Late Bloomers vs Genius: Experimental vs Conceptual

Great Post over at JM Colberg's Conscientious today. I too was completely fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell's article on genius and youth.

I read the article twice on the plane coming home yesterday. I can't remember the last time I underlined text in a magazine.

Colberg's post today is interested in the idea of age and why someone later in life cannot be an "emerging photographer." And that is certainly an ever-present conversation in the photo world. (Here''s a recent example where Cara Phillips calls Brian Ulrich an elder statesman. Elder statesman? Brian was born in 1971.)

But back to Gladwell's article: it is entitled "Late Bloomers" and begins with a description of writer Ben Fountain's experience with his novel "Brief Encounters." Fountain quits his job at 30 to become a writer and it takes him thirty trips to Haiti and eighteen years to make his "breakthrough" as a "young" writer. At the age of 48?

Gladwell then looks at a study by University of Chicago Economist David Galenson testing the theory that poetry is considered the domain of youth. Galenson used 47 poetry anthologies since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. The top eleven poems were written at an average age of 37.09 ( I had to do the math) which easily dispels the myth that "lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age."

Gladwell then looks at Galenson trying to understand the artworld examples of Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso churning out masterpieces at 20 is widely considered a genius. Versus Cezanne, who's greatest work is from his later years. (Cezanne's later works are 15 times more valuable at auction than his early work.) Was it just the idea that the market failed to discover the genius of Cezanne or was his early work just not all that good?

The real kicker for me is the difference in the creative process. Picasso disdains the idea of his work having anything to do with search or exploration. Picasso claims in an interview "to have never made trials or experiments." While Cezanne would have sitters for portraits return over and over again. Cezanne speaks often of his work being about search and seeking.

Galenson's idea then, is that creativity can really be divided into two camps: experimental versus conceptual.

And therefore the idea that youth and genius go together is really based on more the idea that it takes time to do work that is more about evolution - about research and experiments. About seeing how the world looks photographed. Galenson describes "late bloomers" as working "the other way around." "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental."

The lesson then, is that if you want to be a genius photographer, you must do work at a young age that is not at all tentative or experimental. It cannot evolve and it must be conceptual and from the beginning have a clear idea of where it's going.

What photographers does this remind you of? I think I may work on a list of conceptual versus experimental photographers. Genius versus Late Bloomer?


Cara said...


You misunderstand, I referred to Brian that way because of success level partly, but more importantly Brian is incredibly generous with advice and encouragement to those of us who are "emerging." Even if we are only a couple years younger than him.


Russell Kaye said...


Point taken.. I just assumed you used "elder" because of his age-

On an aside, I enjoyed seeing your work in Atlanta a couple of weeks back. You were busy explaining the UV project to a couple of skeptics and I was busy wrangling my 6-year-old, otherwise I would've said "hi."