OpEd: How Do You Define Success?

“Taking a straight photograph, documenting a performance, appropriating an image, or mastering a process are not enough to make it in the 21st century art world; there are some forgettable photographs here I’m afraid. The photographic works I found most thought-provoking in this show were those that are built on layers of outward looking ideas and realities, that took on the larger forces in our society at this particular moment in time, rather than those that were overly self-conscious or inwardly reflective. The disruptions I saw were based in the context of the times, rather than the fabric of ourselves. ” – DLK Collection

This excerpt from their review on the Whitney Biennial 2010 seems like a fitting conclusion to the recent debate about Paul Graham’s essay ‘The Unreasonable Apple.”  I’m certain that many people will take issue with aspects of this but from my point of view, it’s likely absolutely correct.

I suppose this doesn’t leave much hope for the inwardly reflective photographer, or the photographer that takes a more subtle approach toward the “larger forces in our society at this particular moment in time.”

How do our personal choices, on a day to day basis, impact contemporary society?  How can this be communicated visually through photography?  Maybe you don’t know, but that’s probably ok.

But this does open up a large existential issue for photographers with hopes and dreams of art world success.  What is probably particularly clear to most you by now is that the art world simply doesn’t give a shit about what you’re doing, which isn’t a big deal unless you allow it to possess you.

What it really boils down to is your ambition as a photographer and how you define success for yourself.  For some, perhaps peer recognition is more important than a gallery show, or a spot in Critical Mass.  For the last couple weeks, I feel as if I’ve watching a debate ensue in my RSS and Tumblr feeds.  On one side is the traditional art world can be summed up by the DLK Collection statement above. On the other side, are the ideas of Brad Troemel and JOGGING..

“Long ago, art outsourced the ability to define itself by granting that right to privatized media, galleries and museums. In doing so, a major gulf formed between artists who identified with the work claiming to represent their time and those who found little resonance in an art dictated by profit motivations. In asking, “What museum represents me?” or even “What publicly known artists have the same interests as me?” many found the answer was non-existent. In the lives of young artists, the internet is a place to find one’s self through the existence of others– to individually reclaim the ability to self-mythologize and empathetically pick from your peers for influence. Thus, internet art is marked by the compulsive urge of searching (or, surfing) to connect with others in a way that is not directed by privatized interests, but found and shared among individuals.” – JOGGING

A good example of this can be found in the street photography community on the web, which was recently highlighted in an article in The Guardian, titled “Why street photography is facing a moment of truth.” I believe the reason that street photography has become more and more visible in the mainstream media and to a minor extent, in the fine art world is precisely because of the passionate, active communities that have developed on the web, including iN-PUBLIC, HCSP amongst many others.

Having observed how these type of discussions tend to evolve, I know some view this as an outsider vs. art world type argument.  It’s not, nor am I making any any sort of claim that photography is under represented or ignored by the art world.  There are valid debates to be had about these issues, but that’s not where I’m going with this.

What I am trying to highlight is the vitality of these online communities, and how influential they can become.  For a street photographer, getting into iN-PUBLIC, or receiving recognition through the internet, is the definition of success. For others, connecting with an audience, even if it’s only 100 people, is the definition of success.

I know the argument can be made that peer recognition is the not the same as institutional or collector recognition. Artists probably have different definitions of what type of work is worthy of recognition and respect compared to curators, publishers and collectors.  This is valid of course.  But they also often have other motivations as well, including the all powerful dollar.

I think it’s good and necessary to stay engaged with all aspects of photography, but it’s also important to remember that success comes in many shapes and forms.

So, how do you define success?

  • Blake

    Success is deciphering what you were put on the planet for and fulfilling that calling. 99% of humans do not achieve success, even the ones who trick themselves into thinking they’re successful. Any other measure of success is bullshit.