The biggest problem facing any photographer today is the sheer quantity of visual representation flooding the world, filling up every waking moment of our lives and quite a few of our dreams.
So, at the end of ten years taking street photographs would you rather have ten great shots that are ignored by the world at large or one thousand merely good shots which bring you a measure of fame and fortune?
It’s a worrying thought — almost as worrisome as running a competition for best-kept gardens. (See my featured image above — not a street photo, but all the winning gardens have to be visible from the street. Smiley Face).
As regards my question, I think most people would opt for fame and fortune, bearing in mind how difficult it is to sustain enthusiasm for an activity if you’re rewarded for it so infrequently.
I disagree. In any artistic endeavour, quantity never beats quality. Imagine you are a museum director and someone brings you a shoe box with a one-of-a-kind artefact, the only surviving product of a craftsman from the past. It’s a masterpiece and you put it on display. Then another person walks in with a large box full of similar, but less well executed works. These lesser works lack invention, show little variety, and all of them have minor flaws when compared to the masterpiece on display.
What do you do? It’s obvious. You put the lesser works into storage for examination by scholars and you keep showing the masterpiece. Scholars trawl through masses of documents and images seeking the truth. To make the point, here’s a shot I took of a crumpled figure (I call him “The Scholar”) emerging from a secondhand bookstore, laden with books. His is an arduous task, perhaps even more labour-intensive than that of the artist.
Minimal Output, Maximum Fame
Many painters have acquired huge reputations despite having produced a minimal amount of work. The Venetian painter Giorgione who died at the age of 32 left just over a dozen works, only five of which survive. Yet his impact on the history of art was so profound it reverberates to this day because we can see his influence in the work of later artists.
It’s easier to be prolific as a photographer than as a painter, even if you’re using large format film cameras. With a smaller camera, the street photographer can take a thousand images in a day. In digital there’s minimal cost — and the more pictures you take the easier it is to justify your initial expenditure on equipment.
Yet getting fifty great shots in a lifetime is a huge achievement. David Bailey (who took fashion photography out of the studio and on to the street) once said: “Everyone will take one great picture. I’ve done better because I’ve taken two.” Tongue-in-cheek, no doubt, but you get the point.
Now we come back to the phenomenon of “image overload” with which I introduced this post. Great photographers like David Bailey have the judgement to be selective, but Instagram users click and post repeatedly without regard to their pictures having either longevity or intrinsic quality. Snapchat is even more casual. Click, post, automatic delete. It’s as though the world of images has become as ephemeral as — more ephemeral than – life itself.
The old adage: “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is short) no longer applies. At least, it doesn’t apply if you classify the billions of photos taken every day as a form of “art.”
But now there’s another problem. Among billions of photos there are bound to be one or two — or even a hundred or two — that could be rescued, enlarged, put on a wall and widely acclaimed as art.
In fact, in the distant future, a man will walk into a museum with a dozen Instagram images taken by the same person — and the museum director will be shocked into silence. “How were these missed at the time? This artist is a genius! Let’s praise him to the skies!”