As photographers we constantly have to evaluate how good our images are. We do so when we decide which ones are worth printing, which to put in a portfolio, or to post to the web. We do so when submitting for contests or publications. Even if we didn't have to, we do it anyway - having favourite images that we think is our best work, even if we don't show it to friends and family. We evaluate our work when deciding which images are worth a $150 frame or are worth pinning to the notice board at the office.
The viewer doesn't use the same criteria t judge images.
The viewer doesn't care how far we had to hike, or how early we had to get up in the morning, or how bad the rain storm - for all they know, we stepped off the air conditioned bus, aimed our camera and fired off a "snap" which produced the print in front of them without any effort at all.
The viewer doesn't care how hard you had to work the scene or how clever you were in finding the one viewpoint which caused everything to line up properly - most of them assume we found it that way and are willing only to grant that we at least knew a good "snap" when we saw one.
The viewer doesn't care how many hours, how many attempts or to what trouble we went to edit and then make this one print.
The viewer doesn't care about subtleties of paper surface and ink type and depths of the blacks. They don't care that we went through a dozen different papers looking for the one that most perfectly presents our images.
Most of the viewers are looking at the print behind glass and can't even tell whether you printed it on matte or glossy paper.
Only a small fraction of viewers can even tell about careful highlight and shadow control.
All the viewers care about whether the picture works for them, or it doesn't - everything else ranks way down there, if at all.
Perhaps it would be better if prints were presented unmatted and thumb tacked on the wall, complete with blood stains and tear marks so the viewer could appreciate our suffering, but that won't be happening any time soon.
O.K., so the viewers don't appreciate my efforts, so what?
Well, the problem is, we as photographers do appreciate all of the above qualities, especially in our own work.
If we had to get up at 3 am and drive through the dark, hike for miles before sunrise to be in place, on 27 occasions before getting that perfect shot - our appreciation is way out of proportion to how good the image actually is. It is really hard for us not to ascribe to the print a lot more value than is seen by the viewer.
So, the next time we are evaluating our images, we need to try to remove from the equation how hard it was to make the image and concentrate only on the image itself. We may not even be capable of seeeing past our biases and here assistance can be sought from others - wives, friends, other viewers.
Next time your favourite image doesn't get any appreciation from an editor or gallery owner or even your brother in law, remember that the medals are being handed out for the strength of the image, not the sweat equity that went into it.
Perhaps we do need prizes for the best "it's a shitty image but damn it I worked hard to get it". We'd never tell the public but fellow photographers could commiserate with the winners - " you worked so long, you deserved better..." but I suspect that none of use would want to step forth to claim the prize.
Some images come easily, others with great difficulty. Fortunately we can probably honestly say that those who are prepared for luck are the ones most likely to be able to take advantage of it when it comes along. The hard work may not be appreciated by the viewer of a single image, but more than likely our efforts will be rewarded by having more good images to present to the public.