Friday, May 29, 2009

The Viewer Doesn't Care

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.


Seinberg said...

I get where you're going--to be most concerned with the picture itself--and agree to an extent, but I'm not sure it's accurate to say things like:

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 stormor

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 properlyOr the other things "viewers don't care" about.

I think for many kinds of pictures viewers very much do care about the extent to which the photographer went to capture an image. That's one (of many) reasons Joe McNally gets so much cred: he goes farther than other photographers are willing to go. This self-portrait of McNally at the top of the Empire State Building is impressive (and very popular) not just because of the spectacular view, but because McNally went so far as to get to the top of the Empire State Building. Viewers do care.

In my own work (e.g. here), I find some of the most commonly recurring questions are about how I got those photos, how I got in the buildings, etc. I think viewers certainly care about the context in which the art is derived--people don't view art in a vacuum, devoid of context.

What viewers do and don't care about is highly based on context. An abstract piece has a much lower likelihood of eliciting awe at the lengths the photographer went to capture the image, whereas an image hanging from the top of the Empire State Building or inside some hard-to-reach destination will likely have viewers interested in the story behind the image in addition to the image itself.

Seinberg said...

Funny coincidence: Joe McNally's latest blog post is about a photographer (Drew Gardner) who is a photographer because he "wants to let people into [his] world" and he "wants to take people on the journey" of his photography. This is a great example of when viewers do care about the effort the photographer goes through to capture his or her images.

See here.

Jen said...

For me, more often than not, it's the journey rather than the destination. Of course, having a few winning pictures at the end of the day is a delicious feeling - but usually, just a day out in the country with a close friend is so much fun.

Sandy Wilson said...

I agree with George on this topic. the statement is true that "the viewer doesn't care". In a book I own Called "ART and FEAR", there is the self same statement.

Not only don't they care, viewers of photographs do not believe in photographic truth any more.

I remember a photo taken at the top of the Nat West bank building in London by a photographer who used a wide angle lens mounted on a long pole. The picture was spectacular showing the building and the rest of the city landscape in the background.

He did the job while the building was still under construction, he would never have been granted permission to do the shot when the building was complete.

There was another picture taken from the top of the spire of Salibury cathedral in England,by an official involved in the preservation of the building.

If you or I wanted to do the same shot we would not be granted permission no matter how hard we try to get them.

Joe Lipka said...

I had this discussion many times. It seems that those that are most concerned about what the photographer went through to make the photograph are photographers themselves. Those that are just interested in the image, or what the image means to them, or what the image reminds them of are not photographers. Given the choice, I would prefer to have my photographic audience be those that are not photographers. I say this only because there are more non-photographers than photographers.

Seinberg said...

Joe -- How does it "seem" that way? On what evidence are you basing that? I think non-photographers care about the work/journey just as much as photographers. Other photographers might care more about the issues encountered regarding *technique*, but I've met plenty of non-photographers who care about the work it takes to get a photograph.

Blotz said...

"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 properlyOr the other things "viewers don't care" about."

The viewer cares whether we used "photoshop". Cuz that's cheating. ;)

Joe Lipka said...

Seinberg - I haven't been back to this site in the last few days so I did not see your comment. I have two data sources for my opinion in this matter. The first is a recent pdf publication I sent out to a number of people that are interested in my photographs. The collected responses show two different points of view. The photographers were polite, restrained and restricted their appreciation of the work to a photographic, technical appreciation of the work. The non photographers were more effusive in their response, being more affected by the content and impact of the image rather than photographic details.

The second data point comes from Brooks Jensen, editor of LensWork. His experience showing photographs to both photographers and non-photographers. His experiences reflect the same points of view - photographers want the gory details of the shoot, non photographers want to talk about what the images mean to them.

While I might unfairly categorize the responses of photographers and non photographers, my experience indicates that both types of viewers are affected by a photograph differently.

Now, the details of how we came about to the location and gained access to the various locations that we photograph can be an important part of the photographic project. I choose to view that part of the story as an adjunct to the photographs. I do sometimes include that information as part of my project as an end note or epilogue because I don't think what I did to get in position to make the photograph is of primary importance to the viewer.