Ageing and creative decline in photography: a taboo subject

"Photographers never want to talk about the fact that they may well be in decline. It's the greatest taboo subject of all," says Martin Parr in our special issue devoted to ageing, available now on newsstands, on the iPad and the iPhone. We spoke to photographers aged 19 to 100 about their career highs and how they keep their work fresh in the face of creative decline. Read our highlights

Olivier Laurent — 4 June 2013

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How do photographers keep their work fresh in the face of what Martin Parr describes as “probably the greatest taboo subject of all” – creative decline? In the June edition of BJP, we spoke to photographers aged 19 to 100 and asked them when they think they were at their peak. Do photographers hit their stride in their thirties, or is that merely a myth?

The June issue of BJP, which centres around the issue of age, is available from today at newsstands in the UK, and on the iPad and iPhone worldwide.

It features exclusive interviews with Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Alec Soth, Saul Leiter, David Goldblatt, Duane Michals, Brian Griffin, Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Wolf Suschitzky, Olivia Bee, Max Pinckers, AnnaOrlowska, Anouk Kruithof and Lorenzo Vitturi.

Below, some of our highlights:

Olivia Bee, 19
“I don’t like to be known only by my age, but I know that because I’m 19 my age is a ‘thing’. It has always been a thing. I would prefer to be known as a photographer or an artist, rather than as a 19-year-old photographer.”

Lorenzo Vitturi, 33
“When you are in your thirties, you come to realise that time is running out fast, and if you want to push your potential, this is the time to do it. You still have the creative energy to focus on something that might potentially turn into failure, but at the same time you have the security of 10 years of experience as a support. I believe there’s always a period of incubation before a great body of work is developed.”

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, 43
“I think the most important thing to do is not to resist change. It’s not about trying to hang on to a strategy that works for you, but about being much more agile… Really critical work runs against the grain and you’ve got to be constantly pushing against that conservative mode.”

Alec Soth, 44
“A year ago, I wrote on my blog that the most significant work many photographers make is when they are in their thirties. Part of the reason is that when you are 30, you have logged in several years of grunt work. You have your skills, tons of energy, and everything is new. The danger is that if you go on and on with the same thing, things go stale.”

Vanessa Winship and George Georgiou, 52
“I think it’s really dependent on what’s happening in your life – that there are peaks and troughs and ups and downs. I think it is just staying alive in a way. Staying fresh, attempting to keep looking.”

Martin Parr, 61
“I once said that I thought my best work was behind me. And that one simple quote has bounced back at me in every interview. The reason why it has bounced back is that photographers never want to talk about the fact that they may well be in decline. It’s probably the greatest taboo subject of all. People don’t want to address it… I fully accept that I may not have the cutting edge you have early on in your career. I don’t think I’ll have a dynamic body of work like I’ve done in the past with the The Last Resort or Common Sense, which are probably my two best-known projects. But it doesn’t stop you from working hard.”

Brian Griffin, 64
“The fact [is] that my life’s finite. Photography is the one major talent I have, and I have this opportunity to exercise it. This is what drives me to take pictures. Obviously, I’m scared because, since the human mind is organic, I’m worried that my brain might drop off one day – that I might reach a point where I won’t be able to get that image anymore.”

Don McCullin, 77
“When you’re running at my age, after a major heart operation, your body does not respond with the necessary speed. In Aleppo, Syria, the bullets were just winging over the top of my helmet. It wasn’t the same old Don McCullin as in the old days, when I could run like a greyhound. When you’re 30, you have an enormous appetite and enormous energy, which you certainly don’t have when you get to my age… I’ve been around an awful long time, and sooner or later life will come to an end for me.”

Duane Michals, 81
“I was a late bloomer. I didn’t become a photographer until I was 28, and I didn’t go to photography school. In many ways, I’ve been a wolf in the hen house, dancing around what photography does rather than showing the world as it is. A photograph shows nothing.”

David Goldblatt, 82

“I spend too much time on the computer preparing for exhibitions and publishing books. It is time that takes me out from the field. I recognise that, at the age of 82, I only have 20 or 30 years left [laughs], so I really want to be making as many pictures as possible.”

Saul Leiter, 89
“I don’t sit around and try to examine what I did before, how good I am now, and if I’m as good as before. In the earlier years of my life, a lot of people didn’t appreciate the work I did. I would sometimes offer to give my work to someone and they’d forget to take it. Now they pay. Usually when people have to pay, they respect it more.”

Wolf Suschitzky, 100
“I don’t have a favourite time. I approached every subject as well as I could… I’ve travelled widely and managed to get some interesting pictures. You have to make use of luck and be open to what’s going on around you. I’ve had an interesting life really.”

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