The State of Photography 2019: Are you creating trophies or memories?
Well if that isn’t a clickbait title, then I don’t know what is. But if I am being completely honest, it’s a question that I have been asking myself of my own work over the past year or so.You know as well as I do that the land of social media requires a certain polish. If you aren’t pushing out consistently stellar content, then you get left in the dust, right? Likes and follows start dwindling and next thing you know, you are in a tailspin of irrelevance (or so we think). But the game isn’t the same as it used to be, the game is rigged. Facebook has decided that they know better what the people that have already chosen to follow you want to see. Alright, enough of that, this post is not going to be about engagement, numbers, and complaining about algorithms, but I had to set the stage. What I hope to do is inspire you to break out of this cycle we find ourselves in and refocus on what matters most.
As an artist, my goal has always been to push my work forward, and always grow as an artist. As long as I can look back at my work 6 months to a year ago and see a steady progression, I am content.
Now i know, there are probably a lot of you wanting to scream at me and shame me for even talking about numbers out of the gate, but if you all take a moment and be honest with yourself, you can and admit that these thoughts have crossed your mind. For the sake of transparency, I got lost in it for a while and I’m not afraid to admit it. It’s human nature to want to do great things and be recognized. I have a steady stream of up-and-comers asking the “how do I build a following” questions. And my answer to them is always the same: If your focus is the following, you are doing it wrong and you have guaranteed yourself to fail. What inevitably happens is this: the following doesn’t come fast enough, and you start to doubt why you are even doing it to begin with, you burn out, you quit, and you move onto the next thing. You never allow yourself the time to grow. Henri Cartier-Bresson has this quote that I’m sure every photographer has heard: “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. But I don’t think that quote has aged well. He was talking about shooting film. In the digital era it’s more like “your first 100,000 photos are your worst”. Regardless, that is obviously about allowing yourself to grow into a style and perfect your art.
If you have a genuine passion for the art and the community, for learning and getting better, then the following will come…. or it won’t, but it doesn’t matter because you have your focus set on the things that actually matter. It took a complete fluke of a viral photo to get me the audience that I have, something that I never expect to happen to me again, and I am 100% ok with that because I know I am growing as an artist.
With that little tangent out of the way, I’d like to dig into the meat of what I really wanted to write about because I feel that there are some important things that we need come to terms with in the era of the constant cycle of social media. Are YOU making trophies or memories? I’m aiming for 50/50 even though right now I’m sitting at about 75/15. Don’t get me wrong there isn’t anything bad about going out with a plan and getting your “keeper” shot, but I think there should be much more to it than that. It all starts with evaluating your purpose.
Why do you shoot? Followers? Expression? Likes? Adrenaline? Truth be told even I lost sight of why I loved photography for a little while. For me, getting lost in a moment with friends and family is a big one. But also, chasing light and not knowing if you are going to get the shot is huge for what I do. I am an adrenaline junkie and photography can really fill that gap in my life. I love the views, the smells, the atmosphere, and doing my best to visually express how I felt in the moment through my post processing.
There is no doubt that taking that EPIC shot will give you the warm and fuzzies. Planning and executing something exactly how you envisioned it is something special. But I’ll tell you what, when I look back at my photos, I am not going to be thinking about the settings and execution at all, I’m going to remember how I was feeling and all of the little idiosyncrasies that elevated the experience above and beyond just shooting a photo. I would hope that photography means more and more to us the more that we do it.
It REALLY hit me 2 years ago when I became a father. Chasing my son around and capturing these moments that I am going to look back on forever has had this crazy effect on me. Memories are what photography is all about. Sure “getting another location under your belt” is how social media conditions us to do it, but that’s wrong. It’s all about preserving the moments when you got to experience something amazing. I am lucky enough to have a group of friends equally as passionate about traveling and the art of photography as I am. And we have taken a number of trips together over the past few years. For the most part I have always been focused on my personal work, or client work that I was commissioned for on the trip, and I have all of these little memories of the fun along the way, but I didn’t take the time to shoot them.
In July my friends James Lenon, and Craig Hensel road tripped 15 hours to South Dakota to shoot the Badlands and Custer State Park. I decided to use my Fujifilm X100F as a documentary camera. Regardless of everything else, my hope was to capture the essence of our trip and the comradery that takes hold when you spend 40+ hours on the road together. I’ll be honest I’m pretty happy with the shots that I got. But reflecting back on it there was still quite a bit that I missed. Hopefully the next trip will be better, and the one after that even more-so. Because the truth is this: your Instagram post is all but forgotten after about 48 hours, but the memories that you capture will last you a lifetime. I am planning on getting some of the other guys’ favorite images and putting together a book of the trip for each of us to remember it by. Nothing digital could ever replicate the experience of bringing images to life in a tangible way.
To bring this whole thing full circle, I would like to propose to you this challenge: Aspire to be present in the moment. Always. And push yourself to capture more than just trophies. One of my favorite ideals from Ansel Adams is that ordinary photographs are just reminders of experience, and art photographers create an inspired moment that transcends its medium. But in my mind, there is room for it all. The artfully shot reminders, as well as the inspired moments.