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Would they be famous now? Or, the bar has been raised — Ming Thein


I recently attended two exhibitions. First was a semibiographical retrospective of Yves St Laurent at work by French photographer Pierre Boulat, and the other was Steve McCurry’s Iconic Photographs’. Both were in Asia, but held at two of the top galleries in the region — Galeri Petronas and Sundaram Tagore, respectively. There was no faulting the presentation or hanging in either case. For both shows, print quality was frankly disappointingly mediocre. I’m prepared to give Boulat some latitude since he was working in relatively early film days and under documentary’ conditions; McCurry’s film work often has obvious motion blur and focus misses, and his digital compounds that with oversharpening haloes — all of which land up being distracting from the image. He should really have tighter control on his post production, or stop outsourcing altogether — as the recent cloning scandal demonstrates. It’s not so much the use of postproduction enhancement, but the addition or removal of elements in what is expected to be work of a documentary nature. All of this has raised two questions in my own mind: firstly, if either photographer was starting out fresh today, would they have anywhere near the notoriety and fame, and secondly, has the game changed so much that we modern photographers have little hope of making a truly widely-recognized iconic image’?

You’ll notice that this is the first post in a very long time that has no images; the reason for this is twofold. I don’t want to single out any one image as an example of iconic’, because that would both be highly subjective and not really doing others justice. On top of that, I also don’t want to single out any image is undeserving — not to mention any possible legal ramifications of using still-copyrighted images. But it also leads to another thought: if a reasonably well-read photographer is asked to identify and list several iconic images, high chances are they’ll be a) from much earlier in the history of the medium — not shot in the last 20 years or so — b) of a photojournalistic nature. It’s actually not surprising seeing as back then, image circulation was limited, and the more sensational ones tended to be more widely reprinted and distributed. There were also simply far fewer images made — leading to naturally the ones that did exist being better remembered, especially if connected with a major international event. Social media and casual capture — let alone distribution — of images simply did not exist. We simply saw what we were allowed to see, whether that was good or bad — it was all there was.

Putting aside even considerations of technical image quality, a lot of the famous’ images of the past probably wouldn’t be given a second glance today if they were to surface for the first time on today’s social media networks. Unfortunately, this experiment is impossible to perform seeing as most of the great photographers have already had their work sufficiently widely circulated that nothing would be truly fresh. Two things make me think they really don’t have a chance: the maturity of digital photography and the internet has meant that far more people have access to image making equipment than every before; there is simply more imagination and vision on the loose, which in turn results in more — and better — images. The competition is tougher.

On top of that, you’ve got a lot of very capable photographers making outstanding images that are pretty much unknown because they choose not to promote themselves, and the small volume of images that are published are simply lost in the noise. You’ve also got some very mediocre photographers who scream at the top of their lungs across every possible channel, and gain notoriety for unimpressive work simply because they make the most noise. It is no longer a game of quality or timing or being there — it’s an ugly battle for attention on multiple fronts. In short, whilst access to opportunity (with cheap travel), sufficiently good hardware and a much larger audience than ever before has made it easier to gain notoriety and make photography as a career workable — it has made it much harder to truly get to the top of the tree.

I feel as though I’m experiencing this at a personal level right now: without the internet making the entire world my audience, and without the accessibility of digital, I’d never have had the time and resources to learn enough and hone my work to the point that I can access the niche clients that appreciate my images. On the other hand, I spend a huge amount of time managing social media interactions and presence because of this — if you don’t exist online, then you might as well not exist at all in the minds of many — both from a credibility standpoint, and one of simple visibility.

It isn’t obvious what the right strategy to use is to climb the fame/notoriety ladder; I’ve spent much time thinking about this because unfortunately, skill and vision comes a distant second to celebrity in determining success in today’s photographic industry. The main challenge stems from the short attention spans of most audiences that are a direct result of social media: nothing stays current or relevant for very long, and images now have a lifespan of minutes or seconds before being forgotten amongst the increasing billions that are taken every minute. That statistic about there being more images taken in the last year than the entire previous history of photography (or something similar): it’s probably true, and very scary. Because it means that even what would be considered a competition-winning outstanding image from a decade ago probably wouldn’t even get a second look today — there’s simply too much visual media bombarding every audience.

The only solution I see is to somehow be both creative and prolific: make enough images and have enough work in circulation and it acts as a virtual army holding your fort in cyberspace; repetition isn’t useful because then you land up either being pigeonholed into one category of work and dismissed, or the audience doesn’t give you attention beyond the fifth or sixth image. I think creativity in the modern context has become not just finding a unique look or perspective or angle or interpretation, but really understanding the capabilities of new technology and pushing it to the limits by applying it in ways that haven’t been done before — medium format for low light documentary work, low light videography or super high speed flash sync would be two examples — beyond the obvious of photographing something unique constructed from imagination (e.g. a lot of fashion work, or Crewdson’s setups). Even then: there are so many people taking the creative bull by the horns that it still isn’t enough. The internet has given us access to a much wider audience, but the sheer volume of work out there has made it much harder to be found by the right people.

Yet I still can’t help but wonder if in say fifty years there will be far fewer memorable photographers of this generation than any other, simply because there’s too much material for the average man to digest. You’ll remember seeing an individual tree in a desert — regardless of whether the tree was impressive or not — but not a giant one in a forest. It certainly isn’t one’s commercial work that’s likely to be remembered — that’s designed to be disposable and very immediate’ in many ways simply because it has to feel current, new and trendy; next year there has to be something else that supersedes it to sell more product. The only conclusion I can come to is we are back to square one: photographing something intensely for ourselves, and solely for ourselves, because we want to; that intensity and focus breeds creativity and in turn experimentation, and passion keeps you going. In short: to be famous, we should probably stop thinking about being famous. MT__

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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