At What Age Do Photographers Do Their Most Influential Work?
Jacques Henri Lartigue
Just about anybody who’s been in my company for the last couple of years has heard me yammer on about photography and aging. The best creative years for a photographer, I’d proclaim, are 20 to 40, but the peak is 25 to 35. Of course I’d mention the exceptions, but taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person’s game.
The thing that got me started on this train of thought was reading a New York Times article from 2010 entitled How Old Can A ‘Young Writer’ Be?:
They (fiction writers) often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking,” Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.
Reading this at the age of 40, I began to picture myself as Wile E. Coyote still running after he’s off the cliff. The decline seems inevitable.
But is it? From in-depth quantitative studies, University of Chicago economist David Galenson has proposed two kinds of artist greatness. One he calls Young Geniuses (conceptualists who do their best work early in their careers). The other group he calls Old Masters (those who work by trial and error and improve with age). According to Galenson, Picasso (Young Genius) peaked at age 26 whereas Cezanne (Old Master) peaked at 67.
Does Galenson’s theory apply to photographers? I have no idea. What I need is data. Here is a chart analyzing the ages of philosophers and their influential contributions (peak age is 38-44). What would such a chart look like for photographers? I have a funny feeling my 25-35 guess might still be right.
What do you think?