OK, now that I have your attention, let’s get something out of the way: I’m not trashing your photography. I’m sure it’s all fantastic, and I sincerely hope you keep creating those amazing images.
That said, chances are good that I don’t want to see any of it unless you’re one of a handful of photographers I actively follow. No offense. And, lest you think otherwise, I should say that the sentiment definitely applies to my own work, too – probably more than most, actually. The fact is, the vast majority of the relatively small number of people who will ever see any of my work, simply could not care less about it. And I’m perfectly ok with it.
I wasn’t always a blissful inhabitant of the land of IDGAF, however. As a younger photographer, I fell into the same trap that many do, enamored at every snap of the shutter, wide-eyed and eager to share my incredible photos with anyone and everyone. Thankfully, I started on film in the 1990s, and the worst early evidence of my naivety is lost forever. Sadly, though, it took a while for me to learn, and my photographic delusions lasted well into my transition to digital. For a while, there wasn’t a forum, group, social media site or app that was safe from my incessant posts. My camera went everywhere with me, the world was my subject, and everything was photo-worthy.
Or so I thought.
I took my first college-level photography class when I was a sophomore in an unremarkable community college program in a speck of a city in Oregon. It was a photojournalism course, and I remember being excited because I’d always heard that every photo should tell a story, and I was ready for the teacher and my classmates to see what an amazing storyteller I already was. We got our first assignment, and when it came time to share for group critique, my work landed with a resounding thud. My images weren’t great, everyone definitely did not love them, and it turned out I sucked at image storytelling. And the same was true for all of my classmates. Fortunately, the teacher took the opportunity to encourage us to keep going, even if we sucked and nobody cared.
As time went on, my photography began to improve, I started getting hired to do photography, and something incredible happened: people still didn’t care!
I remember my first front-page photo in the local newspaper. It was coverage of a stabbing and included all the drama we’re taught drives the news. I was over the moon, and of course, I went out and bought not one, but several copies of the paper that day. I got home and triumphantly plopped the papers down in front of my girlfriend at the time, announcing my arrival as a big deal photographer. She gave me a kind “cool,” then asked me how else my day had gone. Arrived, indeed!
A few years ago, Fstoppers’ own Lee Morris and Patrick Hall put out a fun little video where Lee played a prank that had Patrick and Mike Kelley critiquing some images, including a handful of cleverly unattributed images by Ansel Adams. They didn’t absolutely trash Ansel’s work, but they were pretty critical and seemed to assume the images were from an average amateur. I think it’s fair to say that Ansel Adams is one of the most celebrated names in photography and quite possibly the most known name in the history of the medium. But, as Lee’s experiment suggests, the work of Ansel Adams can be overshadowed by his celebrity. That is to say, when his name is removed from association, the work itself could easily get lost in the sea of images that came before and after. People stop caring.
The fact is, the world is saturated with images. Good images. Bad images. Mediocre images. Images in advertising, on social media, from our family and friends. Images are everywhere in today’s world, and they’re all vying for our ever-diminishing attention. We are all up to our eyeballs in images (pun intended). And honestly, very little of it matters. And of the minority that has any relevance whatsoever, an even smaller subset matters for more than a relatively brief moment. In an era when nearly every adult human on earth has a camera on them at all times, most images are ubiquitous, temporary and meaningless.
The above image is of the Norhtwestern National Life building in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was designed by the famed architect, Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the former Twin Towers buildings in New York. While not a tourist attraction per se, among architecture enthusiasts, it is considered one Minneapolis’ architectural gems.
I had moved to the area in early 2020, just in time for the pandemic. Then, following the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the city all but completely shut down. Long story short, I found myself with an abundance of time to explore the city on long walks, and on one of those walks I happened to notice the reflection of the building in its adjoining pool. I investigated a little further, seeing that the pool perfectly framed the building’s reflection when viewed from a specific position and angle, and ran home to get my gear.
After I set up and got the frame I was looking for, I was blown away. I got my shot, and before I even broke down my gear, I started scouring the internet for the same shot, certain that I’d see it was popular. To my surprise, there were tons of images of the building, but none from the perspective I’d captured, framed in the way I framed the scene. Again, I was blown away and promptly began planning my new career as a famed architectural photographer. I got home, did my processing, then proceeded to upload my new magnum opus to every conceivable place I could find. And then… nothing. Crickets. No accolades, not even a smidgen of recognition among Minneapolis’ surprisingly large community of cityscape photographers. Nobody cared, even among fans of Yamasaki’s work. My career as an architectural photographer was over before it even started. I was devastated.
Then, a friend who is also a photographer reminded of an important lesson: it doesn’t matter what others think or don’t think. If we’re lucky, we find something to do that we love and we just do it. Sometimes, we become part of a community of others who enjoy the same thing and that community can support us, but at the end of the day, it’s the love of the craft that drives us. That’s what drove Ansel Adams, not the celebrity (I think), and that’s what drives meaningful work as a whole.
A couple months later, that friend and I were out shooting cityscapes again, and I made the following shot kind of just as an aside, on a whim, handheld, and with a telephoto lens – things you are taught to never do in landscape photography. It’s turned out to be one of my most requested images for print, even though I don’t market it and don’t market myself as a landscape photographer.
For some inexplicable reason, this image found an audience. But, in the grand scheme of things, it still doesn’t really matter. Yeah, it’s cool, and the unconventional color grade and the way the late afternoon light and deep shadows play across the buildings are striking, but ultimately, it’s just an image of some buildings that’s nice to look at. And that’s okay, because it doesn’t have to be anything more than that.
Nobody cares about your photography. Nobody cares about my photography. People care about experiences, especially their own.
When people request a print of the Foshay Tower image above, I usually ask them what it is about the image that appeals to them. Almost everyone answers that they had some kind of special experience associated with the building, like a memorable dinner in its attached popular steakhouse, or they got engaged overlooking the city on the tower’s observation deck. It’s always about a feeling and memory that the image evokes, not the image itself. So, while I look at that image and just see what could have been improved, some others see it and are transported back to a meaningful part of their life.
With the other image, as striking as I may think the perspective is, as unique as it is and as proud of the technical achievement it was at the time, it’s still just an image of a building. And, that building doesn’t have a popular steakhouse, or an observation deck. People don’t get engaged there. It’s just an office building, albeit one that looks cool.
And that speaks to the true power of photography: the power to open the door to experiences both had, and to be had. The very best images either remind us or encourage us. They transport the viewers to the golden days they’ve already lived, or to the dreams of their future. Everything else is just noise.
Today, I work as a commercial photographer, and the bulk of the images I produce are for some form of marketing or advertising. And while conscious that we are quite literally adding to the above-mentioned noise, I and the creative professionals I work with actually work very hard to rise above the impersonal nature of advertising, and try to connect with people. We do it through cultural touchstones, through stories, through things people can relate to their own lives. It’s never about, “hey here’s a thing. Buy it.” And it’s definitely never about the photography, because nobody cares about photography.