Celebrating Mediocrity and the Homogenizing of Creativity

Really? Wow, that is a mouthful!

Warning: Editorial content coming in 3, 2, 1 . . .

In the past I enjoyed looking through various online photography forums, but lately it just seems to be a frustrating waste of time, at least for me.

It appears that the largest portion of forum users are inexperienced hobbyist photographers who are either unable or unwilling to “self-critique” their own work. Now I understand having a difficult time being able to step-back and review your own work, it’s not an easy task to objectively critique something you created. Being able to objectively evaluate the positives and negatives of your own photography can take some discipline and practice, and even then most photographers, including myself can still struggle at times.

Click the “continue reading” link below to read the rest of my rant.

Have no fear, the internet will cure all that ails you.

It doesn’t really matter how poorly composed, improperly exposed or snapshot-ish your images are, you can just post them to one, or several of the fine internet forums or social media web sites dedicated to photography and inevitably dozens of the hordes of weekend hobbyist photographers will pat you on the back and tell you what an amazing photographer you are. Your photos will garner so much attention that you may consider giving up your day-job at the dolphin waxing parlor for an exciting career as a fabulous professional photographer.

Never mind that most of these people are, for the most part very inexperienced photographers themselves and lack the experience required to accurately judge the quality of a photograph.

“A lot of people don’t have any idea what makes a good photograph”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that all things of an artistic nature are subjective as far as determining what is good or bad. The phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” comes to mind here, but I believe celebrating mediocrity is a race to the bottom. When we reward photographers for posting family snapshots and poorly composed images, we are essentially telling all photographers that there is no value in creativity and taking the time to “make” beautiful photographs is no longer needed. Random shutter clicks will get the same level of comments as an image that required serious thought and creativity to produce, so why bother.

I know what you are going to say here. You are going to say that this is just sour grapes on my part because someone didn’t like my photos and that is why I am ranting. No. That is not the case. What I am seeing is, in my opinion hobbyist photographers posting random snapshots and getting a lot of “nice shots” and “great set, my favorites are 1,3,5,7, & 9” type comments, when comments regarding the fact that it’s a photograph of the back of a person’s head, or poorly composed or grossly underexposed or, god forbid completely out of focus are nowhere to be seen.

Scott Kelby, a well-known and well-respected photographer who has published a number of Photoshop books and has a video/TV show called “The Grid” called for photographers to submit images for blind critiques in one episode (The Grid: Episode 47 – Blind Critiques #2). Upon reviewing a number of images submitted for review he was amazed at how many photographers were trying to make landscape photos in the middle of the day under very harsh lighting conditions and how few hobbyist photographers understood simple rules of composition, like the rule of thirds. To quote Scott Kelby, “a lot of people don’t have any idea what makes a good photograph” and that was Mr. Kelby’s nice way of saying most of what was submitted for review on his show sucked.

There, I said it, it’s out there and I can’t take it back. There are a lot of really bad photographers out there and most of the comments these bad photographers are getting from other bad photographers on internet forums and social media web sites is giving them the impression that they don’t suck as bad as they really do, in fact many of these uninformed hobbyist photographers think they are “good” at this whole photography thing.

Now I know I am not the greatest photographer in the world, in fact I may only be an average photographer and on some days and with some subjects I am a less than average photographer so I am not looking at this as “I am so much better than everyone else” attitude, but at least I can tell when I am looking at a bad photography. What frustrates me and what I don’t understand is the people who look at every photo posted, no matter how good or bad it is and leave simple comments like “nice set” and “great light” when in fact the images posted are really underexposed and lack a cohesive theme and really are not very good photos. The people who leave these comments have huge “post counts” and are celebrated for all they bring to the “community” and the forum with their sweater than sugar, kinder-gentler-world comments.

Excuses like, “the sun was in my eyes” and “my dog ate my homework.”

When confronted with comments like “this would look better if you shot it at either sunrise or sunset” most people come up with some sort of excuse that runs the gamut from limited budget and traveling time to family commitments or gear, and it doesn’t matter how you slice it, an excuse is just that. Don’t waste my/our time with your silly excuses, if you went to the Grand Canyon and unfortunately arrived at noon so you jumped out of the car grabbed a few snapshots and thought you would share them, just stop. I gotta tell you, it doesn’t matter what your reasons are, it’s going to sound like an excuse. The way I understand it the masthead over the internet photography forum doesn’t say, “come here and share your poorly composed snapshots.” I think it’s more like “come here and share your best images and get useful feedback to help you improve,” if everything posted, even the worst of the worst garners positive feedback, haven’t we done a dis-service to photographers everywhere by celebrating mediocrity?

If I am a photographer and I have a passion for my photography such that I make a commitment to have my gear all clean and ready to go beforehand and, scout out locations and what time of day the best lighting is going to appear, go to bed early and drag myself out of bed before sunrise to get to the location and set up and be ready to make photographs at just the right, and my photos are looked at with the same “value” as the guy who stops on the side of the road and grabs a random snapshot. Well then we have just told all photographers that they shouldn’t even bother to make the effort, and we are quickly racing to the bottom of the aesthetic scale of quality and creativity. When I hear you make excuses for your photography, “well the only time I was able to be there was at noon,” and “I had to take care of my sick grandmother, so I couldn’t process the photos.” Don’t tell me why you CAN’T or DIDN’T show me how you used your creativity to overcome the challenges of the situation and “made” excellent photographs. Otherwise I really don’t care to view your “outtakes” and 6 month old family snapshots, if I wanted that I could just recall the countless hours spent as a child in a darkened room viewing vacation slides while some family member describes in great detail their visit to the worlds largest ball of string . . .  You remember how telling that family member how much you enjoyed their great slide show would only encourage them to come back and force you to sit through another 2 hour slide show of their glorious visit to the world record cow-chip tossing contest way back in the day.

I want to believe.

When I look at other photographer’s work I want to be inspired, hence the link on the right simply titled “Photographers that inspire.” I want to look at the work of other photographers and say to myself, “wow, those are amazing images – I want to push my skills farther and learn to create images like that!” What I don’t want is to look at photos and say to myself, “meh, or really? that photo is out of focus or wow, who knew someone could screw up the exposure on a shot like that” those things just don’t inspire me to push my ability to “make photographs” to new levels.

These days when I look at the quality of photos posted on photography related social media sites and internet forums I just get depressed. It makes me sad when I see the bad pictures people post as a representation of their work, and I get frustrated when I read all the “beautiful shots” and “great set” comments because I know that the celebration of mediocrity continues and it is dragging the quality bar down, down, and even farther down for the huddled masses of hobbyist photographers out there.

Yeah, I know no one is forcing me to look at these social media and internet forum sites, and if I don’t like it I should just stop looking at them. Well, for the most part I have stopped, I just don’t see any value in taking the time to plow through hundreds of threads for that oh so rare golden nugget that is a well composed and inspiring photograph. Occasionally a decent photographer will take the time to post some good images and I will find myself guilty of adding the ever popular “great shots” and “nice set” comments if only to encourage the photographer to continue to produce high quality work and give other photographers examples of type of photos they should work towards.

Yes, I get that everybody has to start somewhere, and yes I take mediocre snapshot-ish photos all the time, the difference is I don’t post them here or show them to people as a representation of my “best” work. I might show them to a trusted friend or colleague to get some pointers on how I can improve, but I will never understand how showing bad pictures to millions of random strangers on the internet has any value to either the aspiring photographer or the millions of random strangers on the internet? Maybe it’s a generational thing, or a “just the way the world is today” kind of a thing, either way I just don’t see the positive value in this practice of encouraging and celebrating mediocre photos on the internet.

Stop the insanity.

To conclude this very, very long text-intensive post let me just say this one thing: STOP!

To all us aspiring photographers out there, take some time to look at the work of photographers that inspire you, and learn to evaluate your own work. I know it’s difficult, and you and I will make photographic mistakes from time to time, it’s what we learn from those mistakes that will help us grow as photographers and become better at critiquing our own work.

And to all those nice people out there who think they are helping aspiring photographers out there with your “positive, happy, upbeat” and “nice photos” comments, you are doing a huge dis-service to all those aspiring photographers by encouraging the photos that are NOT a representation of their best work.

Keep fighting the good fight and pushing your abilities to new levels, swing for the fences with your work.

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3 thoughts on “Celebrating Mediocrity and the Homogenizing of Creativity

  1. I have a lot to learn about photography and I’m grateful that friends give me opportunities to take pictures of them and at events. I always cringe a little though when they call me a photographer, because I know I’m not at the level of a professional. The pictures I take turn out ok and I take each opportunity as a learning experience so I can perform better the next time. However I do often wish for more in depth feedback because I know there is so much for me to improve on. I see examples of work all the time that are truly great. I’m not there yet. There have been a few times though I’ve received well thought out evaluations when I’ve posted on photo groups I’m a part of on LInkedIn.

    I will admit that I have been guilty of posting “nice work” comments, but those are usually given to pieces that I think are truly spectacular and I would be hard pressed to find a fault.

    • As a photographer and creative person, it doesn’t matter what level you are, there is always something new you and I can learn. With this post I hope some folks will take the magnifying glass and look at themselves (and their work) a little more closely and objectively.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

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