I read an online article the other day. It was the kind of article I would usually hate-read for a few minutes and then move on, but I thought it summed up quite nicely the quintessential problem photographers today face. The thesis of the article is:
I’ll put aside my take on the author’s ignorant opinion for the time being. Suffice it to say if he is a card carrying “art critic” he should have his membership revoked. The larger point, however, is that the international public has spoken — photography is easy, cheap and is definitely not art. This idea is troubling, but photographers have to come to terms with how their craft is viewed so that they can effectively combat it. It’s up to us to revive the art of photography.
The big problem
So why do many people think that photography is not art? There are lots of reasons, but there is a common thread. The photography instrument — the camera — is very accessible and easy to use. Camera technology has come such a long way that one of the major impediments to taking photographs — exposure control — has become a non-issue for the general public. The picture out of the camera is good enough. Put it through an Instagram filter and you’re golden. No processing cost and instant access to publishing is a good recipe for “anyone can do it”. We know that’s not true, so lets dig a little deeper.
Seeing the problem a different way
For the sake of this article let’s say we’re not talking about a camera or photography, lets replace the camera with a guitar and photography with music. It’s a really good comparison. Music is just as ubiquitous an interest as photography and most people I know would love to play an instrument. The big difference here is that we as a society are much more sensitive to annoying sounds than annoying optics. The designers of fire alarms found a really effective way to get you out of a building, they designed a sound that put you in physical pain. If something slightly annoying comes on the radio, you’ll change the channel before you figure out which song it is. Better yet, you don’t listen to the radio because you’re so picky about what you listen to.
Annoying optics on the other hand are EVERYWHERE. You probably don’t have to go outside your own house to find them. Every time you turn on the TV they abound. Your cookie-cutter neighborhood is a literal petri dish of bad design. The freeway is a visual junkyard and the subway is just as bad. Most of us have built an immunity to “eye garbage” that rivals the polio vaccine. Good news is, it doesn’t take much to produce something better. Bad news is it takes a more sophisticated palette to make a meaningful distinction.
So how do you combat this?
If you want to be a successful photographer in a world where photographs are everywhere you have essentially two choices:
- Shoot an existing photography genre in a new and interesting way such that a casual observer cannot deny the difference.
- Develop totally unique photography content — a new photography sub-genre that no one has discovered.
Neither of these options is easy. Option 1 is for those who are competitors at their core and love classic photography. They thrive on winning and being the very best. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this option, it’s a race to the top and nothing’s gonna stop you. Option 2 is for those who are bored with existing models and want to be fresh and new always. If they get compared to someone else, they tend to take offense. This is great as well, these people trek the undiscovered country and provide inspiration to us all.
Become an artist
Whichever road you take, your mission must be to become an artist. No amount of words can convince an “art critic” that a photographer is an artist. As with any other art form, the proof is in the pudding. The quality and intent must be clear. The less you find yourself explaining your photography the better. Let the work speak for itself — it will whether you want it to or not.
photo credit: Ryan McGuire