Tuesday, June 7, 2016


It is interesting to find, especially in the light of my earlier remarks perhaps, that most self-styled photographers judge photographs very much by how close to one commodity or another they are. On forums people ask "am I ready to go professional" and all the twits who pretend to be working professionals judge the presented work, invariably by how closely it resembles everyone else's pictures.

You're ready to "go pro" apparently, when you can produce pictures that are indistinguishable from all the other cut-rate jamokes in whatever cost-cutting madness you've elected to target.

In "Fine Art Photography" we see the same thing. When you can screw on your Lee Big Stopper, and take that one picture of a pier extending out from the bottom center of the frame, like a great black (albeit curiously squared off) penis, into the misty mess you've made of some water's surface, you're ready to start selling giant Canvas Wraps to suckers.

Even the casual amateur seeking to "improve" whatever that means, is urged to strive for sameness with everyone else.

As noted, once you're in the commodity biz, it's a race to the bottom. How are you supposed to "stand out" if, well, you don't stand out? Lower prices is the only answer, and the only price lower than market rate is to pay people to carry your photographs away.

If you're in the coal business and someone invents a way to make coal by the trainload with two spoons and a glass of water, you don't stand around griping about how everyone with two spoons should stand shoulder to shoulder with Big Coal to keep prices up. You don't stand around bitching about fauxcoalproducers and how awful their coal is. You get the hell out of the coal business.

Don't be a commodity.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't take pictures. It doesn't even mean that your business should not involve taking pictures. You might even be able to take the same damn pictures. Your business can't be about taking those pictures, though.

You can't build this sort of business, practice, or artistic portfolio around gear or technique, since those are almost trivial for a competent practitioner to duplicate. I propose (repeatedly, ad infinitum) building it around ideas. If you're doing "stock" photos for some corporate web site, your business in that moment is your ideas about how to photograph Collaboration or Innovation or whatever the hell they want. If you're doing corporate portraits.. I dunno, ask Kirk Tuck. If you're making a photoessay about Mumbai, find your own idea of Mumbai and go from there. They can duplicate the way you handle color, but nobody sees Mumbai quite the way you do.

Ironically, whenever some poor bastard finally gets beaten in to producing the same damn photos as everyone else does, the next question is "how can I find my unique voice, my vision? How can I rise above the masses and get noticed?" and then all those fake professionals kind of start mumbling and remembering appointments in other places. They are, after all, in the peculiar business of pretending to be in the commodity business.


  1. But if one invents a new style, won't people copy him for cheaper? The long exposure B&W image of a pier at sea was first taken by somebody, who then ran a successful business selling this kind of pictures. Then, thousands people saw that at a business opportunity and started to copy it, other started workshops on long exposure photography, Chinese filter manufacturers started to mass produce the necessary ND filters, etc... Now everybody does it and it is cliché.

    But at first, it was actually a pretty cool idea.

    Interestingly, we have a few photographers claiming the original idea (each one having a prize in some exhibition to vouch for it) and still running a business selling these images. They can't produce any other style, their gallerist won't take anything different.

    1. That's why it cannot be about a new visual style. The pier can be and is duplicated endlessly because, as a cliche, it has no substance. Perhaps the first one was filled with substance, or was part of a really powerful essay, or something. I don't know.

      The part of that, if there was anything more weighty, which has been sliced off and copied is weightless, trivial, a commodity.

    2. Don't take this as a criticism, I am just trying to understand the way "fine art" actually works.

      I'll take the example of the pier again. It seems that this particular style was first used by Michael Kenna, who still uses it very successfully. With a bit of search, you will find others. For example Darren Moore, who publishes generally similar images. Darren appears to also be successful and apparently has won numerous exhibition prizes for what appears to be plagiarism to my untrained eyes.

      Neither one appears, again to my untrained eyes, to fill their images with much substance. I think you gave the reason in one of your previous posts: this kind of photography is basically decor. It should not be filled with substance, that would clash with the furniture when you display the print up the mantle piece.

      So where does that lead us? It appears that a successful way of doing business there was simply to copy a visual style without much substance and sell that to the upscale version of Ikea, doesn't it? (Ikea sells frames with pictures in that style as well).

    3. You are absolutely correct! Kenna and Moore (I suppose, I don't know) are making pretty decent money selling what I am describing as commodity pictures.

      Perhaps they're trading on their names? "These are not commodity pictures at all! They are artisanal shade-grown pictures!" or something?

      Anyways, they're in a risky business, if I understand your remarks properly. Since they are making, basically, a commodity, the price can at any point drop to $0 + cost of printing. If they're holding the price up substantially above that for now, good on 'em.

      There ARE ways to sell a commodity product as a non-commodity, it's in the positioning and marketing. E.G. as alluded to above "shade-grown" or "free-range" or "natural" are great bits of marketing to shovel on to your perfecly ordinary coal/butter/ice cream/photography to make it not sell as a commodity. At least temporarily.

  2. Some very interesting thoughts, here and in the earlier post.

    Over the past few years I have seen any number of bright, creative young photographer attempt to go pro -- and immediately become ordinary. A few of them survive, most of them sink within six months or a year.

    I have never been able to completely understand what drives it -- market forces, the photographer's perception of what is professional, or just the pressure to produce on demand.

    Having spent time in daily newspapers I know most people find it very difficult to be creative on demand. Having been a commercial photographer I also know that when a customer asks for "creative" they very often mean "something just like what this other guy is doing."

    And, as you point out, there is the pressure from the so-called "professional" community, and how that pressure affects the beginner's perception of what professional photography looks like.

  3. Hi Andrew,
    Fully agree with the post.

    A few years ago I had a discussion with a friend who was a wedding photographer - hmmm, now there's commodity (for most).

    HE produced technically perfect, visually pleasing images which were almost precisely the same as the technically perfect, visually pleasing images produced by eleventeen billion other photographers.
    He stated in the conversation that he would photograph anything the client wanted and would do so in any style or manner required by said client (just like elevteen billion others).

    So I put this scenario to him:
    Happy couple goes to photographer 1, loves the ability and asks if he/she can maybe shoot some images like this or like that.
    Photographer says 'absolutely I can'
    Couple goes to photographer 2, 3, and 4 who all have excellent ability, manner, professionalism and willingness to same as photographer 1.

    Who does the happy couple choose? After all, they are all talented, all personable, all willing to do whatever the couple want. Who do they choose?

    My friend said "the easiest to do business with?

    I said 'listen closely, they are all the same to deal with, all able to shoot perfectly, all willing to accommodate requests. Who does she (because it's usually the bride who chooses) choose?

    He said "I don't know"

    I told him "the cheapest"

    I told him to shoot what he wants, produce work that he wants to do and only sell to those who want his stuff. After all, I said, 'you don't go to a shop which only sells pepsi, if you want to drink coke'

    He said it can't be done. Bollocks says I.

    A later couple of years he chucked a tantrum on social media decrying being undercut by 'new shooters' (forgetting his early work did just that).

    He failed to make himself different, desirable, or someone who stayed true as an individual.

    It is the same in any segment of this marvellous thing we call photography.

    Do it for yourself. Make your own vision/ideas/ concept etc.

    There are billions of people on this planet (seven, not eleventeen hahaha).
    Even if a very small percentage like you - that's cool, isn't it?


  4. Oh come on you guys..dissing Micheal Kenna (and I think you may in fact mean Michael Levin as he's the IKEA guy), calling him a 'decor' photographer whose work is devoid of substance. Is that just because you can't stand those guys with D810 and a 14-24 + Big Stoppers who copy Michael Levin ? Michael Kenna was doing up to hours long exposures in the friggin seventies, on film, no filters needed as they were done in the dark of night. Take a look at some of his industrial work and compare to those Moss Landing thingies, which were excellent by the way !, you came up with and then tell me again that he's a 'decor' photographer.

    Excellent post by the way, it's just in the comments that it went wrong in my opinion.

    cheers, Sander

    1. Thanks, Sander, for stepping in in favour of Michael Kenna! I considered doing so myself, but didn't find the time yet. He has a very distinctive visual language which is often copied. But if one pays close attention, one finds that there is so much more in his work, which sets it apart from his plagiators.

      Best, Thomas