Friedrich Schiller, an early adopter and proponent of romanticism, stipulated that man should be a generalist, at least in the pursuit of the arts. He wrote his thoughts on this against the backdrop of an ever specialising society at the end of the 18th century, in particular in business and the crafts.
Schiller - in his letters ‘Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen’ - suggested that only where man is a ‘homo ludens’, i.e. a playing man, man truly fulfils his potential. He stressed the importance of playing in order to tap the full potential of being a human individual against the prevalent specialisation and mechanisation of society. His famous quote in this context was “… der Mensch spielt nur, wo er in voller Bedeutung des Worts Mensch ist, und er ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt…“. [‘…we are only fully human when we are playing…’]. And with playing he particularly meant literature and the fine arts.
[Dear Reader, bear with me… this blog entry has a connection to photography, as you will see in a moment…]
Building on these thoughts, fellow romantics Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis suggested a kind of universalism in the arts, not wanting to limit themselves to merely one kind of ‘poetics’... They coined the term ‘Universalpoesie’ [universal poetic] for that (which was meant not just to include poetry in the narrower sense but all art forms and even science). “Alle heiligen Spiele der Kunst sind nur ferne Nachbildungen von dem unendlichen Spiele der Welt, dem ewig sich bildenden Kunstwerk” [All holy plays of the arts are merely distant imitations of the infinite plays of the world, of an eternally shaping work of art.]
They studied literature, history, cultural sciences, philosophy, etc. at the same time and attempted to become an expert – or at least to generate original thoughts or works of art - in all of these subjects.
Coming back to photography or rather linking these thoughts to photography: in a recent interview Alec Soth said that like most writers do not want to be associated with or defined by just one subject or style, he does not want to be defined by one kind of work or style either - as evidenced by his most recent book ‘Dog Days Bogota’ and his fashion work recently in Fashion Magazine. (However it needs to be said that ‘Dog Days Bogota’ was shot on medium format before he shot his more famous bodies of work ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ and ‘Niagara’ in 8 x 10 and that his work in the fashion magazines bears his signature 8 x 10 format style). But in any case… in other words, Soth wants his leeway to ‘play’ in the field of photography…
Contrast this with photographers such as Marcus Bleasdale who builds a very successful career as a photographer on being a specialist in a certain region and a certain subject cluster. And my sense is that in the ‘industry’ the trend is towards ‘specialisation’ and that photo editors are more likely to assign work to photographers who are specialists in a chosen area or subject than to ‘generalists’.
As I am starting to reflect on my post-college life, and in particular on my photographic life, such questions become increasingly pertinent. I have always liked the idea of being a generalist, dabbling in a variety of subjects, not only limited to photography… The question is: how soon do I have to specialise and find ‘my’ field in order to make an impact as a photographer? …I hope that – in sticking with Schiller- I can still ‘play’ a bit more next year…