“Average is Over” or Why Good Enough Sucks

“Average is Over” or Why Good Enough Sucks

 

Thomas L Friedman, in a post today at the New York Times, says that “average is over.”

And he is right.

It is.

You can see it in industry and media and design and art. You can see it in nearly every area of business.

Apple proved it. And Mercedes. And Braun. And Singapore Airlines. The list is pretty extensive.

To get to the top – the vaunted, rare, incredibly beautiful top – takes more than being average. In fact, simply being in any field at a sustainable level will take more than average. More than “good enough”.

Especially in commercial photography.

My bud Kirk thinks the whole photography thing may be totally over. At least for today.

Maybe he is right, but I am not buying it. I refuse to buy it.

If I did, I would have to simply do something else. Riding something dying to the end is not for me.

I love photography, and photographers. And I think they are here for a lot longer than some believe.

I hear how there are too many photographers. I hear how the prices are terrible. I hear how no one is making any money (except from those who are actually out there making money).

I hear all about how there are problems, but few seem to be addressing the reality that the context is changing, and the participants have varying degrees of ability to adapt.

Few will simply come out and say the basic truth because it is so hard to accept…

The ability to take a decent – actually even better than decent – photograph is not that big of a deal. Even the cheapest cameras are capable of ‘making a good picture’ – as long as your criteria does not include the actual content of the image. Color, exposure, sharpness… all good with even the most basic camera.

(Flickr will eat me alive… I will just leave it there…)

What used to be an average photographer took a lot of work. Now… not so much.

Not much at all.

Click…

But the subject, context, emotional connection, and the relationship of viewer to the image have not changed. Those things are still important, necessary, vital.

And as elusive as they ever were.

The photographers who understood those things, that ‘got it’ were always at the top. Penn, Avedon, Demarchelier, Elgort… the list is pretty extensive. Lots of  ‘old guys’ who didn’t really sit around and talk shit about lenses and film speed and what the newest cool lighting was. Maybe they would have if they weren’t so damn busy making images, but – alas…

The most difficult thing to talk about is the image itself. It is open to interpretation and combined with a point of view, can be the most terrifying and mystical aspect of the art. What do we say about it? What do other people think? What do the ‘right people’ think? Will I spill to the world I am a simple luddite if I like this or not like that? What if what I say is – gulp – wrong?

The fear of not having anything to say about the photograph quickly fades when the discussion turns to pixel counts and the GN of some new Chinese made flash unit.

Those things are measurable. Quantifiable. Easy to understand and place in direct competition.

24 Megapixels is more than 18 Megapixels.

Fact. Done. Fini. Nanna nanna booboo.

It is the stuff that average photographers latch onto and make their own. This camera does that and that camera does this and then it is all about the camera. I have this new thing and that old thing simply doesn’t ‘measure up. We can quantify that by counting the pixels or checking for fringing at 6000%.

Photography = camera.

Except – when it isn’t.

Cameras are average. Cameras create average. Cameras encourage average.

BECAUSE they are quantifiable, measurable and easily comprehended.

They take the fun out of photography, the joy and pure emotional excitement of making an image, and move it into a realm of boringass technology and defined, finite abilities.

Resolution.

Average.

Over.

Why? Because art is none of those things. Vision has nothing to do with them. Style and personal viewpoint and expression and emotion and depth and the ability to move someone to tears or elation or to go to Staple and grab that thing cause they simply gotta have that thing cause the photograph made them WANT THAT THING… none of that is quantifiable, measurable in pixels, or has anything to do with maximum flash sync.

Cameras may be the very instruments of the death of photography. Killed that sucka dayd.

Or at least tried to – but missed.

Because there are so many terrific photographers out there that it would be simply impossible to begin listing them. By the time you got to the end of the list, you would have to go back and start again. The amount of times I am knocked out by new photographers work is tenfold what it used to be. This is the glorious age of the image, of the photograph, of the art.

How can that be?

Fact: the world of photography has moved a notch up. And many of us are scrambling up to see what it looks like from that rung.

The bar raised and didn’t automatically take us all along for the ride. We find ourselves again having to earn our position there. Some of us, I fear, will never again stand on the top rung where we hung out and got fat and lazy and belligerent and arrogant and slovenly and so set in our ways that we find anything that youth does to be abhorrent and inevitably evil. We owned it. We were there so long that we never noticed that it became… average.

Being pretty good with a camera is no longer good enough. Being able to shoot something in focus may not be enough. Simply making pretty pictures is not gonna work for long term sustainability.

Because it became simply too easy to do to have any kind of gate for filtering. No top of the line enlarger or killer ass strobe system gonna save our sorry asses now.

So what are the ‘average’ shooters doing these days?

Working hard to tread water… finding additional ways to shoot and make it through the next rent check? Yeah, probably.

And bitching… lots of bitching. And digging in… lots of that too.

It will not serve anyone well and in the end will prove to be a terrible barrier to success.

Devastating really.

And you know who is to blame? Well, besides ourselves…

Time.

There was a time when simply being able to work a view camera, take an exposure reading and make images on large format cameras with the subject in focus was enough. Lots of photographers started businesses with little talent, but a lot of technique.

There was a time when being “good enough” was, well, enough. All the client needed was an ‘average’ shot of a beer opener or a bag of nuts or a Cuisinart. Average was good, average we could do standing on our heads. Average was the result of the camera doing the heavy lifting and our expertise in manipulating the tool.

Technique is not enough to carry us through these days because, well, the techniques we learned are no longer important. New techniques must be learned.

Here, I’ll say it again. It is easier than it has ever been to be technically good. In fact… who cares anymore. Sharp and in focus and technically brilliant is a given. Even teenagers can do it in their garage with dad’s borrowed camera.

Some photographers get out there and learn the new ways and continue on, and some resist and feel it is imperative from a moral point deep in their guts to hold on to the ‘old ways’ in order to jab the metaphorical middle-finger to the “young’ns” who seem to be stealing their lunches. I am not into metaphorical middle fingers myself, I prefer the real thing. Much more natural and ‘organic’ and is so much fun to accompany with some pithy profane word-smithing.

But the bottom line is that the bar has been raised. Not a lot.

A HELL of a lot.

And to be in the more rarefied air above the new bar will take more and more effort.

And talent.

And vision, style, emotion, guts, pain, blood, laughter, failure, elation, and that tingly little spine thingy that happens when you do something and it just screams at you that you nailed it… you freeeeeeekin nailed it.

Yeah… more of that.

Average is gone. It is over. (Except in pop-culture and Hollywood, where mediocrity is a badge to be worn with courage and a jaunty, arrogant smile. Think Kanye West… got it?)

It is painful to realize that when we are looking in the mirror, we may be looking at someone who is not ‘dabomb’ that was once staring back. That all the hard work to get where you are meant something then – and nothing now. That instead of resting on our laurels, we have to once again put on the running gear and prepare for a marathon. We have to train and train and train again.

Again.

And some of us will do just that.

And some of us will not.

And some of us will simply metaphorically flip us all off and tell us that we are nuts and that there is no hope and who the fuck cares anyway.

And a few of us will continue to wonder why good enough sustained us before, but will no longer be, well, good enough.

Hey, I don’t have the answers for you. I only have the view from my seat. If I could tell you what the answer to it all was, I probably would be very rich.

I can tell you it ain’t about the camera or the lenses or the strobes or the triggers or the software

I can tell you that it will be a lot of work. And a lot of fun.

And sheer hell on some days.

So what?

You think it is better in other fields?

Sorry, you gotta get out more. There are actually businesses that are far worse off than commercial photography.

I will leave you with a video.

As many of you know, I am a drummer.

Wait – after seeing this kid, maybe I am a guy that used to be a drummer.

Sixteen years old, and he plays with the ability of a guy who has been playing for decades. There are other examples of sheer brilliance on the net, but this one really stuck out to me. NOTE: you must watch all the way to the end. To imagine the amount of practice that this kid has had to endure is mindboggling.

But there is one thing that we know for sure…

Average is no longer an option.

Just ask any drummer you know.

<h2>NOW WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?</h2>

EDIT:

Just after finishing this post (which was supposed to be about 600 words… sigh) I read this article about Annie Leibovitz.

I suggest you read it… I really do.

“This is an amazing time to be a photographer,” she said. “I discovered things about myself which were really comforting — that the work had a deep well, that it wasn’t going to go away.”

Sure beats sitting around and beating yourself up for things that are out of your control… ya know.

EDIT #2

So I am about to crash and I read this from Jake Stangle:

“You need to approach a photo editor with a preexisting body of work that does not speculate on the fact that you might take really good photographs if you were hired. Your portfolio needs to prove this. It can be 100% personal work. You just need to demonstrate that you can shoot. Your portfolio and website need to be a vehicle that high fives photo editors and wraps its arms around their shoulder and softly whispers in their ear, “hey girl, hop in my Hyundai Sonata, let’s do this, I got you”. 

Simplest sentence ever #1: If you’re not getting calls (or even meetings), your work isn’t there yet. You need to get your work there. You are the only one that can do this. Money won’t help. It could take a couple months, it could take years. When the work is there, the calls will start to come along. But not until you, and only you, get it there. This is a universal truth.

Simplest sentence ever #2: Any time you’re in a rut, you need to know and remind yourself and understand the ONLY way to get out of this rut is by making more work, pushing harder, did I say work harder? Nothing is gonna happen when you slump down. Just lost time and wasted days. So get your ass up and keep hammering, working hard infinitely. Behind every photographer is a really haggard guy or girl with a bad back.

Simplest sentence ever #3: The longer you bitch, the more you complain, the more inactive you are in getting to where you want to go, the longer, bitchier, harder, and more unpleasant it will be. This is the devastating truth. So sack up (disclaimer: I am a feminist), get in your F150, and get r’ done.”

I think, no – I KNOW – you should read this whole series at his site: Here is the link to the last one, you will navigate to the others from there.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

5 Comments

  1. An interesting rebuttal but I fear Don didn’t read all the way to the end where I suggest that we will have to re-invent our photography in order to succeed. That means: get better, get more interesting, etc. The article is not just doom and gloom but an accurate portrait of market trends. I know there are lots of touchy feely art consultants who would have you believe all that matters is the power of positive thinking. I happen to be more of a scientist and believe that sometimes we need total reinvention of a paradigm.

    Don’s idea of extreme “game upping” is probably true for people working at the top of the market. I’m trying to come to grips with what’s happening to the other 99%. And, no question, for a super well established super star this may be a great time to be a photographer. I read the article about Annie’s rediscovery and was delighted that she’s teaching herself to use a digital camera. But come on. If you’re going to argue with me trot out the “A” game, not the 1970’s transactional analysis stuff.

    Marketing works best when you make a serious appraisal of the existing market. “Upping your game” is a great concept. We should work towards it all the time. But not with cotton candy blinders on.

    I talk to the lots of people in the market. They’re not nearly as blindly optimistic about the power of positive thinking as a productivity tool. But an interesting take. Read the last few paragraphs, please.

    And if you still don’t like it maybe you’ll like Charlie’s Guest post from today much better. It’s all bright and cheery.

  2. Kirk,
    It was note meant as nor written to be a ‘rebuttal’ of anything you said. It was a riff on the post by Friedman.

    I read your article to the end.

    I don’t see how my article substantially argues against what you said in any kind of ‘rebuttal’ way.

    In fact, I think it kind of bolsters your point.

    As to the ‘rest of us’ who are NOT the top shooters – I think it still applies. The market in a smaller town will have its own levels. I am not competing with people in Chi/NY. Someone in Akron should be focused on being the best in Akron first.

    All markets have strata. And all strata will eventually play out to levels that rise and fall asynchronously. A photographer who doesn’t raise their game – whether on the national stage or the local arena will be overshadowed by those that do.

  3. OOPs. Then I guess we do agree. But I think Friedman’s arguments pertain to measurable stuff and are not tuned enough for distinctions where subjective analysis and appreciate are concerned. In other words, the bulk of what we do straddles art on one end and commerce on the other, has nothing to do with mass production metrics and so doesn’t fall under that measure. It would be nice to think that everyone will miraculously get smarter all over the globe but, really, if that happens won’t we all just be “average” again?

    Didn’t mean to be too snarly. Getting over bitch of a flu. Life is better today.

  4. Funny thing…

    The same could be said for the field of construction defect consulting/expert witness field. But what has been happening is the field is dwindling down. There is less work and will continue to be because building shut down in 2008. In litigation the buildings do not “ripen” for litigation for 3-8 years. Hence there will be far fewer buildings in litigation in a few years simply because there have been fewer built since 2008.

    The economy is affecting all areas and fields. Photographers are not alone. Until print and web are done and everything is virtual communication I think there will be a need for photographers. Folks that I work with quickly recognize that there is something different about me that puts value in my work. They realize they can’t just snap a pic and do the same.

    I personally got into photography because of my love of it and my facination with doing portraiture. I think that will still be around. Fads come and go and people will tire of being weekend warrior photographers when theye realize there is a heck of a lot more to it. I realized that several years ago, but could not hold myself back from pursueing it as a career.

    Time will tell if I have the skill, smarts, talent, luck and perseverance to make it all work.

  5. Wow-great stuff. SO true. Now that top-notch photography gear is available to the general public, everyone is an “average” photographer. If you can’t create something spectacular, you are just one of the crowd.

    @larryphoto
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