On Body of Work, Recognition, and Justification of Work Product
Anna dropped a doozy on me a week ago. She told me she was going to be away from Hong Kong for three weeks. Naturally, I asked her why she had this sudden compulsion to go for such an extended leave - being the overly concerned blog-overseer that I am. Well, she said she wanted to spend the holidays with her family, since her Christmas fell after the New Year on the Orthodox calendar.
Well... that was unexpected.
Being one Anna short of a full blog post, I knew the odds were stacked against timely new content on the blog. What am I to do, with my partner-in-crime away for such an unconscionably long stretch? It's not as if I made new content in advance of her absence. How could I - with her impromptu weeklong escape to Thailand early December for a music festival, then immediately followed by my yearly retreat to Northern Japan? We never made the time.
But as a consolation, Anna didn't completely abandon the blog. Being the responsible person that she is - or as much as young people could reliably be - she recommended her friend Judit to fill in for the interim.
From a personal perspective, I do feel a sense of misguided responsibility to post content onto this blog on a weekly basis. I suppose I feel this way because I don't want to disappoint. Apparently, there are sufficient followers to this blog to suggest the content is meaningful in some way, which I find misplaced and amusing, given my many goof-ups. But joking aside, having an established following has demonstrated something to me. The work product of this blog has strangely made me a recognizable photographer, despite my efforts to remain under the radar.
Now, let's be brutally honest. The pictures I post on this blog, albeit technically and compositionally proficient, aren't particularly unique or stimulating in any sense of the imagination. Week after week, it's more or less the same type of image capture. To distill what I photograph in the most clinical way, it's typically a photo series documenting a visually pleasing model sashaying down the runways of Hong Kong's bustling streets, all for the purpose of demonstrating or accompanying a topic of discussion.
And yet the recognition continues to grow without any undertaking on my part, other than the act of creating content. It's like what that mysterious voice whispered from an Iowan corn field out in left field.
Though to be fair to my limitations and often predictable photographic series, is it any more predictable or limited than what is often widely admired by the general public? Why is it that certain photographers are more recognized than other photographers? I mean, can you truly say that Steve McCurry is a better documentary photojournalist than a lesser know photojournalist of equal proficiency, like Khalil Hamra? Or better yet, can you truly say that Ken Rockwell is less proficient than the esteem and most venerable Ansel Adams in landscape photography? Well... outside the darkroom that is.
I know I am being deliberately facetious in going against prevailing accepted perspectives on photographic appreciation. Even Mr. Rockwell would likely dispute equalling his hero in such a wildly lopsided comparison - and at his expense no less. But, I'm trying to make a point. Why is it that some photographers are more widely accepted than others, despite photographing more or less the same content? I mean, war is war, nature is nature, beauty is beauty, and fame is fame. How is it that one photographer's reality is better than another photographer's reality, assuming similar levels of technical and compositional proficiency?
Then the answer came to me, while reviewing the year end site analytics of this blog. But first, let me take a step back to provide a more thorough and expanded explanation.
If a photographer has no body of work, there would be no reason for recognition - since there wouldn't be any reason or cause for recognition. If a photographer has limited body of work or has a body of work that isn't consistent, there would be insufficient reason for recognition. But if a photographer has sufficient and consistent body of work, then an argument could be made to begin consideration of recognition largely because consideration has been earned.
In my case, this blog has an established body of work that is both sufficient in number and consistent in photographic genre, technical competence, and compositional proficiency. Whether it's any good, that's another discussion. Critical mass of consistent content has led to word of mouth and subsequent growth of viewership, which in turn has led to some manner of recognition as suggested by the site analytics. I mean, it's not as if the viewership of this site is coerced into visiting from the vantage of the proverbial shotgun union. According to the data, visitors do come willingly and repeatedly on their own volition.
Granted I have not paid my dues as a photographer, unlike the Mr. McCurrys of the world. I'm not delusional to seriously believe I'm in the running in any side-by-side comparison. I have not risked my life in the remoteness of the Afghan hills, let alone been granted any of the opportunities afforded to these widely recognized photographers like Mr. McCurry. I'm just a blogger creating entertaining and demonstrably relevant content for photographers and photo enthusiasts alike.
However, who is to say my body of work could not become as established, if given the same opportunity as Mr. McCurry. Or more on point, who is to say the body of work of any presently unknown documentary photographer could not become as established as Mr. McCurry, if given the same opportunity? In reality, there are many photographers with similarly extensive bodies of work, but lacking in the same level of recognition enjoyed by Mr. McCurry, Mr. Adams, or any other widely recognized photographer. Take Mr. Hamra for instance.
Why is that? What determines recognition?
Well, a strong body of work on its own is insufficient in determining recognition. By itself, it can only provide a visual argument positioning a photographer for consideration in being recognized. After all, a photographer's body of work is a just a quantifiable measure that demonstrates proficiency and experience. But, what good is body of work if no one knows about it. It's like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. There can be no recognition if no one cares about the photographer's body of work.
Consider the case of Vivian Maier. Because she never shared her work during her lifetime, no one knew about it. Only posthumously did Ms. Maier gained the recognition she rightly deserved when her exceptionally extensive body of work was finally uncovered to the world. Having said that, I suspect that Ms. Maier's journey towards recognition isn't quite the example most living photographers would jump at the chance to follow. Personally, I don't believe her body of work would have warranted recognition during her lifetime, despite how profound it is today.
That said, converting body of work to recognition isn't easy. It's not a task which photographers can realize on their own. Like I said earlier, body of work can only position a photographer for recognition. In the end, recognition can only be made externally by others. So for example, if Mr. McCurry didn't cut his teeth as an award winning war photographer in Afghanistan - through his repeated exposure in Time Magazine - he wouldn't have had the body of work to position himself for recognition. If that were the case, no one would have cared about his Afghan Girl, because, it would just have been another random portrait of an Afghan girl.
Recognition can only be earned if people find a reason to care about a photographer's body of work. For whatever reason, the Afghan Girl made an impact, as did Ms. Maier's incredible story. As for my own experience with this blog, familiarity has made a growing readership care about my content creation enough for repeated site visits. Plus, I suppose it doesn't hurt that Anna makes my content creation more approachable - not that she was much help this week. But in all due fairness, Judit filled in without a hitch.
In the end, why does recognition and body of work matter? Well, once photographers reach this level of achievement, they can leverage recognition to justify their work product. As such, they're at a position where they can push the envelope in their content creation with enough of a following to make a noticeable impact - whether creatively, expressively, or even procedurally in documentary practice. In my opinion, this is what developing a consistent body of work should be working towards. And in some way, I suppose this is why I'm doing this blog. I suppose I'm trying to work towards making some kind of difference - one day - despite my many goof-ups.
With that in mind, can you really blame me for being a concerned blog-overseer? Besides, I'm just following the voice that I hear. If I build it... this blog that is... well, you can figure the rest.
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 35mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH I. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Only the second to last image has been cropped for composition.
Also, special thanks to Judit for filling in this week. Anna is away visiting her folks for another two weeks.