Work like this, I produce for myself and myself only: I don’t care if anybody else likes it; frankly, I wasn’t even going to upload or share it, but it got accidentally included in a batch. I know it certainly has zero commercial potential. Perhaps that makes it amongst the purest images I create?
Here’s a sticky question I’ve been battling with for a few months: does it matter what other people think of my images? Although it may sound rather egotistical, I think it’s actually a very valid consideration from several standpoints: that of the hobbyist/ amateur; that of the commercial/ professional, and that of the artist. And I’m pretty sure the answer is different for each one. I’m not even going to try and answer the question of what one should do if you fall into all three categories…I suppose it requires a healthy dose of schizophrenia.
I’m going to address the easiest one first: the commercial photographer. Quite simply, if you make a living from selling your images, then there’s no question you need to produce things your clients are pleased with. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself out of an income and a job in short order. A secondary, but no less important consideration is that the public – specifically the target audience of the client – also likes the work; without that, they won’t hire you – probably. There are exceptions to this; the main one being where the audience accepts what they’re given, and it’s you client’s job to push the envelope and produce something different for then. In that case, only the client matters. So: think of the masses, but “the client always comes first”.
If only it was that simple: I’ve deliberately left out two considerations: whether you as the photographer like the work, and how that affects the overall dynamics. I suspect the reality is that most photographers don’t like their professional work that much; I for one know that my personal work and commercial output diverge considerably, to the point that I can’t sell the former. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the latter; though it’s rare that my artistic vision and that of the clients coincide. (Here’s a good example.)
It gets even more complicated: if you don’t like your own work, chances are you’re not going to be pushing the envelope much, and that in turn hampers your commercial viability: it’s the tricky seesaw of trying to balance personal and professional drives. I really don’t have an answer for this one; so far, maintaining some degree of separation has been the best solution for me. Until one reaches the level of having people hire you specifically for your work and giving you full creative freedom, I think this is a problem that all photographers-for-pay are going to have to deal with.
If you’re a hobbyist/ amateur, I think you’re perhaps in the best position: you have a choice. Shoot for yourself – and don’t show anybody what you produce – or shoot for an audience and produce things that the popular viewer (your non-photographer friends, family etc) enjoys looking at, then wait for the compliments to roll in – or unpaid weddings, birthdays and other events.
At which point, you’ll probably wish you never asked for an opinion. That’s okay, you can always still have the option of shooting for yourself and yourself only; it really doesn’t matter what you produce since you won’t have to convince anybody else of its worth: just yourself, so you can continue to justify spending all that time and money on equipment and photography. Fortunately, the justification is a simple one: are you happy with the image or not, before and independently of showing anybody else?
Of course, if you care enough to continue shooting purely for yourself, it’s a reasonable assumption that you might also want to improve (if you’re at the level of being able to consistently create what you envision – see the stages of creative evolution – then this might not apply). In that case, seek the opinions – notice the plural – of more experienced photographers, whose work you respect and admire, and more importantly, can be objective critics; this is not somebody who’s going to feel threatened by you. Peers are probably out: they probably lack the experience and you might well land up going up against them in a competition or something*. I do recognize that there are a very large number of people who fall into this category; hence the workshops, Email School and videos.
*Never underestimate the impact of ego and personal interest in these things.
I’ve long held the belief that the best place to be photographically is that of the moneyed amateur: you have no commercial/ financial pressure to please a client and thus sell work; at the same time you have the resources to pursue and experiment with the kind of things you want to photograph. You are probably successful independently in life, and are basically unwilling to take s*** from anybody: you’ll photograph what you want, how you want, thank you very much.
The only things separating this kind of photographer from the artist (you may also want to have a look at this article on the line between art and ordinary photography) are intention and audience; I suppose commercialism can be lumped into this to a lesser extent, too. Assuming you first have the skill to produce what you intend to, with the message you intend to, then the only difference between artist and amateur is a question of audience. If you are producing work for yourself, the piece doesn’t have to have an intended message for a preselected group of people; there’s no question that you – the sole audience – would be happy with the work, if not, you’ll just do it again.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to tell a group of people something – then whether they get it or not matters; I think this is tied to execution. Whether they like it or not is quite another matter; they don’t have to. They just have to understand your intended message. In fact, the reason it doesn’t matter is down to the old adage of ‘all PR is good PR’ – controversy generates debate, which generates awareness, which in the end helps an artist’s success – there’s bound to be somebody who likes it, and the more people who see the work, the higher the chances of that one liker seeing it. I actually suspect that more controversial an artist is – photographic or otherwise – the more likely they are to be successful; just look at Guersky and Rhein II – it sold for a small fortune, and here we are talking about it now. How many of you are a) going to look it up, b) keep thinking about it, and even c) try to reproduce it – that’s a successful image, even if taken in isolation it isn’t that interesting. Guersky probably doesn’t care what we think – in the end, he won anyway.
I’ve been accused of producing images which lack ‘soul’ and ‘the stamp of the photographer’ (see the comments on this photoessay). At first, it bothered me. I suspect that was the commercial side of me speaking; the need to please the audience – i.e. the site readers – and keep my nearly-perfect batting average intact. I got a bit defensive, then worried about the fact that I might well be missing something legitimate; obtaining examples changed my mind. The kind of work that was alleged to ‘have soul’ is not the kind of work I want to produce at all; it’s the complete opposite of the way I see the world, and my personal intentions. Given that the kind of work – urban reportage, I’d call it – has zero commercial value whatsoever, and that I do it solely for my own personal satisfaction, the opinions of others ultimately do not matter.
Here, I wear the hat of the amateur: I must produce work I am personally happy with, and nothing else. If nothing, I look back on that whole episode now – with the benefit of hindsight of course – as a question, waver and affirmation of my intentions: when I shoot for myself, I am an artist and nothing else. I have no other motivations than that which are purely selfish: I want to be happy with my work. I produce, and am producing, work that pleases me; if not, I delete/ discard it and try again. I produce work that my clients are happy with. And increasingly, I’m able to produce work that falls into both categories – that is the ultimate goal. MT
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