Why We Love Bad Photography

- - Working

Expanding on a story in Salon entitled “Why We Love Bad Writing,” by Laura Miller, the blog 1/125 applies the same logic to photography and asks why people prefer Chase Jarvis over Alec Soth. For literature it comes down to this nugget written by C.S. Lewis in “An Experiment in Criticism”:

a reader, who is interested solely in the consumption of plot, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

If it requires more effort to consume, many will not bother with it. Think about a story crammed with words you don’t recognize. Taking the time to look those words up in a dictionary adds considerable effort. And, if you consider spending your free time developing your taste for finely crafted prose, you really need to be committed on another level to make that kind of investment. The same applies to photography. Developing your taste is no different than appreciating great literature, food or wine. You need to experience and study it to gain understanding.

What troubles Nick Shere of the 1/125 blog is that with “photography, the situation is somewhat more dire, because it is much, much harder for viewers to move freely between the “unliterary” photographic realm and the “literary” photographic realm. There is hardly any middle ground between them, the way there is with books. Instead of a middle ground, there is a chasm with hardly any bridges across it.”

It’s a great thought because there’s a lot that can be done to create bridges across the chasm and I wanted to point this out to photo editors, because I’ve been in those arguments about photography with editors where factual trumps sophisticated, but I’ve never thought to turn it on them with a literary example. The two articles I’ve linked provide plenty of ammo to do that. I’ve always believed the only way to engage readers is to challenge them. High dollar advertising will always prefer engaged readers over hits. Nick goes on to say:

To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment, and one which few people are homesteading.

There’s plenty online dedicated to clichés, hopefully more people seize the opportunity to make more bridges.

Thx Santosh for the tip.

PS- My favorite sites for expanding my knowledge: Conscientious, BAG, B, AD Coleman, David Campbell, Notes on Politics, theory & Photography, DLK Collection, and the many photographers who occasionally write about their work.

There Are 88 Comments On This Article.

  1. This is a very important conversation that everyone involved in the photo industry should be taking up. Photo editors should feel free enough in their workplaces to articulate the artistic or stylistic reasons behind hiring one photographer over another, but I hear that isn’t always the case. Either through hierarchical concerns or time crunch, discussions about photography become less and less about vision.

    If challenging a reader literally requires a dictionary or a master’s degree, that’s one thing. But I truly believe that all viewers, regardless of education, respond viscerally to images. They may not notice “bad photography” if the content is there but they recognize good photography when they see it. A good or even great photograph can convey bigger concepts behind the story or a theme that reaches the reader on a different level than the text. Therefore, the response to the story is more complex and engaging.

    Thanks to Rob for sharing this and thanks to Nick Shere & Laura Miller from 1/125.

  2. I fail to see why someone would want to compare one writer/photographer against another … Art, like fine wine, is a matter of subjective taste — in some instances, an acquired taste.

    Each writer/photographer may have their own unique vision. Just because they view things differently does not make one better (or worse) than the other.

    Jonathan Franzen is a great author, story teller, and master of the English language. Stieg Larson is a great story teller. The former is not necessarily “better” than the latter.

    • @Lou Janelle,

      And some wine is very, very bad. How can we be sure that it’s the good stuff that makes it into the category of ‘fine’ wine? Someone must be prepared to compare one one wine against another. Subjective it may be, but unless someone with a good nose is prepared to make that judgement call, a great many of us without the time or inclination to judge may be left unwittingly drinking the bad.

      • @Matt Henry, people with good noses may be able to taste the difference between a fine wine and a shitty wine.. but I can get equally as drunk on the crap and enjoy it just as much (or perhaps even more). It depends why we consume what we consume. Are we doing it for taste, or are we doing it for effect?

        • @David Drake,
          Ha! Yes indeed. Sometime it’s nice to forget the taste and concentrate on the volume!

    • Valerie Close Evans

      @Lou Janelle, Thank you for your comment. This article was seriously starting to annoy me.

    • @Lou Janelle,

      And as it is with wine, the less refined your taste is, the sweeter you like it.

    • Andrew Molitor

      @Lou Janelle, I actually have no problem making value judgements about what’s Better. If you have a specific purpose in mind, you can fairly judge “better for my purpose” as ‘Stieg Larsson is better for a light mindless read to relax me at bedtime.’ This does not, in my opinion, translate to ‘all writers are all equal’.

      Stieg Larsson is worse than some other writers, I claim, because taken over all reasonable purposes, he delivers modest value for only a few less important ones. Now we’re in to a potentially infinite regress of ‘but what purposes are more important than others’ and as you can surely imagine, I can answer each layer of the regress in much this same way.

      Anyways, it’s glib to say ‘everything’s all the same anyways,’ it’s not useful in any way that I can see, and I think it’s simply wrong.

    • @Lou Janelle, some people would say that Franzen is overrated and dull. Personally, I could only read half of The Corrections. at some point, I thought to myself, do I really give a shit if anyone shows up for Christmas? No. The literary world certainly has a penchant for regarding high-grade mediocrity as something worth celebrating. And I’ve worked in publishing for twenty years.

      Also, there’s an aspect of bad writing that is sometimes overlooked. I’ve read publisher’s slush piles, so I’ve been exposed to really, some of the worst writing in English the human mind can produce. Larsson (or perhaps Larsson’s translator) is merely competently mediocre. But when you get down to the truly transcendantly bad, sometimes what you get are radically unfiltered glimpses into the author’s psyche, which are illuminating in ways that even the best “good” writers rarely achieve.

  3. You really can’t compare the two names mentioned realistically. The only thing that ties them together is that they happen to use a camera to create. Calling Chase Jarvis’ work “bad photography” is ignorant to the amount of work and skill it takes to pull off large productions. I really appreciate both Chase’s work and Alec’s for completely different reasons.

    Popular styles of photography evolve and change. Chase is seemingly successful because he’s good at tapping into what people want to see.

    When you choose to not make things palatable to the tastes of the general public, you won’t be as popular… I have a constant internal battle about that myself. Popularity/business VS what I really want to produce.

    • @Brent,
      This I would say is one of the fundamental problems with the production and consumption of photography; that people equate the amount of work and skill invested in a particular photograph with some sort of merit. It’s not dissimilar to claiming that we should enjoy a film because the budget was big. It really shouldn’t be relevant to the emotional response a picture can generate.

      And even if we do accord merit to large scale productions, I’d still be inclined to agree with the editor of this piece… Chase has done well because of the efforts he’s put into his blog, not his photography.

      • @Matt Henry, Chase absolutely has done well because of his marketing efforts, including his blog. In fact, if he hadn’t done so well we would, I’m sure, be trashing a different commercial photographer. Chase’s work obviously does generate a positive “emotional response” for the intended audience (those considering which memory card to buy for example.)

        I’m sitting here laughing to myself because I’m defending Chase Jarvis… ha. I don’t follow his blog because it has nothing to do with me or my work. I think it’s overly self indulgent. However, I do think he’s very good at what he does and respect his skills as a photographer and a marketer.

        He DOES produce good, dynamic, commercial photography. He’s not creating “art” and he doesn’t pretend to be. There is nothing subtle or understated about what he does but it’s effective and people like it.

        Most people in the US are never going to find value in the people’s work I love like Araki or Sally Mann or Jan Saudek. Who cares? I kind of like that the rest of the world doesn’t see through the same lens as I do.

        Who are we trying to convert and why?

        • @Brent,

          It’s not about conversion, just about encouraging people to realise that there are alternatives out there. It’s great that people are enjoying Justin Bieber’s records, but I’d hate to think that people could go through life without the chance to try out Bob Dylan, or Led Zeppelin or whichever, even if in the end they don’t like. So I care, I guess, or I wouldn’t be writing this!

          • @Matt Henry, I’m not sure it’s fair bringing up the Bieber :)

            I guess my assumption is that the masses always have and always will choose that which is easy to consume when it comes to music, painting, photography, furniture, clothes. And yeah it bothers me to see the absolute shit that shows up on magazine covers and in advertising. But, I would contend that Chase is being singled out here because of his popularity and not because his work is “bad”. If Alec Soth were as popular with the mainstream as Chase is, there would be 100 bloggers out there calling Alec a sell out.It’s the nature of being at the top I think.

            It’s funny you mentioned Bieber VS Led Zeppelin. The first day my daughter made me listen to Bieber I went to the store and bought her a 4 disc set of Zeppelin. So, I guess I do care a little too.

            • @Brent, Ha ha ha. And yes sure, all good points. I just get a little frustrated I guess because there are hundreds of better photographers that work commercially who could have mainstream appeal that aren’t known because they haven’t done the blogging thing, but then props to Chase for doing it.

              Dave Hill“>is a similar style I guess and heads and shoulders ahead, but then I think he has a pretty big following too and does a lot of behind-the-scenes vids and things. Again, not subtle stuff, but a good example of how it can be done well.

              Rick Guest is another. There are stacks of this standard in the UK, so am sure there are loads more in the US. I guess the fact is that these guys are so busy earning $ that they have know time to blog! Which is a shame really.

              • @Matt Henry, gah, fucked up the HTML there didn’t I. And of course I meant no time, not know time. Oh dear.

  4. ” My favorite sites for expanding my knowledge: Conscientious, BAG, B, AD Coleman, David Campbell, Notes on Politics, theory & Photography, DLK Collection, and the many photographers who occasionally write about their work.”

    Chase writes about his work, I guess though not to your liking… while most of his work is blatantly commercial, there’s no reason to think it’s any worse than what Alec Soth produces. Alec’s recent series of portraits for the NY TIMES are incredibly self consciously arty, what makes them so great? Everyone looks deadpan and is smack in the middle of the frame, stuff that’s done routinely by art school students.

    And what does this sentence by Nick even mean: “To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment, and one which few people are homesteading.”

    People aren’t homesteading the frontier? What???

  5. Sure Chase Jarvis promotes himself…if I did it 25% as well as he does, I’d be twice as successful, but is that wrong? I like a few things on Soth’s website, but even when I eliminate Chase’s commercial work, there’s still a lot more that I like on his site than on Soth’s, but what do I know?

    @ted…I agree, sometimes when I read people commenting so philosophically about their work, I want to just say shut the f@%$*-up, but again, what do I know?

  6. Sometimes people can confuse success(or visibility) with quality. Success is more easily measurable while quality is a much more subjective and fluid concept. One person’s great photographer may be the next person’s naked emperor. I love Michael Kenna but don’t get Todd Hido, or Soth for that matter, at all. I’m sure there are people who fell the reverse. Chase Jarvis and Andrew Hetherington, to name another, both do useful blogs and I read them regularly. But if I were a picture editor they wouldn’t be very high on my list. But they are obviously at the top of some others’ lists. And good for them, and anyone else who can get interesting work shooting these days. I’m happy when anyone of us gets work or gets recognized, even if I may not care that much for what they do.

  7. As expected, this has turned into a name dropping contest. Is one not permitted to like Chase Jarvis AND Alec Soth? I feel it is unfair to try and compare two other photographers. Frankly, when I look at my visa bills, I would much rather be Chase Jarvis.

  8. This reminds me of the debate in in library school (when I attended 100 years ago) about: should you stock your bookshelves with 50 copies of expendable Danielle Steele or 5 hardbacks of Jane Austen. Libraries have “duties” to their communities, so you need to include the consumable paperback summer reading books, along with the classics.

    I don’t quibble with what each artist is able to produce: maybe this really is the zenith of what Chase Jarvis can do… maybe this is all we can expect from Alec Soth: but, let’s allow them to develop as artists and examine them at future points to see in what direction they have taken their art and vision.

    My take on the good vs. bad photography debate is directed at those who are framing what is available to the public. The army of museum and gallery gatekeepers and curators; the stable of photo reviewers and editors; the crowds of print and online media tastemakers. It’s their version of what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that informs what we get to see and what gets picked up as cool or thought provoking.

    I’m tired of the sameness of it all: e.g. the legions of photographers pursuing constructed reality, the poseurs trying to put out their version of “conceptual” photography— just look at “500 Photographers” and tell me it isn’t 90% the same. But of course it all looks the same, because Pieter Wisse is reading the zeitgeist through *his* lens of what young, new, edgy (dare I insert the word “good” here???) photography currently is, and that’s what is being highlighted.

    It’s not my aim to throw sticks and stones at artists… Everyone is on their own journey when they pick up that camera–including me. I want to make a dent in “da Machine;” hope that nuance comes through in this post.

  9. What exactly is “bad photography”?

    With bad writing, you can identify misspelled words, incomplete sentences and jumbled prose.

    In photography, a “great” image has no agreed upon parameters. Blurry, out-of-focus, dark, over saturated, monotone, grainy, formal, casual, snapshot, studio; digital, film, etc. All of these may be found in both bad and good photographs.

    It’s worth nothing that William Eggleston was considered an untalented amateur by MOMA. And that every decade of photography is different than the one that preceded it. Which means that photography, like film, is valued and evaluated by both current and historical bias, without scientific certainty.


    • Andrew Molitor

      @Andy, I find this to be quite easy, in fact. A good photograph evokes some response in me that is deeper and more interesting than a simple response to either a) the technical details of the photo (‘wow, that’s SO SHARP!’) or b) the subject (‘what a pretty girl’ or ‘holy shit that building is on fire’).

      This is, of necessity, a personal definition. However, we find that “good photographs” evoke similar responses in many viewers, which is how the “good photographs” enter the canon of such.

      One thing that will happen, taking this definition, is that the idea of which photographs are “good” will change over time. As we see copies of a “good photograph” it may or may not stand up, the response it once evoked may fade away as it evokes only “oh lord, another one of those” (even though it was the FIRST of those).

      It’s the same with any other art, really.

    • @Andy,

      I think that any kind of definition of “bad” photography is relaly what’s missing from the original post, and maybe that’s on purpose. It’s certainly stirred a lot of commentary. But if I’m reading it correctly, I think Rob is saying that complex imagery with depth is better than superficial, simple imagery.

  10. Putting down another photographers work in a comparison like that leaves me cold. Yet, I’ll be quick to say that Bob Dylan is a WAY better song writer than Berry Manilow.

    I think the point is well taken and akin to the discussion “what is art”. I’d LOVE to sit on a panel discussion about this one.

    • @Bruce DeBoer,
      Me too; but if that discussion was based only commercial work, the list of photographers worth consideration would soon shorten, when you start to look at work done over the longer period. To me, the stand-out photographers such as Nadav Kander are more than obvious..

  11. My freshman music theory professor introduced me to the phrase, “there’s no accounting for taste.” This has saved me a lot of time and mental energy that I otherwise may have spent pondering this subject.

    Given the choice between being the darling of the intelligentsia and being commercially successful, I would take the success and worry about other people’s definition of good and bad photography later. The middle of the audience bell curve is always going to favor work that the connoisseurs will disparage. It’s a story as old as humanity. And history shows us time and again that if you define good by the works that are remembered, the connoisseurs and taste makers are often as bad at picking good art as the rest of us.

    Also, a story crammed with words you don’t recognize is rarely a sign of good writing.

  12. Some thoughts came to mind when I read this.
    “Why we love bad photography”
    Who exactly is the WE, it certainly seems its not the writers of the pieces.
    They quickly distance themselves when saying
    “people prefer” etc etc.

    Are these lazy assumptions poorly expressed???

    “a writer, who is interested solely in the promotion of contention and self opinion, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original… because it is immediately recognizable:asks why people prefer Chase Jarvis over Alec Soth”

    A couple segments from a recent post:
    “So, what about professionally produced editorial content, the kind we care about, the kind that gives photographers jobs and livelihoods. Here’s where it gets interesting. A few visionaries have taken it upon themselves to create their own profitable [editorial] niches.”
    “Those companies will be looking for savvy photographers who have the voice and the ethics to produce content that will attract consumers.”

    Is this Jarvis or Soth or both?????.

  13. @Juanita,
    Preach Girl!! I was about to write a comment about the photo editors and buyers when I came across your response.
    Many of those buying have limited vision, and choose the things which they know they can sell easiest to earn their living, and often it means that the best images and new talent is overlooked or discounted.

    The other issue is that people see a picture, but they don’t really look at the picture. Show ten guys an image of a complex scene with a beautiful woman getting out of the tub wrapped up in a towel and the majority will see the woman and/or focus on specific body parts and never notice the other elements in the scene.

  14. I think that most good, or even just decent, photographs should stand on their own. Whether it’s Jarvis or Soth, they appeal to somebody and that’s the point isn’t it? After that, it’s just a matter of taste.

    The shittier a photograph gets, the more words are used to describe it because it can’t stand on its own. That describes most fine art photography these days. There’s more crap coming out of the art world than there is coming out of the commercial one.

  15. I knew this discussion would devolve quickly into “but what is art?/you’re an elitist/no I’m not, you are” and so on.

    Instead of “good” vs. “bad,” how about if we approach it like this? Some photographs (or bodies of photographic work) have immediate appeal; others, having just as much merit, are more of an acquired taste.

    I think most of us will agree from personal experience that that’s so. We all know images, or the work of particular photographers, that “got” us right away; others we began to appreciate only after seeing them for a while.

    This isn’t a clear-cut, either/or distinction; it’s more of an axis along which every worthwhile photograph positions itself for each individual viewer.

    The reason the art-vs-commerce argument springs up is that commercial photographers, by definition, are good at producing work with immediate appeal; after all, the client wants to make the sale today, not a year from now. On the other hand, acquired-taste photographs function most comfortably in the fine-art market, because art objects usually are not an impulse buy. (A dealer once told me that even if a collector falls in love with an object at first sight, he usually wants to “date” it for a while before taking it home.)

    That doesn’t mean an immediate-appeal photograph is better than an acquired-taste photograph, or vice-versa. It just means that each kind is a better fit for a different kind of commercial model.

    If we look at it this way, the question becomes not “Why do we love bad photography?” but “Why do we only love photography that’s lovable instantly?” And the problem becomes not who has good taste and who doesn’t, but how we persuade people accustomed to immediate photographic gratification that it also can be worth investing time in work that takes longer to like.

  16. Alec Soth’s work tends to focus on the “off-beat, _hauntingly banal_ images of modern America” according to The Guardian art critic Hannah Booth.

    I find Chase Jarvis’ work to be _achingly banal_. So it seems that Soth and Jarvis have _banal_ in common.

    Sgt Thomas Highway said in 1986: “You can rob me, you can starve me…and you can beat me and you can kill me. Just don’t bore me.” I feel the same way in 2011, so I don’t pay attention to either Soth or Jarvis.

  17. I guess I’m not done. I just have to say that I’ll bet I could Edit 10 shots of Chase Jarvis’s work and 10 of Alec Soth’s work and make you think, damn, that Chase dude is awesome compared to that Soth dude. …. and vice versa. At the level of talent they’ve both achieved, opportunity and the passion of their approach is mostly what separates quality.

    Send Alec Soth on one of Chase’s jobs and see what you get. BTW – he must satisfy Chase’s clients as much as he does. Now, send Chase out on a Job Alec shoots – same goes. Then, and only then, we’ll have this discussion.

    • @Bruce DeBoer,

      Level of talent? Chase? And his clients? Please… Mountain Dew, some Yoga brand and Sandisk!! It’s all very well criticising the art vs commerce comparison but Alec Soth is considered one of the top guys in the art field. Chase Jarvis is not even on the radar in the advertising world. He shoot low-budget below-the-line work. That’s why it isn’t a fair comparison.

      • @StevensonP, Nah – I still think it’s a false argument; like comparing a Ford Mechanic with a Porsche Mechanic: who’s better? What do you think of Nadav Kander – does he meet your level of talent, how do you compare Soth and Kander?

        I’m not saying one might not be better than the other, I just think you’re saying you like editorial photography more than you like commercial work.

        Do you still think I couldn’t sift through both portfolios, find the “best” of one “worst” of another and have two comparable talents? Hmmmm, bet I could.

        • @Bruce DeBoer,

          Nadav does both and is very good, and I’m totally not saying I like editorial more. I work in the commercial environment and could list 1000 better guys than Chase if I didn’t have shit to do. He’s an unknown in the ad world – a nobody. He doesn’t have an agent for starters. Use the links on this site to find the big photographer’s agents and you’ll find who the big players are. Or look at the awards at the Art Directors Club. Chase doesn’t even have a rep… he’s little league in the commercial world.

      • @StevensonP, Mountain Dew, Sandisk, …Reebok, Nike… It’s nice to know that if I ever get to shoot for them, I’ll still be a nobody. That’s for brightening my day.

        • @Brooks, Nike and Rbk aren’t bad accounts sure, but you need to look at the type of work he is shooting for these guys. Most of it is commercial not advertising, meaning small jobs destined for short magazine runs, point of sale merchandise, leaflets – what is called below-the-line. The big stuff is found on billboards, serious magazines with international print runs and will be feature a well thought through concept (by an art director) and often straplines (from a copywriter). You’re talking $1000 a day for below-the-line versus anything from $5,000 a day to $50,000 a day for above-the-line advertising (though the distinctions are blurring now with web and the rest).

          The guys who shoot the latter are the best of the best. And let’s be clear here that photographers may only work 1 day a year, or 100, so although even $1,000 a day sounds a lot, you can still end up earning less than the average salary.

          • @StevensonP, I shoot for smaller clients than that, like JBL and they surely pay more than $1000.00 a day (not that I charge by the day). That seems like a way low number for clients that size. Hmm.. Maybe I need to stay below the low line.

              • @StevensonP,
                Brooks Ayola is correct that $1-3,000 is too low for this usage, and that number is not accurate. That is not the going rate for these uses. It is much higher. If your “above the line” rate is $5,000, consider POP above the line, by your standards, because the work we are getting assigned is not at the $1000-$3000 a day mark for that usage. I’ve never run into a competitive bid in a triple bid situation where that is what my artists have to compete against.

                I want to post this so that younger photographers will know what fair rates are. Double or triple your $2,000 – $3000 per “day”, depending on the size of the client and then you’d be in the ballpark of where the fees lies on these jobs. Also consider that most of these jobs to not get done in one day.

                • @Erica Chadwick,
                  Ok fair enough Erica – was merely trying to demonstrate the difference between these jobs and the bigger campaigns – my knowledge of the fees involved in below-the-line work isn’t that great. But I have seen fees for the bigger above-the-line campaigns that I’d be happy to retire on! That’s including rights buy-outs and day rates (where relevant). You just couldn’t compare these figures with the sort of money someone like Chase is earning.

  18. matthew pace

    It’s hard to say what it good or bad.That depends on your criteria of judgment. It might e what is more or less popular at the time.

    Chase is popular because he addresses new ground and how to use it, or at least how he does. Alec appeals differently. Neither is good or bad.
    Also we are comparing commercial work vs. art projects.

    Time makes final judgments.

    • @matthew pace,

      Again, have to disagree. Chase really is quite bad. His style is totally inconsistent, his retouching dated and overblown, his ideas stomach churningly cliche and his lighting mediocre at best. The man’s made a name for himself by bloggigng the crap out of everything he does. Seriously people, a bit of research into real commercial photography and you might get things into better perspective.

      • @StevensonP,
        I think you have to look at photographers like Chase Jarvis from two different angles:

        Angle 1- the Photographer: He seems to understand what certain commercial clients want and/or has been fortunate that the evolution of his “style” has coincided with his client’s needs;
        Angle 2- The Product: Chase has created a persona and flair through blogging (and a relationship with Nikon has not hurt either)that enough photography amateurs and enthusiasts find appealing and want to learn more about. This is an audience that buys cameras (a win for him and the camera company), buys books, and signs up for seminars with the hope that they too can shoot images like his and enjoy success if they can learn a few of his secrets.If I asked many of these people who Alec Soth is, the response would be “Alex Who?”

        The hard cold fact is that many photographers are looking beyond image creation for income and of those who are, some understand working the web audience a lot better than others. This is not about art- it’s strictly commerce.

        • @ron,
          1. He doesn’t have commercial clients of any real worth – that’s my point. Those aren’t big campaigns he’s shooting, as much as his many readers might like to think. It’s bottom end stuff. He can please those clients all he wants… the real ad guys will be taking 10 times his day rate at least.

          2. Yes, there’s a new model for making cash in these slim times when only the very best can make serious money from commercial photography. One route is educating others. He’s done that well. This doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s not a good commercial photographer. Alec Soth doesn’t even come into the equation.

          • @StevensonP,
            I’m not sure what a commercial client of “worth” versus one without “any real worth” is. If someone is able to find a niche that works well for him or her more power to them. There are a lot of real photographers who would love an opportunity to shoot this “bottom end stuff” and make a living in doing so.
            What his (CJ’s) readers know is that he is published, and that he is working as a photographer, he’s accessible and I imagine they like his work enough to follow it and try to shoot in his style. I personally am not moved by his work, but I guess there are those who are.

            In the end it may come down to good commercial photographer versus a working photographer shooting commercially.

  19. I personally do not think that we should even consider comparing books and photography. Although they happen to be both forms of art, nothing against that, yet they are very different inside.
    Literature’s way how to impact a reader is to let him make up all the images, all the scenes it presents in a novel/poem, however photography is something very opposite to this. It already provides us with the image, the real picture and the feelings and impressions that hit us after seeing it are the main frame that photography is aiming for.
    These are so subjective that even the best photographs from my point of view might be very poorly shot from the point of view of the others.
    I think you may partially apply the theory on literature but definitely not on photography.

  20. I’m surprised Clement Greenberg’s essay about kitsch hasn’t come up.
    Although I don’t care much for Greenberg, he articulates fairly clearly why so many art folk don’t care for artists like Jarvis. Even if one hasn’t read Greenberg, it’s hard to escape his influence.

    • @Anthony Rhoades, again more good points.

      “Interesting” A true story from one of our most beloved news magazines.

      Photo editor one with years of experience, who has read the soon to be published story, finds a freelance image from well known photographer of needed subject on stage performing. Photo editor coming from design background and two years experience likes a mug shot with nice color in the background and is less expensive. Photo editor two wins.
      Many decisions being made either on the web or print have nothing to do with storytelling or “interesting” content.

      • @Gary Miller,

        I just want to work and make my clients ecstatic with the results. Work pays the mortgage. All those photographers out to get the respect of each other, critics and the like, enjoy.

  21. I have some background in literature, and agree with C. S. Lewis that good art in whatever form should engage, encourage and probably require participation on the part of the reader / viewer. Our current culture does not, in general, encourage this. As a reader, I prefer to engage with, say, James Joyce than most popular writers. As a photographer, I do my best to create work that draws viewers in and encourages them to linger with the photograph for a while. As through most of history, but perhaps more so now, given the pace of technology and life in general, it’s a lot to expect that most people will want to do this. Is there a solution? Probably not. Bit we can keep trying …

  22. matthew pace


    Granted all those things…but he is one who fits today and like I said, part of what is popular. Vangogh was consider a terrible painter in his time… does that make him bad? Can we argue “Starry Night” saying it’s a terrible painting done by a lesser artist?

    Look at Ansel… what..it’s all in focus.. look around..is he that great? today??
    ( as an example only) Adam fans don’t come down on me, I do like his work but he very much fit his time and that might be my point here with Chase…

    I think he is self- overblown but who knows what is good if it is that popular.. those ” clients of not much worth” in volume might be the standard of today’ work.. look at some of the most popular blogs…they are working a lot even though their work is trite by “the Greats” standards…

    So in a way Good today is to be popular even if I think their work sucks.. so did VanGoghs (then) .. try to buy one now.

  23. It has always been this way, but time has a way of sifting through all the mediocrity and in the end we are left with great art.

    Jarvis is a brilliant self-promotor to his fan base of amateur photographers, but in shouting so loud he exposes the huge gap between the hoopla and the quality of his work.

    • @m.t.,
      “Jarvis is a brilliant self-promotor to his fan base of amateur photographers, but in shouting so loud he exposes the huge gap between the hoopla and the quality of his work.”

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  24. As with other categories of art, I am firmly of the “I don’t know if it’s art but I know what I like.” school. Specifically, there are pieces from both Jarvis and Soth I enjoy, and pieces I don’t.

    The school of thought which proclaims from the rooftops “Only the educated among us, those who have pursued the study of this genre with appropriate rigor, are entitled to an opinion as to what constitutes good art” used to make me vaguely nauseous…now they are simply a yapping annoyance.

    Why can’t we all just enjoy what we enjoy…wines, literature, photography, music, art, ad nauseum…without someone with a need to feel superior telling us that what we like is trash?

  25. Hillbilly I Guess

    I love pretentious people. They worry more about appearance and how smart they sound than how they interact and the quality of the photos they produce.
    Let them be that way…I’ve made so many AD friends who make fun of those people. I can tell you at least 3 big gigs I’ve gotten because the agency hated dealing with self absorbed pretentious jerks. Down to earth works. Why fight it!?!?

  26. Hillbilly I Guess

    Ok, I just checked out Alec Soth’s site. ARE YOU SERIOUS??? I took better pictures in high school!

    • @Hillbilly I Guess,
      the fact that you “just checked out Alec Soth’s site” tells a lot how much you’re into photography…my advice: next time don’t even bother to comment!

  27. Yikes…

    It is my humble opinion that the blog post referenced here is a load of horse-shit. Perhaps it is true that if you did a survey of the “man in the street” and showed samples of work by Chase Jarvis and Alec Soth, people with no special interest in photography might prefer Mr. Jarvis’ photographs. As stated earlier, “there’s no accounting for taste”. And who in their right mind is worried about the average person’s indifference to High Art? It’s like bemoaning the fact that “most people” don’t care about typography (I’m sure plenty of people spend time moaning about this).

    In this day and age, it is not hard at all for someone with an interest in photography to move freely between “unliterary” and “literary” photographic work. In fact, it is easier than ever to do so. There are thousands of curated photography sites, blogs, Tumblr feeds, etc.

    These new avenues of photographic discovery are almost exactly analogous to Mr. Shere’s bookstore example.


    I like Chase Jarvis. I’m not crazy about his photographs, but so be it. He is a successful photographer. I’m sure there are those much more successful than he is, but I’m willing to bet he gets by just fine.

    I like Alec Soth! It’s too bad his blog is no more, as it was a wonderful and candid look behind the curtain of The World of Photographic Art (much in the same way Mr. Jarvis’ blog is a look at commercial photograpy).


    • @Mr. King,

      I have to agree 100%.

      What a lame, lazy, thesis.

      Did they actually show the work to anyone? No, they posit a theory comparing work from a fine artist and a commercial artist, who, to my knowledge, doesn’t exhibit fine art.

      A comparison of Soth and a decorative artist such as Kenna or the aforementioned Adams might hold some weight, but is really pointless.


  28. Just Hanging Out

    I don’t care for Chase and the reality is, his business model is hustling to other photographers and self-promoting by every possible avenue stream. Look at his CreativeLive videos and all the other self-promoting Laforet inspired crap he puts out into the world. But guess what? He is smart and has has build a brand that some people find interesting, worth reading and it looks to be profitable for him. Is he a photographer I admire? No. Nor do I look at his blog. I have in the past. It seems so 2009.

    Soth I admire. I enjoy his writing and photography.

    But if we are talking about photographers who are creating interesting work that will stand the test of time. Soth has got it all over Chase.

    Chase looks (or at least his presentation to the world) to be a very successful businessman who is using photography and video to build his brand and name. You gotta hand it to the guy, he is smart, driven and has guts.

    I admire what he has done, even if I do not respect his presentation.

    But really, are either one of these guys worth the time it took to write this response. Nope.

    • Just Hanging Out

      @Just Hanging Out,

      This is why I don’t read blogs anymore. I write trashy shot like the crap above. Ahhhh! Hindsight, fuck, wish I had not hit the post button.

  29. Not sure how Chase got to be the symbol of “bad” photography any more than Soth became the symbol for “good”, apart from a conspicuous grab at web traffic. Thanks for raising the discourse.

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