I'm wondering what you think about the state of photo culture today. The other day in the context of the recent all-male Nikon ad, we talked, implicity or explicitly, about whether women feel sufficiently welcomed, included, rewarded or encouraged in photography today. But in a more global sense, I wonder about how welcomed, included, rewarded or encouraged all people feel in this field today.
Essential for success
One necessary condition of human accomplishment is that the conditions for it have to be favorable. Michael Jordan wouldn't have been a great basketball player if he had been born in 1763 instead of 1963, for example—for the simple reason that basketball hadn't been invented yet. Would he have been outstanding at something? Possibly. But he wouldn't have been, as his website says, "By acclamation...the greatest basketball player of all time."
Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers that Shakespeare emerged at a time when theater was a huge craze, the absolute rage, the number one most popular pursuit in the whole culture in England; but just a few decades later Oliver Cromwell closed down all the theaters. What would have happened if Shakespeare had come to maturity in Cromwell's time rather than the time of Elizabeth I? There would still have been a man named William Shakespeare, of course, but would there have been an "Immortal Bard"? Would we all still be reading MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet down to the present day?
The Beatles didn't have to come along in 1963–70, but they couldn't have had the same impact in the same way in, say, the era of sheet music sales prior to the advent of recordings. (Or now, for that matter.) Mick Jagger has said that in the history of recordings, there were only about fifteen years when it was possible for musicians to make a lot of money selling records. Almost all of the best-selling albums "of all time" don't come from this decade or the last one—Adele's "21" is the highest-ranking album from this decade so far, and it comes in at #11 on the all-time list.
One of my old colleagues at Model Railroader magazine once confided to me in a conspiratorial whisper that the heyday of the railroads lasted only from about 1870 to 1910. It was downhill after that. Shhh! The hobbyists might hear you. (Me, I'd tag the decline to the time cabooses disappeared from trains, a sad, sad state of affairs. Proper trains need cabooses.) The most popular bike path in England is a former railroad right-of-way between Bath and Bristol—and, according to Michael B. Clifford's movie Bicycle, more people ride bikes on the trail now than the trains that ran the same route used to carry!
How about photographers?
In one sense, photography has always been a difficult field and it has never been very easy to carve out a career, or a living, or a reputation, or a significant body of work. And sometimes when people managed one of those tricks they didn't manage one or more of the others (Vivian Maier did the last, for example, but not the other three.) And in another sense, all of the paths that photographers ever had for success are still open today, and more—there are still photojournalists working for newspapers and magazines, still artists selling pictures sprinkled with ironic detachment* for large sums in galleries and publishing exquisitely designed books, still professionals making a living shooting on commission for companies for good pay—and you can publish your own work on the Web today, make single photobooks, find a following on social media, and so forth.
But I don't think anyone would be tempted to argue that nothing has changed. I think it's become much harder to make any sort of dent these days than it was when I got into photography in 1980. How welcomed and encouraged by the culture at large are ambitious, gifted photographers today? Do they feel rewarded and included? Do newcomers feel there are possibilities in the field? How about room for them personally—is it easier or more difficult now to carve out a career, a living, a reputation, or a significant body of work that influences others?
In short, are conditions in the culture favorable for photography right now?
How about for individual photographers?
Food for idle cogitation. I've been letting these questions rattle around in my brain lately. (I've got the perspective of 37 years in the field now, and I hope to leverage that fact to learn something!)
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Featured Comments from:
Thomas Rink: "I'm an amateur and took up photography in 1982. Back then in Germany it was difficult for a 16-year-old to obtain photography-related literature and photo books. In order to see photographic work I went to the local Art museum (the Folkwang in Essen); their book store also had some interesting books. The big change was the advent of the World Wide Web. There is now an abundance of work to look at. Books in all major languages are easily obtainable. Lots of online tutorials ranging from mastering Lightroom to, say, bookbinding are at one's disposal. For me, the challenge is to make the best of all this without getting lost."
John Krumm: "In the spirit of the Internet, let me first acknowledge that I don't know, and then proceed to answer anyway.
"I think times are tough for all serious artists these days, not just photographers. Yet at the same time there appears to be a lot of good work going on. I just went to an opening at a local museum (The Tweed) featuring selections from their permanent collection (many big names) alongside some impressive contemporary regional photographers. It was a fun show, and the locals held their own.
"Ultimately the artistic life seems like a somewhat lonely pursuit, but at different periods in our history there are bursts of output and involvement which does allow for some of these individuals a little more contact and camaraderie with like-minded folks. I don't think we are in one of those periods, but I suspect we will see one over the next twenty years, in concert with some strong political change. That's what I hope."
Ken Tanaka: "'Photography' encompasses several largely independent cultures, each containing various subcultures. Women's representation in those with which I'm familiar seems mainly a matter of women's choice than men's. For example, the vast majority in the website-centric crowd are hobbyists/enthusiasts, not full-time vocational photographers or committed photographic artists. Women tend not to go in for the gear-headedness so prevalent on the Internet so they may seem underrepresented or maybe even unwelcome.
"But when I see some of photography's other circles—vocational and the arts—women seem very well represented. In fact, it seems that they dominate some of the subcultures there. It's been my impression that women tend to be much more goal-oriented in photography than men of similar ages. They don't care a bit if they're using an older camera model with a slower lens. They care about their images and what they're trying to present. Consequently they seem to be making far deeper and broader headway in photography's arts circles than men today.
"Separately, some day someone will do a study to see how photography changed when its medium shifted from chemical to digital. Photography has, as you've noted, been an activity open to everyone throughout most of its history. Business people, store clerks, accountants, plumbers...all had access to photography. But the conversion to digital initially attracted an influx of people (mainly males) who were comfortable with computers—mainly those who worked as computer programmers or technicians. That massive specific influx must have had various lasting impacts on photography, separately from the tech changes, no? I wonder what history might eventually tell us about this."
John Camp (partial comment): "I think the concept of photography as a 'field' may be breaking down. It's now available to anyone, and we regularly see cellphone shots on national news programs...and a lot of those shots are pretty good. In other art forms, you still generally have to know something, or be able to do something—dance, act, write, design buildings, mix paint, sculpt, play an instrument or sing. That's no longer true of photography in the widest sense.
"So here's a question: if we were to have a nationwide contest for the best photograph taken each day, how many would have been taken by professionals or advanced amateurs, and how many would have been taken by totally uninterested amateurs who happened to push the button at the right time? My money would be on the latter. That would not be the case with any of the other arts."
Mike replies: Good point, but I can think of exceptions. For instance, isn't it true that Kanye West can neither play any traditional instruments nor sing? And Jeff Koons has apprentices actually make his sculptures. He's the 'sculptural director' you might say. And you might remember the late bestselling author Leon Uris, who could not write, in a sentence-by-sentence sense, despite being a compelling storyteller who had something to say. (He failed high school English three times and never graduated from high school. Read any three paragraphs at random from any of his books and you'll see why.) Of course, some people who write sentences exquisitely either lack the ability to tell stories or have nothing to say, so that cuts both ways.
But exceptions don't negate your point.
David Comdico: "A few thoughts: There is nothing new about amateurs taking better photos than professionals. The history of photography includes the history of vernacular photography and the boundaries between the two are so vague that even talking in this manner is misleading. See Vivian Maier or Atget. Photography has had several fistfights with Art and they highlight something important: Photography is not Art. This is a lesson photography keeps teaching us. The Art that is created with it is hardly out of steam and won't be for as long as photographs continue to be central to our culture. Lastly, photography is itself a product of history. We are all much more the product of historical contingency then we'd like to admit. As such, the language that the early adopters and creators develop have a large influence on future practitioners, even when it's not conscious. This is the Anxiety of Influence where we belated souls resent the luck of those privileged few. Interestingly this creates its own momentum."