OpEd: Get Off The Internet and Just Make Good Photographs (Or The Other Options)


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!

  • http://www.pd-jkt.com Thomas

    Being a little late ;)
    What about: let blog, let facebook, let ..
    To me a photographer should focus on taking pictures. Easier said than done. Since nowadays he has to blog, flickr, homepaging, iPadding, portfolioing (ouch!) ..you name it.
    To just delegate all this to his assistant -the already well established, wealthy photog – might not be an option. But what about he would find a service for this? A sort of web-gallerist, or a web-mentor, or a web-editor?
    Robert Frank had Robert “Bob” Delpire to sequence his images and create his book The Americans in one afternoon.
    Any Bobs around doing this for photographers to publish on the web?
    Robert Frank and all the others would not have made a book, planned an exhibition, wrote about their photographs…
    They took pictures, others took care of the other things. The Internet makes every photographer suddenly a lonely warrior fighting at all fronts. They might loose the war.

  • http://www.augustusvalentinus.com Augustus Valentinus Behrens

    Great post!!! Really enjoyed it! :D

  • http://www.digimages.ca Michel Rathwell

    I really enjoyed your article. As far as I am concerned, it is so true and Your “call to arms” at the end is very appropriate. I agree 100%

  • http://www.parisvisone.com Paris Visone

    I am not going to voice my opinion, and take a photo instead.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Participating changes the way people view your work. I’m more connected to the work of photographers who engage their audience and me online.

    There’s no scientific answer I could give as to why, but it’s something I’ve noticed.

    If you believe the power of your ideas, awesome! Make it happen. It will probably work for you.

    This is art, there’s no blue print, all I’m doing it throwing out divergent paths.

    For me as an artist and writer, I find it extremely valuable to connect with the people who actually might appreciate my ideas and art, because for most us, there aren’t many.

    Unless, you’re one of those remarkable genius types, which maybe you are….

  • http://www.davidaxelbank.com David Axelbank

    Very interesting thread Bryan. Although, I would proffer that photography/social networking perhaps becomes more a of drive towards some form of popularity contest, especially if you follow your thinking through to its logical end ‘BE PASSIONATE AND PARTICIPATE!’

    I’m extremely passionate about what I do, so I totally agree with you on that point. But why must a photographer participate? In some type of game, where the prize is name recognition for being loud-mouthed?

    How about working in a vacuum. Not the type you use to clean the floor, but the proverbial type where you filter out the noise of countless photography blogs and commentators, to concentrate on ideas which are not be affected by the ceaseless and online chatter. Not everybody needs constant reassurance of online ‘peers’. Some of us are content with the strength of our ideas, and move ahead with as little interference as possible.

    Anyway, just my subjective opinion…

  • http://www.permissiontosuck.net Bruce DeBoer

    Agreed. Balance my fellow photographers; find your balance. There is another point I would like to direct at those who say, “Just make good photographs”, and that is, “I also like to write and read and share”.