Our Photo Roots
December 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Just as the Renaissance masters of the 15th century teach and influence contemporary painters, images by celebrated documentary photographers W. Eugene Smith and Gordon Parks subtly influence how I see. Though I never try to copy them, their images are stored deep in my mental archive, and I cannot but help see them from time to time. These images shot in Florence, Italy, in 2017 are reminiscent of the work Smith did in the 1960s. © David LaBelle

Several years back, while asking students during the first week of classes where they were from, a football player shared he was a freshman running back from Chicago.

“Wow,” I said, “from the same city where one of my favorite running backs of all time played, Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet.”

He looked at me blankly.

I added that I photographed Sayers and Dick Butkus in the Pro Bowl once.

The class was unimpressed.

I politely asked the young man if he knew of Gale Sayers, who played for the Chicago Bears, was one of the greatest running backs ever and is in the Hall of Fame.

“No, sir,” he answered.

“You might want to look him up,” I suggested.

Though I tried not to show it, I was shocked and troubled someone from Chicago who wanted to play the same position
as Sayers didn’t know the legend. The young man had no idea of his football roots.

It would be like an African American baseball player not knowing Jackie Robinson, or a tennis phenom not knowing Bjorn Borg or Chris Everet.

I thought about how most of my photo students suffered from the same disconnect with photo history, with no idea of their photo heritage.

I gave my students a noncredit quiz to learn what they knew of pioneering photographers who shaped today’s camera-filled world.

The quiz includes brief biographies of 25 photographers, including 10 relatively contemporary ones: Matthew Brady, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorthea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon, Sally Mann and Annie Leibovitz.

Students fill in the blank with the name of the photographer being described.

In three years of giving this quiz to about 300 students, few have identified more than three. Often, the quiz is returned empty. A couple of students got 15 names right.

I understand ours is a very different photography world than even 30 years ago, when digital photography was born.

Modern technology seduces us with the present, but has little time for the past. Most today are far more interested in how many likes they get, how many selfies they take, and what celebrities are eating or doing than learning about photographers who came from prehistoric yesterday, like, before 1990.

Genealogy is big business today. Even National Geographic offers ancestry kits to discover who you are and where you came from.

Young people are hungry to know their roots.

For the documentary photographer, or any photographer, knowing your roots feels essential. History gives us context—not to copy, but to imitate and learn from.

As has so often been said, “How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we came from?”

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.