American music journalist Bob Lefsetz recently wrote about Stranger Things. He makes the interesting point that Stranger Things is a show for people who want to go deep, as opposed to The Walking Dead, which is a show to be Instagrammed.
This resonates strongly with both the marketer and photographer in me.
So many super spectacular photographs end up on Pinterest walls or in Tumblr feeds, spiking shooting-star interest in the forms of likes and “awesome” comments, then disappearing from minds as soon as new candidates turn up. Eery landscapes with incredible colours and lighting to die for. I cringe with discomfort at the idea of the time of night, wind chill and number of visits to the (necessarily) remote location the authors have to concede for the few seconds of Internet limelight.
Other photographs follow a different path to success, growing on a smaller number of viewers but with a more lasting effect.
As a teen, and wildly passionate about Ansel Adams, I was given a calendar by said Ansel for Crimbo. The print quality was so amazing that 6 of the pages still line my main corridor alongside “real” prints, 30 years on. Some of the photographs on my walls have been with me so many years you’d think I wouldn’t notice them any more but make me stop for a quick peek almost at every passage. Julius Schulman’s Kaufmann House, for instance.
That second category of photograph would probably go totally unnoticed on today’s forums, yet some grow slowly on a number of admirers, eventually reaching lasting popularity with a whole section of the public that goes beyond photographic circles.
We amateur photographers rarely consciously ask ourselves what category we want to belong to ab initio, but naturally fall into one as time passes and skills grow. There’s no right and wrong (well, there is, but I’ve promised myself to be open minded in 2017).
Occasionally, someone seems to bridge the gap. Think Haas, Salgado. These lucky bleeders appear to weave the spectacular with the meaningful naturally. Life’s unfair. But we can all try to understand where we stand on that spectrum and blend in some of the opposite quality into our work.
Not that “spectacular” needs to imply fireworks or otherworldly light, or that “meaning” has to call upon deep psychological references. Spectacularly subtle is good and playfully meaningful also. But just as companies who are dominating a market are usually poor at detecting disruption until it has uprooted them out of the playing field, so do photographers tend to focus more and more on a specific genre or technique to the point of becoming interesting only to themselves or for a brief period of time.
That’s why good photography starts without a camera, in books, museums, blogs … every time we view something that wouldn’t be our usual cuppa, and try to understand what the author was on about. Sometimes the author is just nuts or not very good. But more often, he/she’s on to something worth internalizing and trying to recreate. It’s not learning from the masters as much as learning from differences.
The more we focus on understanding the work of others, the more meaningless gear feuds become, the more creativity grows.
Who will you be studying today (why not start with Paul’s great recent series in Tokyo) ? Care to share the names (& URLs) of people you admire for others to scan through ?
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