have several. When these happen is paramount to where we fall in the ‘charts’, ‘graphs’ and stats.
The truth is, greatness can and will happen when it happens. Stay creative, live and document your experiences and hopefully, greatness will happen for you, whether you’re 26, 67 or any other age!
Alec: I started getting serious about my photography at 49 I think some of my greatest work has been done to date. So I think you are little off in your figures unless you are of course talking about your self, If you are unsure if Im just throwing you a curve, have a look at my website and blog and let me know what you think.
In fact I think my best is yet to come.
Loved your article.
I’m 47. Haven’t peaked yet.
Alec, this is a fresh topic and very thought provoking. I’ve never actually thought of this. I think it depends on that persons raw gift and passion. However, I would not be surprised if the peak did fall between 20-40 yrs of age, just because usually this is when people are finding themselves and eventually being settled into who they will become. Great post.
i can certainly buy into this. i think from 25 to 35 you’re still doing a lot of transitioning and soul searching. i think those journeys probably help with the creative process. perhaps past a certain age, things can be a bit lackluster. they don’t seem as beautiful or amazing or moving. i just hope that if i keep my mind open and don’t let my journey end, the creativity will continue to thrive.
Art is ageless.
If there is anything substanstial to take away from such research, it is to use it as extra inspiration to sieze the day. Everyday.
This, I believe, is a question that many artists face. Many writers as well seem to have done their best work during their earlier years. Compare Terry Brooks earlier Shannara works with his more recent and you can definitely see a marked difference, not for the better in my opinion. But the biggest question is, “Who is this for?” If your work is for others to learn, enjoy, and take something from, than it is for others to decide what they may or may not take from it. If, however, your work is for yourself and you find yourself learning, growing, and enjoying, than it doesn’t matter if others believe your art is better or worse at any point in life.
For most of us artists (I myself am in the young category now at 29), I hope it is a combination of both. I truly try daily to give the best I can hoping that others will enjoy and learn from every word I write (in your case each picture you take), but along the way, I am learning and growing so much more than I ever have before and I am getting to know my wife and myself. Regardless of how others may respond, the work has already been a great success. From your words, I hope that you can also learn and be inspired with each click of the shutter. I’ll be praying for you all. Often it is not the work, but the perspective that matters.
Interesting blog. This entry makes me question whether I will be booming in the next few years to come. I am 26, honestly, so much inspires me it is hard to pick something that I can create to become my greatest work. Maybe that indecisiveness comes with the age, I am not sure. But I never thought about giving an average age range of when certain creativity is exceptional or not. I wonder if age really as a number has anything to do with it or maybe life experiences. That is something I would research. An individual who is forced to mature at a young age may be able to turn those events into masterpieces whereas someone who has not had those same experiences and trials may bloom creatively later on in there life. I think the circumstances of an individuals life should also weigh in on these statistics. What do you think?
Interesting post. I would argue the answer is irrelevant, as a person can only be 1 photographer, so the average shouldn’t be taken into account. Just because more photographers produce influential work before they are 30, for example, does not stop someone else taking up the art aged 50 and producing influential work after that.
There are too many other factors than age. Maybe if younger photographers produce more influential work it is because their lifestyle is more flexible before they settle down with a family, or maybe it is because they stop trying to impress once they have a good reputation and this gives them a comfortable income.
On a lighter note – never try to walk across a river that is an average of four feet deep.
I wonder if Picasso – the ‘Young Genius’- was not discovered or given the attention he received at a young age would he have peaked at age 26 or been more motivated to push further in his art and peak at a later age with the ‘Old Masters’..
Many artists have lost the edge that got them the deserved attention after they gain notoriety. At that point it becomes about maintaining a presence instead of achieving or striving for an audience.
also a growing clientele for any artist can sometimes have the negative affect of stifling the creative process.. Clients or fans want to buy the same but different work from an artist. If an artist was to make a drastic change in their style then it could cost them possible income, a concern that might not be as important to a younger person with less responsibilities. The threat of lost income could put any creative person into a rut.
Interesting to consider….but if 25’s the beginning of the peak, I suppose I should be getting anxious, since it’s just a few years away for me.
well, its hard to say coz it depends on the character and on the circumstances too, i always believe that after 25 one gets very enlightened and ambitious but of course its not the same for all, but great idea i loved this :-))
Controversial topic for sure, but I appreciate the attempt to incorporate data (graph). One might bring in Sternberg’s concept of “wisdom” into this argument: http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/06/creativity-as-a-decision-wisdom-from-robert-sternberg.html.
An artist’s work will qualitatively change as he ages and productivity may become less important than other considerations, including the popularity that defines a “best work.”
I so wholeheartedly disagree with you that I almost chose not to reply, but rather simply close your blog post and walk away. I was thinking here is yet another person who has set age as the defining factor for achievement.
If you want to prepare data and statistics supporting your belief that you no longer have value in your craft because of your age, knock yourself out. However, I can site example after example of people considered to be well past their prime and have come to what the world may perceive to be greatness. Because, hello…clue phone: anyone can compile stats to prove any point.
My husband is a photographer and I am a designer and a writer. Both of us have been perfecting our crafts for over 25 years. And you want to know what? We get better as time passes. Our experience, combined with our willingness to learn and our ability to see each new day in a fresh perspective, allows us to reset our benchmark each year.
If you choose to believe that you are finished, washed up and should be sent out to pasture…by all means, sing your “woe is me song” and give up. But, my friend, you will be missing out on some of the most creative times of your life.
And that to me is the greatest waste of a real talent. Because it is your choice, your option, your goals in life that you want to accomplish that defines you. Not some accumulative number based on a date on your birth certificate.
Well it seems that there is a lot of factors that influences the developpement of an artist. You see, when I’m on a particular project at work, there is a certain period of time where I’m just in the dark, it’s a short period. Then when “the lights come on” there is a feeling of pure exhilaration, then a moment of calmness after the project is completed.
I wonder if it’s not the same in our lifetime. As long as we did not express ourselves, as long as we did not put the best of ourselves out, we did not reach the peak. Then, we hit that spot of accomplishment where we express what we are made of, what life brought us to be. It may be just a few shots, it may be a few years… but after that, we’ve exhausted the “main tank” and the rest is less brilliant, like the cooling ashes of what was once a bright fire. For some it’s soon in life, for other, later. Statistically, if you plot the age of all theses geniuses at their peak, you’ll end up with a nice bell curve, I’m sure!
I think that when one is younger, feelings are more intense and there are less rational, stoic attitudes towards things, thus creating more intense art. When you get into your 30s and 40s, you have seen a few things repeat themselves and it is not so profound or you can accept it more. Personally, I think the best power you can have at an older age is to exaggerate or embellish the past slightly so that it frightens the younger ones more (I am 28, by the way).
I think photographers (artists) have their best ideas when they are young and go on to spend the rest of their lives perfecting it as they age. Maybe with the exception of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and (ahem) Wolfgang Tillmans. But Mr. Tillmans is still making pretty influential work and he’s pushing forty. Also Jim Goldberg is another photographer making pretty interesting work. He’s no spring chicken. also theres that Brian Ulrich guy…
When I was 23 I freaked out when I found out that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” near his 23rd birthday. At that point I was at the tail end of comparing my youth to musicians, because I noticed the age most of my favorite books were completed.
It’s not that these books were created at age 30-40, they were shot in their 20’s to 40’s, a huge range. I knew I wasn’t producing my best work yet. I think the age question is one of those brain worms, trees for the forest and all that. While it’s technically a factor, and something for which data exists, it’s still more important to note that awareness of it shapes outcome subjectively by individual.
I’m 28, but I wouldn’t want to be 23 again because I wasn’t making the kind of work I am now. Knowing that, I’m on the right track for myself.
Since we’re at 177 comments and you’ve made it this far, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a much longer excerpt by Simonton:
Alec, thanks for publishing a little more detail on this whole premise. It helps to see some context. I still think the thesis is very flawed, however. I could write my own paper just documenting all the things I dispute in this article. For one thing, the numerous examples (which the author acknowledges) that fall outside the pattern challenge the validity of hypothesis. If most people peak before 40, how do you explain away the volume of well documented instances where the thesis is not true? That’s kind of disturbing. Second, and maybe the rest of this book better documents the methodology used, if you are going to use examples going back several hundred years (e.g., Beethoven, Michelangelo and Shakespeare) you have to normalize the research to life span. For instance the average life span in Tudor England was about 40-50. So if Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at 37 (and there are some who would challenge that he wrote it at all) he was, statistically, well past middle age for his time (he died at 52, so he technically wrote Hamlet in the last third of his life). And Beethoven, Michelangelo and Shakespeare weren’t exactly contemporaries — their lives spanned over 300 years. The instances of people producing great work in their 70s and 80s in the 16th and 17th centuries was limited by how few people made it to 70 or 80 (okay Michelangelo made it to 89, but that was anomalous for the 16th century). I don’t see how you can legitimately make comparisons to modern times where life expectancies are much longer. You can’t just draw a line at 40 and use eight centuries worth of examples as supporting data.
My take on Simonton’s research, based on the snippit you published here, is he applied data to document a pre-determined conclusion. Actually I think age is tangential to the whole discussion. The real factors that contribute to stand-out work boil down to opportunity, risk taking and inspiration. All three of those factors can be influenced by age, but are not governed by it.
I believe that inspiration can come at any age. I believe the reason creativity seems to be expressed more at a younger age is because :
younger people have all the time in the world to dream
younger people are more open minded and have not yet been conditioned with rigid thought patterns
Younger people are more playful and not so bogged down by the obligations of life.
For these reasons, it will be easier for younger people to put out greater works. But if older people can retain their youthful attitude to life, then of course they will be able to replicate the success of younger counterparts whether its in photography or some other vocation.
These are my thoughts.
I’m interested in relative age: in other words, how many years after beginning photography do photographers produce their best work? For those who started in their teens, maybe a peak in the late 20s makes sense. But what if you don’t pick up a camera until you’re 30 or 40 or 50? Have you missed your own peak without even realizing it?
I think I understand your interest in this question. I also think I understand so many readers’ sense of frustration with the idea that people’s best work is behind them, at any age. For me, personally, the question is sort of pointless: I can’t control my age (I’m 38), and even if it can be proven that photographers produce their best work at an age I’ve already passed, so what? I take pictures because I love taking pictures and because I’m trying to say something through my work. If that changes down the road, well, then I hope I find something else that I’m as passionate about. I don’t believe it’s all a matter of chance, though. We choose our passions as much as our passions choose us.
I can only hope you’re wrong, because I’m over 40.
Everyone is individual you cannot put something like a photographers peak into statistics.. Every moment someone decides to photograph is completely unique there could only be an individual’s peak when they were in a certain place in time where photography came natural to them.
I’d suggest that as with most creative endeavours it is precisely this fear of aging (and death) that propels many young people to make work in the first place.
Perhaps, though, the art world’s love of The New and all its agist biases are doing a wonderful job of poisoning many 40+ artists into the mindset that their best work is behind them.
I believe it is quite difficult to get any sense of what an artist’s ‘best’ work is whilst still under the influence of relatively contemporary surveys and modern obsessions with youth, generally.
Glad I’m not the only one thinking that!
This way of thinking strikes me as a predominently male equivalent to the ticking biological clock, with the difference that there is no physiological reason why anyone would cease to be creatively productive beyond a certain age.
Some people are just born old ;)
I think its irrelevant what age people do there supposed best work. I myself am a woking photographer, at the age of 42 going back to study for a Masters in Photography.
A great deal of photography has been dumbed down with the digital age and therefore everyone feels that they can take good pictures, whatever a good picture is.
In my view, I think everyone goes through a period where the can indulge themselves in thier creativity, vision, whatever you want to call it, and most people get to a stage of creative bankruptcy, which is a really good stage to be at. The inertia will eventually lead to something, it always does. But not everyone gets to be a master of thier art.
There is also a a term, ‘Thumos’, loosely meaning the desire for rcognition, we all posess this in our brains. In some aspects we live in a very ageist world where certain outcomes are expected at certain points in your life, and people should never be put off doing something because of there age.
Currently, because of the advances in technology, there is a more even playing field for opportunities with creativity, however, there is a great deal of dross out there. The smaller percentage will always filter to the top and stand the test of time, Am I sounding elietist?
P.S, sorry for the bad spelling mistakes in my last comment, must be my age!
No matter how you want to dress it up in bad science, I think it is a load of spurious nonsense! There are far too many unconsidered and indefinable characteristics to even begin to measure something like quality of creative output. Also, your age is relevant to the times you live in, 40 was a lot older 400 years ago than it is today… It seems like a fairly typical attempt by humans to quantify and categorise for no other outcome than the satisfaction of a graph.
I think the main problem is that people hit a point where they choose to become more and more static in their methods and their work is what suffers for it.
It seems likely that few of the people in the ‘young geniuses’ category truly feel they could still benefit from getting even better and learning new things. They under-rate the hard work and study that builds over time for those in the category of ‘old masters’. If someone is great to begin with they could combat the decline by changing or evolving their methods and spending the time to improve and expand.
The people categorized as ‘old masters’ will still have their peak and fall because at a certain point they become set on a path of high and higher levels of static activity; and lower amounts of time dedicated to tackling big new problem-having to adapt and grow in their entire lives as well as their fields of work (or art).
If you look at patterns of productivity throughout lifespans, and the types of productivity being produced through time the really innovative and radical ideas and art and things being produced wane off with age and the rate at which new things are embraced by people over their lives gets longer as they get older. As people get older, it takes them longer, and more effort, to learn and grow. That means that it will take longer to produce anything great as well as the risk of momentum being lost of dramatically reduced. This applies to both groupings and accounts for the (somewhat) predictable rise and fall.
The rate of decline seems to be purely due to the perspective and attitudes of the person, regardless of the field in question.
If someone chooses to stay static, then they will eventually peak and fall (as is the case with the category of ‘young genius’. If someone chooses to be dynamic and grow then they have the POTENTIAL to keep growing and expanding their mastery (as is the case with the category of ‘old master’). The only difference between the two SHOULD be the starting point. A ‘young genius’ starts with their certain special talents or natural aptitude in a certain area or with a certain skill. The ‘old master’ starts wherever they happen to be, but with the desire and commitment to learn and grow in their field.
I posted a response to this post in my blog because this is something that comes up in my own life and thoughts quite a bit but I never got around to putting it down for the record. The post is here: http://mjaynea.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/profound-works…ofound-methods/
This 36-year-old artist seems to have just peaked.
So true… I am 32 and have been taking photographs since high school, but only in the past couple of years am I confident in my work and strive to take the best picture I can.
I had a hard time in the past deciding which pictures to use and which not to use, Now it seems easy to weed through and pick out the best. A little pat on the back never hurts either!
After travelling the world, doing great jobs (even 10 years as a photographer), after raising my boy (now being almost 11) I now finally get around to writing what I wanted to do my whole life but never seemed to get around. Therefor I don´t hope that your are right, that, being 45 now, I allready overlived my hight as a writer. As a photographer I did. I must say. I had my best time doing that around 40. Two years give and take. I`m still taking great shots sometimes but I lost the love for it.
Like it that you make people think with your question!
Interesting concept, the rash youth versus the seasoned veteran…
not for tourists…
Can I be the 200th comment?
The article doesn’t take into consideration the fact that someone may have become a writer or photographer later in life. What about all those other experiences that they bring to the table.
I am one of those people and I feel like I am still new to this so maybe my great work will be in my youth as in terms of years in the game.
I like that quote that goes, youth is wasted on the young!
interesting article about movie stars and how 30 is the new 40:
“The best creative years for a photographer, I’d proclaim, are 20 to 40, but the peak is 25 to 35. Of course I’d mention the exceptions, but taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person’s game.”
You sound like someone who’s insecure and uncertain of the work that he’s doing at 40. You’re too busy looking over your shoulder and not focused enough on your own work.
It could be argued that a photographers peak is all to do with energy, both physical and mental. The time in the photographers career when they are most eager to make images has to, in my mind, be the period of their best work, their peak. But this could be any age and I could be barking up the wrong tree.
I, like most I would imagine, would like to think my peak has yet to come, but I feel it might have passed me by.
About two years ago, I joked about writing a short story based around a young character who is born in exactly that way. I’ve been amazed and amused recently, reading about the artist.
Well, now I know why I am not interested in your work anymore, you have passed your time, but don’t make lame excuse like this for not making good work.
In truth, I tire of this discussion (be it about artists or writers or musicians or teachers) for much of it seems to be both a canard (the young blaze, the old wither) and there are important and compelling arguments that rarely come to the fore in this discussion. You question (and the responses I’ve read here and at Facebook and Burn and other places) seem often to recycle the same arguments, so i’ll try to offer a slightly different tack and line of thinking.
Over the last 10 days, that most cliche of Shakesperian/Shavin questions has been rumbling in the cut of my cut , to write or not to write a comment. Not so much from not wanting to have a conversation, but as to whether another comment on top of another comment really would either make a difference (it wouldn’t) in how folk think and how practicing artists work or whether or not it would serve as a substitute for my own creative work and life’s tragectory. I won’t lie and write ‘i don’t give a fuck about my work’ or ‘i dont give a fuck about whether i’m a better artist and writer now then when i was 20’ (i do thing about these things alot), but what i don’t care about is whether or not OTHERS think i’m better now (or in the future) or was. I try to measure things much more simply: am I still as compelled to make things; do i still feel as challenged to challenged both what has been done and also what i have done. This has something to do with your theme, and it also has absolutely nothing to do with it. But, i think (forgetting about my own thoughts about my own creative life), that there are some fundamental considerations that have been left out….let me see if I can square them here without being as longwinded as Simonton…
A a compromise, given i’ve already clicked the 40th year of my creative parabola, and thus long been stripped past its apogee, a few words for y’all..
Call it the problem of Data and Secondary Systems ;)))…
First of all, i’m thrilled that you’ve brought Simonton on board…and makes for some decent reading (and yes, i’ve read that entire post, graph an all), and while Simonton’s case, ostensibly, seems incredibly compelling, i would argue that he (and the post) have made 2 fundamental flaws…in both analysis and perception. The missing Outer System ;))…
First, as anyone who knows and wrestles with the visual display of information/ideas (be it as an artist or as a business bud powering up a PowerPoint presentation) understands, one must be careful of the seductively sly nature of data representation as fact or fiction (is this an example of the punctum of a visual truth or the stadium ;) ). One of my heroes, Edward Tufte (please Read his books, or rather look at them), has written, using stats in a visual way may (or may not) be the best way to convey their accuracy. in other words, maybe the more accurate way to visualize data has to do with its contrary appearance, the way that a counter-intuitive gesture can create more compelling conclusions, the way a pun or non-sequitur can shed even more insight into the veracity of something. Who says an oxymoron is, well, oxymoronic?…not me….(kierkegaard had something to say about this too with his knights of faith vs. knights of reason, in that the knight of faith and the fool were one and the same, joined in their ‘wisdom’)….Tufte, for me not only a great thinker, but a brilliant dissector of ideas and conceptions. A thinker more visual artists would love to read. Anyway, in other words, a kind of caveat emptor: beware the intelligent graph! ;))…
An example of this:
In the Arts, artists (and collectors and critics and galleries and museums) ARE ENCOURAGED to shine the light brightest on the young! The search for the NEW GREAT THING is always at the fore of the art world (so too the literary world). I’m part of both, have had some of that ‘bright new thing’ thrown in my face as a young man (after some early publications and some art shit when young). The Art world encourages the radiance of the young to shine brightest and often the young are best and most rewarded. Being Great and Young means: exhibition, monographs, selling and then promotion to the next tear (better galleries/bigger museums/maybe even teaching positions, etc). Also, with that young success comes other responsibilities (don’t you know that first hand, family of course, but also responsibility of being a ‘now known/discovered…and responsible’ artist. With that achievement comes the other shit that being a working and successful artist comes, so one simply has less time to ‘be great’ (of course that last bit is partly tongue-in-cheek, but you know what i mean). So not only as the brilliant young artist’s genius been discovered and kindled, but she know has a shit load of other things (much of which has nothing to do with the creative endeavor) that take away from much of the spirit of what made her ‘great’ (i mean, ISOLATION AND SOLITARY MANIA and time and energy, phsycial and emotional). also, the art world tends generally to turn its gaze away. Look how fucking long it took the MOMA to give de kooning (de kooning for fuck’s sake) a proper retrospective…and he’s dead…..
But there is another problem with Simonton graph. In the Academic and Scientific work, what is encourage is NOT GREATNESS encouraged in the young (except in the field of Math, where the great young mathematician is akin to the great young artist), but rather encouraged and expected in the old. in other words, in most academic systems, the idea is closer to that of the guild: research and papers (often with a ‘great older mentor’ ) are written in tandem, until the writer/research/professor is old enough to one day become a 1st name (in academics, the first name is the most important on research papers, even if most of the work was conducted by the subsequent names). Thus the association of greatness of work is often given to ‘age’….thus, what looks cool on Simonton’s graph (the artists peak when young, which is different from other intellectual professional endeavors), may infact me true, but only within a specific context: what work is promoted, or rather, which level/time/age of work is acknowledged as great/substantial?….
The second problem is addressed by Morris in his book Believing is Seeing…and actually, he wrote about this very eloquently in one of his Opinonator pieces for the times. about paradigm shifts……no way, i’m going to write about that brilliant series of pieces, but for those not familiar, please read here: beginning with the Ultimatum…
in other words, it is a problem of perspective. Let’s say, for example, i become a photographer at 30 (which i did) and it takes me a bunch of years to master (smile) the medium, or rather, i’ve put in my 10,000 tipping point hours (smile), and takes me to 40, am i young or an old master…how many of the young gals started younger….or how many of those young gals sought mastery (or exposure) earlier?…..or how many of those young gals sought something entirely different….how many of those old cows sought the same thing they had sought when they were young, …how many of those old cows sought the same thing that the world once sough…howmany of those old cows sought a different arc that seems not to coincide with there work or the work that was expected of them as a young gal or old cow….how many of those old cows simple wearied….or how many of us perceive the work through the data to begin with: the axis of age……and also, paradigms shift within one’s lifetime, and now even with greater velocity, so that thereis NO way that work can ever be compared within a single life span fairly without falling vicitim to the very problem that MOrris so eloquently outlines….then where are we…
often it is about choice…NOT about who is more inspired, or who has more energy (i’ll take both Infinite Jest and the late poems of Paul Celan)…just as i’ll take Giacomelli’s Last Essay before he died and i’ll take Bunny Boy goes to rome…..it is about not the age, but about the index of what accrues in our lives….
one thing, to me, that does seem true is that WE ARE obsessed with this….unfortunately….why, because it seems we want to be acknowledged…we want to be great, we want people to fucking like us and our work, if not that (thank you sally field) we at least want our work to be respected…it is a race against death…an inability to let go…we want want want to be acknowledged, that, if we are old we still have it in us, if we are young that we are great….it is still a clinging to a pretty silly and completely unimportant truth: that the quality and register of work does and doesn’t haven any real realationship to us, to our age, to our quantifing and our qualifying within our lives…..
for all the great young artists, there are old lions too….and contrary to what Simonton may argue, that this has to do with things that are alson on a quantum level….
the intersection between life experience and its relationship to that mossy/soupy mess in our heads and its own chemistry and biology…..quantum explanations now have some very interesting things to say about this now (how to birds really hone their way home?)….that is much more strange and much more beautiful than this silly argument…..
questions matter more than the answers to them…..
in other words:
just do the damn work, if you can at whatever age, and the more complex task to find your way home….let the quantum mechanics and the biology and the nexus of flying ashtrays shall sort it all out when we’re dead…
because when that happens, i’ll have more important things on my mind….like how can i gather together all my scattered ashes and start the fix in the playpen all all over again :)
and by the way STILL DEEPLY LOVING BUNNY BOOKS :))))
aint love grand!
Secondly, I think many many fail to, when looking at this kind of information and thinking about this kind of problem d
Yo Alec and LBM and All:
I forgot to add this thought:
ever go to see an exhibition of the work of artists 1 generation, 2 generations, 3 generations ago….doesn’t it often feel beautifully innocent…almost naive….ever see the work of the early cubists?…a show on Dada?….ABEX (the best show i saw in toronto this year, the big abex show from moma)…the world looks not only beautifully innocent, but sometimes downright naive…and the same reaction will happen to our work in subsequent generations…the paradigm shift…and in the art world, we perceive, often that shift to such an extent that time wizzes by….i’ll take late doestoevsky over early fedya D, i’ll take early schiele over late roschenberg, i’ll take early, mid and late Cage over early Adams and Late Adams…..late Borges, mid Kiefer, early German (russian filmmaker), late Goddard, etc etc etc….anyway,
the last thing, so sorry for the poorly written and stupidly over long ramble above….better than what i meant to suggest, is a lecture my one of my favorite thinkers:
my favorite lecture of his:
and after, listent to this:
Richard Avedon .In the american west.55years old
Nicholas Nixon and Mitch Epstein in his 50´s
I think Photographers do their best work when they visit Western Australia.
Just a heads up–posting that book excerpt is a copyright violation. That’s way too long to be Fair Use.
I’m a 53-year-old adult entertainer and I’m doing the best pole dancing of my life. The guy writing this sounds like one of those washed up losers who just lurk in the back of the club. Doesn’t surprise me that he’s a copyright violator too.
What age do most photographers start out?
I’m guessing this is based on an 18 year old kid being a student, graduating and progressing into a wise adult between 25 -35 (lol). So are you really saying after 15 years in the business you peak then?
My mother divorced my father at the age of 35. She was a housewife and realised she needed to start earning money to feed her kids. She went to college to learn photography (pre-digital) and within 2 years, she was earning a living. She made thousands from commercial, PR and weddings. And yes, what about from a fine art background… But she conquered that as well… Featuring her work in a very well known gallery and selling. She was definitely over 40 when she did that.
My boyfriend wasn’t himself last night. I prised out the reason why and he told me he read your post. (Un)fortunately, I briefly read it before he revealed so. He’s approaching his 30th birthday and he is trying to live a different way of life. And he wants to work as a photographer and he’s extremely talented and passionate. After reading your post and mixed in with thoughts about “it’s all about who you know” from a different source it was very difficult to persuade him this was the right thing to do etc. He thought he would be too old for the industry.
I can’t help but feel you are going through a negative thought process. Hitting 40 and you have carefully chosen your words to distance yourself and perhaps shown 10% of the other side of the argument.
Mr Soth, you may be going through a crisis and whatever the outcome is will be your choice and thoughts (and perhaps some art critics). Becareful what you post. You are successful and you have achieved things which other people could only fantasise about. If you feel you have to move away from the subject that’s fine but please do it in a graceful manner.
Why do we all have to put ourselves into brackets and go with the machine?
Dear Lucy, thanks for your comments. I encourage you to read about David Galenson. Along with the interview I linked to in my post, Galenson’s work is highlighted in an excellent New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell entitled ‘Late Bloomers.’:
I’m certainly all for people wanting to change the way they live their life. But to do so needs courage and a thick skin. As Gladwell states, “Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.” In other words, a blog post by some douchebag in Minnesota shouldn’t be enough to derail someone’s plans.
That said, I admire you standing up for your family. Gladwell’s essay makes the point that late bloomers need a support system:
“This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others… Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”
Very interesting thread of comments. Looking back on my life with photography I can see definite changes from decade to decade. I had more “balls” when I was in my twenties and the work shows it. In my thirties I started to pay more attention to what I was shooting. Now at the end of my forties I find I’m super selective and don’t take as many pictures, even digitally and even when working on a specific project. I’ll look, see and say “so what”. Maybe that happens to a lot of photographers as they get older and hence the stats?
THERE IS NO PEAK!!
News flash here, you aren’t dead. Yet. Are you sucking air? Can you get to your camera? Got film? Good. Time to go and make a photograph.
If there is something driving you, something like the need to breathe, eat, sleep, use the toilet, shout, sing, chit-chat, then you haven’t peaked. Your true peak comes with death, and you aren’t dead. Yet.
Look at it in different terms: read the lyrics to “Helter Skelter.” “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide / Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride / Till I get to the bottom and I see you again”
Are you at the bottom? Climb to the top! Sit down, and go for a ride! And then DO IT AGAIN! YEAH!
There is nothing to prevent a photographic thought running through your head! Got it?? Good! Every moment is a new moment. You wanna go right instead of left? Or left instead of right? How about straight up? The next moment is all yours. Go. Do.
LOVE IT!! I am 65 and doing some of my best work yet (theatre and dance) and hopefully will continue to do so ’till the end which will be when I can’t remember which side of the camera to look through or I am dead. I love my work and am still passionate about it.
I might add in agreement with one of the mutitudinous comments this is statistical nonsense. Citing only a few of innumerable variances, eg aeg compared to verage lifetime, and in comparison to similar socioeconomic/educational items, wealth, lack thereof, health.
so age in and of itself and length of peak productivity as indicated above seems at closer look statistical manipulation with an agenda, position already predetermined.
Is it their best work or just the work that they’re best known for?
For every Cartier-Bresson, Evans or Frank, who all did their best work while young, there are photographers who just get better and better, like Atget and Friedlander and Metzger. A more interesting approach to the problem of creativity is Edward Said’s book On Late Style, which deals with various disciplines and destroys a lot of myths about late work. The pseudo science of the original post is so obviously flawed as to be beneath debunking.
There was an interesting article in the New Yorker a few years back about the differences in genius manifest in youth, and then genius manifest later in life, after decades of work. I want to say the two examples were Picasso and Matisse, but don’t quote me on that. Regardless, the article might be worth looking into.
I think this kind of sweeping statement is kind of ridiculous. Part of the problem at the crux of American culture is an over emphasis on the “new,” which really means a rejection of the past or present. Culturally, we are in an incredible state of ADD, and here lies the notion that invention is product on the young and “new.”
So you’re saying I peaked even before I owned my first camera? Thanks.
Your Magnum colleague Josef Koudelka has always said that age 40 might be the limit, except he is now 73 and seems to be constantly on the move lugging a Fuji 6×17 all over of the world and continues to produce work at the highest levels. If you mean a photographer’s break through work, then yes, certainly most photographers do it in their 20s and 30s. Alex Webb for instance discovered his particular style of color work in 1978-1979 at age 26-27. His work today, more than 30 years later looks very much the same even if maybe his concepts and ideas have become more complex. Stephen Shore shot “American Surfaces at age 24 and “Uncommon Places” was all shot before he was 30 as well.
An excerpt of an interview between Frank Horvat and Koudelka:
“Joseph Koudelka : And why do you think some people give up searching for the maximum?
Frank Horvat : I only know one answer, which scares me: because they don’t have enough energy left.
Joseph Koudelka : That scares me, too. We already talked about it in our first meeting, and I told you that the limit could be around forty. It happens to all of us.
Frank Horvat : On the other hand, Titian made some of his best paintings at eighty. And so did Renoir, Rodin, Picasso. But painting may be a different matter…
Joseph Koudelka : Possibly. It’s also true that Kertesz made some beautiful photos in his last years – but those were not the kind of photos we are talking about, which demand a certain physical fitness, if only to seek out the situations. It seems to me that in painting there is less difference between a masterpiece and a work that is not altogether a masterpiece. Or at least less difference than in photography: because in painting technique is more important”.
The work I did at age 25, gets the most interest too:
I don’t often read blogs, but as I was doing some schoolwork I ventured on here for a sigh of relief. A year and half ago, I quit my job to go back to school to become a photographer. Last week, I turned 30. The post about the best work being done between the ages of 25 and 35 caught my attention. I don’t think anyone can put a limit on when a person will create his or her best art. By the time I am done, it would mean I have four short years to pull something together or I am out of luck.
I feel like most artists tend to be recognized when they are younger. Perhaps we associate what we first see in them as what is best because it is what caught our attention, yet that isn’t necessarily true. Seeing someone’s art is like hearing the first album a band puts out. They become household names and we might purchase more work, but it might not ever be as good as that first album. Very little people every make a second record as good as the first. Yet, it has been done. I think that is what separates good artists from great artists. No one can put a ticket on the life you live and the experiences that will happen that inspire you to create art. It’s a matter of perspective, relativity, and passion.
When I think of one of my favorite historical figures, Abraham Lincoln, he once made a statement that has become my motto in life. He said, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” It gets me fired up every time I read it. If we all keep pushing and trying, things could happen that we never expect. Our art could explode and at the end of our lives, could come our best work. Just like at the end of his life, came his greatest moment… he ended slavery. Maybe we make something that impacts a nation?
I’m 54 and been making photographs for 34 years. I had a major breakthrough in 1979 when I was 22 that landed me my first NY solo exhibition and in my first museum collection. I open that portfolio and it’s still very strong (I’m relieved!). I had many years of mediocre work (interesting but not as good as my earliest) and then I found the sweet spot again in 1987 with a project on the AIDS crisis (lost many friends and don’t know why I didn’t get the disease). The subsequent years have been very productive and good. I expect them to continue.
A teacher once told our class that most artists have ten really good years once they strike a creative vein. Though I admired him, I knew that was wrong, and he’s now in his 60s and still making excellent (if familiar) work.
What’s great about young photographers is they (as I) don’t know what they’re doing, have a raw energy, and willing to fail (since they haven’t yet succeeded).
Age can bring caution, which is terrible for artists. Also, I look at a lot of work and I certainly don’t see young people making better pictures than Lee Friedlander does right now.
Thomas from San Bernardino
the myth that ’emerging photographers’ are under 35 is just that… a myth.
Roger Ballen peaked at an older age, I’d say and I’m sure there must be other examples.
Question: What does it matter if once you’ve joined the canon because of the earlier work, the museums will continue to show any inferior work you come out with after that anyway?
Boy am I glad i realized i sucked at photography at age 29 and put down the camera. I’m using my productive years to make a living instead of being a starving (shitty) artist. I saw too many people in the art realm who were terrible and who were still intent on making a living doing it (painting, photography, illustration, etc) when they had no chance to. Then a few years later, I realized I was among them. I just wish i hadn’t wasted 11+ years on trying to be good at something I had no talent at.
I just came across this posting and basically you are right.
However I got bored with reading all the responses from aged 40 plus photographers telling us they were about to hit their peak. No-one really addressed your question , they just bored us with their own inadequacies. You need that raw energy and excitement that feeds into new and exciting work ,associated with the 20s and early 30s. Very few achieve even that , let alone sustain this into their long careers. I once said in an interview that I thought my best work was probably behind me, and this now is quoted back to me everytime I do another interview. What is so shocking about this? You personally may never better ” Sleeping by the Mississippi” , but of course accepting this is problematic. OK we keep going , trying to be fresh, but we know too much, are too comfortable, even if you fight laziness by working hard. It doesn’t mean you cannot make a useful contribution later on, but it ain’t going to have the edge that the early work , so often delivers. There of course honorable exceptions, and on this front, I always site David Goldblatt, who is now 80 and has constantly refreshed his way of understanding South Africa through photography. He only turned to colour at the age of 65, and this is some of his best work.
What an ass.
I really agree with you Martin. With age, the raw energy and excitement can fade and you can often know too much that can get in the way of producing absolutely fresh work.
BUT…If 30 is indeed the new 20, 40 the new 30 and 50 the new 40, etc. then what’s going on!”?
Apologies if this has already been considered. I couldn’t work my way through all of the “post-40 and still kickin'” posts. BTW, for what its worth, I’m a newly minted 40.
One’s best work is a reflection of one’s experience and wisedom. Some people have a lifetime of these qualities very early in life and they have the ability to tap into it so that they are able to convey these ideas through their chosen medium. The advantage of a younger person is that they possess the energy to follow these passions without the burdens of life that seem to accumulate with age. An older person may lack the energy, but the older person usually has the greater experiences and by being a little slower said person may have a better and more insightful understanding to tap into these qualities and perhaps even convey in a more effective manner. While it may appear that a younger photographer may do their best work at a young age, I believe that you are not taking into account that their work is being seen as new, thereby it is making the boldest statement as it has been unseen up to that point. From my prospective the term “best work” should really be used as a reflection of one’s evolution as seen in a body of work.
Then again, I just turned 50 and I hate to think that I may have slept through my “best work” period of time.. Happy New Year!
Does the same count for women photographers?
I thought of reading all the answers and commenting this thread, but I’m too busy making photographs. I might read it when I get older ;-)
I had to think on this one a bit.
Alec you are really making two statements one about when people peak, and one about when they become irrelevant.
First statistics are not current, unless you update retirement ages, health status, productivity and status. There were a couple people who mentioned breaking out, achieving the status of “go to person”. If you consider the focus and time that is invested into achieving the status, people will peak early, because they have other goals to reach, it is their singular purpose. They become busy, eventually burnout comes along, marriage, children, then the fight to get back into the game. Time to work on their creativity is limited until you get past my age.
Martin Parr touched on something that needs to be considered. “You need that raw energy and excitement that feeds into new and exciting work ,associated with the 20s and early 30s.” How do you sustain the energy? To me if you have had a reputation, and were able to breakout, the you have to take time to create the fresh energetic work. Spend some time hanging out with the younger generation, and mentor them. As you do, you are able to see fresh new ideas relevant to the day.
If I took this as a paramount truth, I’d throw my gear away and get a job at home depot. It is not going to happen though. I have way too many stories in my head and notes to give up and die. I would rather be an old master than peak out and never come back.
I have to say this too, age is used as a measuring tool inaccurately. The used to be great value given to age, yet in the last 20 years that has changed, age is negative. I can’t feed into the end of the world syndrome, a lot of things have been done, stories told and even retold, but there is more out there to do!
Ansel Adams in an interview somewhere in his early 80’s was asked what his greatest work was, his replay was he hadn’t made it yet, it was around the corner.
I am of the opinion that this discussion should either be laid to rest or very seriously studied. If we truly devoted energy to assessing this query, I feel very strongly that we would find creators who made their most influential work all across the age spectrum. Obviously a certain level of artistic/creative maturation has to be achieved, but beyond that amazing things can happen at any point.
I agree with Martin that youthful excitement/energy plays an important role, but the word “rejuvenation” exists in our vernacular for a reason.
I realize that I’m only 37 and am simply speaking from my gut here, but I constantly find myself uncomfortable and skeptical anytime anyone attempts to establish “rules” of this nature.
Just a thought.
Where a photographer has done some brilliant work earlier on, there must also be an element of “how the hell am I going to better that?” The old thing that a photographer is only as good as his last photo. So the earlier work might become a creative drag, and the photographer becomes afraid of failure and cautious. Maybe it’s not age, just fear of the past. Possibly.
Age no doubt has disadvantages – less energy to get out, and perhaps a slower brain. But it can have big advantages: maturity, experience, understanding. Otherwise there would be some 20-somethings in your list. Maybe the secret for odler photographers is to learn not to be afraid of the downsides, but to tap into the upsides.
Hi! I think with creativity and art you can not talk about recipes. There is a nice statement by Christian Boltanski which fits very much into this discussion and it is from an interview for Tate magazine:
“‘I’m always a beginner, and the most important thing is always the next piece. We artists never know if we can do it again. You have done something – and most of the time I hate what I have done a few years ago – and you don’t know if you can do something now. The good artists are usually the very young or the very old. The ones who are very young are so stupid that they have no fear. And when they are very old they aren’t afraid any more. In the meantime, you are always, always, afraid.’
Another way to look at it is that it takes 10,000 hrs of practice to master a skill, after which one starts to peak (not necessary, but that is the avg)…so the age at which one peaks considering they put in the 10K of practice/work depends on when they start…most will likely start in their late teens/early 20’s…if they are serious, they are doing an avg of 6hrs per day, 5 days per week…so if you start at 18, then you reach the ‘beginning’ of mastery at 25, if you start at 22 you reach it at 28 and so forth…some can be faster if they work more, some slower if its a side hobby to start etc…and this doesn’t take into account, exposure to mentors, basic talent, education etc… and of course once one has mastered the skill, the energy they put into it. Jung says, avoid statistical thinking it drains life energy out of you, just focus on doing the work, that invariably becomes the reward… speaking of reward, when one does their best work isn’t always the same as when one is recognized for it or when one is rewarded (fame and fortune) for it. Just my 2 cents on this…which are the 2 cents I have made so far from my photography (am 41 and loving it!).
You get it! Lik has stated he’s spent 25 years mastering landscapes and only within the last five years have people started to come to know his name. Just last year he got a TV show on the weather channel. He’s 53 years old! Schulman died at 98… he wasn’t considered a master, even in his 60’s! I’m not even sure the author of this posting knows who Adams, Schulman, Wolfe or Lik are! Then again… how old is the author?! That would say a lot about how much they know or comprehend. The younger a person is, they typically think that youth is everything. “Audentes Fortuna Iuvat” – Fortune favors the bold. Youth… has nothing to do with it.
I read what you wrote and what Martin Parr wrote and I see it..it all makes a whole lot of sense. I am gonna go the route that I always go….denial.
I have a friend who for the past couple of years would say to me…..”Tara, we are ooooold” and then she would sigh and watch youth pass her by….I final said to her one day ” Would you please not include me in your “we” statement!”
To feel old is to be old. All we can do is continue to challenge ourselves and do things that we feel passionate about.
Denial or survival?
Happy New Year!
What more is their to say? Not only did he do his best work toward the end of his life – he created a body of work with greater breath complexity and sheer size then the rest of us. If only I’ll still be running around with that type of energy at his age. Not to mention, he perfectly fits into the ‘trial and error’ theory – reinventing himself from a young sailor, to a career in acting, and then a latter life as a photographer.
I do concur with Alec’s starting post – many more conceptually bent artists peak young (I think adrenaline and a certain raw sexual energy has something to do with it.) While others, often more of a ‘trial and error’ type peak old – and they are generally in the minority – but in my mind are often the ones whose craft and knowledge of their form are without precedence. A quick brainstorming of a few artists in many media who stand out as exceptional older artists:
Atget (again), Cezanne, Giovanni Bellini, Matisse, Hakuin, Milton Babbitt, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Willem De Kooning, Anne Carson, William Carlos Williams, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Bechers, Frederick Sommer, Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Darius Kinsey, Virginia Woolf, and William Shakespeare.
Pictures taken at least 15 years apart. Nothing much has changed…:
Well, right. Isn’t what Alec is saying is that photographers often define their ‘style’ in the 20-40 years-old range–they become known often for this kind of work. Certainly, if you look at Alex Webb’s work, he was doing absolutely amazing work at age 27 in 1979 when he switched from black and white. I mean it seems as if there was no learning curve for him. He was making images at 27 that look as good as what he does today.
Wow, I’d have to say the normal mode of thinking, as usual… is way off base! If that were true people like Art Wolf and Peter Lik wouldn’t be considered world leading photographers: Art is now 60 and Peter age 53, is just now reaching his prime. These two individuals are considered in the top 1% of photographers worldwide. Both have television shows on national syndication and Peter has grossed nearly $100,000,000 in sales of his work and continues to win awards each year. That might play out for wedding or sports photographers but not for fine art. I would say the author needs to gain a better perspective on the real world!
To second my former comment… those that focus on shooting people may peak young but then again… unless you are photographing Muhammad Ali, John Lennon or Babe Ruth… photographing people is a bottom-feeder occupation. Ansel worked with landscapes and he is considered the great master. Schulman shot architecture… again he was considered a master in his own right. Now Lik is mostly shooting landscapes and some architecture and Art Wolfe, shooting a variety of things, mostly because he now has a show that takes him to all parts of the world. Landscapes, shot well, well always sell. People… it’s a buyer’s market!
I am done with age! Joe has it right. It takes years, like any other art form. I am not sure money is a good indication of success but in today’s world it is. I may not be composing 4′33″ but I want to be 4′33″. I am not even going to go further … Alec knows …
I’m inclined to think that the arts (including photography), philosophy and the sciences, are all characterised by a central line of inquiry, which evolves in the individual at a relatively young age and then develops when they come into contact with a suitable medium. This
medium, be it photography, literature, astronomy or indeed a combination, as in the case of polymaths such as Goethe, brings with it various characteristics, that effect the age at which the individual reaches their perceived zenith.
For example, discounting Doogie Howser, medicine takes time to qualify in, hence its relatively autumnal career peak. On top of this, background and fate play their part in hampering or encouraging an individual’s realisation of their inquiries. The search for any “average” or “ideal” is however misleading and placing the human condition into a bell curve, implies the existence of a simplistic, rational world which most lines of inquiry are born in opposition to.
Photography is of course a physical activity, so someone who photographs war zones and teenage drug binges, is probably going to “peak” earlier than someone who photographs their family growing old or the changes in a city’s surface. But aside from these self evident
constraints, perhaps that there is actually far more play in the productive age range.
Whilst I genuinely believe that nearly every person who has contributed to this post, has already had their best ideas, probably when they were still a child, whether or not they have realised them to their full potential is an entirely different matter. The idea of an artist’s peak is largely driven I feel, by the notion of success, something which weighs down upon the artist heavily, through both its presence and absence. Early success can lure an artist into the assumption that they have completed their line of inquiry, resulting in stagnation and repetition, lack of success can have a similar result, in that the artist stagnates through a perception of failure. Therefore I would argue that the “peak years” idea is not an immutable, physical reality, but an almost entirely social construction, that in fact imposes itself on our lives and unfortunately our work.
Here’s a counterpoint from the world of science. It is a brief summary of a study published in Nature this week: http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7381-401c
“US biomedical scientists rarely earn their first major grants during their optimum innovative years, concludes a study (K. R. W. Matthews et al. PLoS ONE 6, e29738; 2011). In 2008, the average age of a scientist getting a first grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was 42, the authors found. But researchers who won Nobel prizes in medicine or chemistry between 1980 and 2010 did their pioneering work at an average of 41 years; 78% did so before 51, the average age of NIH investigators now. Part of the problem is that the NIH is risk-averse and unwilling to fund nascent work, argues Kirstin Matthews, lead author of the study and a science and technology policy fellow at Rice University in Houston, Texas.”
Thus, the spread says about 41 but you can keep on going up to about 51 and be relevant. On average. but the idea is not to be average, right?
I am way past 40 and have been shooting since I was 13. At 14 got my first check from the Washington Post. I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the images I produce now are far better than what I produced when I was 25 or 35. Being free of that need to impress someone else has unleashed much better imagery. I have seen remarkable images from individuals young or old.
i thought this section from a speech made by the mathematician Richard Hamming might bear some relevance to the discussion.
“Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don’t do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don’t know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.
But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.
When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.”
the speech was given at Bell Labs in 1986 and the entire text can be accessed here: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html
the whole thing is worth reading.
I also think it depends on the culture that is rating and promoting the work. US culture promotes and worships youth so it would be no big surprise that young photographers (with access to handsome friends) would top a lot of decision makers lists. I’m in fashion and people rave about a lot of the new (young) photographers but it’s the middle aged photographers booking the big jobs and publishing great books.
Creativity and greatness can be fostered at any age. I’m just hoping American’s obsession with youth dies down enough to promote the worth of our entire population instead of the “lucky” ones who are under 25.
It was also Quentin Tarantino’s assumption..something about being young and horny and making the best work..and then as the hormone levels fall, creativity fades…
I don’t agree with all this completely, though maybe there is something to it.
Some terms in the discussion are questionable:
What is influential?
What is a value of universal recognition of someone’s work?
What is a great work?
What is the “greatest productivity”?
Why is great productivity important?
Parr’s terms are vague too.. raw, edgy.. is that something every photographic series must aspire to?
All this makes sense if you assume that photograph only as important as the amount of money it makes and how many people have copied it in their work.
But is that really always important? The what type of photographer are you addressing?
There are tons of creative individuals of all ages in all creative fields..maybe statistically young people prevail, but why this statistic is so important?
some of my favorite creatives that did amazing work after 40 are E. Weston, I. Bergman, Ozu Yasujiro, Billy Wilder, Dostoevsky, the list can go on..