Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Back in February, I wrote a post about emerging photography that stemmed from a panel discussion on the subject in which I participated. It has continued to be a source of lively debate among the photo professionals I know. Few are without an opinion. In a related topic, I read an October 2008 article in the New Yorker written by Malcolm Gladwell that discussed whether certain artists produce great work when they're young and other artists produce their best work at a later age. In the article, Gladwell cites the work of David Galenson in showing the prejudices among scholars about the "right" age to produce lyric poetry masterpieces. I quote from the article:

"In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent."

This made me curious to read more of Mr. Galenson, so I bought his book, "Old Masters and Young Geniuses", in which he attempts to quantify at what age certain artists produce their best work. While he admits that his methods are not iron-clad science, he feels that by collating multiple indices he can show a broad pattern of how experts and the academic community have crowned certain periods of artistic output as better than others. He does this in a variety of ways: by comparing many years of auctions results for works of an artist over the span of his career, by counting the times that certain art works (and their corresponding period from the artist's career) have been included in anthologies, and by counting which period of work is most often included in the collections of the world's greatest museums. If all three sources of data show a similar result, Galenson feels confident that this is because a consensus has been reached about when an artist produced his best work.

Now, I'm no scientist nor economist, but reading this book made me curious about what this process would yield in the photo world. So I found a not-too-dated list of the most expensive photos ever sold and did the simple arithmetic to see how old the artists were when they produced that work. Here is what I found:

  1. (47) Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001), $3,346,456, February, 2007, Sotheby's London auction. A second print of 99 Cent II Diptychon sold for $2.48 million in November 2006 at a New York gallery, and a third print sold for $2.25 million at Sotheby's in May 2006.
  2. (25) Edward Steichen, The Pond-Moonlight (1904), $2,928,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  3. (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe (Hands) (1919), $1,470,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  4. (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe Nude (1919)(55), $1,360,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  5. (40) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989), $1,248,000, November 2005, Christie's New York auction. [4]
  6. (38) Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, 113.Athènes, T[emple] de J[upiter] olympien pris de l'est (1842) $922,488, 2003, auction.
  7. (37) Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sete (1857) $838,000, 1999.
  8. (41) Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol (1987) $643,200, 2006.
  9. (46) Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1948) $609,600, Sotheby's New York auction, 2006.
  10. (42) Andreas Gursky, Untitled 5 (1997), $559,724, 6 February 2002.
I realize this simplified method has problems, but only one artist in the list under 35?! Wow! Yes, I know that it would have been impossible for Mr. de Prangey to produce a photograph at 20 since the medium would not have yet been invented. Yes, I understand that auction values are not the sole measure of artistic worth. Yes, I know that the list is incomplete and blah, blah, blah, blah.....Yes, I scratch my head, too, that some of this work commands the prices it does. But the whole thing just whets my curiosity. How many photographers whose work sells in six figures produced that work when they were under 35? How many of them were even recognized as important artists when they were under 35? What about work that sells between $50,000 and $100,000. Surely the list of photo artists whose work sells for between $50,000 and 1 million would define the most important artists in the field. Even if one restricted the list to say post-war or post-1970, I suspect the answers would be astounding and heavily weighted towards the more mature artist. I hope Galenson's methods will be reproduced by some enterprising grad student using photographic artists as the model.

Where does this leave me in my ongoing discussion about the emerging artist? It leaves me back at my original thought that age is not a good predictor of artistic merit. One can play a hedge fund game and buy tons of work by young artists and hope that one or two hit it big to fund all the other purchases. But that's just Vegas and ignores why most of us actually enjoy owning art. If we're really honest with ourselves, I think we see that most of the time we don't know who is going to be important and powerful until they're well into their career or even long dead. If Galenson is right -- and I think he is -- and some artists peak young and others peak late, then really the only way to make choices about which artist we want to follow (and maybe buy) is to look, think, and look again. If youth is part of the equation, it will probably be one of the least interesting or significant parts of that equation. "Emerging" is a term that remains mired in the same prejudice that mis-defined the perfect age for the great lyric poets. "Emerging" has no causative effect in great art. It's a financial euphemism not a creative one. As we've been forced to view our finances with renewed sobriety, I hope that we will begin to view this term, too, with the scepticism it deserves.


  1. Thank you THANK YOU for taking on the wretched 30 under 30 (etc. ad nauseam) juggernaut. Many of the most original photographers didn't even start in the field until they were in their 30's, too many to list here in fact. If our culture was not so obsessed with sex, money and marketing we would have a much better chance of predicting who the great artists of tomorrow will be.

  2. Anon--

    Thank you for your comment. I'm not sure I'm with you 100% on blaming sex and money for the fascination with emerging artists, but perhaps the whole thing would be better if we didn't care about predicting greatness for any reason. Monumental art will come out in its own time, and few of us will be around to see if our predictions came true.

  3. As a photographer who did not start photography until I reached my 30s, I am rather grateful to hear this perspective. I too am so tired of the 30 under 30 marketing phenomenon. How can I be washed up when I'm only 4 years into my career?

  4. Thank you for your post, Isa. I guess I should make it clearer now that two posters have commented on this that I am NOT specifically talking about the 30 under 30 prize or any other youth oriented photography event. My argument is against the word "emerging" being used as an augur of quality when, in fact, time shows us that it rarely is. The term is used to label all sorts of artists, primarily young, but not exclusively so. To the degree that I'm talking about age discrimination, I'm really only saying that age is rarely a defining factor in fine work. Some great work gets done by people in their youth and some gets done by people when they're older. Plenty of uninteresting work gets done by folks of all ages. My post should in no way be construed as carrying the torch for older artists. I want to encourage people to look at the work for its own qualities, not for how old the artist was when it was created.

  5. Nice, EM. Lucid. Well written. Thanks.

  6. Thank you, SM. I appreciate the approbation.