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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 London Photographers Gallery currently undergoing expansion has no submissions process for new or established photographers.

The London Photographers Gallery, currently undergoing expansion, has no submissions process for new or established photographers.


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.


Jesse Marlow presents new work to the in-public photographers via their private forum.

Jesse Marlow presents new work to the in-public photographers via their private forum.


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.


image: Anahita Avalos

image by Anahita Avalos discovered through the Flickr platform


image: Anahita Avalos

image by Anahita Avalos discovered through the Flickr platform


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.


Street Scene, London 2009.

Street Scene, London 2009.


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.


19 Responses to “Photography, Commerce and Success”

  1. K. Praslowicz

    Excellent post Nick. The only photography peers I seem to be able to find in this region are though who define success purely on monetary gains. Bringing up that success for me isn’t defined by sales often seems to be only responded with sarcastic sneers that come across as making me think that they think I’m completely oblivious to what being a photographer really means. This article is comforting in making me know I’m not completely bat-shit.

  2. Todd Walker

    I’d agree that monetary success is a poor measuring stick, but it seems you’re still applying a measuring stick that relies on the perspective of others rather an internal satisfaction. What is the difference between basing success on the approbation of a gallery owner, an editor or a blogger or a fellow photographer? It’s not as if gallery owners are wholly controlled by monetary interests or that others are not influenced by non-artistic factors. I’m interested in a measure of success independent of how our work is viewed by others.

    My own measure of success is this: what did I learn from making a picture? Did I learn something about the craft and the making of an image? Did I learn something about the world, my subject? Did I learn something about myself, my motivations, my inclinations, my drive, my world view? I am only successful if in making a picture I experienced a change in myself. And that sort of success, or failure, is not controlled by anyone but me.

  3. Konstantin Mihov

    What a great post! And what a great introduction to your blog (I found it through a recent post by Seconds2Real on Facebook). I quite agree with your evaluation of the importance of Peer Review – it has existed in the academic field for decades, and the whole institutional system in the art world has been criticized ever since Duchamp’s “Fountain”. From the artist’s point of view, it is still difficult though to create a “portfolio” that unites the images in a theme other than the simple “looks”. I found the “Alex” project (a series of photos taken at Alexanderplatz in Berlin) quite interesting as a “portfolio” concept and’d be curious to hear what you think of such an approach. How else do you build a portfolio? Or a Flickr album. Cheers, KM

  4. Nick

    Todd it sounds like you are your own peer group of one, I wish I had your self confidence. I would agree that one certainly needs to begin by satisfying ones own aspirations first.

    I personally need to share my work in order to discover how well it communicates, what I saw or wanted to convey. Often I have found that a series of images that is developing is helpfully steered by comments from my colleagues who point out flaws or trends in the work or project that I have missed.

  5. Todd Walker

    Nick, I certainly am not saying there isn’t value in sharing or getting feedback from others. Like you, i’ve got a circle of voices I listen to for course correction. I just don’t think it should factor in determining if one’s work is successful.

    As for a peer group of one, perhaps that’s more of an indication of my *lack* of self-confidence. – never to be subject to potential for harsh criticism. Or worse, indifference.

  6. fr.

    Nick,

    ” ‘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.”

    – isn’t the problem exactly this: the peer you rely on, the peer you get a lot of “worthwhile” feedback from, is itself not part of the artscene; thus your work is not judged by the art scene’s criteria, not part of this scene’s discourse, thus not fitting into the institution. but you certainly knew that already.

    It’s always hard to change a sytem from outside; fining someone who is your opinion and change the system from within seems to be the easier way.

    regards,

    florian.

    PS: isn’t this exactly what Parr and Graham were doing 30 years back in time in the UK?

  7. Bryan Formhals

    Cheers Nick.

    What I find interesting is that street photography tends to illicit very strong, vocal opinions. I don’t really see that with say landscapes or portraits. Perhaps both of those are more difficult to really distinguish what’s ‘good’ and what’s not. I know I have a tough time making sense of portraiture.

    But I can look at a handful of street photographs and almost instantly tell you which ones work for me and which ones don’t.

    I think the proliferation of opinions about street photography on the web is also testament to the genre’s social nature. People just seem to naturally want to talk about it, share it and voice their opinions. All very healthy and interesting.

    I haven’t really been able to formulate a concrete idea, but I think the mix of street photography and the internet has opened up a new context for the work that transcends its artistic utility.

    The fact that I can literally see what’s happening on the streets of Tokyo right now is very powerful for me. Sometimes the quality of the work doesn’t even matter that much, just the fact that I can taken there through the eyes of a street photographer sometimes is enough to hold my attention.

    In terms of peer review, I’m not exactly sure I care that much what they think or not. I think I generally just try to pick up a vibe on what’s resonating and what’s not by monitoring the reactions on Flickr. If you have a small following, you know whose looking at your work, so it becomes a bit easier.

    But sometimes I just throw stuff up because I know people enjoy looking at street photographs, and that’s pretty awesome.

  8. Andy Kochanowski

    Nick, I think you hit it pretty squarely in this one. It may even be more important to have peer review for those of us who did not go through the photography degree immersion that you and Matt had, but drifted into photographing the human condition through a drive or a need to create something without necessarily being cognizant of the existence of others doing the same thing. It would have been great to be able to do what you did when I started shooting seriously in 2004, but I literally knew no one who thought wandering about looking for decent light was anything but bonkers.

    What is wonderfully true is that the most exciting photography that I see is exactly what you’re describing– the web presence of photographers in HCSP or collectives that produce images that I want to own. By contrast the offerings in galleries, forgetting the prices charged, are to me just not interesting. Too bad for the galleries, because my day job allows me to be a bit of an art buyer too…

    You may be unduly pessimistic about the monetizing possibilities in what we all do, though. I see a fair amount of potential in effectively taking away the overhead markup of a gallery (they do have to pay the rent and lights) but not the curating aspect if one were to offer a relatively inexpensive but wisely chosen print program on the model of the 20X200 people. Chuck P, Rafa A, Manu, Justin S, Katy K, how many folks are there with great stuff that I am convinced is sellable if marketed properly?

  9. Philip Ward

    Finding a peer group that one respects and are willing to participate seems to be a hard trick to pull off.Throwing images on flicker is so hit and miss.Too many cliques and follow the leader types.Still I guess its the best we have so far.

  10. Martino

    Interesting parallel with the scientific world. However there is a major orthogonality (sorry for the geek-ish word dropping, by orthogonal, I mean the opposite of parallel) that is worth highlighting.

    You write: “[…] they [the peers] recognise how hard it was to make and how unique and unrepeatable it is. [a successful street photograph]”. Square brackets are my addition. The point is thus: successful scientific experiments ought to be repeatable and highlighting irreproducibility will land you some bad reviews and ultimately rejection of your research, the exact opposite of street photography then…

    Isn’t utter lack of reproducibility also what distinguishes street photography from other photographic genres -at least those with a modicum of artistic aspiration- and might be what scares the “non-peer” decision makers (collectors, curators, etc.)?

  11. Paul Treacy

    I tried leaving a comment earlier but it failed to materialize which is annoying. I might try again later.

  12. Bryan Formhals

    @Andy Kochanowski: There are literally dozens of 20×200 clones out there and I’m not sure they’re doing that well.

    I’m pretty pessimistic about the whole print angle. The reason 20X200 is so successful is because they attract people from outside the world of art and photography, people who want to decorate their homes and such (not saying these people don’t have taste.)

    The world of street photography is mostly comprised of other photographers, who are either poor, or are not really likely to be buying prints.

    I think too many people look at the success of 20X000 and think that the model is easily replicated. It’s not. Bekman is a rather brilliant marketer and because she’s the first and most well known, she’s the most trusted.

    I think zines are a much better angle but still, even with stellar promotion, it’s not going to be a huge money maker.

  13. Nick

    Here is an interesting current example:

    The curator and author of Bystander, Colin Westerbeck says in a Chicago Magazine article that the work of Vivian Maier ‘doesn’t stand out’. Westerbeck’s opinion seems contrary to that of the vast majority of people who have seen her work, experienced street photographers included…to the extent that they donated over $26,000 towards a documentary film of her work. In many respects, despite being dead, the online Street Photography community are Vivian’s peers and they have recognised, enjoyed and spread her work through their blogs and forums and twitter feeds.

    We have a choice between listening to the opinion of an expert from the California Museum of Photography about her work or listening to the opinion of thousands of Vivians peers in the image making community. Westerbeck’s grasp of the history and context of her work can’t be in question, as a former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago he must know his stuff…..and yet, is he in a position to make statements like..

    “The greatest artists know how to create a distance from their subjects.”?

    In my opinion it is not the place of experts, curators or gallerists to tell us what is good or valuable photography….the peer group will make its own mind up and, like Darwin’s natural selection, the best will survive.

    Article here: http://tinyurl.com/28laq8c
    Great discussion about Vivian here: http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2010/12/leave-it-to-investigative-journalist-to.html

  14. Ulrich

    I don’t know. Much of what you write makes much sense to me. But pretty much in cases only where a peer group resonates with your work. What if your photographs were not accepted as ‘good street photographs’ by HCSP or your own group in-public? Would you change your photography to please them?

    Ok. If photographs do not please a certain peer group one might have chosen the wrong peer group as well. But if no peer group is found to like one’s work does that mean respective work is crap?

    I think even harder for a photographer than to be a street photographer is to try and be a photographer when everyone does not bother at all with the results. Try that. Be on your own holding on to what you do without *any* recognition and you will become the hardest critic of your own work on top of all the doubts that never will be cleared.

  15. Steve Marshall

    Fascinating discussion. I’m a street photographer, too.

    I emailed this discussion to one of my closest followers, and admirers.

    Her response, and to quote her,
    ‘Yes that’s an interesting discussion. Greatly empathize with the argument but but but….. peer assessment ultimately is compromised by personal allegiances, capital markets, academic fashion and group think. that’s my view.
    A’la.. health, science, business, policy, academia etc etc.
    Peer support (rather than assessment) is probably more important..like minds sharing, debating,exposing etc.
    Suspect whatever has been thus will be thus…excellence will be recognised and as part of that process, capitalised.’

    My move to the streets was accidental – I was always out there so recently I decided to carry my camera, everywhere, to shoot what I saw.

    I shoot for me, first and foremost, I shoot and I critique my own images, so I can evolve as a great photographer. I listen to critics, too, professional curators of international standing. I also study other street images, to ascertain why the photographer ‘shot that particular image’.

    My most common question to myself, Why? Why am I shooting this particular image? If the image doesn’t say anything to me, then it won’t say anything to anyone else.

    I enjoy my images and, should anyone else respond to and enjoy them then that’s great, and thank you. As for the curators, the critics, peers etc. I refer you to my wise friend …

  16. Carlos E.

    Hi Nick.
    I can´t remember the last time I printed my last shot just for my pleasure.
    But my commercial work is being published every day….
    Sad, innit?

    The banks don´t feel tha same way.
    Carlos E.

  17. Dilbert

    I share my street photography with the public by making 8’X10′ prints and wheat pasting them around the city. The work is ephemeral: someone peels them off or the weather destroys them. But I came upon one the other day I had put up well over a year ago.

    Here’s a link to a photo I converted in photoshop to a stencil and silkscreenprinted. I put one of them up in the location the original photo was made.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohnobody/5420882154/in/pool-seattlestreetart#/photos/ohnobody/5420882154/in/pool-29854658@N00/

    Street photography on the streets.

  18. dimitri mellos

    Hi Nick,

    unfortunately I only now came across your post, two months after it was first published… sorry about that. And of course just the fact that someone is reading your blog means that you’re preaching to the converted, but still it was really inspiring and encouraging to read your thoughts and suggestions. In my own life I believe I have undergone a process like the one you’re describing, even though I had not necessarily articulated it to myself. For a long time I was just feeling sorry for myself for being a street photographer and thus by definition engaging in just about the most unpopular (in terms of institutional appeal) photographic genre. What made this harder is, of course, that not for a moment would I want to switch to something more popular but meaningless to me personally. And then I think a silent transformation took place, and I became comfortable with the idea that doing what I love is worth more all the ‘outward’ recognition that is not forthcoming (again, not meaning recognition from my peers, but from the institutional channels and the art market). And, what do you know? My work has improved immensely since I stopped worrying about an audience and success, and just focused on the work itself.

    All my best!

  19. Jason

    This has been a great post and really interesting read. Thank you Nick.

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