Street Photographers have famously demonstrated over the last few years that through the internet it is possible to reach a huge public audience without relying on the patronage of those in the traditional and established system of art publishing and commercial galleries. It has been the Street Photographers and Photojournalists that have pioneered the way because they have been the two groups least supported by the system to date, the Street Photographers have never really been seen as commercial (with a few exceptions of course) and the photojournalists have slowly become uncommercial through the decline of quality print magazines.
The relationship between commerce, photography and what success in photography really means has been on my mind recently. Inevitably as a practitioner of one of those forms of photography that is subject to the greatest prejudice, I have an interest in unpacking the current state of affairs and reversing the century of momentum it has in favor of a new model.
So here is a question: Is a good photograph one that sells?
The dominant system, the one used by print and online magazines, state run and commercial galleries and the majority of photography festivals is, of course, the one that attributes value to a photograph in direct proportion to its likelihood of making the most print and book sales. Now I am not going to surprise anyone with this statement but it is important to recognise the obvious, the status quo, if we are to reveal its shortcomings and consider a new model for success in photography.
Our modern world is run by accountants and the value of most human activities is measured in dollars, pounds or euros. We all have to put a roof over our heads and feed ourselves but I would like to argue that the arts and in this discussion I am particularly focused on photography, should not be judged by their ability to raise funds because that is a distorted judgment and most importantly, it is a judgment that is made by curators, art dealers and gallery owners…..not image makers and artists. The current system works for those selling and collecting photography, those for whom photographs become commodities and investments to accrue value. It is difficult to understate how ingrained the current system is right from the beginning. Photography education, in many cases, is imbued with the notion that students are aiming for the gallery wall, visiting lecturers are largely from the art world and it is that ‘practice’ that students are encouraged to replicate and getting representation by a gallery is seen as the mark of success.
Recently many state funded galleries have let us down by abandoning their open submissions process in favour of recommendations from the commercial gallery world, others like the Tate in London have acquisitions committees to recommend whose work will be selected and of course London’s Photographers Gallery has not had an open submissions process for years. So if one is to make it into a national collection like the Tate’s whose acquisitions policy states “Potential acquisitions of contemporary art are considered by artists who have already made a significant contribution and have achieved national or international recognition” one is largely left with only the commercial gallery route in order to achieve that recognition.
The situation is now changing, we are now beginning to realise that the best and most interesting photography is no longer to be seen in our bricks and mortar galleries, like newspapers trying to compete with online news outlets, the galleries are making themselves redundant by always being behind the curve. They have also traditionally avoided collecting large areas of photographic practice, particularly work from the documentary tradition, where are the prints in national collections by Alex Webb, Trent Parke, Martin Kollar or Matt Stuart? all photographers that have made a “significant contribution and have achieved national or international recognition” but in the ‘wrong kind’ of photography.
A New Model of Success
Street Photographers are already used to creating their work divorced from the commercial art system, they don’t get grant support, they don’t get gallery shows, they don’t win awards and they have, for a long time, financed their own photography independently through a wide variety of ingenious means…and yet, despite that, it could be strongly argued that as a practice Street Photography has become one of the most admired, respected and talked about areas of photography during the last two years.
I suspect they are not even aware of it but Street Photographers have already created a new model for defining success as a photographer, a model that is completely free from commercial concerns and a model that relies not on ‘experts’ who have never lifted a camera but on the real experts, their peers. The new model is, of course, Peer Review.
It is fairly well known that the in-public Street Photographers group was one of the first to use the internet to promote their work and Street Photography itself but behind the scenes, the members of the in-public group also utilised a private forum in order to post their images for their respected peers to review and discuss. New work and ongoing projects like Jesse Marlows ‘Wounded’ book project were posted, discussed and developed in a way that many of us hadn’t experienced since we graduated from our photography degrees.
In the early days of in-public, I could log on in the evening and see new work from Trent Parke made on the streets of Sydney, striking observations from Matt Stuart or Nils Jorgensen from the pavements of London and crazy scenes of 5th Avenue’s sidewalk by Gus Powell or Melanie Einzig. The most important aspect of this international specialist peer review was that the comments all came from image makers who you respected enormously and it lead to great experimentation and innovation rather than simply reinforcing or mimicking the current fashion that would get you commercial gallery recognition.
The in-public private forum is replicated on a much greater and very public way by the enormously passionate and popular Hard Core Street Photography group on the image sharing platform Flickr, here a large international community shares its work with the aim of getting an image accepted into the groups pool of photographs. It is here on Flickr that I have discovered some of the most extraordinary and inspiring Street Photographs by photographers who have never made a penny from publication or print sales, who have never been included in a solo or group show and have been completely let down by the current commercial system that determines ‘success’ as a photographer.
As Street Photographers, the neglect we have received has made us stronger, the disconnect between our work and our financial income has made us creatively independent and uncompromising. God knows many of us could adjust our work to make it more appealing to curators and collectors, make it more ‘saleable’ but that is not the destination we desire and the resulting compromise and peer disgust would be hard to take.
Let me tell you what I consider to be a photographic success from my own experience, I don’t take many good Street Photographs, which of us does? living with failure goes with the territory…but I made an image last year that I thought had the qualities I admire, it was not part of a project, so hard for curators and editors to get their head around, it was not aesthetically beautiful, so of no interest to a commercial gallery owner but when posted on the in-public private forum and Filckr’s Hard Core Street Photography group it was hailed as a special image. The opinion of my peers, dedicated Street Photographers internationally for whom I have enormous respect, mean’t far more than that of the photography director of Tate Modern or Moma ever could because these people are image makers in my field who are making some of the most exciting images of our era, they are the true ‘experts’ and their judgment is totally unsullied by wether or not my image will sell copiously in numbered editions.
I propose a new model for judging success in photography and it is one of peer review. It is crucial to establish around you a group of people whose work you respect and admire because their opinions are the only ones that can really carry meaningful weight. I am really happy if my work resonates with anybody, I am delighted if Jen Beckman or Robert Kock like my work but will it be because they like my work or because they think they could shift it in editions? If Matt Stuart, Blake Andrews, Bryan Formhals or Maciej Dakowicz likes my work, I know it is because they recognise how hard it was to make and how unique and unrepeatable it is.
In this new model, you don’t need to print your photographs the size of posters to have them considered art, you don’t need to pay to enter and win competitions and awards that are judged by image dealers and their cronies, you don’t need to queue up and pay to see ‘experts’ at folio revues….No, the route to success in this new world is simply taking the most undeniably striking photographs and allowing your community of peers to view and discuss them, they will recognise and champion the most valid work and spread it throughout the community. This is how someone like Anahita Avalos of Villahermosa, Mexico, whose pictures I have posted above, has become known, recognised and admired by the Street Photography community but remains completely unknown to the established gallery system.
This is the new Success, we just have to recognise it.