12.30.2009

The Flickr-ization of photography

Caution: This image may not be acceptable for discussion on some Flickr groups. It's not trendy enough, doesn't use small, battery operated flashes for its main lighting and doesn't show an over lit female model in revealing wardrobe. Moreover, it doesn't list the make or model of a flash trigger. Finally, it's an image that might actually be used by a paying client.




Something evil is happening to Photography (with a big "P"...). It's becoming homogenized by high priests of specific styles. And while homogenization is arguably good for milk and some cheeses it really sucks when it comes to arts and crafts. The problem is that when a style is promoted by one of the "strong influencers" on Flickr people ask for the technical information behind it. In the interests of keeping information free (and driving more and more traffic to their site to get some "click thru's" for advertising revenue as well as justifying display space on their sites.....free?) the influencers eagerly divulge lighting diagrams and step by step instructions. No problem with that but what happens next is the "relentless repetition tsunami". Many people who crowd around cult-like figures tend to be very literal so they end up copying the original image without adaptation or interpretation. As the acolytes spread these copied images they create "laws of creation" that are pushed by the sheer momentum of logarithmic image growth. Laws that decree: 1. Every photo must be lit with flash. 2. Every flash must be battery powered. 3. Every flash must be used off camera. 4. Every portrait must have rimlight or strong backlight. 5. Every photo must include a woman in some peculiar stage of undress or an older person with hopelessly chiseled features. HDR (high dynamic range imaging---sometimes referred to as "Technicolor Vomit"....) seems to still be optional but highly suggested!  All composition must be regimented.

Currently discouraged are images with content, soft skin tones, elegant lighting from large sources and other distinctly anachronistic approaches.  Subtlety has definitely been put off limits.  As has light motivated by reality.

Now, I don't blame the originators of the images. They're just following a business model that brings people in the (virtual) doors to stoke up the furnaces of e-commerce. Their intention is to put another paying butt in a folding workshop chair or sell another DVD to an audience that believes technique is content. When HDRi takes hold the game plan is to become an expert in order to sell knowledge to less gifted

Why should we care? Of what significance is all this to any real photographer?

Why indeed.  I suspect that the trend is harmless for the most part but it creates an unreal idea of the value of raw technique.  Throughout the history of advertising (and that is the primary target for commercial images) the goal has usually been to differentiate your client from the pack by differentiating their public face from the mass of competitors.  It was usually done by taking contrarian positions or showing product or services in a new way.  In a new style.

When Richard Avedon took models into the streets of Paris in the early 1950's it was to differentiate the new face of post war fashion from the pre war convention of the studio.

When Nike began running ads that consisted on a brilliant photo with a discrete logo and nothing else they plowed through a mass of competing shoe ads that showed "scientific" drawings of arch supports and sported wall to wall psuedo technical copy.

When Annie Leibovitz took prominent artists and politicians out of the studio and put them on the beach or in unusual situations for American Express she changed the way people thought about credit card ads.

But, when everyone rushes in the same direction the signal to noise ratio hits 1:1 and it's impossible to tell why any of the images has meaning to their audiences.  In a word, the style has been "Flickrized" and when everyone gets around to doing it the style is already dead.  The leaders have moved on to another style, another technique and another workshop.

I could tell people to be original till I'm blue in the face but to the hobbyist it's meaningless and to the hack it's just another thing to learn.  I can hardly wait to see the workshop that professes to make people more original and more creative.  I'm sure someone will sell it just as sure as I know someone will buy it.  Then originality will be all the rage and everyone will copy the same style of originality.

That's okay with me.  Now, where's that HDR action button again?  New bumper sticker:  "Technical Mastery is Not Art."


70 comments:

Tom Devlin said...

Ha! I love it. Great stuff. Thanks.

Luke said...

You make some good points, Kirk. I am a Flickr member and I enjoy browsing certain groups for inspiration and ideas and making an occasional contribution myself. I've found that Flickr is like a giant high school. You can find some good friends and have a lot of good times, or you can drift aimlessly and easily fall in with the wrong crowd.

I joined one of the "uncensored" critique groups for a short time. It was a big mistake. I didn't help me improve my photos or develop a unique vision. It just hurt my feelings. The saved photos fell into, to me, a very narrow style. Sure, they were nice, but what was I learning? Maybe I have thin skin. Instead I dropped a few hundred bucks and enrolled in a class this spring at my local college of art and design (the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, MCAD).

I have some favorite photographers on there. People debate about his opinions and views, but I will gladly admit to following Thomas Hawk almost daily. He is not a professional, and in his images you can see the joy he derives from taking photos. That's what keeps me interested. There are many others that I could say the same thing about...they have found their basic style, and they keep on working at it and enjoying their hobby.

I think you'd also admit that your opinion is formed by your job as a working professional photographer. It's a hobbyist community. Don't take it as a critique on your style or your vision. Keep doing your thing, and if you feel like sharing with the world, find some groups that appreciate the same things that you appreciate.

That said, it never hurts to challenge one's own ideas. I, for one, like HDR that is done right. Not the technicolor vomit, but the carefully shot and tone-mapped images that capture something closer to the detail and range that our eyes can capture. Yes, it's a technique, but it can be cool!

Michael said...

Another excellent article... thanks Kirk!

Daniel Fealko said...

Kirk, I empathize with your angst on this topic. I used to skim through Flickriver.com looking for the novel and imaginative shot, which sometimes gets in, but now, more times than not, it's simplistic, repetitive nonsense. I would like to think it's Flickriver's photo selection algorithm's fault, but something tells me you are right about Flickrization.

kirk tuck said...

Luke, I don't have anything against Flickr and still have a photostream there but even if I were an ardent amateur I would have to notice that group think drives most people to emulation rather than creation, and I think that's a bad thing. Someone will post that it's the same as learning scales in music but it's not an apt comparison as few amateur musicians make and post albums of themselves practicing scales. If they did it would be a tacit invitation for everyone else to do the same and drive down the industry even further.

Anonymous said...

Tuck is right. The blind allegiance to a style for the sake of style is so anti-art. It's paint by numbers. And if everyone does it then the next generation thinks it's the thing to do!

jefflynchdev said...

Kirk,

Please don't take this wrong, but aren't you the guy that (quite literally) wrote the book on minimalist location lighting techniques using small, battery-powered strobes?

Aren't all your on-location sample images shot with off-camera flash?

Don't several of your (quite excellent) examples use back and side fill light?

Aren't many of the sample images of young, very attractive (but fully clothed) female models?

Don't most of the male executives shown in your book have older, more chiseled facial features?

Don't you expect younger commercial photographers to look at your work and attempt to emulate it as they learn their craft and develop their own style?

Finally, isn't that why you write those wonderful books and take the time to post on this blog?

Just something to think about from a friend (I hope) here in Texas.

Jeff

Kurt Shoens said...

Also, you missed focus on the subject's eyes. Relax. I'M KIDDING.

If you substitute "mass media" for "Flickr," then sure. After all, we all wear compatible fashions, have similar hair styles, and drive identical-looking cars. It's not surprising that the art world, including photography, works the same way.

I'll bet that the "how to be original and creative" workshop has already been done to death. Some things are beyond satire.

Your article inspired me to rewatch a favorite short video: "When I Grow Up, I Want to Work in Advertising" which is of course an advertisement itself (for Monster.com).

kirk tuck said...

Jeff, the style of images in the first of four books is very diverse and shows how to do lighting in many styles. I can't remember any image in there that is unnaturally rim lighted. I do use side fill but not to excess. I would hardly called baby faced Kevin Rollins chiseled. Younger photographers commercial photographers probably think my work is the exemplfication of a fossil period in photographer and in fact I think there is not one pervasive style in the book it's a straightforward treatise about how to use lights in general.

I write on the blog in most cases to get people not to homogenize their vision. I also write on the blog in order to air opinions about trends that I think are counter productive to the business of photography.

In fact, I think that books like mine and LIght, Science and Magic are anti-style by their very nature and show examples that are very straightforward.

I love the small strobes but if you read book number two ( and all of you should pause right here and go order a copy from Amazon...(kidding, kind of...) you'll see that it's a book that also embraces monolights and powerpacks and even flourescent fixtures. In fact, a wide variety of options, without taggging one choice as "the" choice.

Finally, if you look at my third book, on Commercial Photography, you'll find my inclusion of three different photographers as a manifestation of the desire to push originality over dogma. (It's also available on Amazon.....).

To end, I consider all of use friends and welcome critique and feedback. I'm happy you called BS on this and gave me the opportunity to defend.

Best.

kirk tuck said...

Last sentence should read, "To end, I consider all of you to be friends and welcome critique and feedback. I'm happy you called BS on this and gave me an opportunity to defend my point of view.

Best, Kirk"

Don said...

I find myself being somewhat bored by so much imagery these days. And I know what you are talking about with the homogenization of the work by so many forums. Technique is NOT style. Photoshop is NOT style. Black and white or HDR is NOT style. And that is what is the hardest thing to do... understand one's style and make images that are compelling to the viewers.

I do workshops (not many folding chairs) but in my workshops I specifically teach all kinds of lighting, and more importantly I teach the ways to use the tools... not in a "follow me" sort of way, but an understanding of the art of lighting so that the photographer can do whatever they want to do with the light.

I will say that there is a huge interest in creating that '3 light' thing that is such a fad these days. Of course, some of the people who started it aren't doing it anymore...but that is a different story.

It may always be that people want to follow the trends, and whatever... I find I am terribly libertarian on that...I don't care. But it is the lack of emotion in the imagery that I find troubling.

The most powerful thing I could ever tell a photographer - commercial that is - is to be able to do as many things as you can, but do at least a couple of things extremely well. Only in the big cities (212 area code) can you be a total specialist within one style... or at least have a rep there.

John Krumm said...

I've always though of the "flickr effect" is the tendency to create photos for maximum eye impact at a less than postcard size. Anything that creates a sudden ooh or wow works, anything that requires a longer look at the details doesn't. To my eyes it makes the photography look more like it's intended for advertising than anything else. The same thing happens over at DPR with thier challenges. Not that there isn't skill involved, but it does lead to a "seen that" feeling after a while.

jefflynchdev said...

Kirk,

All of your books sit proudly on my shelf and I've enjoyed reading each as it was published. I wasn't calling "BS" on your post but I do think it was a wee bit harsh. I shot tons of trash 30 years ago (and still do, but I usually don't post them) and would have killed for some example shots to mimic back then. Remember how tough it was to find your first "mentor" in this business?

I love your second book but honestly will never go back to using hot lights or strobes with huge battery packs, just because of the bulk and weight (bad back). It's tough enough just lugging around the small strobes, softboxes, umbrellas and stands. I do miss the warm, soft light of the big guns but a large diffuser and a few small strobes comes pretty close if you're careful. And yes, I agree that many of these folks need a lesson in using "fill" light and lighting ratios but blending light sources naturally has always been the toughest thing to learn.

Fads and trends in all types of photography are nothing new. Editors used to call pushing Tri-X to 1600 "cheating" as well as having that "gritty / grainy" look they both loved (for the contrast) and hated (for the grain). Today we have cameras that make ISO 3200 look like ASA 125 did in the 70's. I see tons of HDR trash on Flickr but like TV commercials, I tend to skip over them with hardly a thought.

As for the chiseled look, I was actually thinking of Dave Brown.

Jeff

Ray K said...

Well said Kirk. I think a lot of techniqe is being confused with having something to say. Kind of like deciding that if you can drive a nail well you must be an architect.
The two books you mention are the ones that get read and studied here often, LS&M and yours .

John said...

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for posting this as it made me think seriously about my own 'stuff'. I'm not a full time pro, but do make a nice side income with photography. I'm doing it because I like to, not necessarily because I want to make a living at it.

I'm one of those who have learned a lot from some of those more "influential" type folks on Flickr. As a matter of fact, you are one of them. While I admit that I too have blatantly copied some of those folks' styles, I did so with the intent of learning new techniques. I also enjoy keeping tabs on what my favorite photographers (some on Flickr and some not) are doing, and if I see a shot that I like, then I try to figure out how it was done, so I can learn that technique, not necessarily to be one of a homogeneous myriad of duplicators, but to further along my own skills.

The fact that I felt a little personally targeted by your post, just made me think about what you were actually saying, and I do see your point. I hope I can find more originality in my own work, but if it wasn't for places like Flickr, I would have never found you, your blog, or bought your book. ;)

Always a fan and thanks for making me thing.

David D. said...

Kirk,

Good thoughts and right on!!

I for one am sick of the over-processed, over-saturated and over-sharpened work flooding both online and print media. But unfortunately what sells and attracts (i.e.,makes money) is a quality determined by the lowest common denominator.

For a breath of fresh air take a look again at the work of a Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, Imogene Cunningham,....no tricks no gimmicks.

David

Shawn Collie said...

Thanks for this, Kirk! I am glad that there are still people out there in this industry willing to say what they really think about the current fads and trends in photography. It seems like there are so many cookie cutter images lately.

Briana @ Tenth To The Fraser said...

I make no claims at all to be a photographer, let alone with a capital 'P' ... but I will say that to the masses of amateurs on Flickr, imitation/emulation is how they are teaching themselves to be better. They begin with the technical competency and when they have achieved a certain level of ability, that's when they can aim to be "original." I don't see why this is a problem.

Anonymous said...

Kirk,

I seem to be biased in your favor on lots of points! This is another one.

I briefly joined one group that thought a photograph could not have soul or be true art unless it was in black and white. I happen to agree with Paul Simon's line in Kodachrome "all the world looks worse in black and white."

While I admire lots of work done in black and white, (yours included) for me color is the heart and soul of life--your pictures of San Antonio with the EP2 I found were terrific, for example. To arbitrarily exclude color from possibly being art is silly, to me. The same is true if the rule says using (or not using) flash is or is not art. It is good to know technique, but it is better to be creative.

One thing I don't like about the Internet and sites like Flickr is that they can allow people to gang up in odd ways. Group think in any area is usually not artistic. Many of the kinds of photos you describe as flickr-ized, also seem emotionally empty.

With a lot of the HDR excess, I think the question is often, "why did they bother to HDR it, when the basic picture is bad?"

Maybe the reason for all this is that technique is much easier to talk about and share than creativity. Figuring out if you are creative is not easy, and finding people who can help you grow creatively is also tough. So we take the line of least resistance and add off-camera flashes powered by battery....

I liked your earlier post about traveling to keep your eye fresh. Suspect we all need more of that than of Flickr photostreams.

M.

Derek R said...

Don't be discouraged about flickr. At first glance, it's a vast wasteland of HDR, hypersaturation, and selective colorization. That's what the unwashed masses love, so that's what bubbles to the top of flickr-explore. However if you look deeper, you'll find some pockets of really stellar photography. Just follow your flickr friends favorites and groups, you'll eventually end up in a nice place :)

Poagao said...

The practices flickr's popularity have brought to the fore, i.e. lack of self-editing due to the lack of restrictions on space and the necessity of having images that look intriguing at postage-stamp size, can often have a negative effect on the development of one's photography. I find it ironic that many people are under the impression that they are doing the opposite.

Flickr wasn't always this way; it's only in the past few years that these phenomena have really begun to have an effect. I agree completely with your viewpoint, and have been trying to think of ways to combat the deliterious effects in my own work resulting from my use of flickr.

Bill Beebe said...

I'm just trying to document life around me with my photography, and then weave a story (of words) around those photos.

Janne Morén said...

"I've always though of the "flickr effect" is the tendency to create photos for maximum eye impact at a less than postcard size. "

The screen is a different medium in its own right, not just a preview of what the "real" printed image will be like. Any medium has its strengths and its weaknesses. Fine detail and subtle gradations is not its strong suit, for example, while strong contrast, bold colors and simple shapes are (of course, those points are equally valid for woodblock printing too, and nobody's decrying that medium).

You create your work to suit the medium, and today most images today are probably destined for the screen, and are never meant to be printed in the first place. So what you do is make sure there's plenty of contrast (through bold lighting, for instance, that would look overdone on paper, and plenty of unsharp masking), strong, clearly differentiable colors (since your image will be seen on screens with very different gamut, brightness and color balance), and little reliance on detail that will be lost to the viewer anyhow.

Yes, a lot of the stuff today doesn't look very good. But I suspect this really is a collective groping for the visual language that is appropriate for online images, as opposed to images on paper.

Rockhopper said...

Hi Kirk,

I am sure you have made no friends with the high priest of cult photography,

However I have yet to see the OCF reaching the shores of commercial work. When I have been booked the client invariably asks for the image to be lit beautifully. I have trialled the OCF style with my work alongside the traditional portrait style. The traditional portrait invariably sells more than OCF.

OCF is a exciting quick fix to weak photography skills.

On my degree course we had one final test, we had all our slrs and lighting kit taken of us. We were given a cardboard 36 frame camera with built in flash.

We had to do a CEO portrait, a commercial premises shoot and a technnical beauty shot of the companys main product.

We had 12 hours to do it in and we had to approach the company as a professional photographer and get these people to sit and agree to us for this shoot.

Imagine the horror as you reach in your billingham bag and pull out a cardboard camera.

Everyone on our course pulled off the job, we used every trick in the book to get the lighting right (No Lightmeters).

Now imagine the flickerites being given that task. They will fail.

This is what seperates us pros from the OCF flickerites, the commercial sector know this and that is why i am not worried.

I have stopped commenting on the flickr photographs as it is a wasted effort. I have had the misfortune once to do a negative editorial comment on one of the OCF demigods flickr thread. It was then I learnt that the wrath that follows has nothing to do with photography its sales and the lucrative revenue it creates.

The only thing that jars me was that I hadnt thought of it first.

I am working as a professional photographer and that is all I wanted to do and I learnt the hard way which is why I get hired.

Great post and thanks for sticking your head above the parapet.

My family and I would like to wish you a Happy New Year.

Rich

Geir said...

I think you miss one big thing here: Creativity grows out of knowledge, and improvisation comes from having things to improvize from. I also notice the copycattendencies on Flickr, and at the moment I'm nauseating from all those picutre perfect landscape images at ISO100, f22, ND8 filters with tripod and long shutter speeds. But it's when I learn what is possible that I can try out my own things.
But maybe this wasn't your point?

Dave said...

Trying to sum up my feelings here. As I read your post, which I enjoyed as I always do. I thought ouch that's quite a barb thrown at the Strobist group. I never thought of Dave as looking for the most Click Thru's. And maybe I misinterpreted your direction. But I do see the point of it's all a business and another revenue stream. I subscribe to and read several blogs daily, yours obviously, as well as the Strobist, Rick Sammon, Chase Jarvis and several others.

Way before Flikr and digital one of my pet peeves was going to a seminar and seeing audience members take pictures of the display prints. Then they would hound the presenter for every last detail of how it was shot. I felt like hey buddy don't you have a creative bone in your body. If not you are in the wrong business. I was always there to get inspiration not to become a clone.

To me one of the best presenters was Dean Collins, he taught you the science and then challenged you to use it in every day situations. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us on a daily basis. Dave

Danie said...

I agree with you Kirk. Let's be more original, come 20-10. Actually inspired me to wite something on my blog too and I referred to your post.

I hope 20-10 is a great year for you and your family!

channel_mixer said...

90% of everything sucks. An even greater percentage of people who call themselves photographers on Flickr know nothing about photography.

www.flickr.com/photos/andrerabelo/70458366 says everything on this topic.

Poagao: I find that printing has a nice way of focusing your attention.

alohadave said...

This tirade against Flickr is tiresome. If you don't like what it represents, don't participate there. As for the group that you are referring to, the whole point of that group is off camera flash. Posting to the group requires lighting information for other people to learn from. It doesn't claim to be anything other than that.

You also need to remember that the vast majority of people on Flickr are not photographers. They are average people sharing their pictures. Flickr is not the be-all/end-all of photography. It is one of the more popular photo sharing websites.

Andreas said...

Kirk, you mix up two things here.
One thing is art. Copying is not the way to artistic styles or so. Well. Flickr does nothing bad in this respect, you just have loads of pictures you can look at, which was not possible before the internet. Now, you don't have to look. I think most people roaming there would not have done anything pre-internet. So what? More people have more possibilities. The mass is mediocre (me included), as it always nothing new, just more visible today.

And then comes the economic argument: all the epigones drive down the market. But here is my point: this is not the problem of plagiarism and flickr but the problem of the capitalistic nature of the economy, which is based on making products for the market. But there are things that are elusive and not products by their very nature. With the advent of digital media this rupture line becomes visible and with the ability of endless reproduction it should be clear that so called intellectual property does not truly exist, and photos, music, and also more abstract concepts like artistic styles are no products. But the economical and political system does not embrace the fact (of course not), since it would require a revolutionary change of the system itself. Instead it tries to artificially restrict the digital flow and exchange of thoughts and the like, and force volatile things into a market-based corset. This culminates in examples where people are more concerned and put more effort to protect their works than to produce and share them. And they must, because in the current economy everyone who is income-dependent must exploit his/her own work. But again: the root of the problem is not the ability to reproduce everything, but the efforts to restrict that.

kirk tuck said...

Alohadave, This "tirade"against the effects of Flickr is long overdue. It was a great photo sharing site until people got obsessed with the idea that the technical stuff behind the photos was more important than the photos. The emphasis on technique alone has fueled a situation on many forums where people endlessly copy each other. That was my point. Not that I don't like what it represents. Posting the same lighting information over and over again is like an obsessive person washing their hands over and over again. It's become a neurosis.

Showing people new and different ways to look at things is a great and lofty goal. But the way to become good is to go out and do it.

kirk tuck said...

And yes, I get the irony of someone who writes technical books denouncing the endless repitition of technical stuff. And I understand that many people don't agree with this point of view. It's just an opinion.

Anonymous said...

@kirk - totally agree with everything you have said, with the exception that I have always referred to the phenomenon as the "Dustindiazation" of Flickr. To be clear, I don't blame Dustin any more than I blame Dave Hill or JoeyL or any other photographer whose work seems to be endlessly (and rather unsuccessfully, in my opinion) copied.

Flickr's problem is that it inherently has a design flaw...

Flickr is nothing more than a social networking site. People collect contacts, groups, etc. To the extent there is a "meritocracy" (whether you, I, or anyone else chooses to agree with it or accept it), it consists of the number of views your pictures get.

And that is precisely the flaw...

Views are being used as a proxy for artistic value or creativity. "Interestingness/Explore" (which inherently connotes something different than simply being "popular" is not a product of artistic merit, but rather...wait for it...popularity, number of views based on number of contacts, etc.

My inner peace came when I finally realized that Flickr really is nothing more than a variant of Facebook/MySpace, etc. and just as ridiculous as it is to think that the number of Facebook friends is somehow an indicator of the quality or quantity of real life relationships, so too is it ridiculous to think that Flickr views have anything to do with the price of tea in China as it were...

@alohadave - out of fairness, you might consider disclosing the fact that you are, in fact, a moderator of the group that you so vociferously defend. I'm sure a number of us already know that, but it clearly goes to the question of bias/agenda.

Gary Gardiner said...

Technique over content results in too many scantily clad women, too much HDR of rotting buildings and town squares, excessive use of PS actions and Lightroom presets, and few lessons learned about what makes a great photo. Technique can be important but it's not the substance of a photo. Know your subject and tell their story. Make sure your technique matches the content.

Brian said...

opinions are like (to put it more nicely) butts,
everyone has one.

I think flickr is like anything you come across in life. You take it for what it is worth to you. If you don't see the value in it, don't use it. easy enough.

Professionals are called professionals for a reason. They can master there chosen craft and choose to push themselves into new and creative areas if they so choose too. If people like it, of course they are going to try to copy it, or put their own interpretation into it. I don't see any harm in that. Some would say it's flattering to the original creator.
that is life. Some lead, some follow.

I don't see the reason to go on and rant about something that is natural.

Tom said...

I find it SO interesting that it was the Digital DLSR's that allowed this to really, not take place but to grow so rapidly and now the leaders are shooting with film......

Bruce L. Snell said...

BINGO!

Matt Kowal said...

In recent years, visual cutlure has simply exploded. Also, distribution is no longer a problem.

Editing and narrative have always been the crux of the matter.

John Krumm said...

Channel_Mixer,

What you say about printing I'm finding to be true. My wife surprised me with an Epson 2880 for Christmas, and I've been printing like a fool for the last few days. Such fun, and the larger size really shows what works, and what doesn't. Very satisfying, though I feel the usual urge to show them to everyone who visits (about as close as I can get to flickr feedback without displaying in a gallery and hanging around while people look...).

Anonymous said...

Great article Kirk,
I agree with your point, but it isn't Flickr's fault IMO. This conformist attitude is becoming rampant, and can be seen (excuse the extreme example) in the way people openly support police brutality by offering the suggestion that you dont get on the wrong side of the police.

The visuals you speak of in Flickr are copied and held aloof by so many, forgetting to find their inner artist... it is the sugar coating... the immediate satisfaction from looking at an image. The problem isn't emulation, the problem is emulation without experimentation... Cubism, Constructivism, Impressionism, Post modernism, Pop art... these all contained emulators, and art/design still does. The proliferation of reality shows, the use of "handheld" camerasyle in cinema... it really goes on and on.

I think photography is experiencing this now thanks to the proliferation of cameras and software alongside the dramatic cost reduction of production... remember is costs nothing but time to take a digital picture, make some adjustments using a pirated PS software and upload to a free hosting site.

What concerns me is that many individuals holding Marketing positions are falling into the trap of "liking what they have seen" and not allowing professional creative individuals to experiment on their behalf. This is a problem with all areas of creation.

Family Guy summed it up great with the room full of TV execs "brainstorming a new show" when one suggests a plot with a young, single, professional living in New York working for a Magazine. When one Exec crys out that this is the same crap over and over... he gets beaten to death with a picture frame...

It is the conformist attitude and the way we police ourselves into conformity that is the real danger. If we were more expressive and less concerned about what others think, we would be better off.

Abraham

SS Buchanan said...

Kirk, harsh.

I don't think its the _aim_ of the people who 'started' these nameless movements to get everyone being unoriginal.

Similarly, I think a lot of hobbyists do the 'paint-by-numbers' as part of the learning process.

Don't expect to paint a masterpiece without knowing how to apply paint to the canvas!

Cheers,
Scott

Bruce Walker said...

As a fairly regular Flickr user ... I agree 100% with you, Kirk. :-) I've wandered around Flickr looking for enlightenment and found a lot, but one has to spend the effort to search and weed out the undesirable.

I continue to use Flickr, but it's just a small part of my photography diet. Of course your blog forms a part of my diet too. :-)

alohadave said...

@Anonymous, yes I am a moderator in the group. While I don't consider my defense 'vociferous', I stand by it, which is why I linked my public profile to the post.

@Kirk, part of the nature of Flickr is the balkanization of subjects. Strobist focuses on technical description of lighting setups. Black & White groups focus on B&W pictures, and etc. There are groups for just about every camera model ever made. Does that mean that every group is focused on technical details? Not at all. Many of the groups I'm a member of have no technical requirements, just subject matter requirements, and have rare discussion on technique.

I think that it is much easier to discuss technical details than creativity. I tend not to discuss creative subjects online because it's not something that I feel works well in online discussions.

kirk tuck said...

Alohadave, Thanks for both comments. I get your points. I'm not singling out the Strobist group, although it's a good example of the S/N ratio heading toward null. I don't blame Flickr for the homogenization, it comes from reinforced levels of groupthink. By all means, derive what you can from the the resource but be on guard against the feedback loop.

Jessica said...

Hey, Kirk, I appreciate your bravery in expressing a negative and potentially unpopular opinion. So many photographers only blog about positive opinions, so thank you for being honest.

Not sure I agree with you here, but since I hardly ever frequent Flickr, I will certainly take your opinion into consideration. My only question with regard to your thesis here, is, surely one can work with similar technique to another photographer and yet still be creative in execution and the final product? Seems like you're saying that every picture that's lit the same is of exactly the same merit, as long as it's not the first one and therefore 'innovative.'

But good discussion points here, nonetheless.

Marshall said...

Good stuff to think about whether one agrees or not. Of course, some of the push away from subtlety has as much to do with how and where photography is now used, not just the masses of it that are posted online by amateurs.

Nonetheless, I think this actually echoes criticism leveled at other groups previously. For example the PSA/Camera Club "rules" of photography and style of judging also pushed a certain pervasive homogenization (still do, though in a narrower group than flickr reaches). What has changed is the pace of the feedback loop you describe. Imitators appear ever faster, and styles thus last even less.

As with anything, it's HOW we use it that matters. Personally, I love that if I want to learn about a technique, there are more sources than ever before. One could argue that such enables photographers to move more quickly beyond that stage. However, evidence supports your point (I think) that many photographers don't.

Then again, when I start making photos that I feel are transcendent of my learning process, then I'll feel like I'm focusing on content, message, and expression.

Dan Fogel said...

I respectfully disagree with you about Flickr, but think your thoughts are quite valid. Flickr is like a giant, illustrated photography mall. It is a microcosm of what is good about the information sharing in this generation of the Internet Age (do people still say that?). Curious about a camera, lens, type of film, manner of processing film, or, yes, a way to light a photo? Search away and see just what that looks like in photos, often with commentary in seconds. The opinions of others is never a substitute for experience, but let's face it, we all read reviews of everything, hardware, software, movies, coffee shops, you name it. I blew the dust off my old tanks and reels in 2009, bought some great film and chemicals and started experimenting. I love that I can see how someone in Portland's result with say Rodinal and Fomapan 400 looks compared to mine or that upon looking at page after page of Leica taken photos, I can conclude for myself that the photos on the Trip 35 group are superior.

Where I agree with you are in the so-called "curated" groups where getting a photo in is either a mystery (where should the egg, robin or VW bus be in the photo?) or no mystery at all (topless women with large breasts wearing sunglasses). There seems to be a sameness in the very groups that claim to seek originality.

I guess it all shakes out like so many other things in life, some will lead, many will follow, and the chasm in between covers nearly everyone else.

Happy New Year.

kirk tuck said...

Dan, Thanks for a well reasoned response. I mostly agree with what you write. I guess there are many roads that lead to Rome.

Jim Goldstein said...

Great post. Sadly Flickr is merely the latest head of this trend. Before it niche focused photo forums created the same issue. Flickr is just wildly more popular.

Creativity isn't just confined to vision and execution... it's also figuring out how to stay ahead of the trends and if you're lucky... defining them.

Pascal Depuhl said...

You're so right, but look at the bright side of things - when everyone is rushing to the new (fill in your favorite photo technique here) - it becomes easier for you to actually produce work that meets your clients needs.
In the past months I have read so many posts about bad economy focusing photographers to revisit their photographic roots by going out and shooting some personal work - or that we all should learn to become videographers - or what ever. Me personally I have had the best year ever in 2009, putting my nose to the grindstone, focusing on my customers - giving them exactly what they need at a price they can afford and working every day.
So where I do appreciate a nicely crafted HDR photograph, I'd rather learn about something that my clients actually need.

kirk tuck said...

Thank you Pascal, You hit the nail right on the head. And that's a lesson for me as well. I appreciate you sharing your success and insight.

Happy New Year. Kirk

Mahbubur Rahman said...

Kirk,

As much as I agree with your main point that style and originality should be the main focus, I do not agree with the statement that techniques and methods are to blame. Techniques are your arsenal, your ammo or bag of stuff that you have to put across the message that you want to put out. The goal of a persons photography should be to communicate, and evoke emotions and basically be able to speak what the photographer wants - the techniques and methods are what he/she will use to accomplish this goal. If the result is just an oversaturated/backlit/rimlit disaster, then the message didn't come across, or the technique wasn't appropriate to use... or the photog just doesn't communicate very well. I'm not a fan of blanket statements that say "HDRs suck!" or "3 light setups suck!", because there are good strobe lit shots, and bad ones; original ones and unoriginal ones. The result should be judged on whether the image was able to effectively communicate the photog's vision and was able to move the viewer and elicit an emotional response, and NOT on what technique was used..

All the best :)

Anonymous said...

Uh oh. Strobist backlash.

Technical Mastery may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. See if you can fit that on a bumper sticker.

Don said...

Been thinking about this post a lot over the last few days... I think that it isn't so much that Flickr is a service, it is that it allows, or creates an atmosphere that allows, homogenization of the work. And usually nothing good comes from that. But I don't blame Flickr. Or the photographers who range from snappers to pros... it is the process itself.

Since there is no gatekeeper, or system, anyone can post anything anywhere anytime. Without a gatekeeper a professionals hard work can be shown next to a guy who scans porn. It is the nature of homogenization... all reach the basic lowest denominator.

The ability to post outweighs the reason to post, or the thought to whether posting is even a good idea. And there are so many reasons for people to post that are not compatible with each other - an again... no gatekeeper to keep it on track.

And then the viewer comes in and has no idea whether they are looking at someone who thought they were putting up a 'great image', or an image that was meant to share with grandma.

I here that Flickr is supposed to be a place of learning. No. It isn't. It also is not meant to serve as a proxy portfolio, or a MySpace for amateur photographs. It is none of those things. And it is all of those things. It is what we make of it.

The forums become more devilish in their structure as they aggregate like minded people, with wildly divergent levels of ability. And that can be a totally challenging notion... that everyone has the same power without the same knowledge. Posts run the gamut from 'what do I buy' to questions of copyright for a working pro. And every one has the ability to answer... whether they know anything about each question or not...

I know, I know... in the era of stupid "we all have a right to our opinions" and "no one is better than any body else... it's all a matter of perspective." Well there are wrong and right answers in the world, and pulling the correct out of the flawed is also not Flickr's strong suit. It has, as they say, no dog in the hunt.

I have a flickr account. I have a stream there. I don't care a damn about how many 'contacts' I have or whether an image gets commented on. Hell, I know how to get comments... half nekkid girl. Are there some amazing photographs of non-nekkid girls that get a lot of comments? Sure. But the ratio would probably back me up.

So is it the Flikr-ization of photography, or is it the populations lowering bar of confusing expectations that make us wonder whether or not photography as an art has a future? I don't know.

As was once said, 'the medium is not the message". McLuhan was right then, as he is right now.

Some people don't even understand the quote. For them, the medium IS the message. And I say... fine. Good luck with that.

JadeGreenImage said...

Flickr isn't the problem, it is the people without imagination with cameras that's the problem.

Technique and technology doesn't make a photograph, a person's brain does.

Oh and I hate HDR - technicolor vomit, I like that.....

Patrick Smith said...

Hi Kirk,

Hmmm... I seem to be one of the indirect targets of this article because I post all of my technical details, describe in depth what I've done, and have many millions of views on Flickr. However, I do landscapes. Type 'california' for example into Flickr and reorder the 9 million photo list by the reviled 'interestingness' algorithm and you'll find me.

I will say that imitation is one of the best ways to learn, and there is an explosion of photographic learning going on at Flickr and around the world. Once these people learn, they can go out and find their own vision, but in the meantime, you will see lots of imitations and followers. Just go to the average school and you'll see the same thing. Yet somehow people do survive imitating algebra formulae and still manage to found innovative companies and the like.

You can not compare a thousand pros from 20 years ago to a million new and learning hobbyists today. I would say that there are probably 5-10x more photographers shooting at what would have been considered a professional level 20 years ago. Sure, there are millions of bad shots produced each day, but there is much more cream at the top than even 5 years ago.


Cheers,

Patrick Smith

marrngtn (Manuel) said...

Enjoyed reading your article.

Flickr was one of the fuels that initially powered my enthusiasm for photography. But as time has worn on I have found it to be less interesting. I still love photography but am having "Wilderness Period" I think.

kirk tuck said...

Imitation is the best way to learn the same thing over and over again. Just like algebra. Thanks for making my point for me Patrick.

I've seen this definition all over the web: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity."

And no, I will say I saw more interesting work five, ten and twenty years ago than I do today. The cross influence milks the life out of most stuff. You know, "add an ounce of HDR, mix in some clarity filter, throw in a bunch more saturation....."

Maybe you just weren't looking at good stuff 20 years ago. Kinda like my son coming up and telling me about a song one his current bands did called, "Can't get no Satisfaction". I guarantee the original was much better.

Peter Bruce Photo & Bruce said...

Kirk
love to buy your book but now ever Man and his dog is a photographer and we in the digital world have devalved photography as an art form I don't have the money. That being said happy to send you a pair of shoes for your kids (what size) who else is not making money because we have open the door to every one. In 2001 I made $55,000 profit on film and processing WTF happened, these stupid people called photographer let it slip away without a question.What have we done and the quality has gone to, there is still a reason Hollywood still shoots on film. I love to move forward from VPS to T max (film for those who don't know) People out there would you like $55,ooo.
Cheers
www.peterbrucephotography.com

Joshua said...

I'll add my name to the list entitled 'Photographers Who Left Flickr For The Insanity.'
One of the best things I think anyone can learn in life, is that unique does not mean original, and popular rarely, if ever, means worthwhile.

Great article. I always aim away from the crowd's bullseye.

Jim Lafferty said...

Than you Kirk. Dead on with everything.

- jim

Chris Blackburn said...

Kirk,

I just bumped into your article through a friend on Facebook. I read your article laughing the whole way through, read all the comments, arguments and counter arguments. Then I read your article again. While I didn't laugh as much the second time I still found it a good read.

I have a photographer friend that has been in the wedding business for years [decades]. When we talk he complains how photoshop actions are ruining photography and RAW skill/talent is not enough for everyone anymore.

I also read many trade magazines; both the free ones and my own personal favorite subscriptions. Many of the free ones say if you're not with the tide you'll be swept out to sea. While there is some half truth to this, they too are preaching what you fear. Homoginization.

Only in the last 5-8 years has photography had this type of a problem. Back in the film days photography was limiting in so many ways. Time, money, time [yeah I said time twice damn dark room].

Not only has technology and better manufacturing techniques made it easier for anyone to move into photography, images have become so ubiquitous that people have become numb to the power of image.

As with anything that has mass popularity there are leaders and there are followers. This is sociology 101. 95% of people are followers while the remaining set the trends for everyone else. Its not surprising that something such as flickr would generate this type of playground school mentality. There's a reason they call it playground mentality.

One thing that great photographers that feel they are under the vise of these new unruly photographers is that you still have a leg up.

1. Fads. Fads fade. When the popular way to shoot something becomes so commonplace and over used people will move on. Where will these newcomer photographers be left? With a one trick pony.

2. Skill & Creativity. Lets face it. Most people are lazy and would rather have someone else do the work for them. They lack both the skill and the creativity to create an original piece of work. When their facade finally crumbles ... their foundation of dirt will be revealed and the wall will be shown to be a prop that held up their cheap veneer.

3. Intuitive technical knowledge. Technical knowledge is one thing, but knowing how to use it and make it work for you in different ways in different situations is pure gold. You can't shoot everything using the same technique as the last shot. Not only does this become boring and repetitive for your current clients, but for your future clients. If you don't know how to [really] use what you have ... it shows.

In short [sorry for the length], great photographers should not worry about a booming population of copy cats, the thing with booms is that the bubble eventually bursts.

Anonymous said...

Patrick Smith - just looked at your flickr photostream. Your stream makes Kirk's point even better than he did. You are everything that is wrong with photography today.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!!!

Ty Michael said...

I think too many people forget photography is an art form and everyone does it for their own reasons.

Not sure what Mr.Anonymous is saying about Patrick's photostream but I think his images are awesome. So what if he likes to tell people about how he did it. I would love to have been in any of those landscapes. To shoot them would be an honor. I can only hope to travel to locations like those.

When you think about it some of the technics that these copycats use takes a lot more work to do. Take HDR for instance. Multiple shots and multiple software apps. They do it because they like it. Hell take a look at what the people around you a wearing. I wouldn't be caught dead in some of this stuff...lol but they like it.

Less crying and more art.....

Josh said...

I love Flickr, but could sum up Explore's pages pretty easily.

Use little amazon danbo cardboard box character with small aperture.
Use selective color to make it pretty.
Use tremendous amount of saturation.
Have otherwise pointless picture with arabic writing.
Take picture of semi-nude woman.
Take picture of nude woman.
Make a political statement.

...wa la! Explore!

Forman Photo said...

Sorry Kirk, I'm with Briana on this one.

With the advent of virtually free photography (ie: digital cameras and phones with built-in cameras) and sites like Flickr, we have not hundreds, nor thousands, but millions of new photographers sharing photos. I see emulation as a logical step to moving away from standard point and click photos for most of those people as they seek to improve on this skill.

Taking a creative photo comes naturally to few, and many seek to improve with no idea of where to turn. I do not advocate a world of 'sameness' with regards to photography, and I often share thoughts on Flickr encouraging creativity. I can not hold these neophytes accountable for what they are just now starting to explore...

Your posts are stimulating and engaging, thanks for allowing us to join the conversation!

Anonymous said...

This really is the same old argument that's been going since Plato debasing art. Making photos is more accessible to people and that's good. Like in all art throughout history, there is a vast, vast majority who are followers and who are technicians. What's the point? It has nothing to do with Flickr. That's why some artists stick out because their doing something interesting. We all cannot be originals. That's the nature of being original.

So, as an artist, designer and amateur photographer, I've heard the same complaint- everyone's a robot copying the latest trend. I only argue that's the nature of art creation. It's not unique to photography, nor Flickr.

kirk tuck said...

If it's an attempt to be personal and creative it's on the art side of the ven diagram if it's just to go thru the motions because everyone else is doing it it's on the therapy side of the ven diagram. Be aware, there's more than one diagram......

michael said...

I have read the bulk of the comments to Kirk's post and am still digesting to be honest.
It would seem to me that there are a lot of people taking photos but only a few talented photographers out there.
Additionally, I would say that if you are one of the few truly talented photogs you are not too worried about the millions of people taking photos behind you.
I would imagine that the great painters of our generation are hardly worried about the millions of people that sketch and doodle on their kitchen table note-pads.
Be honest; if you are concerned about the "unimaginative/uncreative" photog whose work is as good as your own then it would seem that you probably need to improve. It's that simple. Why obsess about the short-comings of others?
Do the great chef's of the world fret and concern themselves over the "SAMENESS" of all the fast-food restaurants around the world? NO! Their own creations drive the mass trends. Can anyone say "chipotle" or "mocha-late" or "angus-beef"?
Current trends are current trends. If customers want a certain product then deliver it. If you dont want to deliver it or cant then leave them to others that are willing.
The bottom line is that this is art and much of it is consumer art. Consumer art follows trends. Watch the Antiques Roadshow-not only does it prove that art and consumer art follows trends but it also proves that trends can be a wonderful tool allowing the collector to date and value the work.
I don't know...just some thoughts.