Pleasing the Critics, Pleasing the Public, Pleasing Yourself

Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico

I’ve observed an interesting state of affairs in photography.  Critics seem to like photographs that are conceptual or documentary – the art value of the photograph is not about the photograph per se, but about a concept that the photograph illustrates or about the thing the photograph depicts.  The public tends to like photographs that are representational and beautiful – the art value of the photograph is the photograph itself, in terms of its appearance, presentation, and craftsmanship.

While these two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s often difficult to produce works that check both of these boxes.  Photographs that are made simply to be beautiful don’t need to present a deep concept or document a particular subject, and often don’t.  Conversely, photographs that are designed to provoke an intellectual response or present a specific subject don’t need to be beautiful, and often aren’t.  Moreover, if a photograph comes down on one side of this divide, it is often saddled with an adverse inference as to the other.  For example, photographs that seek to be beautiful are often dismissed by critics as lacking merit as serious art, while photographs that are conceptual or documentary are often overlooked by the public as objects of beauty.

It seems as if it’s not possible to please both sides of the house.  What’s a photographer to do?

I think there can be only one answer to this question:  make work that pleases yourself.  This strategy certainly avoids the necessity of having to commit to one camp or the other, but there is more to it than this.  The simple truth is, you produce your best work when you are working to please yourself, regardless of how it is received by your audience-at-large.  The image in this post is called “Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico.”  I have a guess as to which side of the house my audience-at-large would place it, but I’m keeping mum about that for the reasons I’ve discussed herein.

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