Written by Mike Johnston
If you want to be a famous photographer, concentrate on your hits.
Think about it. A great many great photographers can be distilled down to just one great photograph. Even if they've taken thousands of wonderful photographs in their lives and careers.
A great many more great photographers can be distilled down to a small number of great photographs that are all hits.
Almost no photographer is widely known by more than maybe a dozen photographs. (If you don't believe me, pick any photographer who is legitimately a famous name but whose work you're not intimately familiar with. Think of as many of his or her pictures as you can and jot them down. How many do you come up with?)
Finally, almost any great photographer can have his or her entire life's work synopsized effectively in less than a hundred pictures.
It's all about the hits. That's what will distinguish you from the great mass of your fellow practitioners. That's what will make or break your name recognition. A picture that stands for you in the minds of others will give people a "handle" by which to know you. It's almost like photographers aren't famous, their best pictures are.
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If I name a photographer, and you think of one photograph you identify most strongly with that name, chances are good that you, I, and other people will all be thinking of the same photograph. Let's try it. Steve McCurry. Rineke Dijkstra. Alec Soth. Think of one picture you identify most with each of those names. What three pictures come to your mind? Don't say it in a comment, just think of them. I'll put up the three pictures I'm thinking about tomorrow and you can see if we were thinking about the same ones.
(Of course, this won't work for photographers you haven't heard of. Guess that means they're not famous...to you.)
• • •
Can you think of a photographer you believe is famous, who doesn't have a picture that's a particular hit? I know too many photographers to do this, but maybe you can. (Eliot Porter comes to mind for me. There are always exceptions to every rule.)
• • •
On of the things that strikes me as funny about the digital revolution is that everybody gasses on about how digital allows them to take so many more exposures...and then that's exactly what they do. They come back from vacation bragging that they took 4,500 shots, or report that they took 85,000 exposures in the last calendar year. They put multiple variants of the same shot up on flickr. They upload hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of photographs to their websites.
No, no, no. That ain't the way to do it. Nobody ever got famous by taking lots of pictures. The only reason to take lots of pictures is to get better ones, not to just have more of them. The reason to take 4,500 pictures is because it might help you get a few that are really great instead of a few that are pretty good. If all you're getting is solid B+ shots, it doesn't matter if you get 50 of them or 500.
Well, not if your aim is to be famous.
• • •
Getting a hit is problematic. You gotta get off your ass and get out of the house, work hard, and produce lots of work to score a true hit. Most photographers just plain don't put in the time.
Promoting and publicizing your best picture or pictures is important, but, for the most part, I don't think you can decide what your hits are. It's not a matter of willing a photograph to be popular and recognizable. You can't force people to fall in love with something.
On the other hand, if you get a hit, it's good to have the presence of mind to recognize what you have and promote it. How? You can make a poster out of it. You can put it on the cover of your book. You can make promo cards and send them around to galleries. You can offer it for sale as a fine print.
You can be the picture's PR agent, in a sense.
Of course, none of that will matter much unless it's a picture people actually really like and respond to.
If some people do, though, others can be brought along. (Think of all those photographs you know where you think, "why is this famous? What's so good about it?" Those are pictures other people consider hits that just don't grab you, is all.)
• • •
I know famous photographers get sick of their famous hits. I heard recently that Paul Caponigro got so sick of printing "Running White Deer" that he declared a moratorium on making new prints of it. Did Ansel get sick of printing more than 800 prints of "Moonrise"? (Or did he just keep thinking, "I'm minting money, I'm minting money..."?)
One of my school classmates, Sarah Huntington, had a big hit in school, with a picture of two white cows on a country road on a foggy day. It was gorgeous. Everybody knew it was a hit. (And cows became Sarah's "property." I once showed a picture of a cow, and another classmate said, "You can't do cows! Cows are Sarah's." Still makes me smile.) So guess what? I exchanged emails with Sarah recently, and that picture is still selling for her, more than 25 years later. (I'll see if I can get a JPEG of it for you.)
• • •
Of course, not everybody has to be famous. Not everybody wants to be famous. But if you do, mind your hits. Keep on the lookout for them. Groom them. Nourish them. Help them along in the world. Nothing else matters as much, if fame is your aim.
©2013 by Michael C. Johnston, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Mark: "Yes, one or two exceptional shots will get you fame, however, I don’t think they will necessarily get you lasting fame. To take an example from another artistic field there are plenty of one hit wonders in the music world. If you look back at them after a decade or so a lot of people will not have a clue as to their identity, or possibly even recognise the song. To persist as a famous entity the musicians generally have to accompany those stellar hits with a wider body of work. It is not so important that this work is the same stellar level, but it has to be a consistent good output. The same can be said for photographers, while they are famous for their iconic images, they need to back those up with a good and consistent body of work. You are right though, unless you are a photographer or interested in photography you are much more likely to know the photographs than you are to know the photographer. Music wins out on that front!"
Mike replies: You're absolutely right Mark—"To persist as a famous entity [you] generally have to accompany those stellar hits with a wider body of work." True. But the hits are often what let the rest of the work live, and they're what get attention for work that wouldn't necessarily earn attention without the fame. Think of all the lower-level work by the Rolling Stones, for example, that never would have made it to the radio if they were a no-name band coming up in, say, the '80s. Work perpetuates fame, but fame perpetuates work, too.
[A different] Mark: "It is a really nice picture!"
bill vann: "Okay, I am not proclaiming to be great. But this post struck a chord.
"I have a severe spinal cord injury (SCI), barely able to shoot anymore, chronic, intractable, severe central pain syndrome (CPS) and nerve damage. TMI, but bear with me.
"Shrink says take something you love and work it...daily, as part of my therapy.
"Photography and music are my only enduring passions.I can no longer play classical guitar or piano, never will. But some days I can manage my NEX-7. And I have 40+ years' archive of photography.
"So I decide to post on an SCI support board a daily picture thread. Hopefully something new, and on days I can't manage (most), I rework or post something from my vast archives.
"Note I suck; well, not really, but after 40 years I am humbled at how much is, eh, trite, okay, nice, whatever, and how few 'winners' there really are.
"I committed to a one-year project and often physically cannot do anything, and at almost the one year mark I have posted about 50 pics and the forum humors me with my dog and odd, weird, he-took-too-many-drugs-today pics.
"I recall a quote from Ansel Adams about edit, edit, edit, then edit. Heck if I did that I might only have 25 seminal pics. And how would I justify all those cameras from my Burke and James to my Leicas and 'Blads.
"But fortunately it was a job and a passion and I never expected to be great.
"I loved this blog, really did. Would invite folks to look, but my dark side is interwoven and it is not pretty.
"Mike you add much to my life (except when I totally disagree with you and you become an idiot for a day or so, LOL).
"Thanks. Hope you are feeling well.
Joe Lipka: "As Cherie Hiser has said: 10,000 negatives 1,000 prints 100 good ones 10 great ones 1 is all they remember."
Ed Hawco: "Sometimes your hits can get away from you. In 1992, when I was a student, I went to the washroom next to the student darkroom before heading in for a few hours of developing and printing. I had a few frames of Tri-X left on a roll so I took a few shots of a line of urinals against the wall. Twelve years later I scanned a work print and put it on my photo blog. It is now the most copied, most stolen, and most viewed photograph I've ever taken.
"Do a Google image search on 'urinals' and you'll find it in dozens of places, often modified. It seems to be the 'go-to' image for people writing blog posts about men's room etiquette. An iPhone app developer used it (without permission) in its publicity for a pee-related app (don't ask).
"It's completely out of my control because it's been copied up to SmugMug and other sharing sites multiple times, always without permission or attribution. On a positive note, I was able to get a few of the people who used it in blog posts to give attribution and to link back to the original source, and I even got a couple of commercial sites to pay me a small fee for usage. The best news is that an advertising company in New Zealand paid me a handsome fee to use it on Billboards in and around Aukland (they came to me; I didn't have to go after them).
"But here's the thing; I'm not particularly upset over the fact that this photo of mine is in such wide circulation without attribution. I've made a bit of money from it, so that part's taken care of. But mostly it's because if I ever do reach a point where I'm 'known' for a photograph, I don't want it to be for a picture of urinals!"
Mike replies: Interesting, because that's a hit. That's how it works. It's just not what you wanted to be a hit! And you normally don't want to be anonymous behind your hits, although in this case you don't mind.
I suppose there are musicians, too, who are dismayed by the songs of theirs that become hits even though they know they have much better and more serious work, although I can't think of any examples.