Saturday, 22 October 2011

Originality, Neil Young, increasing numbers and making money.

This is my last day here on Skye in the Highlands of Scotland. A place renowned for its dramatic scenery and beauty.

My wife and I rent a house and have done so for a few years now. I have a set of photos taken on these trips here.
Another thing Skye has is artists of all kinds. There is a very vibrant artist community here. I, naturally, tend to go and visit the photographers who nearly all take landscape shots. This year I have been struck by how similar these landscape shots look- you know, rocks in the immediate foreground, loch or river leading the eye to the mountains lit by either the setting or rising sun, perhaps with some snow. A wee white cottage or a lone dead tree the icing on the cake. Personally, I've yet to capture such a 'perfect' shot and I have no doubt that if I could see one and I was skillful enough to capture it as well as these photographers do, I would take such a shot. But why?
Just to see if I can. Just because it is recording the beauty of the island I visit so often. People buy such pictures. And why not?

Not very original though and in a crowded, networked and technically advanced environment, how do you stand out?

How can you be original these days when there are so many competent and enthusiastic photographers out there (and the numbers keep increasing!)? I was thinking about this last night whilst watching a BBC4 documentary on the great Neil Young who is well known for experimenting, for exploring new forms of musical expression, for putting the music first. Even though one musical 'formula' was highly profitable and popular, it was not to be repeated as far as Neil was concerned - often with disastrous consequences, losing sales and fans. Neil was not trying to make his music popular or interesting, he was making music that interested him, that stretched him, that advanced his craft and got him out of a comfort zone.

Neil isn't short of a bob or two, so having talent, being true to your craft, getting out of your comfort zone and working hard can be profitable, even if you lose fans and friends along the way.

Bland, unoriginal music also survives and makes money - and so does bland, unoriginal art.

Is this how photographers make enough money to live these days - produce the 'goods' that sell but try to be original in your free time in the hope that some people may love your original and personal work? Probably. But I also wonder if other employment is needed such as running courses, giving talks and, who knows, some other part time work.

I enjoyed David Fleet's blog post this morning on the viability of being a landscape photographer (you can read it here, as well as my comment). His post, as well as the Neil Young documentary, inspired this rambling entry today. I hope you followed my train of thought and what I was trying to say. I've said similar things here, here and here.

Please feel free to comment, especially if you are a full time photographer.


Alex Boyd said...

One of the main reasons I started my Sonnets project was a general dissatisfaction with landscape photography in the UK. Many are following in the footsteps of Cornish and Prior and endlessly taking the same shots of the same rocks, trees and mountains from the same locations. I've even seen photographers taking books and trying to make sure they are in 'that' spot.

Naturally there is nothing wrong with this - people want to strive to create the best images they can, and who better to use as reference than some of the best known contemporary photographers? Its also made easier when you can now park in these places and walk about 3 feet to set up your tripod.

My problem with this however is that somewhere as complex, beautiful and as temperamental as Skye is reduced to a series of postcard shots, and I feel that this doesn't do the scenery much justice, and doesn't stretch the creativity of the photographer. If anything I feel that these shots (when taken for commercial reasons) are trapping photographers in an endless cycle of repetition, and that little new or exciting is being created. If anything I feel that these photographers are holding the craft back.

I myself for example have taken countless shots of that most photographed of mountains Buachaille Etive Mor - the difference is I wouldn't try and sell prints of this as I feel that the market is utterly saturated with shortbread tin style images of this special place.

James Dyas Davidson said...

My feelings too at the moment. I see no harm in copying tried and tested, winning formulas so that you can move on to your own style or find your 'voice' in your photography. Imitate then innovate. (Read this recently: )

Where I fall down is failing to study other photographers enough to realise how cliched my work is. Also, I need to apply my brain more first BEFORE I press the shutter. But at least I'm evaluating my work and striving to be better. Most of all, I'm enjoying it at the same time.

Thanks for the comment Alex.

Rob Hudson said...

I'll try to get this to post again!

As I was saying...

I entirely agree with Alex about the current state of much landscape photography and again it was the motivation for some of my recent projects including Skirrd Hill -

The problem lies with nineteenth century attitudes to beauty residing within the complex, and often contradictory spheres of Romanticism and the sublime. Which ignore at least 100 years of art practice in other spheres. Landscape photography seems to plod on, blinkered; to ideas, change, modernity and intellectual examination of any sort. And without that self examination it will remain in a rut.

I feel the only way to break free of the trap of cliché and move forward is not so much to study the "greats" of landscape photography, technique etc, but to study art practice of the past 100 years, to realise what the motivations behind creativity are and to develop our own motivation and our own techniques to realise them.

Suzanne Edge said...

These are really interesting comments..especially following art practice rather than specifically landscape photography greats.
But to be less intellectual and a bit more practical...
The reason I came back to this post is because it's been sticking on my mind recently - the part about whether you have to do other part time work to make ends meet while you follow your path.
It came to me recently that I have been looking at my business the wrong way - I have been expecting to earn a living (by popular work or own artistic endeavour) but also to feed the family and feed the business. How many people start a business (whether it is a shop or online or developing a product) and take a wage from day one? It doesn't happen like that in other industries so why should I expect it to in this one. So I suppose this is why many turn to other work or giving workshops - because starting any business doesn't pay the bills from day one.
It is possible to make a good living from photography (or any artistic medium) but one only makes decent returns (like any other business) by speculating to accumulate - by big investment...and going back to landscapes that investment comes in terms of travel, exhibitions, pr, marketing, website, kit - you name it. This is the case whether your work is popular or off the beaten track.
I think I drifted off-topic - but your post has been making me think...