« 'A Perfectly Beautiful Place' | Main | Protect Yourself »

Tuesday, 27 May 2014


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hmmm. Vivian Maier is the obvious counter-example, she was clearly not driven by need for an audience or any sort of recognition for her work. But there are others. Weston's Daybooks seem to say that during the important years he was not being that much rewarded for photography; he was doing it because he was driven to it, more than to make a living, it seems to me.

The splintering of cultures is an interesting and highly relevant topic. I've watched it happen with SF (now SF and fantasy); the odds of people knowing the same works I know is much lower than it was 30 years ago. And the odds of people much younger than me, with less interest in the older works, knowing the same works as each other seems to be even smaller than that. It was vaguely be possible to be familiar with all active authors in the field 30 years ago. It's thoroughly impossible today.

Hmmm; this is not unrelated to Gordy Dickson's "splinter culture" concept, though he had as a result of people going to separate planets, whereas we seem to be achieving it simply by browsing different web sites.

I think it's a great time to be making photographs. Not just snapshots, but any kind of photograph you want. That is, the concrete act of seeing a concrete image and then capturing it in your concrete camera and then being able to show it to concrete people is at a great place right now. The tools have never been better.

I have no way to judge if it's a great time for "photography" in the more abstract sense. I'm not even quite sure what "serious" photography is.

Surely people can do the work. But the nature of the work and how it is shared and displayed is changing, so whether that is "good" or not really depends more on you than anything else, I think.

Never has photography been so popular, never has it been so... devalued.

I have a different point of view.
Everything photo-related is so much more accessible and visible that more people are aware of the art of photography.
An example that is fresh in my mind; the two Vivian Maier documentaries are huge successes (for documentaries) because people are interested in the character, but also because of her art.
People asks themselves "what makes her pictures interesting, why I like her pictures more than mine?"
The knowledge is more available, the communities are more accessible. I've been a hobby photographer for 35 years but only recently I've begun looking into "photo art" books and not only technical ones, mainly because of TOP.

Respectfully disagree. As a Landscape photographer who started in the 1980's and had a darkroom in my basement. I find this is an amazing time for photography. Maybe not for the top echelon of famous photographers who "made it" and were known to all the magazine and book editors and museum curators and thus were known to all of "us" who got all of our information through them. Maybe they all get lost in the noise but for the rest of us this is a much better time.
Spend a few days perusing a website such as Fred Miranda on the landscape page and you will see some amazing work. But not only that but little old me can post and ask questions and learn and have hundreds of people from around the world look at my work. This would have been impossible previously. Add to this the technological improvements which have made panoramas, night photography, focus stacking with in reach of everyone. Plus the fact that learning and making mistakes has virtually no financial cost. It is an amazing time for photography. Sure, fewer may rise to the top to become known to all, but for everyone else it is a better more rewarding time.

Salbastio Salgado.

I think about 10 years ago was a great time for photography. The tyranny of digital had not killed all the Kodak color transparency material, excellent processing labs still existed in secondary cities, and a lot of the black & white film stocks were still there, as well as paper; relatively cheap digital existed for the first time (in the Canon Rebel). You could work any way you wanted and get support in almost any imaging capacity you needed.

Not so now. The ubiquitousness of digital has killed many labs, films, and papers for conventional uses. Many times you are forced to operate only one way.

I was amazed just today to see a body of work by someone. After looking at the prints, I thought: "...damn, whatever film emmulator he's using, it is dead on..." Then I found out that they were shooting with a Bronica and black & white film.

There are still a lot of us holding on, but it is long past the golden era. When I heard Kodak pulled it's last, and probably it's best ever, Ektachrome transparency emulsion, I was actually physically sick and realized it was all over but the crying...

That's a little like saying it's a great time for literature because we have such good word processors and can publish easily online or with digital books. It's a great time for bad writing that thirty years ago would not have made it far past the mailbox.

Your view of what photography should be might be generational, because of what past experiences you bring and how fond you are of those experiences.

My wife just found about a dozen National Geographic Magazines in perfect condition from the 1950s and 1960s. Thumbing through a few of the 1950's magazines, I was surprised by a couple things. First, how few photographs there were in the magazine in general and in the advertisements specifically.

The ads were almost all illustrations accompanied by very lengthy text - almost like the entire "storyboard" that we see discussed in Madmen. The images weren't even meant to stand on their own.

In the editorial stories, I thought that most of the images were very ordinary by today's standards. They certainly were limited by their equipment in terms of film speed and frame rates in some cases. But I also think the standard has been raised much higher for high-end professional editorial work at the same time that it has been lowered in many areas. Most of the images just weren't dynamic. They were static and flat. They were very painterly landscape across the board - even when shooting people. There is not much variety of perspective.

There may not be such high-profile, singular outlets such as National Geographic or LIFE, but there seems to be so much great photography out there. It may be more fragmented and there may be millions of crap images for every good one, but if you are a good editor of your content, isn't it an amazing time to view and consume photography??

But an analogy that may be of value. In grade school and high school, I was a huge U2 fan (still am) and I would seek out all things U2 - bootlegs, collectibles, etc. Now that I can easily find, and to some degree afford, anything I want at any time, the cult-like feeling I had for this stuff is gone. The specialness of your find or your collection is diminished in a world of infinite availability. But if you have maintained an interest in "collecting", wouldn't this infinite availability be a wonderful thing for the educated U2 fan??

All you say is true but (like the truth) isn't photography just becoming more layered? With the point-and-shoots and camera-phones as one highly-populated layer? "Serious" photographers, meaning everyone from committed amateurs to the heady heights of the top art and commercial people, work away just as before, in a different layer, and there is little contact or commonality between the two.

In fact, you could view them as completely separate, serving totally different needs, with the only (accidental) link being the use of an optical device.

A gem of a post. A truly erudite and accurate appraisal thanks, Mike.

I still believed it is the best time as all technologies from film or even first generation one is available. When many of these film camera and lens die in several decades time, a lot of what is now available is gone will be gone or at least for most people who like photography for its own sake.

For photography, as things are so available and whilst you lost those who may opt other arts as you said but also a lot of poor one like Weston in his days can be in due to the cheap technology.

I think there are millions of chinese has to do calligraphy once pens and paper was wildly available. We only got 10 or even less I can count as top calligraphy guys in that nearly 1000 years.

It will be a pyramid not a skyscraper stand like a sore thumb. We still will find best among many. And there is no guarantee you know Vincent when he was alive and may be he modern day incarnation is still learning this much more available craft.

Unlike piano which I think the current system might destroy any Chopin and Beethoven if they lived today, what you think if angel Adams started today being a wedding photographer first (as he is a commercial one) then later move onto this as an art. May still have a go.

I completely agree with you Mike. I think it relates to the discussion around ink jet prints that just about anyone can do. In the film and wet darkroom era, it was a challenge to make a technically competent print, regardless of its visual worth. Often, and I was guilty of this, we focused on the technique instead of visual excellence. Today, almost anyone can make a technically decent photograph, between zoom lenses, auto-focus, auto-exposure, and post processing, there's really no excuse for anything less. We continue to confuse the snapshot with the photograph. Not to be a snob about it, but partly because of the volume of images, few people spend any time at all looking at and analyzing an image. There are many wonderful photographers today; we are fortunate to have many where I live in the Portland, Oregon area. We are also fortunate to have an abundance of wonderful subject matter from the traditional beauty of the landscape to the quirkiness of our streets. I am very happy to have my photography as a non-commercial pursuit rather than the source of my food and housing. I cannot bear the word "hobby." To quote the great Al Weber, "Buying a Nikon and a roll of Kodachrome does not make you a photographer [snip]..Just like buying groceries does not make you a chef." It translates well to the digital era.

So, GbHE*, are there more potential big names who don't access photography today (but who would be great photographers if they did) because of the lack of attention and reward than there were who could not access photography in times past (but who would have been great photographers if they had) because of the greater technical difficulty of accessing photography then?

I.e., is the new gate for great photographers the same size as the old gate? Or smaller? Or larger -- in some proportion to the much larger new gate that current technology has created for all photographers and snap shooters?

I surmise that you at least fear the new gate is smaller; but, are you saying it is definitely smaller? (Or that you have good evidence it is smaller?)

*Great but Humble Editor

Your perception of photography can be applied to almost any "art," as all art is now part of the entertainment industry. How many young black men spend thousand of hours practicing basketball or rap music, with no meaningful chance of making it to the big-time, when they might, under other circumstances, have become perfectly good doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.? How many intense and intelligent young men want to play lead guitar, how many thousands of young women spend hundreds of painful hours taking ballet lessons or acting lessons only to come up short. If you live in Los Angeles (I just left there) I can tell you that the place is overrun with people who don't have quite enough talent -- and there seem to be more and more of them all the the time, a huge crushing wave of them. (When I moved house one time. I hired Actors and Movers, which are just what they sound like -- actors when they can. movers the rest of the time. My publishing company once hired a limo for me to go around LA, driven by a guy who was in one of the Fruit of the Loom underwear ads; that was the peak of his career, so far. Another limo, this one in Nashville, was driven by a guitar player whose brother was actually in a pretty good band, that never really got its head above water.) The draw is not only the desire to make photos, be in plays, dance, sing, or whatever, it's that we are constantly bombarded with images of unbelievably wealthy *young* people, who are presented by their PR people as "just one of you." And if Kim Kardashian can do whatever it is that she does, and be rich and famous, well, then why couldn't you? Certainly a lot better than spending six boring years in college studying concrete stress tables.

I'm seventy. Four months ago, I began studying guitar. I have an custom Bill Ayers version of a Strat, and a Gibson J-45. I give myself four years to make it. Seriously.

Tremendous piece, mike. You've nailed the central issue of our time, of photography.

I'll have to digest this more but I submit that you are actually one of the forces working to create order from chaos. You are central, to a degree, in sense that many many photographers come here, as well as people interested in photography.

You care.

And you work to curate collections of photos drawn from the chaos, with the help of all of us. This is one of those places where cream can rise and that is, to me, the most exciting thing about ToP.

I guess I don't see why one would think there's any less *photography* now than there was before. I think there just are a lot more ways of distributing that photography, and probably what hasn't kept pace is the ability to curate meaningful photographic content in such a way that it creates defining sets of work that ultimately create the same impact that Edward Weston did. That's to be expected when what used to be an art, science, and craft has now been democratized to the extent it has by digital photography.

I read a lot of the blogs of professional photographers, and I think there's as much superb photography now as there was 30 or 50 years ago, maybe more. I have some good friends that are really building a name for themselves (very deservedly so) as "fine art" photographers. In many circles that might arguably be viewed as the highest "bastion" of photography as a means of expression or communication. But everyone's sensibilities and sets of values around what photography means to them may be very different, but most impotently, no less valid. For me personally, I'm much more interested in editorial, photojournalism/street, and purely commercial photography than "fine art" photography.

This is a new golden age for photography. You just need to develop an eye and cut the chaff from the wheat. More people are making amazing art then ever before, and more people are seeing it. Wouldn't be wonderful if Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock had the kind of audience you have on your site for just one day.

There's so much to say on this topic that I don't know where to start and I don't want to drone on and on.

I do think this is a great time for photography. Our tools are better than they have ever been, certainly. I still marvel at the 1600 ISO files with no grain/noise that come from my M4/3 camera. I haven't forgotten Tri-X in Acufine and the fiction that you could get 1600 ISO out of it.

When I discovered photography in the 1960s I think it was in a period in some ways similar to what we have now. Photography was very popular and there were lots of places to show your work. If you were any good and wanted to, you could get a job at a local newspaper and see your photos in print every day. And photographers were admired and respected (well, maybe that's not a similarity to today).

But today, if you want to make a living as a photographer, you have a problem. Here's a little story that helped me understand the current situation:

I've done dance photography almost from the beginnings of my life as a photographer. Tri-X in Acufine in the bad old days. It was so hard to get a good photograph of a dance performance that any successful photo was a miracle. And the dancers saw it as such and were thrilled. The feedback from the dancers was very gratifying.

For many years my other responsibilities kept me from doing dance photography, but when I retired some years ago I decided to get back into it. I started shooting the concerts at my alma mater...where I had first discovered dance. For a while it was a similar experience to the early years. I'd shoot the concerts and put the edited photos on a site where the dancers could order prints. I kept the prices very low as a way to pay forward for all the encouragement I received there when I was starting out. The dancers ordered prints and I heard a lot about how much they enjoyed the photos.

Then, in the last few years the orders for prints practically stopped. So did the positive feedback. I hadn't really changed what I was doing, and my equipment had improved so that the results were technically better than ever.

Just recently I finally realized what had happened. The dancers no longer cared about my photos. They already had photos taken by their friends using their cell phones. And, of course, some of their friends had "good" cameras that could do photos nearly equal to mine technically without much skill or effort being involved. They didn't need me. My photos were no longer the miracles they had been in the 1970s.

I think that's the core reason it's so hard to make it as a professional photographer these days. The equipment has gotten so good that there is little skill required to produce acceptable photos. And the "cell phone standard" has lowered quality expectations so much that superior skill is often just not recognized or appreciated.

I don't know where this is leading us as photographers, but I do think we are in a transitional period and that things will be different on the other side. It's interesting to watch and I certainly enjoy using the equipment we have to work with today. But I'm glad I'm old and not a young photographer starting out today and trying to figure it all out.

"It is the best of times, it is the worst of times..."

I see more blurry photos now than ever. Photos shot in dark bars, with tiny phone sensor cameras--I think some of the worst, grainy, muddy images are being made and folks sharing them immediately makes is apparent that there are many snapshooters capturing memories, not images.

As a suffer of IAS (image acquisition syndrome ) it is indeed a dangerous time

"The culture is atomized and chaotic. There are a bazillion micro-cultures, sure, but that's not quite the same thing then, is it?"

I would say culture was always atomized; it's just that the net has made it plain. When you say that everybody had a shared photographic culture, that "everybody" only ever included a fairly small part of all the people around the world with an interest in photography.

With a few exceptions - those towering names everybody at least pretends to know about - your "household names" are probably anything but, once you leave the north American and north European mainstream. And a fair number of them are probably unknown outside the small subculture of people with a deep interest in photography as art, rather than a hobby or a medium.

The world was always a million tiny subcultures. All the net is doing is make it plain for those who thought their own subculture was all there was.

Mike, I don't disagree and think the key word to focus on is "great". Much like the number of movies and genres of music that seem to be increasing (likely at a relative pace) the use of the word "great"gets tossed around alot in social circles about photographs, and on blogs about indie-movies, hip-hop artists, etc... So what defines "great" is where we may want to focus, and I don't think individual taste is that important in this context, rather what is the general impression by the majority is what should be considered "great". How does a photographer in this day an age become "great"? What's a majority in this day and age? Well I think these are much more challenging questions/topics. Jim

I think that the lack of common experience has diminished much in our lives, including the impact of media, art, and photographs. There was a time when there were only 3 TV stations and everyone "experienced" the same few shows. There were a few dozen big music acts when I was young and everyone knew their songs and had an opinion. We only saw photographs that were published in a few magazines or chosen by a few inside people such as museum curators or photobook editors. Certainly that increased dramatically the impact of those creations that were selected, and they were selected from a much smaller pool than exists today.

But, in my view, the only thing really special about most of that work is that we all experienced it. Most of it, if left to its own merits, would not rise above much of what is out there today. We old folks like it, but only cause we were taught that it was good or special, or because we found specialness in the small works presented to us. I would guess that everyday there are photographs posted on flicker that are as good as what we consider "greats."

Sure, The Beatles probably would have been huge in any system. Leonardo Davinci, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo would stand out, I'm sure. Pretty much everyone agrees that their work is great. But, the "great" photographs of the past - not so much.

Seriously, it's a case of the emperor's new clothes. It's all in our head. I love the same photographs as many of my peers, but I realize it is all in the eye of the beholder. Art is not universal. Some of the stuff I think is great, other people think is junk. There are people who talk about the "great" rap albums. I don't get it. But, that doesn't mean that some of it isn't great art for someone.

I think this is a great time for photography and I think without qualification that exponentially more "great" photographs are being made daily by exponentially more very talented photographers than at any time in photographic history. It's just that most of those great photographs will not be seen by a critical mass of people, and most of those great photographers will never be known.

It's a great time for FILM photography! Have you seen the prices for an Nikon F2, or even an F100 or F5 lately? I got a beater but perfectly working FE2 for $20 recently. And a Canon F-1 for $25. Plus film is so cheap compared to 15-20 years ago taking inflation and price parity into account. And film availability is perfectly sufficient, especially for a B&W photographer: Ilford PanF, FP4+, HP5+ Delta 100/400, Kodak Tri-X, Tmax100/400, Fuji Acros, plus more than a few others. Adorama, B&H and Freestyle have plenty that's easily had. And please do not say film will be hard to find anywhere in about 5 years, I heard that on photo.net over 10 years ago...

This is indeed "the best of times" for making excellent photos: the volume of high-quality images has never before been so high, because the cost per exposure has never been so low.

Unfortunately, because that applies to millions of photographers, this is "the worst of times" for making a mark in photography or making a living at it--and in the coming decades that situation will only get worse, not better.

Well content is still king, and anything that can make it happen more frequently I would consider to be great, but I do not think this has change in any significant way. There are a lot more piles of junk compositions lying around, and the same old themes are being endlessly repeated, but no major gasping for another look from my perch. I was glad to say bye-bye to the 4x5", chrome films, and light meters, but I have replaced them with a MF tech cam and digital back, so not much has changed for me in the studio other than the chemical process which I do not miss. But on the other hand, I have been working with the Sigma Merrills to see if I can find my way with them, and I am making some progress, so for me this has been a move in the right direction. I guess I am enjoying some of the downsizing the digital r/evolution brought to the timeline, so from that perspective, I can honestly say for me: it is a 'Great Time for Photography'.

PS: My ninty-nine cousins on Facebook post snaps of their faces, their kids faces, the food they prepare, and where they drank their last Margarita on a pretty frequent basis, so for them, posting selfies must be akin to their five minutes of Warhol fame.

When you mentioned the name "Edward Weston" I know his work well, his work and Edward's artistic thoughts from his Day Book writings that have inspired my own work. It seems though that there is a lot of mediocre photographs floating round the internet these days and of course some brilliant work out here too which sadly often gets buried and is not often seen. Its interesting I was just thinking about the pictorialism movement that was popular during the later 19th and early 20th centuries and how history seems to repeat it self, everything old is new again….as the saying goes, seems that pictorialism is alive and well today, with so many 'photoshopped' images, a modern equivalent today might even be called 'Photoshopism' . Great time for photography? hard question to answer, interesting times for sure!

"Is This a 'Great Time for Photography'?"

In the main I'd say yes. Today's tremendous photographic capture and processing technologies, coupled with communications capabilities that only existed in science fiction just a few decades ago can only produce such a positive general response.

But it's one of the remarkable ironies of our times that those very influences, on top of tectonic shifts in societal structures, have vanquished the Age of Great Photographers forever. The arc of Photography, like a star shell in a July 4th display, has peaked and burst into many lateral directions, some new, most not really. But never again will we see an age in which someone with a camera will garner the kind of attention for straight photography that HCB, Klein, Evans, Ghirri, Meyerowitz, Winogrand, Frank, Tomatsu, Moriyama, and so many others garnered in the 20th century. That's over.

"A great time for photography: well sorta kinda maybe; yes and no. Depends how you want to parse it."
Yup, that's about right, Mike. But let's just enjoy every day of what we have at hand rather than mourn what's past or lament what we don't like. Just shut up and shoot your best game (to borrow a pool hall phrase).

This is a great time for photography. No question. The tools are better, and the cost of entry is minimal. I see plenty of visually talented but technically illiterate friends making and sharing images – communicating visually – in ways which enrich their lives and those of the people around them, but which would have been impossible or unworkably slow in the Golden Age of analogue photography.

This is a lousy time for photographic prints. I photograph my kids' sports and other activities, making web albums for families to browse and offering hi-res versions free, and prints at cost. Everybody enjoys the photographs. Nobody, but nobody, ever wants a print. As with Dave Levingston's dance (see above), prints as a way of sharing or memorialising normal people's lives are completely dead in the water.

This doesn't mean that nobody appreciates quality, or that the craftsmanship of a truly fine print won't find admiring patrons. It's just that the old business model of charging good money for pieces of paper no longer applies. For those who see photographic creativity as a way of enriching their lives, this is an irrelevance. For those who want to make money at photography, it is a redefinition. The only real losers are those whose true talent was a middling degree of mastery of an obsolete technology.

What a beautiful post indeed. And it gets the comments it rightfully deserves (that, by the way, may be the secret of TOP). I agree with all of you here who are slightly worried, but try to console myself with Samuel Johnson's 'We are living in a period of transition, as Adam no doubt said to Eve'.
That being said, I am sure this (the web) is a transition that will in time be at least as influential as the industrial revolution. Small example from the field of literature, which is at least (positively and negatively) as much affected as photography: on the copyright page of Peter Matthiessen's last book 'In Paradise' which I am now reading, it says:
'Copyright 2014 by Peter Matthiessen. Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book [etc.]'. - This remark is saying a lot of a development that is only just beginning.

Recent photo sale prices would also suggest that it is a great time for photography with more and more photographers entering global lists of top selling artists. We're also seeing a closing of the gap between photography sale prices and other fine arts. Contemporary photographers have never been more collectable than they are today. BTW, I also think there are more shared contexts than you might think. I could list dozens of names that virtually everyone here would recognise instantly and are known globally, including Mike Johnston, David Hobby, Steve Huff, Ken Rockwell, Neuroanatomist, Jared Polin, Chase Jarvis, Joe MacNally, Scott Kelby...I could go on and on (and can even name some girls if pressed.) I'm sure others are the same. I doubt many of us could have done that ten years ago. I know I couldn't.

Stieglitz pissed and moaned about this topic when Kodak was advertising "You take the pictures, we will do the rest". Cheap and easy.
It is not about the number of pictures or the number of cameras.
It is all about the lighting.

"I'm seventy. Four months ago, I began studying guitar. I have an custom Bill Ayers version of a Strat, and a Gibson J-45. I give myself four years to make it. Seriously."

You might want to see this: http://vimeo.com/84022735

It seems to me that the photographers that have become to most well known to other photographers over the last ten years are those who figured out, early on, that we had all entered a new age. It is a time when the "famous" photographers of this moment are those who know how to gain a following on the web. But they are famous only to other "serious" photographers, not the general public.
I think the general public, (90% of the population?) doesn't know who Weston, Avedon or McNally are and don't care. They might see a picture made by Avedon and think it's really great but it will mean far, far less to them than the latest pictures posted on FB by their BFF.

Au contraire, mon frere. One of the key operative phrases in your post, Mike, is this: "And, crucially, the incredible amount of noise makes it tough for even dedicated workers to get noticed and/or to find any support."

Finding support has always been the rub for those who hope to make a living at any form of art, whether it is a grant from some arts council or a fistful of ducats from a duke . . . where is the loot coming from?

But suppose, just suppose, that you are an amateur, someone who does it for the

of doing it? This is a great time for that sort of photography, and I contend that it can be just as serious -- perhaps even more so -- than any professional photography.

Digital photography has freed me, as the time demands of my freelance writing career are winding down, to ramp up my photography, to shoot as much as I like and to experiment as much as I desire, without ruining my family with expense. True, I don't have an unlimited travel budget, but I contend that anyone with their wits about them can find a lifetime's worth of photographic subjects in their own backyard.

Finally, with regard to getting noticed, the internet has freed me to publish a free e-book online at no expense.

Ultimately, I think the crux of the discussion of whether this is a great time for photography revolves around this: how do you define success? Is it getting noticed and getting paid or is it doing something you love to the best of your ability and satisfaction?

Well, everybody has a car, but only one person wins the Indy 500 every year. I know what you mean though.

Plus One for John Krumm...just because any monkey with the money to put down on a virtually full-proof digital camera can get good results, doesn't mean that we've exponentially increased the amount of W. Eugene Smith's in our society. Sometimes I think the need to understand conventional film and processing was part of the process that threw out the marginally interested; that and decent editors. I've said on more than one occasion, that if I had come of age in the early 2000's, I doubt I would even have been interested in photography as it doesn't have enough physical 'craft' component to it. It's just working with the robots...

I know I've said this already as have so many others, but maybe it was much easier to be creative when tech wasn't quite so 'tech'? The happy accident turns into the exciting new technique...still and all, I think that the comments of several contributors here are dead right - I'm not convinced that the Westons of the old world were 'better' photographers, brilliant though they are they were just as talented as many, many modern photographers, but lucky to live when the world was newer and lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Who's gonna pack it in just in case they don't get lucky?

The issue is not really about camera technology, it's about the internet. All new technology is plugging both content providers and consumers together in ever more combinations and permutations.

You can self-publish everything, from blogs to photographs, video, novels and music, and reach a potential audience of billions. The very mechanism that allows you to reach me from the basement of your home, with nothing more than an Apple Mac, an internet connection and your fertile mind.

But you make a living from it. What makes you different to the 99.999% of bloggers that fail? It seems to me that the key to your success was that your audience already existed amongst those billions. You were simply lucky enough to find it, talented enough to engage it and professional enough to sustain it. But ultimately it is a small, self-selecting group.

However you did it, you succeeded. To its audience, TOP is not just a photography blog, it is a mini-cult series, where the life and musings of "our humble editor" have become as compulsive as any soap opera, but only to those of us that like it, a select crowd for whom it resonates.

But a select crowd is all you need. It can be two orders of magnitude smaller than the audience required by a magazine, and three orders less than that required to sustain a TV network. In the end, your overheads consist of a modest house, a son at college and a couple of hungry dogs that need a lot of love (and something of a camera addiction).

Somewhere in this ramble is my answer to your question. The world is turning away from received, pre-digested mass market content. We are dealing with millions of audiences not audiences of millions. By natural selection, each of those audiences will find it's advocate because, in the end, they are all looking for one. You are one of those.

Perhaps you, and others like you, in symbiotic partnership with your audience, are the foundation of the new "system"? Perhaps we are the ones who need to pick our winners and argue their case, and perhaps by doing so they will also find a market.

So I humbly submit that the answer to your question may be in your hands. You have already exposed me to many new artists who I didn't know, far more than anyone else has managed. I would even venture to say that I have enjoyed them far more than many of the established names you also talked about, or those I have stumbled upon in my regular tours of London galleries. You also probably sold more books for Pentti Sammallahti than anyone else.

All the ingredients are there. You have an expert printer on hand, an erudite readership and a world of unfiltered talent to explore.

Could this (and I say so in hope) become a feature sideline of the new TOP, an expansion on the Random Excellence series which takes it further, with more interactive audience participation and possibly a print run as the prize.

Other bloggers will also no doubt notice, and take up the baton, and by such a mechanism, it is also possible that some of these individuals will go viral. But even an audience of thousands is enough for a photographer to make a living.

Perhaps the next quiet and unassuming Vivian Maier will not have to die before her genius is recognised.

Perhaps "discovered by TOP" will be the next aspirational step for new photographers.

Now that the technical elements of photography have been simplified by digital, maybe the problem is that the artistic part of photography was never that difficult as we liked to believe.

You've articulated very well the source of my feelings of consternation and dismay when it comes to photography these days. I love photography, both viewing and making photographs, but finding work that resonates with me or inspires me seems harder and harder with the fatigue of sorting through so much that doesn't. And curators seems to suffer the same, so sorting through featured work on the internet is much the same experience with the added frustration of expecting it to be better. Paradoxically, it seems now is a good time to look inward rather than outward for inspiration.

Mike: Your essay has generated an interesting discussion (which is the point, I know, but also its own reward . . .) [big thumbs up]

Photography = drawing with light? I wonder what the giants of the mid-20th century thought about their own photographic time? My sense is that those who we regard as icons of that era had to struggle to have their art taken seriously . . . Would that have made, say 1948, a great time for photography or not? It isn't an empty question. I think if you want to have a discussion about whether the present moment fits a category (in this case "a great time") you have to set the ground-rules by defining what a great time looks like before you can know whether we are in one. I almost think you have to wait 30 years or so and then look back at what happened and what cream has risen to the surface from the photo collections stored in shoe boxes of the day. Another way to say this is that we are trying to appreciate what the culture is becoming with the tools and standards of the previous historical moment. I fear those tools and standards are inadequate. But then again, they always are.

When I think about your critique, I think "a bazillion micro-cultures" is as good a summary of what the Internet has done for/to us as any I have heard: an overall increase in tribalism? But a tribalism without geographic boundaries. This isn't always a bad thing.

To digress, my father-in-law is a good example of this: he is passionate about classical music. Before the Internet, he would have been a recluse with an extensive record collection -- he would have lived to visit the Aspen music festival once a year when he could be in physical proximity with the relatively small number of people in the U.S. who felt as passionately about music as he did/does. But in the current age, his fellow "'philes" -- his tribe -- are just a few keystrokes away. He has such a coherent community that his physical location within the United States is almost irrelevant to living a fully engaged life (which is a boon to our family, because he has moved down the road from us instead of living thousands of miles away).

The point is that we don't know what the current geography-less tribalism will produce. A million million macro photos of bees on flowers? Or of homeless men staring craggy-faced into cameras? Or children waving flags at Memorial Day parades? Of calla lilies arching mournfully across a million frames? Well, yes it is currently producing all of those things. Maybe a way of thinking of this is a tremendous flushing of cliche out into the collective consciousness: we can see one another's shoe boxes of images in a way we never could before. But what effect will that have? Certainly the greatest photographers of _this_ age -- the ones whose images wrench us against our will and impress themselves effortlessly on us, whose pictures change the way we see the world and ourselves will explicitly NOT be producing cliches. They will run as a profound crosscurrent -- definitionally -- to whatever is being mass-produced. But is a "great" age more likely to produce these images? Are we testing the 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters thesis in real time?

Someone above wrote simply "Sabastiao Salgado" -- his non-cliche photographs may only have been possible because they are NOT the easy images which so many of us make and post reflexively. But they were produced, are being produced, by his singular eye and mind right in the middle of the flood of images we decry.

For myself, I propose this: relax. Just let the macro-bees and flowers and the craggy homeless faces and calla lilies wash over and around you. Know they are out there, but do not despair. Instead, get out the paddle and start rowing against the current. In 30 years or 50 years, the culture as it exists then will have decided what it thinks of what we are producing now. The 1,000 (or million million) monkeys will have their 1's and 0's consigned to a million digital shoe-boxes in a million top shelves of a million closets (next to the million million snapshots of the previous generation) until the next singular eye captures the imagination (Vivian Maier 2.0). And as they see the shadows of their grandparents' world flash through their intelligent search engines they will probably decide that this was a great time for photography in spite of all our tropes and tribes.

Apologies for the above -- I am putting off cleaning my own home-office and it is amazing what I'll tolerate in my own writing when the alternative is actual labor.


A big difference between photography (or any other art form) now and from times past is the filter of time: the poor stuff fades away, leaving the good. Wait a generation or two to see if current photography is good.
It may be that not only does it prove to be a good era for quality but also breadth & depth of expression and coverage.

I read this thread this morning. Last night while it was building up steam I was on the deck grilling a chicken.
About half way through the process I looked up at the sky and in my best Gomer Pyle voice muttered "golleee" and ran into the house to get the family S95.
Popped off one frame, dumped it into the computer, made a B&W conversion, shoved it onto Facebook and went back to cooking the bird.
By the time supper was over, friends from Guam to Georgia had seen the picture. This from a farm near Beebetown, Iowa.
We take all this for granted now but from time to time it still puts the zap on my head.
I'm old school. I still shoot film and still have a darkroom. In fact if Mrs Plews wants to get my motor running she dabs a little sodium thiosulfate on the inside of her wrist, I love it that much.
But I also love what digital has done for me. The tight feedback loop has made me a much better photographer and the images can be marvelous.
We'll all be fine. The good pictures will pop up out of the torrent of junk and now at least the junk mostly ends up in cyberspace and isn't wasting any silver.
Here's the picture if you are curious. It's basically an "f8 and be there special" but we sure can do a sunset out here in Iowa.


Mike, I am a TOP maniac. I check your page 6 times a day for updates. This is the best post I've read about the state of photography in years. Maybe I like it so much because I completely agree with everything you said.

I cannot imagine that there will ever be a better time to be a photographer and certainly there never has been. If you choose digital as your tool there is a bewildering quantity of cameras from which to choose. Some of the zoom lenses for these cameras are better than their prime predecessors (Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 is the first to come to mind). The camera manufacturers bring out new and better product everyday. The capabilities of the software is mind boggling.

The trick, as always, is to find what works for your vision and use it to make your statement. And when you have made work worth sharing there are multiple venues in which to do so.

If you're a Luddite--or mostly one, like me--then you have are are fortunate to live in the golden age. The cameras and darkroom equipment are incredibly cheap or usually free. Equipment that makes it possible to make your vision tangible--previously unobtainable for cost reasons--is yours for the taking and using.

Some of the best film ever made is available to use. How many people would want to argue that Portra or the T-grained films aren't the best ever?

There is a vibrant community of like minded people that are innovating with new developers and processes.

And if you're old and feeble minded and can't quite remember how to do something a quick search or post to a forum will get an answer before you've finished your cup of coffee. The information is not held by a few any longer--it's available to anyone that wants to use it and has the drive to go get it.

Again, when you have made a photograph worthy of sharing it's possible to do so instantly with your friends around the world. Or, the traditional venues are still available.

Methods have greatly improved an example of which is the digital projector. No more hassles with slides. Any photo on the computer can be show instantly. Two can be shown side-by-side without any planning.

I have made friends, albeit ones that I've never met, with photographers from all over the Western world. We have lively discussions in real time or nearly so. We're there for each other as we work our way through difficult projects.

We can sit around and bitch and moan about HDR or the death of Kodachrome (that was a tough one) or we can go out and take advantage of what's available to make the photos we need to make.

It's a great time for photography for democratists.

It's a terrible time for photography for elitists.

Agreed. It depends. For professional photographers (say, newspaper photographers), it would be hard to argue these are great times. For photography in the larger sense (as in the practice making of good photographs), I think we are doing as well as, if not better than, we have ever been even if there is more stuff out there to wade through.

You wrote: "when even really good work doesn't get much attention or reward—then not only do the talented people pack up their talents and go do something else."

Frankly this astounds me. I'd say the really talented people go right on doing it because it's something they have to do and they're not much doing it for attention or reward.

To answer your question: Yes, it's never been better. And we'll probably see more changes in all aspects of imaging in the next 10 years than we've seen in the last 40. There's no point in mourning the past, talking about "art", and complaining that "anyone" can be a photographer in these days of digital imaging and inkjet printers. In fact, arguments like that were made by painters in the early days of photography. We have more really good tools for image capture and presentation today than ever before, and we should be glad of it. So what if everyone can do it and their images are everywhere?

I agree with you and experience the same existential crisis. On the other hand, like all such crises, at some point one simply accepts "it is what it is", or if not, slits their wrists:).

As for me, I have been going back to film. It's expensive, a PITA and my results have been mediocre at best. But I (repeat, I) enjoy the process. As someone said earlier, film creates a lot of limitations compared to digital. However, as someone else said above, it's a great time to rediscover film. Just don't expect a lot of love from the digerati.

Mike asked, "Is This a 'Great Time for Photography'?"

Technology has made photography easier and prosperity has made it more accessible. But I think the interesting question should be, "Is this a time for great photographs?"

Great Photographs are made by Great Photographers and Great Photographers are made by innate talent, great teachers, hard work, good marketing and luck. I don't see that any of these have changed in the last century.

It's also undoubtedly a great time for astrophotography, satellite photography, macro photography, photomicrography, space photography, wildlife photography, high-speed photography, time-lapse photography, night photography, underwater photography, surveillance photography, etc. etc.

It's also a great time for disseminating photography. Of all kinds. And a great time for gearheads.


I think the lack of a shared experience as you described it, is right on and is a big part of the reason that photography as fine art seems adrift. In the 20th century we had alpha-advocates like Szarkowski and Steichen, individuals that had both an unwavering drive and the influence to get photography a seat at the adult table in the larger fine art community. If we had such powerful advocates today, would the art world so easily dismiss much of current work done in photography (as you described in your recent "Snapping Their Surroundings" post)? I think we sense that photography doesn't get a fair shake from the fine art community, but without an influential advocate can we be surprised?

Hi, i think yes, these are good times for photography. But surely not because we have all these new possibilites within the digital medium. They are just as good as they ever were. It just takes time, for both the producers and the viewers. In the end, the technical aspects are just what they are: technical aspects. The mix of personal choice, luck, randomness, to see, to show and to be seen, to look and to find, makes it just interesting.
I like the work of Henry Wessel, but also his attitude: Taking the images, but coming back later (years) for the final print. Takes the speed out of the whole process and leaves more room for reflection.
But then, its his personal choice, his way of doing things, and its my personal choice, to like it. And i do, simply because it is good for me. i have no doubt, that younger generations will destill something interesting within the possibilites they have today, even for an old tart like me.

Yep, great time for photograhy. You don't have to practice black magic to make amazing images any more. Isn't that why they put the "P" on the mode dial--"professional"?

But a photograph isn't a photograph until you make a print. While there might be a lot of images floating around on the internet ether, they will all disappear when someone's server crashes, you change phones, etc.

I keep wondering what our next generations of photographers will think of this new millennium of photographers? Will there be many prints left judge them?

A great time for photography? Unquestionably, in my opinion, it's never been easier to take good photos.
A time for great photography? That's a very different question: in principle it should be for exactly the same reason - but maybe it has become harder to be creative and individual. We will only be able to judge in a few years time when we'll have been able to evaluate 2014's photos.

Dear Mike,

I would say this is unequivocally “great times for photography” in every just about single respect. Both for serious photographers and for the masses. It's a great time to get into analog photography; you can finally buy professional-grade equipment for a reasonable price. Pennies on the dollar compared to what it cost In the heyday of film. There is still a sufficient variety of media to work with and print on to produce superior and satisfying results. I'd have no problem making excellent darkroom prints today, if that were my inclination.

Yes, some people's favorite media have disappeared. It has always been that way in photography. Recall the wailing and gnashing of teeth back in the 1950s (60s?) when DuPont got out of the business. Unless people are willing to wind back so far that they can make all their stuff from scratch (and some people do) you were and will always be at the mercy of manufacturers.

As for the digital side of things, anyone who thinks this isn't the greatest of all possible times, well… I have no idea what they're looking for. It just keeps getting better and better, easier and easier.

We agree that photography for the masses has never been better, so stet the rest of that. But that does not mean it is any worse for the “serious/artistic/elitist” photographer. If anything, it is better today. Photography has been a predominantly mass phenomenon for as long as almost every one of TOP's readers has been alive. Frankly, it got a hell of a lot less respect 40 years ago than it does today, and it got just about no respect 50 years ago (if you're judging respect by whether or not you could make any kind of living as an artist at it or even get acknowledged by the artistic establishment).

It is absolutely not harder to get your work recognized today. Back “in the day” to get recognized you had to get a pass through one of the the modest number of gatekeepers… and in many cases, their gatekeepers. Because, really, there was no other way to do it. I'm talking about the Van Deren Coke's, the Szarkowski's, the Fraenkel's, the Wagstaff's of the world. If you didn't come to their attention, approval, and patronage your odds were immeasurably worse.

That's still true today, even though most of the names have changed. But the thing is, the huge mass of online photographers and photographic galleries hasn't made things worse. It's no harder (nor easier) get the attention of one of these gatekeepers, it's not like they're going to say to you, “Oh, go away kid, I'm spending all my time looking at Flickr.” It's pretty much the same game as it was.

What has changed is that you now have the possibility of self-curating and self-exhibiting. Which won't move you into the upper echelons, but it will get your work out there and may even let you make some half-assed money at it.

Is the best work today worse? Of course not! It's not even really a meaningful question. It would be like saying that painting or sculpture is a massive fail, because one's favorite painting is the Mona Lisa or one's favorite sculptures work in the Renaissance. There's no monotonic path towards perfection or even progress. Great art happens when great art happens, randomly and rarely. Styles change and fashions change, however they change. The most someone can say is that they don't happen to like the current fashion or that nobody today is doing good work in the style that they happen to like. That's about it.

I've never seen a halfway-decent photographer who was even minimally committed to their art whose work was degraded by umpteen billion photographs on Flickr or wherever. I've never heard such a photographer say, “Oh my God, all that mediocre personal work out there is so demoralizing that I shall give up my efforts to do better.” I've never heard such a photographer say, “Oh dear, it is just too easy to make technically good photographs today, the challenge is gone, so I shall give up trying to make great art.” The whole "suffering makes good art" thing is made-up crap.

The deluded elitists who think that their chosen medium is being degraded by the hoi polloi and their trillions of photographs? I'm sorry, but that ship sailed with George Eastman. If it really gets someone's knickers in a twist that they're working in an insanely democratic medium, rather than one that is exclusively restricted to artistes, then boyoboy, they made a very unwise choice settling on photography.

Photography has never had better times, in almost every imaginable respect, for almost every single photographer, dilettante or consummate artist/professional.

Viva la revolution.

I hath spake.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Looking back before digital photography arrived, I think that there were excellent film cameras that people used, loaded with high-quality film, shot photos in amazing locations and then brought home and processed in the local drug store pumping out one-light machine prints and they decided they weren't very good photographers. And the cameras now show you what you took on a screen, so you're not at the mercy of the lab to see if it's dark or blurry.

That said, I remember a neighbor who worked at Princeton University who had to take all the school film to the local pro lab for developing and had one of her personal rolls get mixed into the batch. She was amazed at her photographs--"I shot some really good photos, I must've got lucky on that one roll." She never thought it might be the printer.

I think back then, the poor-quality labs were a boom to camera sales. "I can't shoot well, I must need another camera." But take that old negative, print it well, and it is a glorious photograph that never saw the light of day.

Anyway, perhaps the sharing of photos on the web is a substitute for a print hanging on the wall, but it all seems so temporary and fleeting--once it's had its fifteen minutes of Facebook fame, it's so far down in the feed no one will ever see it again.

Is this a great time for being a photographer? I have my doubts. I like that film cameras are readily available and affordable. But the noise level amongst the group is so high, that I don't know if it's possible to be seen anymore.

And in business, it's the Instagrammers with 500k friends who are now getting the commercial gigs--not because their work is so good, but because they have 500k potential customers to market to.

Ah, the good old days. When a camera lasted you 20 years. Now in two, it's on the bay.

Thanks for TOP. I check it several times a day. That's one of the best things about photography today!

It's a great time to make images, but not a great time to make a living making images. The balance of power has shifted decisively to the aggregators, otherwise known as the "vector class" such as Facebook, Flickr, etc.. and so we're seeing a new form of class struggle emerge.



What? someone dress the formosa seediq traditional clothing as lifestyle?





Mike, as far as I'm concerned this is the mother of all photo postings, and I thank you for it. You've framed and proposed answers to questions I've been stumbling over for several years.

I'm still working my way through the comments...deliberately taking my time. Many are exceptionally thoughtful and well articulated. Some are actually helping me out of the muddle and paralysis. Thank you all.

A lot of what is discussed here digital/film, internet/prints, etc fails to recognize a huge problem that I have noticed over the past year. That is the attention span of the "modern" photography viewer. I see people checking their Facebook pages multiple times a minute while waiting in line. I see people scrolling through hundreds of Instagram photos in a matter of seconds. I went to a gallery show in NYC and saw people walking briskly through not stopping once to really absorb or study a single print all the while looking at there phones between each print to text their friends. Young eyes are no longer expected or possibly even capable of "digesting" a single image for more than one second. Most online photography platforms spew as many photos onto a page as possible (leaving room for ads of course) making it hard to focus on them one at a time. All of this devalues the individual image to such a point that most consider all photos posted on the internet to be free and open to any use they choose. How can you expect someone to just look at one print on paper? How can you expect them to recognize the skill and effort required to make that print? (Inkjet or otherwise) What good is it for my work to be seen by hundreds or thousands of viewers from all over the world if they place no value in it? It is much more difficult for a digital shooter to set themselves apart with personal style "in camera" because most digital photos look the same. Cameras, lenses and especially films used to have a "look" that set them apart. Now with lenses nearing "perfection", they all are becoming vanilla. We have been removing choices that greatly effect the final image so much that there is a huge market in post capture effects and plug-ins to try to create a personal style. I primarily shoot film because of the freedom of choice it still offers. I regret the loss of films that have been recently discontinued but cherish the ones that still exist. For variety I shoot 35mm-8x10 cameras and have been making silver gelatin prints and tintypes for the past year. Instead of relying on the internet to display my work I have been pushing it locally with great success. So yes, it is a great time for photography but the audience that views it may not be able to focus long enough to appreciate it.

The photo essay posted today on Steve Huff's site, about a severely premature baby with images and words by her father:


is a great example of why this IS a great time for photography, and of how an extremely moving story can be told - and communicated to the rest of us - by an average photographer.

Mike, thanks for featuring my comment and for your thoughtful reply. I agree that identifying the sources of a "culture" and the extent to which its form is the result of purposeful effort can be complex tasks. I certainly agree that there is a purposefulness to the work on individuals who turn out to have been instrumental in creating a culture, but I'm not so sure that those individuals purpose was targeted toward creating a culture as much as it was toward creating work.

In any case, this is a tumultuous and disruptive time for photography, full of potentials and pitfalls and with all of the dangers and promises that we see when we look at it.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007