Photo Consumption, Conformity, and Copying in Landscape Photography

Note: I initially wrote this post about one site in particular but have since revised it to reflect broader trends in nature and landscape photography. 

Landscape photographers have been engaging in a lot of dialogue about the state of major photo-sharing sites lately and for good reason (many of the discussions have been on private Facebook pages about individual photographers and photographs, but here is a link to a recent post on the topic).  These sites (like 500px, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and others) are having a strong influence on the landscape photography community and in the views of some, including me, this is not a wholly positive development.  I am weighing in and discussing some of the arguments that others have made on this topic because I find this influence to be damaging to the direction of landscape photography overall and harmful for individual photographers who feel the strong pull to conform because of a site’s dominance.  And even though specific sites could be used as examples, my points below serve to illustrate much larger trends in photography overall. 

As a fellow photographer reminded me in an email dialogue on this topic, the culture on dominant photo sharing sites isn’t going to change.  So why bother even talking about this?  Because photography and the sharing of photography should be a positive, constructive, and enriching experience.  I have heard from enough new photographers to know that the culture of certain websites can be highly demoralizing and a single website should not have the power to stop budding photographers before they even get started or deeply discourage talented photographers who cannot get traction on the site. 

Sand Patterns

PHOTOGRAPHY CONSUMPTION

Today's dominant photo sharing sites have effectively turned the appreciation of photography into an act of consumption. For example, the fact that a user can like and favorite a photo without even knowing who took it on one major site seems so thoughtless.   By allowing users to expend little more than a second’s worth of effort in interacting with a photo, these systems facilitate mindlessness, the promotion of only the most eye-catching photos, and a quid pro quo culture. 

When viewing photos becomes little more than a popularity contest, most of the thoughtfulness and meaningful dialogue disappears.  In my own experience, this turned into one of the most unappealing aspects of posting photos to such.  Photography is my most important endeavor and to have my photos reduced to a thoughtless V+F, w00t!, amzing – wow!, or pls tke look at my site - thx! style comments was demoralizing.  I would rather receive no comments on an image than a bunch of meaningless comments designed to get me to return the favor.  This superficiality, which permeates many aspects of photo sharing today, diminishes the value of a photograph and does nothing for the viewer or photographer in terms of developing a connection, promoting dialogue, advancing learning, or experiencing genuine inspiration.  

Joshua Teee

CONFORMITY AND COPYING

When I took up landscape photography in 2008, the Nature Photographers Network (NPN) was a robust, diverse, and mostly supportive community and included photo sharing, image critiques, and a discussion forum.  Many prominent landscape photographers participated in a community that also included beginners and intermediate photographers.  The dialogue was generally thoughtful and the site felt like a community.  As the internet changed, some photographers have moved away from NPN for a variety of reasons. Still, I base what I want from the landscape photography community now in the experience of being part of NPN then: 1) a diverse range of styles were represented and supported with the community showing appreciation for photographers whose work fell across a wide continuum from conceptual to documentary, 2) respecting a broad range of subject matter from dramatic landscapes to quiet intimate scenes as having similar value, and 3) facilitating the sharing and learning among photographers of all levels.    

Compare this community to what exists on today's dominant photo sharing sites. These sites are essentially an echo chamber for one style of photography – strongly colored wide-angle grand landscapes with prominent foreground elements that feature epic conditions at often familiar locations. There is little opportunity for the appreciation, discovery, or elevation of photographs that fall outside of this dominant style.  Beyond conformity, blatantly copying popular compositions and processing choices is encouraged through the voting systems that reward such images. If you can recreate a well-known, popular photograph, you have a good chance at receiving praise for your creativity, personal vision, and photographic accomplishment even if all you did on your own was trip the shutter.  If one basic tenant of an artistic endeavor is personal expression, many of the photos on photo sharing sites are expressing little more than a desire to copy what is popular, attract attention to oneself, and bend nature to fit one ideal of perfection.   Additionally, when all a photographer hears is how awesome they are from within the echo chamber, the desire to learn and critically evaluate one’s work and choices becomes a low priority.

There is room in landscape photography for this kind of photography/digital art.  I personally appreciate the talent and skill exercised by some of the individual photographers that are most popular on these sites and I sometimes take the kind of photos I describe above.  In my view, however, the site would be far more rich and useful if there was room for and appreciation of the much broader continuum of work that exists among landscape photographers.  The best photography sites should cultivate individuality and encourage creativity, not conformity.  Because these dominant sites are shaping so many newer photographers, the continuum of acceptable and interesting work seems to be getting smaller which is the antithesis of what an artistic community should encourage and desire. 

Water Lines

COMPETITION

The competitive aspect of present-day photo sharing encourages all kinds of interesting behavior and again, the results are not terribly positive. While this is not a post about image manipulation, it is a related topic because a subset of dominant photographers seem to want the best of both worlds in their pursuit of the ever more perfect and thus more competitive image.  They want to be able to present their photography as authentic because authentic photography seems to resonate more with viewers and thus gets more votes, all while significantly manipulating their images behind the scenes without disclosure.  Mountains are getting more perky and jagged by the day, cascades more perfectly arranged, skies more navy blue and magenta, and clouds always nicely radiating from a central point.  Rather than viewing the act of photographing nature as a special privilege, it is viewed as an entitlement and nothing more than a stop on the road to micro-celebrity. 

Getting an image on the front page of a site or 1,000 likes for a photo have become measures of accomplishment and while this is an understandable goal for an individual photographer, it becomes a sad state of affairs when magnified as a reflection of landscape photography today. Because one-off popular photos are rewarded, the idea of developing a personally meaningful body of work or a diverse portfolio of images that goes beyond the greatest hits seems to be becoming a quaint notion and irrelevant goal.  This competitive aspect also encourages the formation and nurturing of cliques, with some sites feeling more like high school than a community of adults sharing the results of their artistic pursuits. With mutual admiration societies forming, the members are able to promote each other’s work and fuel the echo chamber even more.  (Rafael Rojas just published a helpful essay on this topic, which can be found at the end of his newsletter). 

SOME PARTING THOUGHTS...

So why does all this matter to me? Simply, I feel like there is no place for me to gather with other like-minded photographers online in a way that goes beyond photo consumption.  With most of our photography friends scattered around the country, this lack of a place to connect with others online, share ideas, receive thoughtful feedback on images, and learn from others feels somewhat isolating and very different from the communities that existed when I got started in landscape photography. 

These photo sharing sites are not the cause of all this but rather the vehicle and are just mirroring the larger cultural trends related to social media and attention-seeking over thoughtfulness and depth.  And, my complaints are the reasons such sites are popular to many photographers so any change whatsoever is highly unlikely. Yet, after watching a few dramas unfold online over the last few weeks and seeing the fallout discussed on Facebook, I just do not feel like playing along anymore even if no good alternatives exist for the kind of community I am seeking (although some niche communities with positive aspects do seem to be developing on Facebook).  While this is one of the most exciting times to be a photographer, it sometimes also feels like one of the most disheartening.