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Friday, 30 May 2014


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Incidentally, given how famously hard it is to proof-read one's own work (truism in the book production world, where I have many friends), you do a remarkably good job! I notice fewer typos in your articles here than I do in professionally published books on paper (even 30-year-old books). (I don't, of course, count the comments against you!)

Always good to see both sides. It helps to confirm you were right all along.

Mike, bravo for what has been (for me) a high water mark in your writing and an important contribution to a fascinating conversation. You're bringing important nuance to a complicated landscape, particularly with regards to crossovers that exist between the popular, professional, and elite domains of photographic practice that I look forward to sharing with my digital media students as we discuss, as my colleague Miles Coolidge has put it, "wither photography." As always, a pleasure.

ps. A book suggestion: give what you've started and the quality and variety of your respondents (which, as previously noted, is one of the unique strengths of TOP), perhaps some of this could be compiled? This is such an important moment, for all the reasons you've described.

A rant? No.
It was a lamentation.
And now, I'll go and throw myself off the roof.

(Actually, that was what I was planning to do even before I read these last two posts—I'll be hanging from a rope, on bosun's chair, repairing windows on a completely inaccessible side of the house.)

Just a comment about your "old jobs". Looking at them with over a decade hindsight, maybe it's best to look at them as training, rather than jobs. That training is what gave you the background and credentials to excel at your current job. So this isn't only about a change in the culture of the photography workplace, it's also about a personal career progression.

I wonder if the photography profession is the canary of set of occupations that we will see rapidly diminish over the next decade? Much like the independent printer was 25 years ago, or steel manufacturers were 40 years ago.

"Old: Difficult 13-mile daily commute that took between 50 minutes (best case) and two hours and 20 minutes (worst case), each way, on clogged, potholed Chicago city streets ..."

My brother tells me that Chicago's potholes have evolved into something akin to craters ...Lol

I believe it is important to recognize that stages in life may or may not coincide with improvements or declines. Looking back, we can see how some items contributed to how we got to where we are today, but we tend to forget that where we were then was the "today" of that time. I've had a great career in two different industries and achieved significant successes. Yet, those successes pale in comparison to the joy I get in seeing my two daughters grow up.

How this relates to photography is that photography has never been more than a small side income for me. Yes, that has been a frustration, but it has also been a blessing as I've been able to achieve a much greater success elsewhere. Regrets? Absolutely none. But each of us must live through the "big city experience" before we realize what really is important in our lives. Just becoming a high wage earner doesn't mean that streets and schools will be named after us.

"...what about the person out there who's been working hard for three years doing inventive, original work who's just about to quit because he or she hasn't gotten the faintest ripple of interest from anyone?"

Does this mythical photographer actually exist? And if they do, I'd like to know how much effort they've put into getting their work out there. Vivian Maier did a great job of hiding her work, and it was through pure luck that we now get to enjoy it. I wouldn't expect a talented photographer to keep working for years, never show their photographs to anyone, and then become famous.

I can only look at myself as an example. I photograph as a hobby and I don't put much effort into it. I'm not that good of an editor of my work, and most of my photos go to Flickr (and prior to that to Wikimedia Commons which includes Wikipedia). My effort at getting my work shown involves posting to Flick groups and tagging. I do occasionally submit to contests (TOP included) but I can only surmise that I'm not talented enough to win at those. Mostly the viewers find me on their own. I would consider this effort truly minimal for getting my work out there. Nonetheless I have gotten my photos published in books, magazines, seen on TV news, etc. I keep getting random requests out of the blue for usage of photos I've taken years ago and all but forgotten about. I haven't gotten much money out of this, but neither have I sought paid opportunities. What money I have received has just been offered to me without even asking for it. I'd consider that pretty good interest for my amount of effort and talent.

I challenge you and your readers to give us a couple of examples of *talented* photographers that have put *some effort* into getting their work out there and gotten but a faint ripple of interest.

I suppose by definition they'd be difficult to find, but I don't think there are that many of them. And if don't hear from them, why should we keep bringing them up as a theoretical example?

[I hate to be the bearer of good news when the recipient apparently is uninterested in hearing it, but have you considered the possibility that you're actually really GOOD? Are you...jumping on those opportunities? Your report of your successes sounds pretty great to me! And I can pretty much guarantee that not everybody on Flickr is getting their pictures "in books, magazines, [and] seen on TV news." I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I'd bet my house on it. Just sayin'. --Mike

P.S. Oh, and I note that you missed this opportunity to link to your Flickr page. I for one wanna see it.]

DH replies: Hello Mike, I didn't want to seem like I was pandering for views, but since you asked :) here's my Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/liroi/ I do have an album on Milwaukee: https://www.flickr.com/photos/liroi/sets/72157607150812466 Like I mentioned I'm not a good editor, so there is a lot of photos to dig through there. I also should mention that I used to license many of my images under Creative Commons, good for exposure, not so good for financial gain necessarily. If someone is hoping for making some money perhaps they should consider licensing some of their work under Creative Commons and parlaying that exposure into licensing their other work. I had asked people to mention me as the photographer when using my work as an easy way to find out usage of my work (for those that complied) is to simply use Google: http://bit.ly/1kbAdB2 It's amazing to see all the different usage of my work. Even the Milwaukee Chapter Piano Technicians Guild uses one of my shots, go figure...

This may be the shortest comment I've ever posted: "Bravo!" :-)

The changes we see in photography are really only a small part of the 'camera based' changes in technology. Much of this is based on the software to analyze and make decisions based on the analysis. Face detection in some cameras is a minor part of the face recognition capability loved by gambling casinos (and elsewhere). Similarly, focus tracking is a small segment of the ability to detect motion, and track objects used in many security cameras. And as the military know, if you can track it, you can shoot at it. We are in the midst of a major technological (r?)evolution, based on computers, commonly known via offshoots such as automation, robotics, and/or artificial intelligence (AI). Some areas are well known such as industrial and surgical robotics. Others, such as computational intelligence and swarm intelligence are known mostly by those working in these areas. As yet, many of these haven't made noticeable changes to our lives,but that will come. What the world will be like in 50 years is anybody's guess. And that includes photography. The only constant is change, and over the last century and a half, the rate of change seems to be accelerating.

Sorry if I hit a sensitive spot with the "rant" comment - I actually mean it in the generic not specific meaning. But I guess I can take at least partial credit for the expansion of your thoughts on the subject in today's post.
I do however have to say that everyone must realize that photographers are not the only ones who have lost jobs due to technology. After 50 years in technology businesses I have seen hundreds of thousands of workers laid off because technology made their jobs/products/companies obsolete.
Generally it is not their fault. Forecasting what the future will bring is impossible, knowing how to respond is very difficult, finding something else to do is a problem.
Stopping it won't happen. Adapting to changing circumstances as you - and I - have done is the only recourse.
(Now I will shut up for another few months,,,)

[No worries Jim, and please, no reason to shut up. --Mike]

Mike, your candour and genuine empathy is what makes TOP so extraordinary. Bravo.

I read JC's typically informed response and have to agree. We don't REALLY know if things are worse or better than they were, when looked at objectively. The old saying about one door closing and another opening is something of a homily - in truth it is never a 1:1 ratio.

But it is a classic symptom of human nature to keep looking in the same stable for the horse that bolted, instead of looking for a new stable down the road.

I intimated in a previous post that pro-activity is better than no-activity. Even if the net result is the same, you learn more from the former than the latter. I genuinely think photography is on the verge of a new, democratised renaissance, and that TOP has a role to play.

Hell, with nearly 100,000 visitors a DAY you are a de-facto institution with a turnover that most galleries would kill for. Let's go and find the good stuff and make things happen, dammit! We can cover 100 X more ground than any curator or art dealer ever could, and the more debate and contention the better. Lets look at the pictures....

I agree with everything else in today's and yesterday's article except the comment that people who really like photography will find a way to eke out a living from it. I know many people who like myself made a conscious decision not to earn a living from photography. I have always liked to travel and to photograph. I still remember when on primary 3 class we got World Atlases. Soon I started to plan road trips to cross Africa, how to go from Europe to Asia by road, from Northernmost Canada all the way down to the tip of Chile. I got my first camera around the same time and started taking some photographs. I got my first proper camera at age 11, a fixed lens 35mm rangefinder. From that moment on, I was a photographer. I got an OM1 SLR at age 14 and still have that camera. That was 35 years ago. Now I work in an international company. I can buy all the cameras I want, too many in fact so that for many years I have made firm decisions that this year I will not buy any cameras or lenses, or this year I only buy one lens. I travel between 160-210 days every year, get paid for it probably better than 99% of professional photographers, with no deadlines or difficult customers, editors or PR staff to please. So no, I would not want to try to make a living from photography. I have sold some pictures. I have published a book. But I am quite happy just being an amateur. Thank you very much.

In both of these threads there are several commenters who speak sadly of the lack of traffic to their websites, but don't even leave a URL. This kind of reinforces John Camp's point that you need a ferocious will to get noticed - and here we have people who have the opportunity to at least step on to the lowest rung, and they don't even try. More's the pity - I consider links from TOP readers to generally be well worth a visit.

Also as maybe a corollary to John's point, from a sample of relatively succesful landscape photographers I know, the opposite side of the coin to being highly driven is that they're actually not very nice people, and would happily sell their grandmothers to get a credit in National Geographic. Nice guys don't win at this game. But if you really want it, the opportunity is still there.

I've been blogging since around 2003, and spent an inordinate amount of time building my own site and trying to keep it fresh. I get maybe 70 hits on a good day, and I haven't got the courage to find out how many of those are "real" . At least once a week I decide to give up, but then I come up with something to publish. I've come to realise that least in part it functions for me as a conversation with myself, as a diary, and I'm fairly sure that it has had a positive effect on my photography. And if I haven't built an audience of 10000000 a day, or a fawning fanbase, I've made a few quality contacts that I cherish. I won't ever be succesful in the sense of fame & fortune, because fundamentally, I don't want to be. I'm not that person, I don't have that drive.

But hey, if anybody wants to "blip" my daily stats, come on over to http://www.snowhenge.net :-)

Mike, and John Camp,
In terms of the ratio of fans to artists, the internet does enable something different than the Salon of 1880. The internet enables each fan to live in a universe of their choosing, for as many years as they like. It's always 1880; if I like 2008 type HDR, I can always buy HDR, and chances are I can buy it from the same photographer for the next 20 years or so. The size of the fanbase might be small, but in 1880, or even in 1980, who's going to stay in the business of painting or photography to sell one or two photos every few years? Now the audience can be larger, and the timescales longer.

Let me give you an example. About an eternity ago, from 2001-2004, a certain webcomic was extremely popular. Crashed other people's websites popular. But updates slowed, and the fanbase wandered away. It was specialized to begin with - the typical reader had to be excited about gaming and 1990-2004 era anime to really get into it. Last summer, the author did a Kickstarter to do a dating sim version, and people who hadn't read in years - in some case ten years - pitched in to make it happen. 4,958 backers, and just shy of 300,000 in pledges. (Yes, it was Megatokyo.)
I wouldn't conclude that fame is eternal on the internet, but that it can be, and even if you are only famous to a small group of people, you don't have to disappear.

For my own work, I know what I want to do, and who my audience is, and now I know what my timescale is. My job is to produce a body of work, a mass of chronologically arranged images for my children, and for their someday-children. In about 40 years, my kids, having grown up in a world awash with images, will want to flip through their childhood to show their kids. Another 40 years later, I'll be long gone, but they'll want to see and rehearse what their lives looked like. 40 years after that, their kids will have questions about how their childhoods were similar to and different from their own. One hundred twenty years, and an audience of...I don't know. Maybe three? Maybe ten?
I'd like to show them the world they cannot record themselves, and I'd like there to be quite a few beautiful, aesthetically thoughtful photos in there, a portfolio or two of themes that were important to me. We don't understand our parents or grandparents as grown-ups like us, because we never meet them that way. But they could meet my work, and see for themselves.

I started in street photography as a boy in NYC around 1970; after a year with a 2nd hand Voigtlander I bought a Minolta SrT101 with my Bar Mitzvah money and hung out with photographers in a corner of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park (one of them sold me my first enlarger and darkroom equipment when I was 14). I even earned money at it in my early 20s; enough to pay for my equipment and darkroom supplies though it wasn't my full-time job.

In my late twenties work and family intervened - I gave my darkroom to a local school and put my cameras away. Then, when I was about 40, I discovered the joys of modern cameras: digital, autofocus and became an avid street photographer again and I haven't looked back. I maintain a blog on which I post 3 new photos daily (blog-worthy if not portfolio-worthy), http://obBLOGato.wordpress.com; a commercial site where you can buy prints (islerphoto.zenfolio.com) and a facebook page (2 old photos a day) + links to other street photography and street art stories, https://www.facebook.com/NYPPL. I also crosspost from the blog to twitter, tumblr and google+. I've had a few local shows including one in a real SoHo gallery (http://www.terraingallery.org/NYC-Photoshow-2011/Adam_Isler_2011.html).

And every time I meet people who like my pictures or are interested in them they always say, "you must love HONY (Humans of New York)." Grrrr. I hate HONY.

I think the HONY guy has done an amazing job. My own daughter "likes" his FB posts more than she "likes" mine (I use like in the new verb sense of hitting the "like" button). He admits he was not a photographer when he started out. He just decided to photograph 10,000 NYers and learn a little something personal he could post about them. It's fascinating and well done. But it represents one of the key changes and disruptions in "photography" today. I don't want to make prideful comments about my own photography but, by and large, I think my photographs of people in NY are better photographs. I've been doing it for over 40 years and nobody pays attention. But in the modern age what he's doing is much more successful and I guess it deserves to be.

HONY is capturing something that lots of people can relate to. His portraits are clear and colorful and the personal quotations definitely add something that creates a feeling of connection (or consanguinity). It's not B&W like most of mine and it doesn't capture candid, unnoticed moments and interactions between people like mine generally do. And I'm using myself here to represent the legions of excellent street photographers who have mined NY for generations, now. But my 14-year old daughter's generation think HONY invented street photography.

I'm one of those over-50 guys Kirk Tuck wrote about after the Photo Expo in NY last year. The old generation, concerned with issues that today's snapshooters needn't bother with (like understanding how apertures and shutter speeds interact). Photography isn't what it was when I was coming up and that's hard to get used to. HONY's actually very good - it's just not what photography used to be and I'm having a hard time adjusting to the resentment I feel that I missed the window...

The same thing is happening with music. As an interested but outside listener, there just seems to be a million meaningless microcultures. Certain bands and performers used to define the years/decades you grew up in, whether you liked them or not. There were reference points. What is there now?

My head hurts.

My last thought to offer to this ongoing conversation: Photography, in all its media and technologies, is led by the young. Always has been, always will be. Fresh eyes, naive bravery, unselfconscious choices, boundless and unfettered focused energy. That's what we've always celebrated most in photography. And it's what always will be celebrated, however that celebration takes place.

[You seldom say things I disagree with completely, but this is one.

Youth cultism was invented for advertising purposes in the first half of the 20th c., when it was discovered that people tend to follow brand loyalties throughout their lives. Get ‘em young and you stand a chance of keeping ‘em. Older people tend to say things like, “I’ve been brushing my teeth with Colgate for fifty years and I’m not changing now.”

Youth cultism has been bad for a lot of things. Writing is one. If you’re just looking for fashions and neomania, then yeah, I suppose the young determine what’s “hot.” (I don't even like that expression!) But to the idea that someone has to be young to be doing good work, bah. While it might be true that youth is when we do things that aren’t sensible, like working hard for minimal reward, photographers can do great work at any age.

I’ve always thought its anti-ageist nature was one of the good things about photography.

But we can agree to disagree. --Mike]

Sorry, but I have to laugh at DH's comment. Everyone I know with photos on-line gets inquires from people who "love it" and who would like to use it, but can't pay, or can't pay much. Talk to us when you start selling your stuff for 'real' intellectual market rates, that you have to survive on, raise a family on, pay for medical insurance on, and save for retirement on. When you come up with that figure, see how many people are buying in and supporting you...

...yeah, I thought so....

"But we can agree to disagree." --Mike

Indeed, we can, Mike. But, to clarify my remarks, I certainly did not claim that older folks can't do good work. Nor did I say that young-styled work ("youth cultism"?) reigns persistently supreme.

Rather, I was observing that the landmark pathfinding work throughout photography's history has been principally done by young people in their 20s and 30s. Robert Frank was in his early 30's when he shot "The Americans". Koudelka was 30 when he risked life and limb to shoot the "Invasion 68" work. Bruce Davidson was 24 when he joined Magnum and was still in his 20s when he photographed work such as "Brooklyn Gang" and "Circus". Richard Avedon was 23 when he began shooting for Vogue and Life. Stephen Shore was a teen when he started hanging around Andy Warhol's studio, was 28 when he got his first Guggenheim grant (for work that became "Uncommon Places") and was given a solo show at the Met when he was 24. William Klein was just 26 when he was shooting the work that would become "New York", arguably some of the most influential photographic work of the 20th century. Heck, Henry Fox-Talbot was in his 30s (albeit, just) when he INVENTED photography!

And on, and on. Yes, there are some exceptions. But that's exactly what they are. There are far more examples of older photographers extending their careers in new directions. But their attention is derived largely from work they did as youngsters.

"Fresh eyes, naive bravery, unselfconscious choices, boundless and unfettered focused energy." is what I claimed as being the historically key ingredients that have produced inflections in photography's trajectory. I rest my case.

To Kenneth Tanaka's point, and Mikes point, I really can't disagree with either, Mike IS right, and 40 years in advertising tells me that, but Kenneth is right, but for the wrong reason. He's ascribing mythic proportions to youth, which in a lot of cases is really just "don't know any better", or "doesn't have any worries". It's easy to do the types of things that make waves in photography, when you have no responsibilities, aren't married and don't have a family to support, and don't worry about health care. I've seen some great and weird photographic essays over the years, but the number one indentifier for their success is, the opportunity to concentrate on the subjects at hand, for long periods of time, without being worried by outside influences. One cannot ride the rails and live in hobo camps with new bohemians, and take their pictures, while also wondering how they're going to get back for juniors piano recital.

I surely come down on the side of the argument that there are many more great photographs being taken today than any time in the past... the issue is really one of finding and recognizing them. FLICKR shows me more wonderful photographs every few weeks than are in my 100's of books... though many are not part of some photographer's unique and pervasive "style". And at times I have spent hours just clicking photos of things for sale on Craig's List as a way to see the parts of people's lives that are unintentionally projected. Perhaps these people are not great photographers (based on the lack of sophistication in their intent?) but in many instances they produce what I feel are great photographs. It is harder for trained photographers to make a living today simply because almost everybody can make impressively good pictures... and with a bit more intent a great many people can make impressively good photographs.

Photography is a lot like music. A great many people can play an instrument for personal enjoyment. Many can play well enough to entertain friends. A few have both the talent and ambition to play professionally. But most choose to differentiate their hobby from their profession. This has always also been true of photography... and I think will increasingly be true.

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