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Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Populism of Photography

A constant source of irritation for me, and one that I absolutely should not let bother me even slightly, is the influence of popularity on photography.

There's a lot of creative things to do out there, and virtually all of them require a lot more commitment than photography. Do you want to be a poet? A novelist? A painter? An architect? Well, bad news, bub, you're going to have to go deep and work hard and you might still never get any good at it. But let me tell you about photography!

Photography is easy. It always has been, but at this point it's frankly absurd. Literally anyone can become a competent photographer, without even working particularly hard. Almost literally anyone can learn to bang out competent and attractive examples of any number of genres. Flower pictures? Portraits? Landscapes? Street? Yes to all of those. Sure, you might never be brilliant, but only weirdo critics can tell the difference between competent and excellent and, quite frankly, they're probably just making shit up.

The result of this is that virtually everyone who styles themself something of a photographer is thoroughly unserious about photography itself.

This rankles, but it ought not. There's genuinely no harm here. Everyone should go nuts.

This is in contrast to something like poetry. Among those who are remotely competent poets, many or most are obsessive about something in it. They might have a deep obsession with the history of the Lake poets, or they might really like something to do with partial rhyming, or whatever. The point is that a lot of poets are kind of weirdos about something poetic, and as a consequence they're pretty sympatico with other poetry weirdos. This is true even if the obsessions don't overlap.

Not so, photography. Virtually every photographer is a dilettante, and not obsessive at all about anything photographic. They quite naturally find the occasional obsessive to be weird and off-putting. They even tend to find the obsessives to be judgmental, sometimes because the obsessives can be pretty judgmental, but not always. When someone else is vigorously doing a thing differently than you do, it can feel like a judgement even when no such thing is intended.

The result of this is that most photography "content" in this modern era is aimed at the unserious, is aimed to read as non-judgmental.

The result is endless miles of incredibly anodyne, repetitive, essentially stupid material. The writing is a mix of industry news and "here's an old picture!" with occasional "here's a really boring but very pretty picture!"

As an obsessive, I hate this stuff. I am interested in my own weirdo niche obsessions, and secondarily I am interested in other people's weirdo obsessions. Very much in last place, I am interested in yet another round of "look, it's Diane Arbus' photo of twins, again, paired, again, with some stupid quote from Szarkowski!"

This, however, sells very very well indeed to the dilettantes. Much as I want everyone to love my weirdo obsessions, it all just feels like judgements to most photographers.


  1. Well Andrew, after several years of absence from blogging and blog related matters in decided to desert the IG world and to return to my blog, delighted that you were still out there writing your wonderful photo 'think pieces.' It is so good to return to this saner world - thank you so much for keeping at it! Christian

  2. Speaking as weirdo to weirdo, I think the thing about the combination of easiness + popularity that bothers me is the failure to engage with photography's history and the work of its outstanding practitioners. Or to distinguish outstanding practitioners from self-publicising opportunists. It's as if there were thousands of aspiring "poets" out there whose only available examples to follow were greetings card rhymes. Oh, wait... Rupi Kaur...

    What this all leads to is the occasional novelty appearing above the waves -- some small anonymous twist of style or content -- only to be swallowed up again by the thousands of ensuing "me too" photographs. I don't care if I never see another illuminated orange tent in the wilderness beneath a perfectly exposed Milky Way. Or anything silhouetted against the Milky Way come to that. Some hope...

    Engagement with, and respect for a medium's history and its place within the spectrum of other media is 90% of what makes art art, as opposed to a hobbyist pastime.


    1. Ok, but whatabout 'outsider' art?

    2. "Engagement with, and respect for a medium's history and its place within the spectrum of other media" doesn't exclude anybody who is prepared to make the effort. All of us making stuff for no better reason than we feel like it are outsiders, just as much as some loon building a castle out of beercans in the wilderness.


  3. Doesn't every obsessive begin life as a dilettante? But I think you worry too much, just don't read or look at the boring stuff. 99% of everything is boring.

  4. I feel this kind of material, let's agree to call it 'kisch,' is very much part and parcel of our pervasive visual culture. As such it can be grist for more creative projects (see early cubist collages, merz, etc). Getting all hot and bothered about it is a fucking waste of time.