The Digital Journalist

Talking 'Bout My Generation

by Peter Howe

In just a few years when my generation talks about the sixties it will refer to our ages rather than the decade during which we smoked the most pot. Considering that we were the ones who allegedly caused the youth revolution this has come as a bit of a shock, at least to me. However although I have reluctantly accepted the inevitability of this situation I refuse to empower it with any sense of despair. I was strengthened in this resolve recently when I had dinner with Doug Kirkland and his wife Francoise. I have known Doug for fifteen, maybe twenty years, and in that time he barely seems to have changed. As for Francoise, she was clearly under the age of consent when he married her, something that photographers seem prone to do. (She also has muscle definition on her upper arms that cause me to treat her with deferential respect!)

The subject of conversation of course centered on photography, and Doug was relating tales about this lecture that he'd just given and that movie that he worked on, as well as a new exhibition, another movie about to start, and on and on. This was not the discourse of a man slowing down, whereas I had to go home and take a nap just listening to his catalog of activity. It reinforced a long held belief of mine that the secret of eternal youth is reserved for people who spend most of their lives looking at the world through one eye. Just think of the number of photographers that you can recall who lived into their eighties and nineties, and I do mean lived. When I was at the New York Times Magazine I assigned Carl Mydans to cover the story of People Power in the Philippines with his correspondent son Seth. It was 1986 and Carl was already 79, and yet being of compact stature he got many of his best shots by climbing a lamppost. Similarly during my tenure at Life Alfred Eisenstadt came into his tiny, memory packed office at the Time-Life Building almost every day, and once Marc Riboud rearranged half of my office so that he could climb on the window ledge to get a shot of steam coming through the vents of a neighboring building.

And these three are not alone. Look at these numbers: Alfred Steiglitz 1864-1946; Edward Steichen 1879-1973; Berenice Abbott 1898-1991; Brassai 1899-1984; Andre Kertesz 1894-1985; Andreas Feininger 1906-1999. How about the youngsters like Cartier Bresson born in 1908 and Eve Arnold born in 1913? When you think about these stats two things are apparent. First of all this has to be more than coincidence, and secondly my generation of photographers have hardly started their careers.

They certainly act with the hunger of beginners. I don't know how old Mary Ellen Mark is (actually I do but I'm far too well brought up to tell you), but what I can tell you is that when I was at college I read a monograph about the work of this groovy young American photographer. I was so impressed that it caused me to join our happy band, so now you know whom to blame. Mary Ellen is probably working harder and better now than she was then, and with an undiminished fervor that often causes her as much frustration as it does pleasure. David Burnett, who I first met when we were both shooting the Pope tour of the United States in 1979, had the cover of last week's New York Times Magazine with his picture of Bob Kerry. James Nachtwey continues to evade both death and aging by spending his working life in the world's most dangerous places with the same courage and commitment that he showed twenty years ago. Then there's the Ever Ready Bunny of photography, Ken Regan. I really don't know his age, because that and his cell phone number are two of photography's most closely guarded secrets. I do know however that if you want to have dinner with him you have to arrange it at least six months in advance, because his calendar's full up until then.

So why is it that photography seems to be the fountain of youth and longevity? Is it just because photographers have a hard time growing up? In a sense I think that it is. There is an almost child-like curiosity in most photographers, and often a sense of wonder in even the most cynical and hard-bitten of them. I am convinced that you begin to age when you lose interest in the world around you and feel that you've seen it all, and done all that you want. That's when you're ready for pinochle and the early-bird specials. But as a photographer when you progress deeper into middle age your sight may get a little foggy, but your vision remains as clear as ever. You may need more help to carry the equipment but less help in knowing what to do with it. Your back may ache but your passion is strong. That's one of the beauties of photography. Its success relies more on the photographer's spirit than on the photographer's physique.

So to all the Young Turks reading this I have two warnings for you as you claw your way up the walls of success: You had better love this profession because you may be doing it a long, long time, and secondly remember the old adage about age and cunning beating youth and enthusiasm. If you need proof of this just try getting a better spot at a world heavyweight championship boxing match than Ken Regan.

Finally for those of you that don't already know, my baby company, RightSpring, closed down three weeks ago the victim of a lousy money market and dot-com phobia. As a result I have a new e-mail address: peterhowe007@msn.com. You may think that it's pretty pathetic that a man of my years still has James Bond fantasies, but think of this you already remember it. For a man of my years that in itself is an achievement.

Peter Howe

 




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