Vanity Publishing That Smells of Your No Good Photography Hobby

©Michael Dennington

And the converse is also true: that books which purport to be displays only of photography are often not fit to be published as books.  Most usually, these fall into a category I think of as ‘project books’.  A photographer has an idea for a formula which can generate some pictures.  He makes enough of them to fill a book.  He gets a book. He is proud to be the author of something which nobody else cared about in the first place, which nobody much gets to see, and of which second-hand book dealers will struggle to sell even the paltry number of copies in existence for the next fifteen years.   We all know – we all own ! – books like this.  But photography is a way of communicating.  It deals in facts, and it deals in ideas.  If your facts are banal and you’re bereft of ideas, you may well not have a photograph at all.  You certainly won’t have a book of them. - Francis Hodgson, ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’

Personal and creative fulfillment are perfectly valid motivations for self-publishing a photography book. Sure, maybe only a handful of people will actually see it, but who cares? How does that possibly harm serious minded photography and its pursuit of discovering canon worthy work?

I think Jonathan Blaustein put it best when he said:

I believe we need more Art, not less. More people out there making cool shit, pushing their brains sideways, and hopefully eliciting interesting questions from the people who look at it. More public support for the Arts will lead to more monkeys typing away, which of course will lead to a more intelligent society. Make it so.

The ease and affordability of self-publishing allows people who might otherwise be excluded from the game to pursue their ideas and passions. I don’t understand how this can be seen as anything but positive. And honestly, it’s sort of silly to debate. It doesn’t matter how many commentators take to their blogs (self-publishing!) to criticize self-publishing, it’s not going to stop it because most people aren’t paying attention to anything they have to say anyway, they’re just going to keep sending those files to Blurb and Magcloud. (Note: I’m not refuting Hodgson, in fact I agree with much of what he says. I’m just saying that often people criticize self-publishing through social media which is, you know, a form of self-publishing)

I’d rather not focus on that aspect though because it’s not what interests me most about self-publishing. What I’m interested in understanding are the motivations for pursuing photography and self-publishing. In a private forum, “I wondered whether people will take you seriously unless you’re committed to earning a living as an artist or photographer.”

I’m not sure they will when it comes to photography because the terms amateur and hobbyist have been become poisonous these days. Generally they’re just easy scapegoats for the ills of the photography industry or added to the litany of reasons why photography is dead. The fact is though that most people are going to end up making their living from something other than photography.

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree here though. I think most intelligent people realize that good work can come from people with a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives. I guess my point is that I think there’s value in pursuing work that doesn’t aim for commercial value or validation in the fine art or documentary photography world.

I’m trying to avoid being overly cynical but it really seems that these days there’s an unhealthy obsession with the economics of photography and status within the community (whichever community you find yourself in). It just seems like too many people are motivated by either economics or receiving validation from the right people. The internet exacerbates this problem because the currency of the web is attention and recognition. It’s not exactly the best medium for contemplation.

Like I said, I’m really interested in motivation, passion and dedication. Why are you making photographs? What are  you thinking about? I find that many people can’t answer these questions. It’s hard, I know, but at some point you need to be able to do it.

I’m going to take my editor hat off for a moment and speak as a photographer. I’ve spent the last six years making photographs, educating myself, connecting with other like minded people, and generally allowing myself to be completely consumed by photography. It’s been a magical six years and an unbelievable journey.

So, what’s my motivation? Photography is personally and creatively fulfilling. I need no other rewards. The process and everything about it satisfies my soul at the most primal level. It’s a great a moment when you arrive at this stage. The sense of freedom is liberating. Certainly most of what you’re going to create is going to be banal and forgettable but as long as you’re alive and capable, you can keep on trying, and keep on making more photographs.

I’m in the process of editing a book a photographs I made in California between 2006 and 2008. I’m going to self-publish it. I don’t care if people ignore it. I have to do it. I have to satisfy my creative urge and finish what I started. The creative process and all the work I’ve done these last 6 years is the reward.

Naturally, all of this can also come off as completely narcissistic and self-indulgent. That’s fair. There’s plenty of truth in that but given the amount of vacuous, pointless art that exists in the world, I’m not sure there’s much to worry about in that regard. The beauty of photography is that it’s so pervasive these days that it can almost literally (if Google has its way) cover all perspectives. That’s something to celebrate. So is self-publishing. Let’s keep cranking out the books and zines, and putting work out into the world. Let history and time figure out the rest.

  • Jordan Mendoza

    This was seriously encouraging. Thanks a lot man.

  • frrrrrank

    I liked your California book. Glad you published it online.

  • ztdavis

    Excellent post. I wish I had more to add to the discussion, but in all honesty I just want to thank you for writing it.

  • freerangemachine

    I especially agree with our final paragraphs about having to do photography for personal reasons and the liberation that one feels when doing it for these reasons. I went straight from being in college to working in commercial photography and after 8 ears got completely jaded by the industry. I was picking up my camera to shoot things i really didnt care about and that i wasnt being fulfilled by. £100 per hour was nice but I lacked the passion for the one thing i loved – the pictures and the feeling of creating image i wanted to love and be proud of. Needless to say knew my attitude to commercial work was not what it should be and have since stopped shooting commercial work, if i sell a picture its because someone has seen something ive already shot not something the are commissioning. im too selfish, I feel i have to be i need photograph because it makes me happy to shoot images I want to shoot. I need money too buy I cant see myself going back to shooting pictures for a pay cheque. Im much happy now and i think m work shows it. I have found that freedom I had in college + the wisdom of having worked in and broken free of the commercial world. if your interested.

  • Stan B.

    There’s no question that the majority of Grade A photography is, in
    fact, made by professionals- those who are paid to do it and whose
    passion and commitment often exceeds that which they are paid to do.

    Of course, it’s a whole nother
    world for those of us who do not profit from it financially- and
    sometimes still manage to produce work that may not set the world afire,
    but still manages to speak on its own level, to its own audience, on
    its own terms.

    For some practitioners, it’s a temporary
    fix, for others who put in the time (as in years and decades), it’s
    obviously a matter of passion, obsession, necessity- particularly when
    there’s only a modicum of recognition to be had in a medium whose main
    reason for existence is to be seen and noticed en masse.

    Do it long enough without the perks and encouragement that most creatives
    thrive under, and yes, you do it for the love of what you’re doing,
    wherever it does, or doesn’t take you. You may one day yet be
    “discovered,” for the proverbial fifteen minutes, or long after
    you’ve departed this mortal coil. Then again, your work may truly
    suck… today, tomorrow, always. One can only make the determination to
    persevere, and whether it’s worth the doing.

    But thanks for asking…

  • Fractionmag

    nice job bryan

  • Zeno Watson

    Great read, thank you!