photograph ©xiaopeng yuan
About once a week (not really), somewhere on the internet, I encounter a photographer making an impassioned plea. They’re fed up with technology, marketing, the internet, Twitter, blogs, writing, and everything else. There’s only one thing that matters to them.
“Just make good photographs”
Many people will agree with them. I however, will not be one of those people because the phrase ‘good photographs’ causes another type of argument, perhaps the most reptilian of all arguments about photography that you will encounter on the web (Nikon v. Canon gear talk excluded).
Photographer A: This is a really great photograph (photographer.)
Photographer B: Are you crazy? That’s a terrible photograph (photographer.) You have terrible taste.
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man” is the best way to end that sort of debate, especially against an overly pissed off individual. However, it’s a complex world and photography is a complex medium, so there’s more going here than dueling opinions.
Essentially, what the person proclaiming ’just make good photographs’ is saying is that you should just focus on the work and not worry so much about what’s happening on the internet. This might work for some people, but I’m guessing most photographers would like to have their work viewed and enjoyed by others as well. And that takes effort, these days probably more than ever.
From my observations, you have a four primary routes when it comes to getting your work out there.
1) Just Make Good Photographs
I know, I know. Well, you CAN just make good photographs. But then you either have to be a freak of nature genius of which there are very few, or you have to get extremely lucky and have your work fall in the lap of a sophisticated editor/curator/photographer who immediately understands your immeasurable, overwhelming, mind blowing, sensational photographs and will hook you up with the right people.
Then you’ll get a solo show, a book deal, make lots of money and hold seminars where you tell young photographers that all you have to do is ‘Just Make Good Photographs.’
2) Play The Art Game
Put together a coherent body of work with a well written artist statement, go to portfolio reviews, enter contests, network, make more work, refine, repeat and eventually if you’ve got some luck and some talent good things will probably happen, to varying degrees. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll end up recouping all the money you spent on producing the work and entrance fees. But even after your dazzling solo show and limited edition book, you’ll have to do it all over again. ”What have you done for me lately” really is soul crushing phrase for an artist.
3) Build a Following On The Web and Network With Other Like Minded Photographers
It’s not that difficult to build a following on the web if you put forth some work. It might not be a large following, but with Flickr, blogs and the many established communities already thriving on the web, you can fairly easily find the type of people who might find your work interesting and follow what you’re doing.
The key here is participation. It’s a give and take. You have to support your fellow photographers, and you need to be actively engaged with the community. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet plenty of interesting, talented photographers and find new work on a regular basis. Not to mention, you’ll meet some of the most interesting, crazy, intelligent people you’re likely to encounter in your life.
Since this approach is relatively new, it’s yet to be seen how it will evolve over the years. It could go in many different directions.
Most smart photographers these days take a hybrid 2/3 approach.
4) Just Make Photographs For Yourself
Make photographs, hide them away on your computer, in your closet, and screw everyone else. Perhaps when you die, some photography nerd will buy your work at a flea market and you’ll be lauded as an undiscovered genius. But who cares, you’re dead.
Self-Promotion or Self-Distribution?
Part of the reason I suspect photographers need to shout ‘just make good photographs’ is because the amount of “self-promotion” that occurs through social media causes a fair amount anxiety and a high degree of irritation at times. For me though, I’ve stopped viewing it as self-promotion. When you’re publishing and distributing your own creative work, it’s self-distribution. You’re a one person media entity, like it or not. You can still be human, and I hope you are, but you’re also a media entity.
“You’re wrong! It is self-promotion!”
I’m sure many people won’t agree with my distinction (and might even yell at me) but for me self-promotion is when someone uses social media to promote their life and daily activities, even though their life and or activities are not interesting, or of much benefit to anyone other than them. They’re doing it simply for attention.
But if you’re putting out creative work you believe in and think some people would find interesting, then I see it as self-distribution.
With social media, people have to opt-in to receive your content. So these are subscribers/fans/followers who are giving you permission to distribute your work to them. If they determine that you’re annoying (or simply a self-promoter) or they end up not enjoying your work, they can easily opt out.
If you’re not comfortable with self-distribution (or disagree with me and think it really is self-promotion) then there are plenty of blogs and Tumblrs out there that you can submit to who are always looking for new work to publish.
Stop Talking About Photography! Stop Blogging!
Often preceded with the call to ‘just make good photographs’ is the a call to SHUT UP and stop talking about photography on the internet. Sometimes there will actually be a command to go outside and make photographs, immediately.
And as many of us know, there’s sort of a passive aggressive, love/hate relationship with photography blogs amongst many photographers.
When you put it all together it might read something, like this: STOP TALKING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE INTERNET, STOP BLOGGING, STOP TWITTERING, STOP TUMBLING, GET OFF OF FACEBOOK, JUST GO OUT AND MAKE FUCKING GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS!
The irony being of course is that this message is usually communicated on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or Tumblr.
There is a fair point within all the lashing out, which is that there are too many meaningless arguments about what constitutes good photography, or the right gear, or whose a genius, or whose a hack.
But overall, the discussions, the Twittering, the Tumbling, the blogging, are necessary if the new online photography culture is going to grow and evolve. And there’s lots of room for growth, but it’ll take awhile and it’ll take discussion and ideas from all sorts of passionate people. My call to arms would read something like:
STOP ARGUING ABOUT TASTE! FIND THE PHOTOGRAPHY YOU LIKE AND SUPPORT IT. BE OPEN MINDED ABOUT NEW WORK. BE PASSIONATE AND PARTICIPATE!
…and MAKE GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS!