We are all born to die. However, don’t let that simple fact put you off reading this article. I will try to be positive but I will also deal with facts. Different cultures deal with the aging process differently. Western cultures have traditionally been labeled as ageist societies that undervalue their older adult populations. Eastern cultures are recognized for their more accepting view of older adults, placing them on a pedestal of wisdom and respect. I live in the West and this year I am sixty years of age.

Of course I do not feel it. Despite a dodgy knee, an occasional back issue every few years and a recovering elbow tendon I am still the person I always was. Or am I? I came to photography as a young man filled with enargy and enthusiam but little knowledge. Today I have the latter and fight to retain the former. In this I believe that I am no different to any man or woman my age.

My local hardware store actively employs older people who have knowledge beyond what is in stock and on the shelves. I like that. It gives me a sense of wellbeing knowing that I am being served not just being sold to. Knowledge and experience is hard to gain, it takes time and effort. It takes failure and hardships as well as success and achievement. Its the same with photography as it is with selling paint and tools. Unfortunately, this mind set is rarely seen as a positive when employing a photographer.

Photography has a tendency to ‘feed off itself’ and continually want the ‘new thing’, the latest name, the new young buck to feel as if it is relevant. I am reminded of the song by Jacques Brel titled Le Bourgeois (The Middle Class), in which three young men ‘cock their noses’ and ‘show their asses’ to the establishment when young only to find themselves having the same done to them as they replace the aged men of their youth. This sense of cyclical replacement is the reality of aging but in a medium that feeds on the new and the young for its vibrancy this process can not only remove income it can also destroy confidence and a sense of worth.

The hope for many photographers as they grow older is that their hard work is either recognised by a revaluation of their worth by the young commissioners or that their archive is in itself recognised as has having relevance and value. Sadly, both of these observations are rare.

Throughout the 1990s I saw myself as a sort of ‘phoenix from the flames’ figure working as an art director, bringing back photographers to the commissioned world who had been forgotten or dismissed. It may be hard to imagine but Don McCullin, Jean Loup Sieff, Abbas, Leonard Freed and William Klein were all in this category at that time. They were not holding major exhibitions, selling large quantities of prints or regularly working for magazines when I contacted them and offered each one of these great photographers work. Work they were grateful to undertake. I still have the letters of thanks to prove it!

All of these photographers have since re-invented themselves or been re-invented and their work lives on through books, exhibitions and print sales. But they are some of the fortunate few.

The challenge for the aging photographer is to remain relevant and avoid bitterness. The industry constantly evolves and a desire for the return of the past is a pointless and fruitless hope that is both negative and destructive. It doesn’t make new friends and it is that need to make new friends that is key to maintaining the required relevance. A willngness to listen to new approaches and beliefs. You dont have to agree with them but you do need to listen to them and be able to reflect and analise what you hear to your benefit.

We can’t stop the passing of time, unless of course you take that to mean the very essence of making a photograph. Which I suppose in the simplest sense it is. But we can accept the passing of time in how we approach our photography and the expectations we have from participating in the medium. Our expectations must change even if we do not wish them to just as our reasons for making images will change. That is natural and reasonable. When we are young we may not have the wisdom to understand or accept this but as we grow older we do and we must. As Brel so passionately sang, “Your heart feels so right, Your eyes swim in the beer, Where the bar room lights are hung, With your friend Jojo, And with your friend Pierre, You drink a toast to being young, Jojo thinks he’s Voltaire, And Pierre, Casanova, And me, who proudly did not care, Me, me, I was a lover, And at midnight, We watched the lawyers pass, Coming out of hotels which had real class, We showed them our good manners, And we showed them our ass, And, oh, how we sang.” A sentiment that Bob Dylan put even more succinctly, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Image: Jacques Brel ©Paris Match

Dr.Grant Scott
After fifteen years art directing photography books and magazines such as Elle and Tatler, Scott began to work as a photographer for a number of advertising and editorial clients in 2000. Alongside his photographic career Scott has art directed numerous advertising campaigns, worked as a creative director at Sotheby’s, art directed foto8magazine, founded his own photographic gallery, edited Professional Photographer magazine and launched his own title for photographers and filmmakers Hungry Eye. He founded the United Nations of Photography in 2012, and is now a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, and a BBC Radio contributor. Scott is the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019), and What Does Photography Mean To You? (Bluecoat Press 2020). His photography has been published in At Home With The Makers of Style (Thames & Hudson 2006) and Crash Happy: A Night at The Bangers (Cafe Royal Books 2012). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was premiered in 2018.

Scott’s next book is Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is on sale now wherever you buy your books.

© Grant Scott 2024

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Last Update: 07/09/2024