Edwin Land Says Stop Having Old Ideas, Or Does He?

It’s not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.

Such a powerful quote from Edwin Land, who has posthumously become one of my heroes. There are so many parts to it. When I broke it down, here’s what I found out it means to me: 

  1. There’s no absence of great ideas. We all have them. And we’re all excited about them. How many camera apps do you have on your phone? Each represents a great idea. One automatically improves exposure. Another adjusts contrast. A third makes printing easy. A fourth acts as a shoebox for your snapshots. All in service of making you a better photographer, a great idea into and of itself. 
  2. Great ideas often compete with other great ideas. That’s because technology changes. The economy changes. Society changes. These forces reshape the definition of what makes a great photographer. It used to be someone who had a great eye, fantastic equipment and a good workflow in the darkroom. Now it’s someone who can get closest to the action, post it to social media faster, and get it to more people on social media than anyone else. Two ideas. Neither right, neither wrong. Just different.     
  3.  New ideas usually win, but not by instantly replacing old ideas. Said plainly, disruption is a myth. It’s based on the belief that letting technology break apart a category is the best way for a new idea to prosper. It’s not. It’s the best way to sell new software. The best way to foster a new idea is to let people play with it, let them make it their own, and let them integrate it into their lives. That’s the story of photography on the iPhone. We may not remember this, but the first camera on the first iPhone seven years ago didn’t win any awards. The technology had to improve, and photographers had to play with the iPhone for a couple of years before they could invent iPhoneography, which recently has come into its own as an art form. It didn’t happen over night, but it happened. Patience has its virtues.
  4. Old ideas don’t die. They are simply remade. This brings me full circle. Recently I purchased an old Polaroid SX-70 from Impossible Project. I love shooting with it. It’s rekindled my love for film. The experience has also made me a better photographer, and increased my usage of Instagram. In fact, I’ve come to think of Instagram as a direct descendant of the SX-70. They sit side by side in my workflow. In other words, the old idea of removing the barrier between photographer and subject hasn’t died. It’s just been remade into something new.

In other words, Edwin Land may have said to stop having old ideas. I think he meant something else. Perhaps it’s time to start remaking old ideas. We might all be better off for it!

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