Create: Good, Better, Best.

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Any time I shine a light on the professional photography industry just know I have blood on my hands and share at least partial blame. Think of it as a conspiracy to commit visual fraud. I’ve made my share of subpar images, many on assignment but had enough of a foundation of knowledge to understand what I was doing was subpar.

I had clients ask me to do things that were illegal. I had clients ask me to do things that were so far below the quality bar I refused. (Well-known, international clients.) I’ve seen famous photographers staging images. I’ve seen art world types building a phony facade around a photographer to increase sales. And I’ve seen plenty of world-class photographers produce subpar work then watch as that work was published and promoted as cutting edge and then watched the unskilled public support this charade till the photographer convinced themselves that maybe the work wasn’t so bad after all.

We don’t live in a perfect world. Never said we did. What I see industry-wide now reminds me of the Grand Canyon which at its core lives perhaps the world’s best example of erosion. There is no way to stop this, till the water runs dry, and even then you will be left with the rest of the destructive elements like sun and wind. But like the canyon itself, even these places of unique power live on only through conservation, protection, and the watchful eye of those who know it best. Photography deserves a good, hard, truthful look.

Step one: education and training. Step two: identify and define good, better, best. Step three: attempt to make only “best.” I was recently tasked with an investigative job of sorts. “Can you look at something for us and tell us what you think?” Sure, why not. Not like I have ten hundred, million, thousand other things to do.

Illustration Status: good. Design. Status: good. Graphic Design Status: good UX Design status: good. Typographical status: good. Publication Design Status: good. Photography Status: HORRIBLE. This will not be a popular sentiment, or could even be viewed as tough love, something I was fond of delivering by my now dead podcast, but it’s a point that MUST be considered if photography is going to survive as an industry.

I just culled a well-run, huge database of creatives and was appalled by not only the poor photography but the overwhelmingly positive response to the poor photography by people who clearly can’t diferentiate between good photography and bad. And I’m not talking about a matter of opinion. This is based on the idea of photographic fundamentals. Light, timing, composition, concept, execution, focus, etc. Much of what I saw had none of the above. Portrait series with horrible composition, lost focus, bad light, sloppy framing, and no point of view praised by thousands of pats on the imaginary back.

Why do you think there is so little conversation about actual photography in client meetings now? In many cases, there is NO discussion. Data and metrics have taken over, but it also speaks to the fact that most of what is being produced is just subpar and isn’t distinctive or memorable enough to even discuss. (I’ve been in these meetings for over a decade.)

If we can no longer determine what is good, or judge something subpar, then what does this say about the future of our skill? Has it become that meaningless? Ubiquitous? Inconsequential? If you haven’t spent time learning about the actual craft of photography then why on Earth would you ponder calling yourself a professional?

On one hand, this openness in regard to photography is a wonderful thing. Photography is accessible to the masses, unlike things like design and illustration which tend to seem more formidable to the common human. (Again, I’ve been listening to this for a decade.) But photography is an open door. The flip side is that open door has allowed the masses into the “professional” world and the barrier for entry to disintegrate.

When subpar work is promoted and sold it hurts everyone. It hurts the artist by allowing them to think what they are doing is better than it really is. It hurts the viewer by feeding them visual fast food. It hurts the client by associating them with subpar work, and it hurts the industry by showing how few people actually have the skill, training, and ability to discern.

It’s now gotten so bad there is almost no public space for discourse. It’s all positive all the time or the critic will be attacked. The change from the late 90s to the current moment is astounding. For the first twenty years of my career, I was often met with “This isn’t good enough.” During my journalism days the critique, if you can even call it that, came like a prison shank sunk into the deepest, darkest recesses of my soul. “I don’t want to hear excuses, get it right, or don’t come back.” Ouch.

What this did was terrify and motivate. “F&^% you, I’ll show you,” I would think as I punched the roof of the car, again and again, on the boiling point of quitting or getting better. I chose the latter. Anger, fear, competition, insecurity, rage. And when I finally started to put things together I began to find myself on the receiving end of slight praise. Whispered encouragement or simple, “Now, that’s a picture,” the kind of thing which began to build guardrails on the edges of good and bad. When it was bad I knew it in the field and kept going, never even contemplating showing until things had improved. And when it was good I began to recognize that too. I began to understand my skill and know when it had failed me or picked me up.

I don’t do this anymore. I rarely aim a camera in earnest but the knowledge I have hasn’t gone away. It is totally okay to suck at photography. You can and will get better if you choose to try. But knowing you suck and knowing when you have won or lost is critical to the process of getting better. You simply cannot allow the online masses to be the judge. That is how we got where we are and this isn’t helping anyone.

I’ll tell you something you might not believe or want to hear. The vast majority of images you make will never work. They will never be good. But here is something you actually might want to hear. This is true for everyone. I see the photographic graveyard of social media every day.

Occasionally brilliant photographers selling their social souls by dumping garbage online each and every day. Personally, I can’t look because when I do it’s almost always bad. Great work doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come often, so there isn’t anyone alive who can shoot and shoot and shoot and not brick a few off the rim.

Curation and inclusion are scary ideas but they can also alert us to things like quality and relevance. Curation and inclusion, in the wrong hands, can also be weaponized for status and for profit, so you have to learn to navigate. Why did something or someone get a solo show at the national museum? Hmm, worth investigating. Why was the work featured? Why did someone get twenty-pages of photographic double trucks in a literary magazine? Hmm, worth investigating. How is this work different from mine? What can I learn from this?

I know someone who writes about photography as well as anyone in the world. This person is also painfully honest. When I see something new from this person I stop what I’m doing and I read because these brief glimpses of honesty are so infrequent. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Honesty. In short supply but when consumed, life-changing. Often, even having this conversation is enough to bring the wolves, those who believe you can’t and shouldn’t question the reality before our eyes. Just play along, keep the charade going before the wheels fall off.

Finally, there is GREAT work being produced. Hard to say more or less than previous eras but it doesn’t matter. Just know it’s out there. I read it, see it, experience it. I must often wade through masses of lesser attempts but that too has always been the case.

Comments 22

  1. Wow, powerfully written Dan. Partial to the occasional investigation myself I’m going to need names. I want to know more with pointers of where to look for the subpar. Clearly this is no easy request. Similarly what you say about the shift from the 1990’s until now could be applied to television docs and lifestyle. Real craft was being sidelined in the early 2000’s, if not before. Poor cuts, wobbly camera and no appreciation of scene setting and nuance.

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      Budget cuts, time restraints, and public that was becoming less and less versed on good and bad. Want subpar, look online. Social is a sea of nothingness. Professional social uses, good at what they do, uploading streams of nonsense while getting trillions of views, likes, subs. That’s our world.

  2. I had a knee jerk reaction to this post when I first read it that needed some pondering before I felt like responding to it, and maybe commenting even now isn’t the best idea, but what the hell. I’ve never been a professional and never will be, so I have no clue what’s considered good or bad in that environment. All I know is what I like and don’t like, and that goes for all forms of art.

    Over the last couple of years I have submitted work to a small literary magazine that uses black and white photography to accompany their articles and also to Lens Culture, to no avail. Obviously I fall into that unacceptable category of photographers doing marginal work, and that’s okay. I think your site is tailored for photographers more accomplished than I, and that is more than fine.

    I’m not going to quit doing photography just because other people consider it inferior work, I do have some friends and family who like what I do. I will also keep putting it where those people can see it, online and in print both. I will hope that the more I do it, the better I will get, but if I don’t, what difference does it make.

    “Row, row, row your your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

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      Ya, I was referring mostly to the industry that works against itself on a daily basis by playing along with the numbers game all while watching the foundation of the industry crack and crumble.

  3. Some honest tough love here. I’m pretty honest about my photography skills – mediocre. If I keep at it, I’ll get slightly less mediocre, maybe. I know the only way to get some of these vague ideas out of my head is to combine the photos with writing and audio. It’s been about a year since I nuked the last of my social media – IG. I don’t miss it. I realized I need to redesign my website (blog) because the main page shows older posts in a grid, and it reminds me too much of IG. I use Ghost’s platform (highly recommend, customer service is great) – unfortunately most of their themes are in that grid/magazine layout.

    And there ya have it, a comment from Scott that has very little relevancy to the original post. Hope all in Shifter world are well.

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      Most of us are mediocre. That’s okay. With practice, we tend to succeed. But the industry is another matter.

  4. It’s depressing, but true. We do all paddle in a vast sea of mediocrity. Photography, TV as alluded to by Darren, journalism, to name a few. I guess this “subpar” has always been around but until the WWW turned up, it was kept to slide shows by uncle Jim at Christmas (nothing wrong with a big Kodachrome blow up) but it’s somehow worse because these subpar folk are not only subpar, but they are virtually applauded by the appreciators of subparism. If boring, wretched work is pumped out day after day, hour after hour, our immunity to rubbish gets watered down. It’s breathtaking how folk bestow such value on such crap. You look at work and think it’s dreadful, then glance at the witterings of others, only to find they are all over it, like the second coming of Christ.
    I think we’re too far over the other side to ever get back. Years ago as a young photographer, I was always terrified to walk into the picture desk and confront the wrath of the picture editor. If that were now, I’d walk in and expect a guard of honour. But actually it’s not even like that. There are no picture editors anymore, just administrators chewing data. Don’t even expect to be acknowledged, you’re as significant as the guy who’s come to fiddle with some boring software.
    I’m pretty sick of whinging about how photography has sunk into a marshmallow of social media bling. I don’t use any social media and I’ve now decided to only make books for myself, yes Mr. Milnor, I’ve taken a leaf….The need to share photography with others has never been less appetising. Question is- has music gone down the same route? I see the digital age having a very similar effect on music in the same way it does with photography. There’s very little one can do now, the ship has sailed. There is lots of great work being done but it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.

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      Not to be depressing but I had a conversation with a famous musician. Last year give or take. What they said about how music is made now, at least in some cases was not only surprising it was downright sad. Not to mention much of it is downloaded and listened via MP3 and the like. The reality is now you don’t have to know. About much of anything except the metrics game. Study analytics and beg for following.

  5. I refuse to concentrate of the badness of others. Instead I pour over my photobooks and ask “What do I like?” and “Why do I like it.”

    BTW I miss your podcast but I understand…only 24 hours in the day.

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      If you work as a professional photographer it is unavoidable. Because it eroded the floor on which you are standing. And there is nobody yet assembling a rebuilding team. But maybe there shouldn’t be.

  6. Chuck, LensCulture is concept driven must provide content, much as Dan refers to. I’d wear rejection from them as a badge of honour. The same for Lenscratch and many of the others. There are occasional gems in there, but no more than about 5%. Photographers are often in a rush to get their work out there without letting it settle to test the quality. The gatekeepers are themselves often not great image makers. For this reason I don’t enter competitions. Having said that, getting folks to see your work, finding that audience can be valuable and rewarding. I’m going to give a plug to Stephen DiRado (‘visual storyteller’), who has a community on FB who appreciates his work and by all accounts spurs him on to show it. Well worth following if you can stomach the platform.

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      Lensculture does it really well. They hire people who know to help those who don’t. When you enter, even if you swing and miss, you still gain real knowledge and feedback. I know because I tested the system a few years ago. I was stunned how good it was. And the reality is that most of us are average and always will be. Like Stephen King says about writing. Harsh but true perhaps. You can only improve so much.

    2. Darren, yeah that was my take on LensCulture as well. The kind of photography I do, whether it’s good, bad or somewhere in between, does not fit what they are looking for, same for a local photo festival that happens in Durham, NC, every Fall. Can’t do FB, but do have my first zine at a local printer waiting for a proof.

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    4. Daniel, I do abstraction mostly, I don’t do projects, I don’t do stories and I don’t do people. I quit submitting stuff, though I do get tempted to try LensWork, but probably won’t. I’m having too much fun playing with the zine. The one thing you have convinced me of, is the whole do it for you publishing mentality.

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      ya, makes sense. I went from doing this for a living to doing it for fun and sometimes work and am far happier and more fulfilled.

  7. You know all of this reminds me of the story of a TV viewer asked a TV executive why 95% of the programming on his network was crap. The executive replied “because 95% of everything is crap.” If good photography was easy, everyone would be doing it, that is if you can get everyone to agree on what “good” was.

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  8. You know I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Both Hemingway and Murakami were noted for simple accessible writing. Profound things can be stated simply.
    Also I’ve been thinking lately how what makes a picture good is a cluster of ideas that change over time. Photographers thru history have been redefining what “goodness” in photography means. The F64 group rebelled against the pictorialists idea. The photo establishment was aghast at what Robert Frank did, condemning their snapshot qualities. Winogrand pushed things further still…then there were the Provoke era photographers like Daido Moriyama. I’ve come to the conclusion that “goodness” in photography is a product of culture, custom, fashion and personal vision. Instagram is just what Bowie called “playing to the gallery.”

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      The entire industry has followed Bowie. One of the main reasons it is crumbling as we speak. There is a difference between good and not good. I miss moments all the time. If I suddenly say “Oh, I missed that moment but I’m still going to tell you the image is great, well, then Houston we have a problem.”

  9. Hi Dan, I have a couple of questions…

    1. What is a good place to start educating myself on what good photography is? I love getting photo books and analyze them, but the thing is I want to understand what really good photography looks like.

    2. How do we know when we encounter good photography outside of the big names like Salgado, McCurry, Parr, Soth, and so on??

    All of this might seem to be photography 101, but I prefer to declare myself a complete ignorant and let the information come, to then investigate and then begin to learn… I expect to be constantly learning and perhaps changing the perception on what a good photo is…. refining, one might say..

    Thank you in advance, and by the way… It is fantastic to have you back with the podcast.

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      Will add these in to my next Q&A….good questions. not sure all of answerable but will get it a stab.

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