If you've been following along for a while you might have noticed I'm certainly a big fan of camera-jerks, out of focus stuff, lens-whacking, dirty treatments, noise, film grain, imperfections, pretty much all of it. In fact I encourage a whole lot of playing around, experimentation, and going your own way. Please, PLEASE do not take this as some sort of pedantic, all photos must adhere to some pristine doctrine of "perfect" with every shadow, lit, every color calibrated to exactly what was there, and the living shit focus-stacked, life-draining thing that can possibly be done to be valid. I in no way think that at all. In fact the random example I've chose as my target today is just that — a random target. If you happen to like these, that's fine and more a matter of personal taste but…
What's Needed For Success?
Well that's how you define it right? You can define it in lots of different ways. As a photographer you can define success extremely simply. Whenever you pick-up your camera with intent and point it at something you can look at the result and ask yourself "Did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish?". I mean the above in a very strict sense with no outside influence at all. I mean it in a very literal sense. In many cases if you are a practiced professional or have spent a lot of time on your craft professional or not the answer will be absolutely yes.
Now the much bigger question comes along which is "Should I have set out do do that in the first place?"*. In many many cases the answer is absolutely yes as well. In other words once you get past the hump of refining your craft in a particular area to the point where you can regularly and consistently make exactly what you set out to make the hard part is figuring out what you intend to do. For some photographers that are not yet at a point in one area or another it may sound strange but a "successful" photography goes way way way beyond the ability to execute what you set out to do.
In fact it takes far more tenacity to continue down the road of photography when you are no longer getting a charge out of the first part of that equations because your positive feedback is merely figuring out how to marry up the control and technique you need to make what you intend to make. Once you achieve that kind of success in one or more areas of your particular photographic endeavors then there's the hard part — making a judgement call after the fact of if it meets the criteria (yours hopefully) of if it is actually a successful photograph.
Of course there's a lot of other measures as well but I would say those two are the simplest ones and you should have a good handle on those two otherwise you're rudderless from my point of view. One other measure of success is quite obvious. That would be if others deem it a success. This is obviously a fantastic thing right? That gets you fame and fortune to varying degrees. Heck I would suggest that most photographers are completely defined but this gauge for some part of their own journey. Not a great thing if that's the only guidepost which I fear it is becoming more and more that way. That has a homogenizing effect that's quite boring and certainly does not produce anything but fodder for "a market".
Enter Celebrity & The Full-Of-Shit Factor
To one degree or another some degree of the full-of-shit factor is required. I'd prefer none myself. Goes against my makeup. The question is to what degree? Let's take a look at a prototypical example of what one runs across at this point. Actually "runs across" is way to weak a phrase as it insinuates that it's only occasionally when in reality this is pretty much par for the course all day every day.
Let's check what particular ingredients we have on this particular photo example.
- Big luxury brands. Check.
- Gigantic curated audience, quite literally an audience build for decades that can reach millions with instantly.
- Movie star household name celebrity subject.
- Accomplised photographer? Well by definition if you measure success in particular ways.
I want you to honestly asses this photograph. I really do and really try to be open-minded. Try to be objective here. There's two ways to go on this both of which are really biased. Actually true objectivity is impossible and there's far more ways to be extremely biased. On one hand I just gave you the ingredients so you could go with the experts and "like it". On the other hand you may hate all that stuff in the ingredients to such a degree that you despise this on a matter of principal.
Here's an idea to try for both obvious biases: How about trying to imagine a substitution of all the ingredients? That's really not hard to extrapolate right? The only thing that screams at you unless you are really in the know on this stuff is Keira Knightly right? Definitely a celebrity but definitely not of the Marylin Monroe variety or even the Angelina variety where it's almost impossible to substitute a generic non-celebrity into image and have it "work".
So we can put in a reasonably attractive female of generic "no idea who that is" variety fairly easy. There's no crazy makeup or anything. The wardrobe while perfectly fine is not so so so dramatic nor impossible to substitute something generic. Anything else we need to sub out? Oh, gee how about that jewelry? That's pretty easy to from the look of it. Wait a second, what the hell is this picture for? Well believe it or not it's not a cellphone picture in bad light of a celebrity posted on some celebrity TMZ kind of thing. Oh look, there's Keira Knightly. It's an ad campaign picture in Vogue for Chanel's new jewelry line. No shit. Well we can still sub that out as it's not very identifiable, nor can you even tell, nor does it look at all desirable.
So I ask you again. If we de-bias the photograph is it successful? I'll answer that in a second from my own opinion and perspective. First I really need to introduce what Vogue copy has to say about it okay?
This deco graphicism is tempered by Moon’s dreamy and dramatic treatment of Knightley, a masterclass in abstract mosaics of colour for which she is famed. Vogue cover star Knightley, who has now been aligned with the house as ambassador for over a decade, brings a mixture of strict and soft to the campaign shots, evoking the atmosphere of a patron of the early 20th-Century decorative arts that the collection celebrates.
I shit you not. Jesus, I can't keep a serious face with I try to even imitate this art school drivel for randomly bad photographs when I'm going for a laugh. I mean really. I didn't rig this in any way. Really I didn't. There's a bunch of these from the same session/campaign that are actually more laughable. Instead of me picking the most horrible one in my own particular opinion I decided to try to un-bias myself by just going with the Vogue article cover/lead photo. The one they picked to highlight which I can only imagine is the one they believe best represents the above copy.
We'll get back to the question on whether it's a successful photograph or not in a minute but even leaning in towards a "yes" answer, hell even if you "like it", even if stylistically it speaks to you and this is a road you want to go down or whatever you must admit that the above quoted copy is just a wee bit over the top. Strike that, it's actually way over the line. Does this leave any room at all for anything else that could possibly have been done with the same ingredients? Gee, I guess there's no better picture that could have possibly been made, this is it, the ne plus ultra.
I have to say the absolute most successful thing I see is that hunk of Vogue editorial copy. That's truly art in the full-of-shit factory. Jesus, I wonder what would happen if you left that hunk of first opening paragraph out and just used the pictures? Holy shit what if you substituted Keira for someone nobody actually knew? I guess it's success in getting Keira to wear and endorse the Jewelry that's worth something, actually that's the one and only point. I vote for the copy that says. Keira wears the new Chanel shit sometimes (but we give it to her for free and pay her too) and you should buy it too.
This is way too long already but seriously, come at this anyway you'd like. I'm not even going to go near the idea that even part one was actually not what was set out to accomplish. I'm going to pretend for a moment that was a complete success (even though I do have suspicions it wasn't). I have to declare that the second part was probably deemed ummmmm.... no. Why else would they pull out the big art-school verbiage guns? This might actually deserve a follow-up. Feel free to email me any thoughts, discussion, or opinions.
Lead picture me fooling around with slow shutter speeds, focus, and whacked out color with the edge of my iPad mini and red Smart Cover when I was bored a while back and my Ricoh GR was sitting there.