Would they be famous now? Or, the bar has been raised

I recently attended two exhibitions. First was a semibiographical retrospective of Yves St Laurent at work by French photographer Pierre Boulat, and the other was Steve McCurry’s ‘Iconic Photographs’. Both were in Asia, but held at two of the top galleries in the region – Galeri Petronas and Sundaram Tagore, respectively. There was no faulting the presentation or hanging in either case. For both shows, print quality was frankly disappointingly mediocre. I’m prepared to give Boulat some latitude since he was working in relatively early film days and under ‘documentary’ conditions; McCurry’s film work often has obvious motion blur and focus misses, and his digital compounds that with oversharpening haloes – all of which land up being distracting from the image. He should really have tighter control on his post production, or stop outsourcing altogether – as the recent cloning scandal demonstrates. It’s not so much the use of postproduction enhancement, but the addition or removal of elements in what is expected to be work of a documentary nature. All of this has raised two questions in my own mind: firstly, if either photographer was starting out fresh today, would they have anywhere near the notoriety and fame, and secondly, has the game changed so much that we modern photographers have little hope of making a truly widely-recognized ‘iconic image’?

You’ll notice that this is the first post in a very long time that has no images; the reason for this is twofold. I don’t want to single out any one image as an example of ‘iconic’, because that would both be highly subjective and not really doing others justice. On top of that, I also don’t want to single out any image is undeserving – not to mention any possible legal ramifications of using still-copyrighted images. But it also leads to another thought: if a reasonably well-read photographer is asked to identify and list several iconic images, high chances are they’ll be a) from much earlier in the history of the medium – not shot in the last 20 years or so – b) of a photojournalistic nature. It’s actually not surprising seeing as back then, image circulation was limited, and the more sensational ones tended to be more widely reprinted and distributed. There were also simply far fewer images made – leading to naturally the ones that did exist being better remembered, especially if connected with a major international event. Social media and casual capture – let alone distribution – of images simply did not exist. We simply saw what we were allowed to see, whether that was good or bad – it was all there was.

Putting aside even considerations of technical image quality, a lot of the ‘famous’ images of the past probably wouldn’t be given a second glance today if they were to surface for the first time on today’s social media networks. Unfortunately, this experiment is impossible to perform seeing as most of the great photographers have already had their work sufficiently widely circulated that nothing would be truly fresh. Two things make me think they really don’t have a chance: the maturity of digital photography and the internet has meant that far more people have access to image making equipment than every before; there is simply more imagination and vision on the loose, which in turn results in more – and better – images. The competition is tougher.

On top of that, you’ve got a lot of very capable photographers making outstanding images that are pretty much unknown because they choose not to promote themselves, and the small volume of images that are published are simply lost in the noise. You’ve also got some very mediocre photographers who scream at the top of their lungs across every possible channel, and gain notoriety for unimpressive work simply because they make the most noise. It is no longer a game of quality or timing or being there – it’s an ugly battle for attention on multiple fronts. In short, whilst access to opportunity (with cheap travel), sufficiently good hardware and a much larger audience than ever before has made it easier to gain notoriety and make photography as a career workable – it has made it much harder to truly get to the top of the tree.

I feel as though I’m experiencing this at a personal level right now: without the internet making the entire world my audience, and without the accessibility of digital, I’d never have had the time and resources to learn enough and hone my work to the point that I can access the niche clients that appreciate my images. On the other hand, I spend a huge amount of time managing social media interactions and presence because of this – if you don’t exist online, then you might as well not exist at all in the minds of many – both from a credibility standpoint, and one of simple visibility.

It isn’t obvious what the right strategy to use is to climb the fame/notoriety ladder; I’ve spent much time thinking about this because unfortunately, skill and vision comes a distant second to celebrity in determining success in today’s photographic industry. The main challenge stems from the short attention spans of most audiences that are a direct result of social media: nothing stays current or relevant for very long, and images now have a lifespan of minutes or seconds before being forgotten amongst the increasing billions that are taken every minute. That statistic about there being more images taken in the last year than the entire previous history of photography (or something similar): it’s probably true, and very scary. Because it means that even what would be considered a competition-winning outstanding image from a decade ago probably wouldn’t even get a second look today – there’s simply too much visual media bombarding every audience.

The only solution I see is to somehow be both creative and prolific: make enough images and have enough work in circulation and it acts as a virtual army holding your fort in cyberspace; repetition isn’t useful because then you land up either being pigeonholed into one category of work and dismissed, or the audience doesn’t give you attention beyond the fifth or sixth image. I think creativity in the modern context has become not just finding a unique look or perspective or angle or interpretation, but really understanding the capabilities of new technology and pushing it to the limits by applying it in ways that haven’t been done before – medium format for low light documentary work, low light videography or super high speed flash sync would be two examples – beyond the obvious of photographing something unique constructed from imagination (e.g. a lot of fashion work, or Crewdson’s setups). Even then: there are so many people taking the creative bull by the horns that it still isn’t enough. The internet has given us access to a much wider audience, but the sheer volume of work out there has made it much harder to be found by the right people.

Yet I still can’t help but wonder if in say fifty years there will be far fewer memorable photographers of this generation than any other, simply because there’s too much material for the average man to digest. You’ll remember seeing an individual tree in a desert – regardless of whether the tree was impressive or not – but not a giant one in a forest. It certainly isn’t one’s commercial work that’s likely to be remembered – that’s designed to be disposable and very ‘immediate’ in many ways simply because it has to feel current, new and trendy; next year there has to be something else that supersedes it to sell more product. The only conclusion I can come to is we are back to square one: photographing something intensely for ourselves, and solely for ourselves, because we want to; that intensity and focus breeds creativity and in turn experimentation, and passion keeps you going. In short: to be famous, we should probably stop thinking about being famous. MT


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  1. Much that occurrs now wouldn’t be without some sort of derivative influence.

    • That’s also very true – but it goes both ways: we make images that subconsciously fit something we’ve seen before, and but we also don’t make other images as a result…

  2. There is so much amazing talent out there now. I’m not sure the masters of old could hold up really. When we look at iconic photos are we admiring talent or reminiscing to what once was? On a second note if I was capable of landing world class photo and posted to social media would I get more than 2 days ‘wow nice photo”?

    • Good questions on both counts. I think it would be unfair to assume the old masters wouldn’t be able to do something better with new technology, though. That said – a lot of them didn’t handle the transition to digital very well, and their film work looked a lot better…

  3. “[A] lot of the ‘famous’ images of the past probably wouldn’t be given a second glance today if they were to surface for the first time on today’s social media networks.”

    This sounds a bit too resentful. Why not replace “famous images” with “famous paintings”. How many people would be interested in a story about manned flight given that it was invented over 100 years ago? It’s the same story. You’re comparing pioneers to regular folks. We can achieve many things today that were impossible decades ago.

    It’s hard to be a famous painter in the era of the colour printer.

    I also disagree with your premise. There are plenty of iconic images nowadays. The squirrel photo-bomb. The series of a man being led by his girlfriend all over the world. The monkey selfie (leading to a large copyright battle). Elena Shumilova’s series of animals and children in the winter. Many people who don’t frequent photog blogs are familiar with these images because they are iconic. And some of these images are made by professional photographers who have managed to create an identifiable brand while creating iconic images. The difference is that a large majority of iconic images nowadays are generated by non-photogs snapping cool scenes on their phones.

    • It’s not resentful so much as an observation and attempt to figure out why – which has been borne out by many experiments where lesser promoted (but no less meritorious) work by famous photographers was mixed in with more pedestrian images and didn’t receive any notice.

      A squirrel photo bomb is going to make the list of greats? Sorry, but I think we might have a very different idea of iconic. Surely we are not going to remember and more importantly treasure those images in years to come…we might remember the controversy, but that’s probably about it.

  4. Im my view, a good photo from the past is still a good photo now regardless focus misses and motion blur. May be in the past, the focus was more on the image as a whole (the idea behind that picture) rather than the pure formal perfection (focus, DR, clarity, etc.) which seems to be the ultimate goal.

    • I disagree. The focus isn’t on formal perfection; that’s merely a tool, like language. An idea isn’t worse if it’s expressed more clearly…

  5. The concept of the “good old days” is fake. We remember the good photographers from years past, because there were curators who brought their work to us through books, exhibitions and some magazines. Otherwise we wouldn’t know them from Adam. And it took them decades to gain recognition among their peers. Laypeople at that time didn’t know them. Concentrate on the now and on the future. Or do you think the Internet is meant to bring us fame? It’s not constructed for that.
    There is no good widely known curation on the Internet.
    Who are the people you want to see your photographs but can’t? Are they interested in mass consumption of images, or are they interested in photographs? Where do they hang out? What’s stopping you from reaching them? What are their interests?

    • What you are experiencing is the lack of focus on which hierarchy structure to bring your work to next. The Internet doesn’t have that – yet, like the New York best seller book list guarantees sales and exposure for authors.

    • I assume by ‘you’, you’re speaking figuratively of the photographer sitting at home scratching their heads wondering what to do next to get exposure. More of that is a network effect than anything else, especially judging by the quality (or lack of) of some work that gets a lot of publicity.

  6. The reason it seems as though there used to be a relatively limited number of photographers producing iconic images, becoming famous, and dominating the “pantheon of greats” has everything to do with the barriers to entry that used to exist in the market, and little else. Before the internet, the various means of publication, exhibition, and distribution had professional gate keepers that tended to bar entry to photographers who couldn’t consistently produce work the market wanted. Take Magnum and other picture agencies, for example. Due to the expense of having to pay full-time photo editors and other staff to go through and select from large image submissions, not to mention creation of film or print duplicates for distribution to various offices and clients, picture agencies only sought to work with photographers who could consistently produce photographs that met the needs of the market. Publishers only requested images from those picture agencies, or directly from professional photographers who had amassed fairly extensive quality archives. The best galleries would only present bodies of work by proven talents.

    With the advent of the internet, a would-be professional photographer can make a single marketable image, and then play the game: publish a portfolio website offering prints, place a few salable images with online agencies (and en masse thereby undermine the ability of consistent producers to maintain a sustainable income), etc. The most consistently excellent photographersb have less of a competitive advantage when photos the market is oversupplied and treated like commodities and

    The reality, however, is that over time, the cream will still rise to the top.

    • I don’t think we’re seeing the rising of the cream so much as the popularity of those who shout very loud…that is the other disadvantage of social media (and the effect on the uneducated).

  7. Curtis Polk says:

    To keep photography from turning on you and eating you alive, you must know exactly why you’re doing it. The real art is only for yourself, not for recognition or visibility. It took me twenty years to get good at classic black and white, and two years to discover my desire and photograph it. When that was completed, it was time to hang it up. Once you reach that point, you either stop, or turn professional, and it becomes another crank to turn.

  8. I’m sad to hear you spend so much of your time curating social media. It must suck away at least some time you would rather be spending pursuing your muses–surely time better spent at the least. Have you read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss? From an outside view, it seems like it could be very helpful to your business.

    • Yes, but it’s also completely impractical for my business. What I take away from it is he made a decent living writing books that had a long tail and continued to provide passive income…

  9. For me, this discussion of the iconic photograph raises a personal question. Do you Ming Thein have in your mind your iconic image or possibly an all-time favorite? I do not ask you to post it or even describe it; I am just curious if such a prolific professional can single out one shot.

    Thank you so much for the education your site has provided to me.

    • A very valid question, and one I think whose answer is no: I can’t think of a single image off the top of my head that qualifies. There would be a set which I think have equal merit for various reasons, and perhaps equally minor shortcomings – and this applies to both the work of others and my own. The opposing view is that if there’s a single image that ticks all the boxes – then perhaps it’s the end of the road since by definition that would mean we can’t improve on it?

      An interesting experiment would be to say illustrate the entire site with no more than 100 images and circulate same as widely as possible…would some of those become iconic or at least well known by virtue of exposure? Probably…but longevity would be something else entirely.

      • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

        Before I head off to bed, I thought I’d address this, as it’s a question I’ve thought a lot about, going back at least to the previous millennium.

        I think it’s impossible to predict what images (or works of other kinds) will become iconic. All we can do is create the best work we can–and by “best” I mean technically and putting ourselves into it as much as we can. Society, then–for its own reasons–decides what and whom to recognize. “Greatness” arises from the society at least as much as–and probably more than–it arises from the work itself, or the artist.

  10. Let’s give credit to those old-timers that perfected their techniques at a time when access to information – internet, blog.mingthein.com, 😉 was not as available and their tools were less forgiving or flexible – how practical is immediate digital review for the amateur enthusiast! However, the old-timers were fortunate on being present to photograph historic events, being the first to photograph certain subjects or being the original in their style of photography. Compound that with our perception of their sheer skill to grab difficult shots using their-era tools and technology.

    The real challenge for today’s photographer is to be unique – create work that stands out. In fact today’s photographer seems to get from both ends – the past (great images already taken) and the present (sheer volume of images uploaded on to the net).

    So in that vein, I think the old-timers would still create great works with today’s tools at their disposal, but the question is would their work stand out and become iconic … my guess, not always.

    Richard P.

    • Absolutely – the feedback loop now is so much faster even than ten years ago; I think it’s much easier to reach a very high standard if one is determined, though it’s also easier to get overwhelmed and confused simply by the mass of material out there – then discouraged when you see really good work being ignored.

      As for technology: whilst I agree that digital has seriously shortcut the process and opened up the shooting envelope, I don’t really find the ‘fancy features’ that necessary for most stuff – face detect AF tracking modes, custom functions and the like – most of the time, you have to set something because if you don’t, then the camera behaves in an unexpected way. Apparently just having something where you set exposure parameters, focus, and hit the shutter knowing that the shutter fires immediately and consistently is not that common anymore…

      But returning to the point: once a photographer passes a certain skill level, the hardware doesn’t matter – only the opportunities. But finding unique opportunities is going to shift us further and further towards creating them rather than discovering them, I think – and even then, there are limits to how far we can go (not going to compete with Crewdson on budget and exposure, for instance).

      • A thought occurred to me (slightly off our thread) that there is a parallel to the music industry in a number of ways. Which songs become current hits, which become classics. As well I noticed that some musicians are technically excellent, creating music that other musicians admire for the arrangement and complexity – however these works may not catch on with the general public (think of those famous 3 chord wonder songs). So we (the amateur enthusiast photogs) can marvel at the lighting, sharpness, tonality of that plate of sushi or chair and lamp (appreciate the photographer’s photographer), but the general public won’t appreciate the thought and skill that went into that shot. Give ’em mountains or cats with plenty of bokeh! 😉.

  11. I have never seeked fame or fortune.
    I am simply a passionate photographer.
    I have won major competitions, had front page photos, done major advertising and fashion.
    Now I am retired from my main profession, Master Watchmaker or Pro-Photographer !
    I did whichever made more money.
    Photographed almost every day. Maybe 1 frame.
    Working simply with now outdated tools and materials, I make my images.
    No new cameras or lenses, still shoot film. Process self.
    Film is cheaper than trying to keep up with hugely expensive gear soon outdated.
    Digital for family and friends. Prints done at standard places like Wal-Mart.
    Facebook, e-mails cover the bulk.
    Photography can be in-expensive!
    Phone cameras, older point and shoot digitals. No murals or large prints.
    Make images not heartache.

    • What worked then isn’t the same as what works now…

      • It worked for me, even before I retired! Heart attack. I am really basic. A few pro jobs for internet, were done with Pentax Optio or Minolta point and shoots. Film my favorite.
        A very successful pal I shoot with regularly, pro, books published, works only in BW and film for his art. Leica M-4P, 28mm and 50mm.
        Plustech scanner, HP+5. Color when reqd,, an old Canon 5D. Basic.
        My huge film camera collection and lenses all gifts or at most small donations.
        One of my Best Fashion shoots for magazine, was Kodachrome, Leica with 21mm and 35mm. No bags. Spare film in jacket pocket..

        • I agree Jason. Lets not overthink things.

          Digital or film has no bearing on the output that stands the time of an incredible image.

          I think being prolific only in a genuine heartfelt desire to create just that one image is important. To being prolific in the sense we must show our volume of work is entirely different and one it seems a lot of people feel is important. It’s not. Great photographers are mostly built on long term projects and not shooting to be famous. That’s just a consequence of their creations.

  12. I assisted Mr. McCurry for one half day in about 1984. It was just he and I. He worked with fury. I learned from watching him the idea of riding the wave of action and concentrating pictures at fleeting, peak moments. Perhaps he changed, we all do, but he was an aggressive sort of professional, in his shooting style I mean. He would ride moments hard and shoot in close. It was volunteer work for me and I was a trombonist on a tv show. He arrived working for National Geographic but had no assistant. He came with a vast array of gear and little was said. He was all business and fast like a tornado. It was a great time just that one day. Nothing after that. I was really young, and it never occurred to me to stay in touch.

    • I’m actually curious what he’d actually need out an assistant during the actual shoot – it occurs to me that it isn’t really very much since a) you’d have to have everything on you not to miss opportunities, and b) the logistics would be mostly pre-arranged anyway. I honestly don’t know what I’d have an assistant do on a documentary shoot other than perhaps carry the bits of gear I might not immediately require to hand, like a tripod and spares…

      • You seem dismissive towards what to me was quite a wonderful moment in my own life. It was his choice to request one. I responded to his request. 1) HE asked. 2) HE asked. I feel a little hurt. How can you say that you know what he was thinking? I must have been carrying bits of his gear. I feel a little hurt here. Maybe i should have told him no.

        • Sorry, that was certainly not my intention. I was simply asking how a photojournalist would use an assistant, since you served that position and I’ve never felt the need for one in such situations myself, since inevitably the situation is fluid, and the hardware you need would probably be on your assistant and not you – which seems a slower way of working(?) 🙂

          • I am forcing myself to be nice; I do feel kind of hurt. Maybe that’s hard to understand and I thought that I was adding; I am having some trouble here. It involved water and cords nearby. He used three lights but he himself got in the water up to his waste. That’s all I wish to add.

            • Beyond apologising again, I’m not sure what else I can add.

              The situation you describe makes a lot more sense – my impression was that he was always an available light shooter (and not with huge amounts of hardware). The question was framed around that understanding, NOT a reflection of your abilities.

  13. Ultimately, you must do photography for yourself, otherwise it can eat you alive.

    Question #1 – Boulat’s images work because they make the viewer part of the image. It’s like being there. Sure, we see that today in some images, though I have trouble naming someone new who consistently achieves the same. In McCurry’s images, what I found at his exhibits was that the attention amongst viewers shifted towards his primary colour images (red, yellow, blue dominant themes). Again, there are those who do that successfully today. Where McCurry rose through the dust was in his access to locations, especially a focus upon places few westerners ventured. McCurry had some luck, and editors who liked him.

    Question #2 – As you stated elsewhere, today is much more about shouting above the roar. It’s really marketing now. I’m constantly reminded of what one of my photography mentors told me: “there are tons of photographers out their whose images suck, but they’re making a living at it.” 😉

    I’ve managed to speak with some of the talented photographers of the past. Quite often, it has been a case of younger art directors coming in, and not knowing who the old guy was, or why they should hire them. Some aging greats moved towards workshops, though not necessarily successful nor well regarded in those attempts. Staying power has been undermined by “freshness”.

    • Agreed on all points: and not all good doers are good teachers, and vice versa. Freshness isn’t necessarily a good thing, though neither is stagnation…

  14. Ming

    Excellent article. You pulled together a number of the “facts of life” in today’s world. Amazing and shocking to me how different photography was not so long ago. For me the one thing that stays the same is my appreciation when a really good image comes along. Of course this phenomenon becomes impressive it is bound with other great photos.

    Thank you


  15. Interesting thougths. Concerning your first question: the odds were probably always against becoming famous. You have written before, and I agree, that to make a living as a photographer being a good businessman is at least as important as making good images. To become a celebrity, however, requires luck. So, in a way I think that the mentioned photographers might not have made it even a week before, or a week later. I have no doubt that at this period there were enough other capable photographers, we have just never heard of them because they weren’t in the right place at the right time.
    Your second question concerns how much the game has changed. I think that the only way one can influence the odds for success is by networking. This is far more important than the quality of one’s work and a proven strategy to make it in business careers, and the reason why parents send their kids to expensive private schools. But I think it also plays an important role in the art world. What is unclear to me is if social networking (virtual networking) has the same effect as meeting people face to face. I suspect that it doesn’t. Neverthelss, I don’t think that even with the best networking you can become a world wide celebrity without enormous luck. The odds are – and have always been – against it. So I think we all better concentrate on our businesses than worry too much about not being a celebrity – as hard as that sometimes feels.

    Looking at the supposedly altered images by McCurry I find it interesting to see that at least some of the images lost tension in the altered versions, for instance the 3 ladies under the tree.

    • “Concerning your first question: the odds were probably always against becoming famous.”
      They have to be, by definition: otherwise fame doesn’t exist (if everybody is well-known, then nobody is famous).

      As for network effects – couldn’t agree more, though it’s almost luck, too: you can meet lots of people, but whether they have a positive influence on your career or not is something else entirely.

  16. Another good one!

    My analogy?

    Popular modern photographs are like fireworks…

    They light up the sky for a moment in brilliance and people say oooh, aaaah, wow

    Then they’re gone and people want the next one.

    I was recently debating artistic clout with someone.

    What would you rather your photography was perceived like? I asked – the sex pistols music or Justin Beiber’s

    This produced the expected response re the raw power and emotion of punk, vs the lightweight pop of a marketed product.

    But I countered…

    Beiber got his record deal by setting up a YT channel, getting a lot of hits and then… Well getting a lot of top ten hits.

    The Sex Pistols were actually the marketed product (brain child of McLaren and Westwood)

    When we think of fame and durability, we often miss the true foundations and get lost in the myth.

    Good article.

    • I keep thinking of one of the classical composers, but whilst they had moderate success when alive…they were much more popular centuries later, and merely craftsmen during their time. (Interestingly, not far off a lot of the renaissance artists, too.)

  17. As you often do, Sir, you got me thinking as deeply as I can, though that’s probably not that deep. Anyway, something that you wrote about in the past seems to be relevant here, social media. I’m not speaking in the “hey look at me” that some people are so good at, but the tendency of social media to create self-reinforcing loops.

    This photo on (whatever platform), gets lots of votes so I’ll copy it. My photo, in as much as it looks like whatever style is currently popular also gets likes. A look at the highest rated photos on 500px or Flickr will show only a few basic styles, repeated in different locations or with different models. That in turn shapes our appreciation of what makes a “good” photo, and publishers, judges or curators are not immune to current style. It’s a big black hole that sucks in photography into an event horizon of bland uniformity.

    I honestly can’t remember most of the latest NatGeo top photos of the year. The same goes for most competitions and exhibitions. How many documentary photographers are simply copying a tired style. Landscapes either tend to reiterate some romanticized, oversaturated style or copy the minimalist, stark style that was revolutionary in the 70’s. Massive black hole.

    • Well said: self reinforcement multiplies deviations (and eventually we land up with cats and bokeh taking over everything) – that little bit of curiosity and sharing results in some very strange mainstream ‘norms’.

      I wonder if this was different in the pre-social media era; though it would be impossible to make any sort of objective comparison given the number of variables…

      As for landscape work, it seems transparency/authenticity is too ordinary these days: we’re expecting the big hit of endorphins and the ‘wow’, and when we don’t get it – meh.

  18. If being famous is your raison d’être for photography I think you would be better off not being a photographer…if that is your reason for doing anything I think whatever you do *may * be successful for a short time but ultimately is useless…since if “fashion” is what you strive for then you will always be left behind…on the other hand since this is a comment with French quotes ” plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

    • It’s not my purpose, but just an open discussion on overall changes in the way images are remembered and perceived. That said, some degree of notoriety is probably not a bad thing to make a sustainable career out of it…

  19. Twenty-five years ago I had to choose between two career paths, one of which was photography. I’m glad I didn’t choose professional photography. Ming accurately describes the benefits of being a dedicated amateur. I do what I want, for myself.

    But this year I’ve found an interesting middle ground. I teach in a university, and I’ve discovered that many, many students have a deep yearning to make photographs, and to learn about photography. They want more than Instagram and the like. In my School we focus on environment and sustainability, so you might not immediately see where photography could fit in. It does! I’m pioneering a course on “photography for sustainability”. The “for” part is crucial. It’s not a Fine Arts course, although we’re exploring photography as an art form. In fact, Ming’s thoughts on the “Four Things” are one of the pillars of the evaluation scheme. The “for” is crucial because we’re exploring how photography can be used to communicate complex ideas about sustainability through images that complement the text and data that we normally use. The course has generated a lot of excitement among my colleagues, the administration, and of course the students.

    I offer this example as a middle ground between what seem to be the dismal prospects for professional photographers, and the obscurity of amateur photography. If your passion is photography, and you’re in a position to share that passion with other people through teaching (even if informally teaching friends and family), then things can be brighter. I expect to remain an obscure amateur… but teaching photography has added a new layer of relevance that makes my probable individual artistic fate more bearable.

    • The middle ground is there, but doesn’t change that we still have to choose one side of the camp or the other: make a living from it, or not. I don’t think it’s possible to be half way in this unless one has significant income elsewhere; as another poster pointed out, to do it properly requires significant resources…

  20. A thought – photography created in the 30’s to the early 60’s way the primary way people experienced much of their world. As TV took hold and the internet exploded the background noise that we all experience makes it harder for anyone to be recognized. If you look at Time/Life magazine or National Geographic back in the day and think about the many great photographers that developed from that experience/exposure those avenues are not as available today. Most photographers that get an MFA quickly move into multimedia to be “relevant” in today’s world.

    • Agreed; our expectations/experience now are far higher/wider/greater than before, and the bar is raised…it’s almost no longer possible to meet societal expectations with the abilities and resources of a single person anymore.

  21. Per Kylberg says:

    Yes! – No, photo as we normally see it had its glory days 1930’s to 1970’s. The great themes of those times has been explored and exploited enough ad to exhaustion. To me the last great photographer (of that sort of photo) is Sebastien Salgado. Today everybody has been everywhere and seen everything – no surprise anymore.
    To see the best photo on the web I go to 1x.com, possibly representing the best enthusiast (?) photo around: Everything is perfect. Idea, location, lighting, composition, image quality, post processing. But is it ART? What will be remembered? Nothing because because nothing is outside of what we already have seen and understood.
    Going retro will take you nowhere…..
    The photography that may be remembered and admired in 50 years is something very different. A more conceptual, storytelling photography that is more introvert. Visualizing mindscape rather than whatever exotic cityscape. One example could be the work of Annika von Hauswolf. Another could be a development of the Erik Johansson work; playful, telling a long story in one image. In his case a combination of photos. Go see! He also has videos to show how he creates. The only thing he does not say is WHY he wanted to make that image.
    No, you cannot go some place, make a photo and be remembered and famous for it.

  22. Fascinating article.

    The question is ultimately, why are you taking photographs? What do you want from the experience?

    Your conclusion in the last paragraph is really the answer…

    “The only conclusion I can come to is we are back to square one: photographing something intensely for ourselves, and solely for ourselves, because we want to; that intensity and focus breeds creativity and in turn experimentation, and passion keeps you going. In short: to be famous, we should probably stop thinking about being famous.”

    There’s not much difference between being a commercial photographer and a fine art photographer. To be successful at either demands constant promotion, networking, social media interaction to remind people of your brand, your vision, your message. As a commercial photographer you need to meet art directors, designers and have a presence in that world, and as a fine artist you need to meet gallery owners, clients, reviewers etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, and there’s nothing new with this. Gaugin was a relentless self promoter who understood how to stand out in the scene in Paris by being outrageous, as well as by producing great work.
    It’s a misperception that “fine art” photography is somehow more pure than commercial work. It IS commercial work. It’s work you produce with the intention of selling, so to aid that process you promote it on social media, blog posts etc. You create a brand for it.

    Nobody needs photography, nor do they need a BMW. But many people can enjoy the technical qualities of a beautiful luxury car, and the design quality. Some of that enjoyment comes from the branding and promotion of that car, the perception that you’re buying an exclusive machine that reflects your sophistication and sense of style. You want people to feel the same way about your photographs, so to help that process you must promote your work and shape your message to potential clients…..and you’re closer and closer to being a commercial photographer. Maybe it doesn’t influence the image content, but they size of the images you show, the presentation, the galleries you show in are all choices made from a purely commercial point.

    But if you take photographs, you love the work you do, and you don’t need “likes”, or good reviews, or print sales to validate your work. If the enjoyment of your art is free from the need for others to validate what you’re doing……..then you’re free!
    And you can be completely creative.

    • “It’s a misperception that “fine art” photography is somehow more pure than commercial work. It IS commercial work.”
      Bingo. And the only difference is hopefully one has a longer tail than the other, but you’re right: there really is no difference.

      “But if you take photographs, you love the work you do, and you don’t need “likes”, or good reviews, or print sales to validate your work. If the enjoyment of your art is free from the need for others to validate what you’re doing……..then you’re free!
      And you can be completely creative.”

      There’s one bit missing here: one also needs another source of income. 🙂

      • “There’s one bit missing here: one also needs another source of income.”
        Yes, true.
        In the end, the only answer I can give, from my own experience, is that if you’re miserable because you’re NOT doing photography for a living…then that’s what you should do. You’ll need to go in to it with your eyes open, your heart open, and a thick skin to avoid becoming bitter and disillusioned if it doesn’t go as planned. And it can be the best decision you ‘ll ever make.
        On the other hand, if you have other skills, or talents that are more likely to make you a comfortable living, do that. If you’re already in a field where you’re making a comfortable living it can be twice as hard to see that slip away by changing professions…..

        As they say, the only way to make a small fortune in photography is to start with a large fortune!

  23. Broad recognition of ones’ photographic-prowess is now a rare accolade indeed. Perhaps, a radical rethink is in order.

    • #1: we do it because we have to (either creatively or financially)
      #2: we gotta do what we gotta do to support #1 – that’s probably about all, I think.

      • ..Indeed. Yet, your level of photographic proficiency is far and above that of most seasoned professionals. I suspect, you really enjoy imparting/mentoring your technical understanding of the photographic process (as you see it) to those still attempting to capture
        photons as you so-ably do. To that end, could it be time for a radical-rethink of direction…?

        Have you considered setting up a ‘body’ – a worldwide consortium of peer-selected judges who could issue awards of recognition to deserving photographers. Once running, such a body would soon have an opportunity to become widely-respected and highly influential In its own right. Such a ‘body’ could offer its credentials and team up with architects the world over to name but one, idea .

        In essence, it could be the ‘birth’ of a ‘photographic ‘pool’ of exceptional photographic talent’ – holding seminars and other profitable activities – inviting industry leaders (moreover, their representatives) to see first hand, what they are missing. Such a ‘school’ would also sound the proverbial ‘death knell’ to those medalling art directors convinced, that they know best!

        Just a thought old boy.

        • “Have you considered setting up a ‘body’ – a worldwide consortium of peer-selected judges who could issue awards of recognition to deserving photographers. Once running, such a body would soon have an opportunity to become widely-respected and highly influential In its own right. Such a ‘body’ could offer its credentials and team up with architects the world over to name but one, idea.”
          It was actually discussed some time back. But the egos and politics…not to mention agendas of those with sponsors etc. – made the whole thing unworkable. In fact, some of the email exchanges got downright nasty.

          Such self-appointed ‘schools’ already exist; nobody can argue with them because the whole thing is subjective anyway 🙂

  24. Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

    Ming, I’ve admired your work–words and images–since I discovered it not long ago, but now you’re p*ssing me off. As accomplished as you are, you’re too young to know this stuff. At least you LOOK too young.

    After a rough couple of years, and faced with the opportunity to live decently if modestly without making much money, I reached pretty much the same conclusion–not about photography in particular but about life in general. I add something to it though, something you don’t express, a bit of attitude. I grew SO tired of the work one has to do to to maintain social (media) viability, and all the sucking up necessary to maintain local relationships. Ultimately, I learned, all those efforts are in vain, because social media is fickle and bosses/clients are self-interested; either can turn on you in an instant.

    I am very lucky in that I’m a position to live modestly but decently without success; I need no one to approve of the work I do. So I’ve committed myself to doing the best work I can. In a photography context, that means learning the technical side of photography as well as I can and finding new ways to apply it. (It helps that I have a physics PhD and in that previous life was surely one of the last people, ever to earn a PhD related to the technology of photographic film: point defects in silver halides; it was the mid-1990s.) My experiences have led me to seek excellence while spurning recognition.

    Only one problem: Pursued seriously, photography is damned expensive.


    • “…now you’re p*ssing me off. As accomplished as you are, you’re too young to know this stuff. At least you LOOK too young.”

      Sorry, but a) what has this got to do with the discussion, and b) you never even said why. Perhaps something got lost in translation, but this seems borderline trolling to me.

      • Harvey Steeves says:

        actually, Ming, I read it as almost more of a compliment to you. If I read him right, Jim has decided a path that includes the pursuit of photographic excellence for personal reasons is the one he will follow – and he doesn’t give a damn about fame or the impact of social media or the need to spend time working at it. Marketing, glory, fame are irrelevant as he doesn’t need them to feed himself.

        • Lost in translation, then – my bad, I take it back…

        • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

          Thank you Harvey Steeves–you got it right. Much appreciated.

          • Please accept my apologies in that case – it read rather differently on this end… 🙂

          • Harvey Steeves says:

            Jim, I admire your choice.

            • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

              >>Jim, I admire your choice.<<

              Thank you. I'm fortunate to be able to make it. We'll see how it goes.

              • Actually, across all pros – it’d be interesting to see how many career changes ‘stuck’; even after five years, it’s still not entirely clear if this is the endgame for me personally.

                • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

                  Right–career changes are another thing we apparently have in common (along with physics; I read your bio). After physics I was a writer and then an editor (Science magazine). Did OK. Left that a little more than a year ago. But the point I wish to make here is–and here I’m addressing some of the other comments in this thread–fame need not be the motive. What all of us want is just to be able to live well, which means doing things we think are valuable while staying warm and eating decently. And unfortunately these days that seems to require either really good luck of a bit of fame, if there’s a difference. Hard work at your chosen profession isn’t enough by itself–although if you want to you can compromise your way to a good living.

                  • As one of the other commenters said: it’s a self reinforcing loop. You become famous for being famous; which isn’t a good end goal (agreed) – but helps you to sell your work so you can keep doing what you do. I’m not sure there’s a middle path anymore: either it works, or it doesn’t. I suppose that’s a good thing in the sense that you might not waste time on a career that isn’t going anywhere, but not so good in that you may well land up demotivated.

                    “What all of us want is just to be able to live well, which means doing things we think are valuable while staying warm and eating decently.”
                    Bingo: but you’d be surprised how few people manage this!

      • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

        Ming, apologies for the miscommunication. Although maybe there was a touch of defensiveness in it on my part, since to me (and no doubt others) you seem young and successful–too much so to explain this much hard-earned wisdom. Among your other (apparent) virtues, you are wise beyond your apparent years.

        • I think my last response has proven that’s definitely not the case!

          I started younger than most, and perhaps worked a bit more efficiently than most in that time – but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come at the expense of a lot of other things, though…sadly there are no free lunches anywhere.

          • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

            Becoming what we are means shedding all the things we might have been. You seem to have made good choices, but there are no perfect ones. Best of luck to you.

  25. The experimentation you talk was tried here. A film producer has filed an exact copy of the screenplay “Hiroshima Mon Amour” by Alain Resnais, a classic of French cinema. The refusal to fund the deposited film clearly demonstrates the great subjectivity of the assessment of funding applications!

  26. I applaud you for raising these issues: too many of the ‘greats’ (and far too many of the not-so-greats) have achieved shibboleth status and being critical of them is in some way not considered politically correct. And whilst it obviously isn’t appropriate to apply the technical standards of today to appraise work created in the past, few people would have better knowledge than you of what standards are appropriate to apply to what output, given when and how it was captured and when and how the printmaking took place. The questions you raise about documentary status are so important too – and indeed I would go as far as to say that as soon as a photographer has made his or her ‘picks’ the documentary validity of the exercise is already under pressure. Add to that the media owner’s editorial selection and then later curators’ sub-sub editing and we have to take a large pinch of salt to the viewing experience – especially where the ere is the suspicion of any kind of non-tonal intervention. Thank you.

  27. Excellent article and reminds me that it’s more fruitful to focus on the joy of the creative process and maximizing one’s potential rather than worrying about the popular reception a photo will receive. It called to mind a article I read several years ago about members of a photo website ripping Cartier-Bresson’s photograph “Hyeres, France, 1932” when it was submitted as an anonymous photo to be critiqued among others: http://petapixel.com/2011/07/13/why-you-shouldnt-give-too-much-weight-to-anonymous-online-critics/

    • Ah yes, a critique is only as meaningful as the experience of those doing the critiquing…

      • I’d like to go off on a tangent from the main point of your post. You expressed disappointment in McCurry’s image presentation and note technical flaws that were within his capability to avoid (motion blur, misssed focus, post-processing oversharpening). Peter posts a link to critiques of a Bresson photograph that essentially do the same thing. You seem to imply those critiques are not meaningful because of a lack of experience on the part of the critiquers.

        I happen to agree with a lot of the Bresson critiques from that link, and although I don’t know which McCurry images you viewed, I’m inclined to trust that the flaws you described are real. Full disclaimer: I’m only a photo hobbyist and can see flaws in every image I’ve made. When I look at some older iconic photos, and then read analyses on why they’re so wonderful, I feel weird when I just can’t get myself to be interested in the actual image. For the Bresson image in the link, I feel it’s a nice, delightful image, but I’ve also seen other images that are technically sharper, less grainy, and more delightful. Just because it was taken by Bresson and sold for $265,000 doesn’t make me like it any better. Another example is Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez. I understand the tremendous technical difficulties in getting the exposure, but the image just doesn’t capture my interest for more than a moment.

        I guess my point/question is: maybe the lack of experience that’s preventing me from appreciating the greatness of some iconic images is also preventing me from creating truly outstanding images; how does one get over that wall?

        • There’s a fundamental and huge technical gap between Bresson and McCurry. Think ISO 25. Think cameras with a max shutter speed on 1/500 of a second. McCurry just has better equipment that should eliminate those limitations.

          • There’s that, too. And for the same reason our own standards should be higher, too…it is easier than ever to achieve better quality than ever.

        • I think some of the disappointment with McCurrys images (or any contemporary photographer with a major show) is that we know how much is possible in making really fabulous scans now from transparencies made 20 or 30 years ago. So high quality prints at large sizes are possible, with great tonal range, saturation and sharpness IF the photographer wants to put the effort in to making sure that happens.
          We also forget that for those iconic images, he shot one frame. There is only one original transparency that contains that image…..and after 30 years it may have been scanned a few times (and usually they were only scanned for the exact page size of the reproduction needed, so about 10″ high for NG reproduction) and the original may now be lost or damaged.
          It could be the case for the McCurry exhibit images Ming refers to that they were created from lower quality scans, or duplicate transparencies. We’re lucky now to have the luxury with a digital file of always having the “original” no matter how often it has been reproduced.

          • He often shot more than one frame in a sequence, but you’re right in saying there’s some degradation every time a physical negative or slide is handled. It’s definitely at its best at the start of life, and if not digitised optimally – it’s only going to go downhill from there. Also worth noting that the idea of film as an archival medium is perhaps worth challenging for this reason; a) we can’t make exact duplicates, and b) there’s physical degradation. I don’t know if that’s better (i.e. having something v.s nothing at all) than digital, which is binary: either you have an intact, identical file, or nothing at all.

            I was told by the museum that the slides were re-scanned and re-optimized or re-printed for the exhibition, and some were in fact early digital. I don’t know how truthful this is, though…

        • “You seem to imply those critiques are not meaningful because of a lack of experience on the part of the critiquers.”
          Yes and no: if you have an assessment given by somebody who is not a photographer, there are limits to which they understand intent and process. There is of course a spread and no real absolutes, but you wouldn’t trust a car review written by a non-driver, right? Yet they can comment fairly on aesthetics and comfort etc. but perhaps not handling characteristics.

          “I guess my point/question is: maybe the lack of experience that’s preventing me from appreciating the greatness of some iconic images is also preventing me from creating truly outstanding images; how does one get over that wall?”
          I don’t think that’s your limitation. If you know what you like and don’t, that’s already a massive step up, and should allow you to pre-curate in the right direction to some degree. The challenge of making an outstanding image isn’t quite as simple as it seems – you have to do something that appeals to you first, in both subject and presentation. The technical part is just to give you the tools to express yourself, like learning a language; the rest is down to exploring the world and practicing seeing…

  28. Doctor Nick says:

    It’s probably better to think of things in terms of statistics and standard deviations. How far ahead of their average was, say, Picasso, or Ansel Adams? If people still appreciate them today, that’s a good sign. There’s probably plenty of artists from the same time period, who were successful, who were forgotten. Look at Sol Leiter or Vivian Maier- people who weren’t really known and appreciated at their time, but are now. They certainly must have something.

    Their clearly is a first mover advantage, though. Adams making his pictures when landscapes weren’t nearly as popular let him create the game. HCB with street and travel photography when millions of others weren’t doing the same.

    Be that as it may, I’m sure there are people who will break away.

    “t certainly isn’t one’s commercial work that’s likely to be remembered – that’s designed to be disposable and very ‘immediate’ in many ways simply because it has to feel current, new and trendy;”

    I’m not sure this is true, either. Look at Avedon, Penn or Shulman for examples….

    • Avedon, Penn and Shulman were exceptions: there’s far, far more commercial work produced than that which is at best competent, at worst, hideous.

      Here’s another observation: those who lasted today aren’t necessarily the ones who were in the limelight or appreciated in their own day, either. I suspect it’s because only work that’s truly different will stand out, but if it’s too different then the audience has to catch up, too.

  29. Perception that the Greatest of a particular genre seem to always come from the past is a wide spread phenomenon. Ask for the greatest soccer player, boxer, track athlete and there is high chances you will hear “Pele, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens”. But can you tell from the top of the head who are the “Greatest” of the current era? Ayrton Senna is widely recognized as the greates race driver ever. But in terms of success and achievements there are some modern-time drivers that exceeded his deeds, but his legacy remains.

    But back in the days were the sporting legends created their legacy there was only radio or we had TV with maximum 5 channels. People still read the newspaper and magazines. Sources of information were limited and the Heroes of those times had the undivided attention of their audience.

    As you rightfully stated, there is too much digital noise today, too much content competing for the attention of the audience. There are 150 TV channels, Youtube, Netflix, Flickr, 500px, tons of blogs, a vast amount of photography magazines and books.

    On one hand it is great, everyone has access to all the info and educational material he can ever hope for (mind if you are able to select the quality from the quantity).

    And modern media provides everyone with a chance to get attention and recognition for his creations.

    But the times for the creation of iconic legends has passed. There is too much “memory overflow” that even the truly greats of today in their respective genre will find it practically impossible to find their way in the hearts of their audience in a lasting way, simply because now there is too much competition. Competition with the even today still well published legacy of the heroes of the past, but also with the universe of digital noise.

    When in a 100 years you ask who is the street photography hero of all times, I’m sure it will not be someone of today, but chances are you hear the name Henri Cartier-Bresson. And Ayrton Senna will still be the greates race driver, and Muhammad Ali the greates boxer ever.

    • They had the benefit of dominating coverage. And they were good because there weren’t that many people doing it. But today…you may well land up with people who shout loudly and get huge coverage because they post click bait, but can’t shoot to save their lives…

  30. I was fortunate to see a Steve McCurry exhibition in Copenhagen. All the works were one metre or more wide and as I recall technically excellent. Steve has learnt to exploit all forms of media. He is a prolific publisher of books. He is so prolific that he is clearly not in control of everything that is produced. Look at his Facebook page, it;s not even maintained by him. Care and attention to detail seem to no longer be his priority.

    In your first paragraph you ask two questions then go on to answer them and I have to say I agree with your views. Photography has changed for ever and, in may respects, for the better but not for the betterment of the professional photographer who must work hard and largely alone at establishing a specialist niche. But for those who are successful in that endeavour, most of the world won’t notice and even fewer will care.

    In a sense the amateur has it easier. The amateurs don’t have to make a living but with their clubs and societies they surround themselves with like minded people who value the quest for excellence in photography.

    • I disagree on the technical competency. Some of them were amongst the most sloppy work I’ve seen; it highlights the control problem you mentioned. The minute the machine grows, it’s difficult to maintain quality…

      Being an amateur is the best place *creatively* bow. No question about that – no limits either. But being a pro is now almost unsustainable, I think.

  31. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    How about “yes- then again, no”?
    There’s clearly something in what you say. Take a look at authors – Agatha Christie had a golden ride, in terms of success in her lifetime – but she wrote at a time when there were less “wannabe’s” out there, all competing for a chance to get published. Now, it’s bloody hard to “crack it”, as an author.
    Yet JK Rowling has, and she’s now one of the richest people in the UK.
    And of course their success flowed from “popularity”, rather than “quality”. However enjoyable their work is, I don’t imagine professors of English Literature use their books in substitution for “classics”, like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, etc.
    In your article, you do draw attention to the fact that there are billions of “photographs” being produced all the time now. Common sense tells you they are mostly junk, although that’s a poor comfort when discarding the junk still leaves a competitive pool of – what? – let’s say “millions”, instead of “billions”. Millions of acceptable images, of varying quality.
    Despite that, they aren’t “competition” in an economic sense. Most of their “work” disappears in cyber space within a relatively short period. Much of it is never seen by anyone outside their immediate family, and probably mostly not by all of the family anyway. But they aren’t creating photos for the market, so they are perfectly content with that.
    I suppose you could say their photos are a form of “instant gratification”, rather than something intended to hang in a gallery. No less important for that, either – before photography, only the very wealthy could have portraits of themselves and their family, or their house or whatever – now, everyone has the chance to share this aspect of life.
    Does it matter what “they” do? After all, without the huge amount of financial support they have given to the photography industry, we could never have seen the advances in the quality or range of equipment available to everyone interested in photography today.

  32. Olympic champions of the 1920s would not qualify to compete today. Weston’s work would not create a ruckus in Instagram. Everyone’s achievements should be judged in part within the context of their time. And yes today’s photographers will not benefit from a relative scarcity of images to the same extent as did those of an earlier era. So how does one stand out? The path depends on the destination. What is the end goal? What in 50 years do you want to be able to say about your work and how you spent your life? What do you want others to say? Sure, celebrity has practical value. It is however more readily obtained by association with the influential than by talent or productivity. Appealing to the vanity of the wealthy is reliable method of securing patronage and is, at times, necessary. If that time is now then working to acquire access to thoughtfully selected potential patrons will prove a more fruitful use of time than creating more and better art in the hope they will find it. Your readers understand and respect your work but it is not we that shall sustain your career.

    • Agreed, and there’s this disconnect between creating interesting images and ones that pay the bills; we don’t always show the former not can we justify always producing the latter (or are we able to).

  33. Harvey Steeves says:

    I was prepared to ask you where you thought you would be if you were photographing 50 years ago but you answered that question. I agree – there are no iconic images in any photographic genre today. What is it – over 1 billion images uploaded every day? In one eye and out the back door to make room for tomorrow’s images.

    • Men in hats with newspapers 😉

      The only way to make an iconic image now is luck – right place, right time, right circulation/ exposure. It isn’t simply enough to have an image at all, or a slightly unusual one.

      • It probably was different simply because there was not the instant feedback, and a higher percentage of people photographed in a partial vacuum. I think that general culture was different, too, at least in the US. Maybe it’s because I’m an old fogey, but I don’t remember ever being as consumed with image and style as mainstream culture is today. When I shot for myself I was more motivated by curiosity than what others thought of my work. Of course the paper I worked for had pretty clear expectations of what they wanted.

        • I’m inclined to agree – there was a lot less cross-influence (and thus self-reinforcement) then than there is today. Linked to that is motivation, which you rightly observed: most of us shot for ourselves. I suspect most people now shoot for affirmation or visibility…

          • Sad but true. There is also conformity in documentary work. I just read this from http://blog.melchersystem.com/want-win-world-press/ :
            If you want to win the World Press Photo, you have to be :

            A Man
            Around 35 years old
            Either from North America or Europe
            Have taken a picture in Asia
            Horizontally framed
            Of a child
            In a war
            Dead or dying
            With a gray dominant color
            These are the results of a statistical analysis of the World Press Photo winners since it’s creation. For a more detailed analysis, please head to French newspaper Liberation.


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