Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Monday, February 3, 2020

Photographers and Photographs

Let me tell you a tale. A sad tale.

Michael Reichmann, as most of you reading this will know, was a respected and well-liked photographer who founded a successful web site which was genuinely helpful to many photographers in the early years of digital photography. I didn't like Michael, but that is irrelevant to our story. Michael was the sort of notional leader of a community of 100s, maybe 1000s, of well heeled photographers. They were his friends, his clients. He led workshops, he plugged gear, he was tuned in to the spending of 10s, maybe 100s, of millions of dollars on equipment, workshops, photo tours, books, videos, and so on.

Toward the end of his life, Michael, perhaps feeling the clammy hand of his mortality, made a bold try to create a Legacy. He started the Luminous Endowmnent, which made grants to photographers to pursue their work. He made a book, a 20-year retrospective of his work; the work that his community so vocally admired. The book was expensive, but huge. Even at $500 for a signed copy, it wasn't an absurdly overpriced monograph. 100s of pages, 10 pounds, of book. Proceeds would go to the Endowment. Win-win, right?

He didn't sell them. I mean, he sold a bunch. Almost half of the signed edition of 500 copies. Probably several hundred more of the unsigned copies. I don't know how many he printed, but the Form 990s from the Luminous Endowment do not seem to support sales of more that about 1000 copes all told. The remainder, about 1100 copies, has I believe gone to the shredders as I write this.

Michael spent probably something on the order for $100,000 of his own money, hoping the book would act as a force multiplier, seeding his endowment with something like a million dollars. It didn't. The endowment folded up after a while, having failed, evidently, to achieve the critical mass of money necessary to be self-sustaining.

Michael's community, ultimately, betrayed him. $50M for cameras, diddly-squat for our "revered friend" and his legacy. If I sound angry, it's because I am. Michael is gone, his endowment is gone, and now his books are gone.

But what, ultimately, is the lesson here? Why were these self-same people happy to drop $10,000 on a workshop/tour to go hang out with Michael, but not $500 (or even $80) on a book? A book of photographs which I genuinely believe they admired? The price of a modest luxury car for a camera outfit, nothing for a book?

In the end, I think the answer is that photographers don't like photographs any more than regular people, which is to say, they generally don't like photographs much. Photographers want to take photographs, they don't want to look at them. I have a notion that a photographer may even be less likely to want to look at a photograph than a non-photographer, but perhaps I am giving the general public too much credit here.

Critics also don't seem to be much interested in photographs. They not infrequently make howlers, or simply admit that they can't be bother to look at the pictures, and even otherwise they seem as likely to completely miss the point as not. Critics want to bloviate, in the same way that photographers want to take pictures. The point is the output, not the input.

Communities of people that would seem on the face of it to be naturally interested in looking at photographs are typically not. There are photographers who like photographs, to be sure, but not every photographer is and I dare say something less than most photographers actually like photographs.

This is why "social" photography tends to go nowhere. When you get a bunch of photographers together, it turns in to a bunch of arguing about gear, and/or a bunch of photographers milling around trying to get the other photographers to look at their pictures while simultaneously fending off portfolios being thrust in their faces.

Photo sharing web sites are places where you put your work up to be admired, not places where you go to look at photographs. The Like button doesn't mean I Like Your Picture it means hi, I would Like you to come look at my pictures. The point is the output, not the input.

The success of photographic social things seems to be inversely proportional to the seriousness of the photography. As long as they measure by uploads, of course, all is well. Flickr had tremendous traction, because every would-be photographer thought this was a great way to be seen. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in doing any actual seeing. As soon as you try to measure by anything meaningful, the wheels fall off, because the street is mostly one way in the wrong direction.

Instagram, widely decried for being positively infested with people who don't take photography seriously, is the only real success story. It is successful precisely because it is infested with non-photographers. It has people who actually want to look at pictures. Not seriously, mind you, they want to just flip, flip, flip, and mainly they're looking for hot girls, celebrities, or themselves, but still. They actually want to look at photos.

The takeaway here is, perhaps, if you're interested in people actually looking at your work, stop hanging around with photographers. They don't want to look at your work, except as a quid pro quo or, sometimes, to borrow ideas from.


  1. I don't feel sorry for Michael Reichmann, not one bit. He made his mark, he made a difference, certainly more than I ever will (for I have no such aspiration) -- and he made his pile.

    Then he shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving behind a misbegotten production that had to be landfilled.

    Pretty much everyone who has a pulse, has remarked that there are too many photographs. I'll add to that: there are too many photo books -- and landfilled unsold is the ultimate fate of 99.9999% of them.

    Stop printing the bloody things. Just. Stop.

  2. Had Reichmann been a talented photographer, and had The Luminous Landscape actually been a photographic site, his book might have sold. But neither was the case. No offence to the man, but his work was mediocre at best, and his site gathered a community of well to do gearheads. Nothing wrong with that, except that gear, not photography, or photo books, is their focus of interest.

  3. I was trying to think of comparisons, and bodybuilding eventually turned up. This is an activity about which I know nothing (my body seemed to happen all by itself) but I'm pretty sure (a) its protagonists are obsessive about tips, tricks, and techniques, (b) bodybuilders are not much given to admiring each other, except as competitive examples to follow and beat, and (c) those that *do* admire bodybuilders are drawn from a rather different demographic (though there will be overlaps)...

    Michael Reichmann (about whom I have a very funny story, which I'll save for another day) probably made the mistake of assuming his photo-bodybuilding community would want to buy into the results of his own personal photo-bodybuilding.


  4. Well, I quite possibly spend more on photobooks than on photogear. Indeed, I think I'm probably more interested in photographs than photography. And although I have a degree of mixed feelings about MR, I think on balance he was a nice chap, and certainly comments like "his work was mediocre at best" is just absolute nonsense (it's Sunday, I'm being polite). What I would say is that his work didn't really have a strong focus or clear theme, and therefore his monograph was just not very attractive, as well as being very expensive. At $500 it would have been well more than I've ever spent on a book, and I've got a couple of signed Kenna first editions... Also, as very much a non-millionaire, I wasn't really all that convinced about giving my sparse and hard-earned money to other photographers who were, going by the projects that were actually funded, about in the same ballpark as me, financially.

    MR made some very nice photos, but had a weak attention span, and that was his Achille's Heel as an artist. Possibly his Mexico book was different, I don't know, I've never seen it.

    Actually for < $100 I would have bought a copy, although with shipping it would probably have been $200. But I was away pretty much during the whole period it was on sale.

    Never mind Michael, it says a lot about Josh that he could shred his father's life work. Over time I'm sure it would have sold, no idea why the hurry. Seems like a money-grubbing, backstabbing, pretentious little s**t to me, all things that his father was not.

    1. My feelings here are complicated. As is pretty well known, I didn't like MR and I didn't like his pictures, but as noted, this is not important to the particular story I was focused on.

      I am, naturally, loathe to point to any one person and say "You ought to have bought a book or two" because this is, obviously, a personal choice. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the notion that MR's community let him down, collectively. I didn't buy a book either, but then, I was never part of MR's community, and I did expend a fair bit of effort promoting both the endowment and the book.

      As for shredding the books, there is a very real issue of storage costs. Even a suitable storage unit is something in the area of $100/month. We're talking at least two pallet loads of books here. You'd have to sell a couple books a month just to cover the costs.

      In addition, it is my understanding, from Josh, that the books were somewhat encumbered. I think they legally "belonged" in some sense to a non-profit (maybe photo lucida?), which made things complex.

      It seems to me that the non-profit would not want to bear the speculative cost of storage, against maybe-selling enough books to cover it. Josh could maybe-sell enough books to cover storage costs, and then, what, bill the non-profit? I guess one could sort it out, but over a micro-business that would probably lose money anyways, I find it anyways credible that it wasn't worth doing. At this point you're raising on the order of a couple hundred bucks a year for photolucida, and it's a lot easier to just write 'em a check if you feel that way.

      At some point you gotta cut and run, right? Sales were probably down to a couple of month by the time Josh called it.

      If you want one, I speculate -- with no evidence -- that Josh pulled a box or two two out for posterity, and might be persuaded to part with a copy.

      (I don't find Josh very impressive either, but on this matter, I find no particular fault)

  5. As far as I'm aware, and I have to admit I don't follow The Luminous Landscape much at all unless I've exhausted all other displacement activities, the "let's sell these at a reasonable price" thing lasted maybe 6 weeks ... before then I think there was quite a hiatus when they were not even offered for sale, since the Foundation had apparently closed down ... time for me to think, well, maybe, why not, maybe next week, and then it was pulled. There seemed to be little promotional effort outside the website if at all. Even in the best scenarios, books like these sell slowly, and rarely reach over 1000 sales, so expecting to shift the lot in 1 month seems rather optimistic. The feeling I get is that Josh didn't actually like the books, and if his website persona is anything to go by, I suspect he didn't much like dad's photos either. Storage costs, yeah... but the Reichmann family isn't short of a few Canadian dollars, by all accounts.

    Still, there are a few other more pressing issues in the world today.