In a comment on yesterday's "Random Excellence" post, "gravitas et nougalis" wrote:

"...right now I'm wrestling with the notion that a lot of 'good' photography I see these days I have seen before."

Right. Gravitas, I think that just means that you've seen enough photography. That is, you've seen enough to realize that there's a lot of repetition.

One of the marks of a true "rank" amateur (the term refers to how you rank, not that you smell!) is that rank amateurs think taking pictures that look like pictures they've seen before is a good thing. That is, if they can take a picture that looks like a calendar or a postcard or a stock photograph then it shows their competence.

Once you've seen "enough" photography, then you start to realize that this competence isn't enough. You start to get bored with the obvious. It's not enough for a photographer to do what lots of photographers have already done. New photographers like to make photographs that work by photographing what many photographers have already figured out are things that work as photographs. If ya follow.

What you need is to scale the heights of anonymous generic competence and come down the other side. What's on the other side? Pictures that are distinctively the photographer's own, in content and style, maybe even technique.

This is one reason why museums and gelleries tend to prize photographers whose work may not be "competent"-looking or anonymously pretty. They, too, have seen enough work, and they recognize individuality and distinctiveness (I'm not saying they're always right, n.b.). But a lot of the work that amateurs love just seems like "more of the same" to the people who've been around it for a long time and have seen enough.

The title essay in my book The Empirical Photographer* deals with this very topic. The essay was originally published (in Camera & Darkroom magazine) under the title "Good Pictures," and it starts out like this:

All the time, newcomers to photography ask a simple question: what’s a “good picture”? How do you tell if a photograph is good or not? It seems self-evident that people who care about photography would be interested in this issue. And while that might be the case, it seems empirically evident that they’re also not very interested in getting the question answered. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll get an obstructionist answer, an answer that puts off the legitimacy of the question: matter of taste? Can’t really say? Don’t have an opinion?

What follows are a number of questions to ask yourself when you're confronted with work. Here's the one that speaks to Gravitas' comment:

• Have you seen it before? If you feel strongly like you’ve seen a picture before, chances are that it’s nothing but a genre photograph, a cliche, one step above a pretty postcard.

The generic is the enemy of good photography. Ironically, beginners and some hobbyists actually strive to make generic pictures, for two reasons: first, because such pictures are competent, and competence is better than incompetence; and second, because a beginner so ardently wishes to be part of the “club” labelled “photographers.” Making “good pictures” is a sort of entry token into that club, or so the beginner thinks. It constitutes a contention that one ought to be allowed to “belong,” and reinforces his or her new identity in his or her own mind. So how do they know what this sort of “good” photograph is? By signifying as “good” a certain craft-competent, slick, generic, corporate style of photograph, for instance from nature calendars or magazine ads or the local portrait studio. If they can take pictures that resemble those, among their more approximate and less competent snapshots, they actually get attention and reinforce-ment for it: comments from their friends like, “Gee, that’s so good it could almost be a postcard!”

Resist this stage. Sidestep it, as you would sidestep dog droppings. We all start there, at least briefly; don’t denigrate (or defend) yourself for it if that’s where you find yourself now—just get past it as soon as you can. To the informed, there are few things more pathetic than a photographer whose thinking about art has been arrested at this early and obvious stage.

I should say here that I don't agree with Gravitas that this is a fair characterization of Vincent Benoit's work in particular. Although some of it is somewhat familiar, I find distinctiveness and individuality in it too. And some of its familiarity is a good thing for me: enough of his pictures hit me where I live that I find the viewing experience a pleasurable one.

Still, I know what he means.


*I'm about to post a second edition, so don't buy this.


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