By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE NEVER PARTICIPATED IN THE STRANGE NEW RITUAL known as “Throwback Thursday”, the terminally adorable craze involving the online resurrection of antique photos of oneself or friends, the purpose of which is apparently to celebrate our poor tonsorial and wardrobe choices of bygone days. I keep most historic depictions of myself under lock and key for a reason, and making myself look retroactively more idiotic than I am already, well, someone needs to explain to me where the “fun” part comes in. Just because I was once stupid enough to sport a shag cut doesn’t mean a record of that sad choice constitutes entertainment in the interweb age.
As a photographer, however, I can certainly see the wisdom of re-evaluating the images themselves, meaning how they were shot, or whether, under the microscopes of time and wisdom, they deserve to be aesthetically exonerated. Humane anglers have always practiced the “throw the small ones back” rule when fishing, the idea being that, given a chance, a minnow might grow into a respectable catch, and I think it’s normal to revisit old photos from time to time, as a record of one’s growth. I would even argue that a “Fishing Friday” each week would be good for the needful habit of self-editing, or just learning to see, no less than spending one’s Thursdays with painful reminders that hot pants really aren’t a fashion statement.
Yes, I am an aging crank. And yes, I do believe, as Yogi Berra once said, that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But I also believe in learning from one’s photographic mistakes, and reviewing old prints and slides actually does give you a pretty reliable timeline on your development. As a matter of fact, I am on record as believing that failures are far more instructive than successes when it comes to photography. You study and ache and cogitate over failures, whereas you seldom question a success at all. Coming up short just nags at you more, and the surprising thing about latter-day re-examinations of your photographic work is that you will also find things that actually worked, shots that, for some reason, you originally rejected.
Recently, the Metropolitan Art Museum mounted a show of Garry Winogrand’s amazing street work drawn from the hundreds of thousands of images that he shot but never processed or saw within his own lifetime. His is an extreme case, but, even at our end of the craft, we generate so many photos over a lifetime that we are constantly challenged to have a true sense of what we did even last year, much less decades ago. When we “throw back” to images of our dear departed dog blowing out his birthday candles, we should also shovel into the past for the instructive, potentially revelatory work that might be lurking in other shoeboxes. It’s free education.