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Middle Gray

October 5, 2009


This point may be obvious, but something struck me funny at the moment.

Okay, say you have a few images, a few prints, and you are showing those prints to people you are hoping are going to buy one, or several, or all.

There are many people looking, some intently, others just passing through. You are at an event about photography, so perhaps the crowd has a higher sophistication level regarding imagery than the average crowd.

Or maybe this could be seen as a “baggage level,” regarding photography, meaning they are coming from a specific angle towards your work, or anyone elses’ work for that matter.

Suppose a guy comes by and looks at your work, expresses little interest, quickly leafing through the prints and in a curt manner turns to his buddy, wife, girlfriend, partner, etc, and makes a face.

And in case you are thinking this story is true, or that it happened to me, it isn’t and it didn’t. I’m making it up, but all parts of this story are true, they just come from multiple locations and times, and not as one single event. And they didn’t all happen to me.

So your thinking to yourself, “Wow, that guy is a jerk and hates my work,” which might be true.

But then something funny happens. A neutral party, some person named Camille, who works for a well known gallery, brings the same guy back to look at your work. Camille is the art power broker. Camille knows her art speak. Camille has a resume and knowledge of who’s who in art photography. Camille advises collectors. Buy this, don’t buy that. That’s all it takes.

Suddenly the face maker is interested. Camille speaks, he obeys. It’s as simple as that.

Face maker didn’t like the work. Face maker had a reaction to the work, a reaction that caused him to become the face maker, but suddenly he views the images in another way. Suddenly your work has a value that has nothing to do with the actual images. Suddenly, you are an investment, or a collectible.

Camille in essence has far more importance than your images. No offense.

Camille has a sister, who works as a magazine editor.

Camille has a cousin who works in the publishing world.

See, here is where this post is supposed to begin to make sense.

You make images in one way, but you begin to realize if I want work with Camille, maybe you should make your images in another way? Or, if you changed a few things, say print size, or subject matter, then perhaps the Face Maker would buy some the next time? Oh geez, here we go again.

This has happened to me. I’ve made certain pictures, certain stories, that seem to get the most interest and have been told, “You know, if you produce more of this exact style image, we might be able to sell prints because we have one client who likes such and such.”

And yes, it’s difficult to not allow this to influence your work.

In short, the moment you begin to take your images into the commercial world, all bets are off. With very, very little effort, you can completely lose track of what is going on, what you are doing and perhaps most importantly, why you are doing it.

Why do we see so many overrun trends in photography? Camille.

Why do we see the success of one specific style of post-processing on a image and suddenly there are a hundred photographers doing the same thing? Camille.

I think what we have is photography, and the business of photography. They are different lands, with different people living in each locale.

Last year I saw a slide presentation, from a photographer who is very commercially successful, gets a lot of publicity and for some reason is really considered to be one of the top photographers in the industry today.

Of all the people who were in the room that night, the people I knew, not a single person related to the work. Not a single person I knew said, “Wow, that was great.” What I did hear was how cold, sterile, detached and commercial the work was. It was clear the images were done for commercial reasons, little else, and it showed. I asked one older photographer, who was also in the room, and he just waved his hand in the air, as if I was asking a stupid question, and uttered something along the lines of, “What do you think I think, that was just commercial work.”

But guess what? Photographer is, again very successful, seems content, and is friends with Camille, and her sister and her cousin.

So we all play along with the charade. Why we do this I don’t know. I think the vast majority of people in that room wanted to ask, “Why are we sitting here,” but doing so would be considered a major breach of community law.

The following day I saw another photographer, who also sells his work, through a variety of channels, but shoots ONLY his work, regardless of client. The images are so recognizable, so personal, as is his story, that you can’t help to get sucked in. The response to him, the work, was entirely different. The applause were a good indication, as was the talk about his lecture days after the event.

This concept is rampant in our little photo world. Books are published for similar reasons. Spreads in magazines that relate to no one, done in styles that are impossible to comprehend, but are approved by Camille.

I think my point with all this is you can live in anywhere in the spectrum. You can live on the white side, the black side, or in the middle gray, but when you move to the middle realize this neighborhood comes with spotty security and a high crime rate.

Maybe it is a white collar crime rate, but it’s crime regardless.

Your car and house will be analyzed for their size and price and your wardrobe, haircut and eccentricity are also taken into account. But your work, perhaps less so.

But, this reality can work in a positive way. Camille can promote someone who really DOES do great work. And that promotion can take that work places it would never find on it’s own.

The odd thing is I think the work that is truly great photography relates to people outside the photo world, and much of the promoted work seems to only relate to those few promoting it and those very few purchasing it.

Back to my story…

I often get asked about my life, my photography, my feelings about working as a photographer. These questions come from friends, family and those I meet. My answer is always the same, “I love photography more than I ever have, and I like the industry less and less.”

I think this is really one reason why.

I see trends in wedding photography that make me laugh, and suddenly you can’t find a website or wedding photographer who isn’t trying to adopt the technique. I see the same with portraits, and art photography…don’t get me started(many of the same subjects printed wall size for no reason). Again, some of the trends are just silly, but others I really do think undermine the entire idea of being a photographer. And perhaps the state of the industry is a good reflection of where this junk has landed us.

What is the lesson here? Well first, seek help if you are getting your lessons from me, but seriously, the lesson is to make YOUR work, and if possible, ONLY your work.

Yep, that’s it. Make your work. I’ll bet there are a lot of photographers out there who have NO IDEA what their work is. Or, they realize their work really isn’t their work, but really is work they got at a seminar, webinar, workshop, bootcamp, jam session, shindig, hoedown, drum circle or as a direct result of being told by a Camille how to make pictures. How many times have you heard a photographer say, “Well, the magazine or the client only lets me do it this way.” Really? Aren’t you the photographer? Don’t you have a say? Kinda hard to do your work that way isn’t it?

Put your work on the lightbox….kidding, nobody has them anymore. Okay, put your work on the black goth sofa in your living room and imagine a client looking at it. Now imagine that client looking at ten other photographers in your city. You think that client can pick your work out of a lineup?

In most cases today, I would say no way. And I say this based on asking my clients this exact question. “Of the other photographers you looked at, could you pick their work out of a lineup?” You should see the looks. Many clients either quickly say “No,” or they call or email the following day and say, “You know I’ve been thinking about what you asked.” It’s not to say I’m the right client for all these people, but at least with me they know exactly what they are going to get. The “jack of all trades,” is killing professional photography, plain and simple. Why? Photographers who will do anything for anyone tend to be the ones that do anything for anyone at any price.

In the final winding down of this odd post I will say this. I think in a weird way this is a good thing, or I’m choosing to look at this in a good way. Just think of how great the photo biz could be, or will be, if photographers took control once again. Just think of how great things could be if photographers did their work, stood by their style and values and only made the best work.

I’m thinking it could happen. Perhaps not in my photo-lifetime, but maybe their is an embryo out there listening who is making the decision to avoid compromise.

Endeavor to persevere. Thanks Abraham.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    October 5, 2009 8:38 pm

    I want to comment because this is such a thoughtful post, but I don’t have the context to say very much. I’ve never seriously attempted to sell my photography. Probably a good thing. But I have two thoughts. First, I’ve noticed the trends in photography that you mention, and, even in my opinion, it gets silly to see the same things repeated over and over. Second, which comes first in any artistic endeavor, success or clarity of style? That’s not a rhetorical question. Did Ansel Adams plan to shoot photos that he knew would be well received, or did he shoot photos about which he felt passion, and which were later well received? The risk he took was that the result of his passion would never be widely viewed and his prints would sit in a box in someone’s attic, which is the fate on the vast majority of writers, painters and…photographers. Popularity rarely rewards excellence. It mostly rewards those who can ride the wave of a fad. (I’m looking at you, Britney Spears!)

    • October 6, 2009 5:05 pm

      Well, believe it or not, to answer your question, you have photographers deciding the gallery and the publisher they are going after, BEFORE they have done the images. Now this might seem like a good thing to some people, but for me, it is the ultimate sign of commercialism.

  2. Robb permalink
    October 6, 2009 2:46 am

    As always, reading your posts gets me into a better mood. I’ve slowly had my soul eaten away while I watch other photographersI know (some brand new to the game) getting lots of work shooting very cliched styles of the moment. I especially agree with David’s “popularity rarely rewards excellence.” Thanks for the much needed refilling of the soul tank.

    • October 6, 2009 5:04 pm

      Good, I’m glad I can help! Trendy does tend to work for a time. Just think back to the cross processing people of the 80’s and 90’s. But, eventually, it runs out. The good news for trendy people is that our attention spans are so short, and the internet has cut the life of a project by so much that you can get trendy again with the same stuff and still use it again.

  3. October 8, 2009 6:20 pm

    Michelangelo took on the Sistine Chapel and started with plans from the pope. He soon threw these all out and did it his way, under duress, for little money, on his back on a scaffold, on wet plaster. It turned out quite well and a few people still go to see it. Photographer of the past still master of the moment.

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