Name any one of the most famous and prolific photographers, and chances are you can probably remember only a small handful of their images. Even more surprisingly, if you spend a bit of time digging into their published collections, you’ll find that there are dozens more that you probably like better than their famous ones; photography is, after all, personal and subjective. But think about this for a moment: assuming that what you see is only what they choose to show you (being the effect of conscious exclusion at work again) – it makes you wonder exactly what didn’t make the cut.
The only conclusion we can come to is that what we see is the product of heavy censorship on both the part of the photographer and their editor(s). Should we be lucky enough to see a person’s work in the raw, and in entirety, you’d probably find that there is quite a lot of experimentation that didn’t make the cut – and that’s fine. However, what I’m left wondering is just how much control the photographer has over which of their images they’re remembered for – assuming of course you can’t receive attribution for images you didn’t take, so there’s no way for instance Testino will ever be remembered for photographing baby elephants (unless there are celebrities involved, I suppose).
And here we face Disconnect Number One: you can be an artist who chooses only to show certain work which you solely deem worthy, but at the huge risk that your point of view is onto a popular one and you never manage to find an audience. At the other end of the spectrum lies the production of solely popular work; you only make images that fit in to the current pop culture gestalt (this almost certainly biased, but I’m thinking bad HDR, kittens, too many lo-fi filters, and perhaps an overdone vignette) and as a result have no real dominant personality or style of their own. It is of course more likely that your work fits somewhere in the middle – it’s difficult to be so completely original and unrelatable that you have no audience, but at the same time it’s almost impossible to avoid popular influences. Thus from the outset your conscious mind is not fully in control of the images you make anyway: your subconscious plays a part, and that in turn is influenced by the world around us.
It’s a two way street, because we are humans and interact with our environment: images that receive positive feedback are the kind of thing we aim to reproduce or at least whose style and content we want to follow; images that don’t are probably work that we won’t repeat or won’t share as often. And thus we have a self-reinforcing cycle. It takes a lot of determination and conviction to avoid that becoming a fixed spiral.
The upshot of all this is that our personal judgement of our best work is almost never in line with that of our audience; it might not be too far off, or it might be significantly different. Again, remember the whole photography game is subjective: everybody has a different viewpoint born of their experiences, and as a result they have different preferences and dislikes; it is therefore impossible to make an image that appeals to all. In fact, I’d argue that the more strongly an image appeals to a single individual, the smaller the number of people that’s going to be: it’s more finely/ strongly targeted.
It has been argued both ways that the Mona Lisa is Da Vinci’s prime masterpiece, or not more deserving than of a footnote compared to the other great works he produced; I can’t help but wonder if the famous images were absolute favourites of the artists themselves. Take, for instance, one of Ansel’s Yosemite Half Dome moonrise frames, or perhaps HC-B’s man jumping over the puddle behind the Gare St. Lazare in Paris, Lange’s Migrant Mother, Guersky’s Rhein II or Corda’s portrait of Che Guevara – did they appeal at a primeval, visceral level or to some aspect of their being that they can’t really explain? I honestly cannot imagine this being the case for Rhein II, for example. Or some of HC-B’s other work. And I’m pretty sure Robert Capa wasn’t pleased that his Normandy landing series got botched by a lab tech – especially after the level of personal risk involved.
Personally, I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle: I won’t show work I’m not happy with, but I can’t only be showing nothing but my absolute favourites, either. Firstly, I wouldn’t have enough work to show; secondly, I wouldn’t be able to get any feedback on what people like and what they don’t. And since I’m a commercial photographer first and an art photographer second – I need that feedback. And to a greater degree, I also need the latitude for experimentation as I discover for myself what works and appeals to me from an artistic standpoint.
The images illustrating this article are a mixture of three things: images that have proven popular with my usual audience for whatever reason; images that I’ve pushed because I like them, and have in turn become popular – you may recognise Only The Clouds Are Truly Free, Verticality I, Lone Tree and The Forest – but there are also a couple which appeal to me only, and seemingly nobody else. I have no explanation for these.
This brings me to the second Big Question: as a photographer, what images do you want to be remembered for? Is there a disconnect between what’s popular and what you like? Arguably, just because something is popular does not necessarily mean that it will be remembered for posterity: it may just be a passing fad. I doubt very much that the current trend for overfiltered images is going to be around in fifty years, much as hyper focal, hyper-detail B&W from the f.64 group isn’t exactly common today. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you don’t want to be remembered for images that fit the current gestalt – simply because those are the images that will not stand out because there are so many of them. I would certainly want what I like to be as close to what’s popular amongst my audience as possible, but not necessarily popular amongst the greater general public.
Next problem: do you know who is your audience? If there is a disconnect between what is deemed popular and what you like, is it because you’re pitching to the wrong audience? I’m fairly sure that in my case, that discontinuity definitely exists. The majority of people who see my personal, artistic, work are photographers, not clients or art collectors/ buyers; there’s one huge problem right there. For all I know, I may be producing seminal work of future historical interest (though this is highly unlikely) – but since the audience wants to see test charts and camera reviews, it goes unnoticed except for how remarkably low the noise is or how sharp the corners are. I for one don’t think it’s that easy to precisely target the audience you want.
Personally, what I’m glad to see is that over time I’m seeing the convergence between what I like and what my audience likes – I don’t know if it’s the result of conditioning or perhaps me maturing and developing as a photographer, but I believe that it will make my life easier in future – at least from a commercial standpoint. Whether this makes any difference on the artistic front is another matter of course. Ultimately, I have to ask myself: would I want to be remembered for these? Certainly. Do they represent the majority of the work I do? No, but then again, if they did, they couldn’t be exceptional. Am I happy with them as images, public reaction aside? For the most part, yes. But are they my best images? I hope not; I would always like to believe that those are still to come. After all, isn’t that why we keep shooting? If we know we’ve already taken our best shot…why continue? MT
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