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Thursday, 22 December 2022


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I think one of the points Mike Peters is making is that being good at what you do doesn't get you the jobs you want if the public has moved on from what you're doing.

J.S. Bach was great at what he did and he's now recognised as great at what he did now but in his own time his music was regarded as out date. Bach never got the jobs he really wanted and it took a century until Mendelsohn started a Bach revival for him to start to get the appreciation his music deserves.

If you want to know how little appreciation he was getting prior to the start of the revival of interest in him, when people started actually looking for the scores for his music so they could play it, somebody found some of those scores being used by a butcher in St Petersburg in Russia for wrapping meat for his customers. In photographic terms, that's like buying meat wrapped in original Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson prints which were previously unknown.

There's a strange parallel going on in photography today. The great photographers of the past are still appreciated and a few contemporary ones are also but the real attention grabbers are people like Vivian Maier whose work was never publicly seen during her life or professionals like Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog who were recognised in some field of photography and then faded into obscurity some decades ago until they recently started to get lots of deserved attention for work they did on the side or after they faded into obscurity which had never really been shown publicly previously started to turn up in retrospective shows and reignited interest in their work. It's seems to be easier for good photographers to start to have attention paid to their work if they are discovered after their death or rediscovered late in life long after people have seen any of their work in public.

Not only that, the kind of attention given to the photographers work in those circumstances seems to eclipse the amount of attention that those photographers who have managed to keep working at what they do and getting their work seen by the public as it is produced get for producing equally good or even better work than the posthumous discoveries and late rediscoveries receive for what is undeniably work very worthy of attention.

This is not a time when photographers producing work of high quality can hope to get wide public recognition during their working life and that also makes it hard for them to make photography their working life. The audience for great quality work has shrunken to little more than the community of people with an active interest in photography. The audience for such work back in the heyday of magazines like Life has moved on to other interests.

I think the reason for that shift in attention of the larger public may be that we tend to appreciate high quality work when it's work of a kind that we cannot produce ourselves. Making it easier for the average person to produce and disseminate photographs of quite good standard technically seems to have conincided with a reduction in the average person's interest in photographs with very good or great aesthetic qualities. Because it's now much easier for anyone to produce a photograph that isn't obviously flawed by bad technique seems to have resulted in people paying less serious attention to photographs in general and no longer noticing the qualities that used to interest and excite them about great photographic work.

I may be seeing a causal link that does not exist but it's hard to dispute that I'm not seeing 2 trends which are occurring simultaneously in time over the last few decades.

I recall a conversation I had with the photographer Roger Vail. We were talking shop, this and that, and somehow the conversation turned to photography critics. He said, dryly, “Critics to creators are like ornithologists are to birds. The ornithologists pay close attention to birds, documenting and recording, scribbling their notes, making observations and conclusions. The birds? They don’t give a rat’s ass about the ornithologists. Don’t even know they exist. The birds just do their bird thing. Occasionally, a bird will shit on an ornithologist. Otherwise, the birds are just birds. Because what else would they be?”

Thank you! Very interesting and inspiring read. Merry Christmas. Love your blog TOP.

What a thought provoking piece. It brings to mind the cycle of relevance that artisans face. The vicissitudes of fate and that deemed 'in' or 'out'.

Strangely, artisans demand an enormous premium for their skills. The few survive. The others transform to other endeavours. By no means limited to the field of photography.

Thanks for sharing to David Aiken as well.

David Aiken for the win! Nailed it.

Mike wrote, "I asked the other day if anyone thought photography was losing its status and prestige."

I doubt that we would get much agreement among TOP readers about how to quantify photography's "status and prestige." Life magazine (RIP) and National Geographic were once indicators of photography's status and prestige but not much any more.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1971 Life's circulation was 8.5 million and National Geographic peaked at about 12 million in the late 1980s.

Statista tells us that there were about 1.21 billion Instagram users in 2021. Not all Instagram users are capital "P" Photographers, but they all have and use cameras and post photographs. And the number of "subscribers" to Instagram far exceeds the number that ever-consumed printed photographs or any kind.

How many people make a living posting photographs to social media? Probably unknowable but the easy and "free" access to photographs means that the number of viewers of social media is orders of magnitude greater than in the days of print journalism. And some of those posters make a living at it.

While nobody will argue that the latest iPhone camera's image quality can match that of today's professional cameras and lenses there's a lot to be said for its ubiquity.

And then there are the on-line versions of New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Esquire and others that publish photographs made the old way ... with a real camera and bag of lenses.

thank you, to both Mikes featured here, for reminding us to not take it all too seriously - we may be the only ones that are doing so...

We can't judge the health and vitality of photography today using yesterday's standards, particularly when it has been so revolutionized by the advent of digital technology. The fact that there is an analog resurgence is proof of photography's enduring mojo across generations, technologies and aesthetics. The fact that the landscape for professional photographers has drastically changed (for the worse) is also part of the (r)evolutionary change within the photographic industry, as is the fact that more people are self publishing photo books, making inkjet prints at home and participating in online exhibits.

Non fossil fueled cars are now part of the present and the inevitable future of transportation; gas stations will go the way of the Fotomat, but we'll still get around in car like vehicles- whether we drive them or not.

The commercial photographic world has always been a small one (although many a small town had a studio photographer), the photographic art world an even smaller one (many small cities have never had a photo gallery). One could argue that photography today has never been healthier with its prodigious online presence, or that it's actually been weakened and diluted by that reality.

While it's certainly interesting to engage in such conversation, the important part (as Mike Peters alluded to) is that we continue to engage, create and photograph- history will tell the tale of where this is all going, and how we changed, adapted and carried on.

I really like his work. It has elements of Robert Frank and is the kind of people images I love and like to do ... no sticking them is a room and shining a bunch of lights on them to create a perfect(ly boring) image. These are real people, living real lives before your eyes and displaying their relationship to their space and those around them.

I Bow To You Sir!🙏

I agree it is mainly people in the photo world that care about photography. I would go further and say there are no photographers who are famous outside photography. In England, if you asked somebody to name a photographer David Bailey would be a name mentioned, but show someone a Bailey photo they would not know who took it (compare that to showing them, say, a Picasso or Turner).

I understand Mike's comments, although my passion may differ slightly.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have a graphic design/photography career. That may not sound like a high-reaching goal these days, but growing up female in the 1960s & 70s, it was a high-reach for some of us. My granny (bless her heart) told me to "stop wishing for a career," as she thought she was doing me justice by not setting me up for disappointment. At age 92, she traveled to my apartment in NYC after I settled in with my first full-time advertising artist job. She held back praise, but I knew she was proud of me. Tough as she was, she taught me well.

I did have the career I wanted, and I was always happy with what I made of it. There were obstacles along the way, as I imagine with most professions, and I always found a way to go around them with a smile. Being grateful is part of my DNA.

Photography has never lost its mojo in my life, so photography (for me) has not lost its mojo. I find enjoyment in the creative process, and that is what keeps me going at it. Being able to do something enjoyable is much better than the alternative.

Some things make better sense when we look at our expectations for those things. Some people seek fame and fortune, and that is a huge expectation. I always presented my first-semester photography students with this question: "How many Rock Stars do you know?" Then after I listened to their answers, I would tell them that there are fewer known photographers. The classroom always got quiet after that, but I assured them if they were seeking work as a commercial photographer, I would teach them how to get there.

Today, the young photographer's world is different from where I started. Just like my granny's world was different from mine. Photography IMO will always have the mojo for those looking for it.

“Why do you ride for your money? Why do you rope for short pay? You ain’t getting nowhere and you’re losing your share. You must have gone crazy out there. But they’ve never seen the Northern Lights. They’ve never seen a hawk on the wing. Never seen the Spring hit the Great Divide and they’ve never heard old Camp Cookie sing”. “Night Riders Lament”. . .
T-Bone Burnett and Jakob Dylan were on stage.
I looked to my left and Jim Marshall was standing next to me.
He smiled (gave me a thumbs up) and I said to myself, OMG this is it, I’m on my way!
Jim’s gone. I’ve got a few photos and a good story.
And that’s good enough.

Parallel conversation at 12/23 This Week in Photography at A Photo Editor..

I think there's two things going on here:

1. Mike Peters is essentially describing the results of the "digital disruption" that swept so many creative and intellectual fields. By "digital disruption", I don't mean some break-something-that-works-and-then-get-rich-by-charging-people-to-fix-it scheme cooked-up by Silicon valley tech bros. I actually mean things that worked a certain way but computers and networks completely disrupted how you used to do it and who needed or wanted to have it that way. To give a perspective from a different field: I'm a retired librarian. From 1978 to 2020 I worked in libraries in some form or other. Even though that from 1995 onwards, my work was all about websites and digital services, at least 20-years of my professional work is completely gone. That is, digital services that I started and ran were eventually shutdown due to lack of need or from technical obsolescence. I know that law, real estate, journalism, and so many other fields experienced the same disruption. But...

2. What he is also describing, I think, is the idea that in any creative endeavour, the worthwhile work is the work you have that's inside you. In our heads we see the 3-dimensional always-moving world as still scenes and so we take photographs.

By the way, I love the slideshow on his website. Thanks for pointing us to Mike's work.

Good to see Mike in these pages. That's one reason TOP is consistently interesting, your drawing in artists who may not be household names but who contribute so much to our little photo world. (Laying off that snooker thong helps too).

Mike is right. Even more so I think for those of us who don't make a living off photography. I shoot purely for the fun of it not because I have to and am lucky enough that a few hundred people around the world seem to know and like my work. I'm far better known in my real profession, or at least leave a larger footprint there but only among boring lawyers and judges. Photography has brought me fans from places I never heard of. I think that's pretty cool.

From my perspective, candid photography, the photo world exploded about 10 years ago. At the same time, real demand for things like prints cratered. So long as you didn't expect that your photos would have monetary value, the photo world looks pretty healthy for us amateurs. Whether it lost or gained mojo is a matter of economic expectations.

Dedicated musicians never stopped making music because someone invented the CD or because the likes of Spotify enabled the masses to hear more or less any music ever produced - and nobody told us we could make a living from our idiosyncratic pursuit of conserving selected points in space time on a 2D medium - so do what you must do, what has meaning to you, and leave it to all the others to decide if your stuff has meaning to them.
Merry Christmas to all of you photographists

"Really, only photographers give a crap about photography. No one else really ever thinks about photography as photography. Most people just think 'snapshot'!"

By sheer co-incidence this was the basis of the minor rant I made to a friend* a couple of weeks ago. Spooky! < cue X-Files music >

I suppose there is also the possibility that 'Art' photographers produce images that need a knowledge of the language(?) of photography rather than just being an image of something, or if it is an image of something, they ask don't understand why that subject and why that approach. Maybe in parallel with painting/sculpture? Or maybe most people just don't (want to) think about it because their 'photography' is ephemeral "done that, move on to the nest snap".

* I rant about photography and politics, he rants about money and politics and we both feel a bit better afterwards.

Really great post/exchange that has a lot of legs to it - including the comments. I do agree that the original comment had a bitterness to it! And that faded as the love of craft came through in the further exchanges.

As another working photography, I agree with all of his sentiments. I'm a buyer of those photographer coffee table books because I am interested in photography. But isn't that the case about everything? Why would we photographers ever even think differently?

Many mentions of the Life Magazine era in the comments. That may have been the highpoint of professional photography as a career, but I'm not sure people were appreciating the "photography" as much as they were getting to "see" something they couldn't otherwise. Photography was the medium that allowed people to see the world. The optimum medium for that has evolved over the years.

While those working journalists might have had plentiful job opportunities at that point, it was probably about supply and demand more than an appreciation for photography? Higher barrier to entry and a much more difficult skill to master - two sides of the same coin.

But photography as a valued form of art, from what I have seen and read, came along later. (I'm 51 so didn't experience the pre-1972 Life Magazine era.) From what I have read, you could buy a print from a "famous" photographer for a pittance in mid-century. Photography is certainly appreciated as art more now than ever and that may be due to the abundance of bad photographs people see on a daily basis?

Regarding the original question, I think no and no. Images have become the language of the world. While billions use this language daily, the overwhelming majority see it as a way to communicate, not really as an art form. Their photographs are not meant to be art; not meant to compete with people who are interested in photography as an art.

Yes, there is a wide gray area in the middle that has impacted the commercial photography market. A segment of work that was previously done by professional photographers has certainly transitioned to the "person with a camera." But in that last sentence, couldn't you replace "photographers" and "person with a camera" with almost any "professional" and "tool of the trade."

The explosion of social media has certainly elevated the presence of photographs in everyones' lives. Most are oblivious to what makes a good photograph. That's ok - albeit very frustrating to us who care! Hopefully the best of the work that is being done today ages like a fine wine, just as the work of previous generations did.

The sad reality is that photographs, at least the kind I like best, often need some time grow and mature. In many cases we don't survive long enough to see that happen. More often, great images probably die an invisible death.

And that inspires me to "redact and reify" as encouraged from my favorite TOP post of all time. We obsessed can only control what we can control. We can keep making images. And we can do our best to leave the images in a state that is discoverable.

Happy New Year!

Well, it seems this is the topic of the week- as made evident by yet another parallel conversation at Lenscratch...

And none other than Robert Adams sure made it as succinct as possible!


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