Is your photography… Visually Acceptable?

There’s a good discussion in the Fly’n Photographers comments about magazines only hiring from a narrow band of photographic styles that Olivier Laude has coined “Visually Acceptable,” (this also holds true for our writing and design).

There are a few magazines that end up setting the agenda for the rest. They win all the awards, maintain a high circulation and and are packed with advertising. This adherence to certain styles of photography is unavoidable because the decision makers at the highest level see this as a sign of a successful magazine. Most CFO’s couldn’t name a “visually acceptable” photographer if I held them by their feet off the top of our building, but they know what it looks like.

To be successful in the editorial market you need to understand this.

One of my favorite old posts by Alec Soth (RIP his Blog) is: The do’s and dont’s of Graduate Studies (here), Maxims from the chair. From the book The Education of a Photographer by Charles H. Traub. Chair of Photography at SVA.

There’s so much good material to guide photographers in creating their individual style, just don’t try and swallow the whole thing at once.

My favorite line is:

Photographers are the only creative people that don’t pay attention to their predecessors work—if you imitate something good, you are more likely to succeed.

Now, I know my share of photographers who were huge in the 90’s but are now stuck making prints and books of their old famous shots to know, an acceptable style doesn’t last forever, so you’ve got two choices to make.

Either pioneer a new one or get in line.

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  1. If you look at the online forums such as Sportsshooter or Luminous-Landscape, you see photographer or students ask how to create a look such as Mark Tuckers or David Hill. Often times, the responses are try this photoshop action or buy this program. (“Exposure” is often cited) Sometimes, someone will speak up and suggest that the person work on their own style.

    What concerns me is, on the surface, it seems that young photographers are more concerned about the look rather than content. Your post last week showing the work of the 17 year old photographer whose work is very polished and technically quite good. I looked at his photographs and saw the work of many other photographers, but I did not see much of him.

    Styles and fads come and go. That is the norm for our fast paced society. To me, content is first and a consistent approach/style goes hand in hand with it.

    Without the content, or copying someone’s images because they have the look of the day, seems like chasing after someone else’s dream. Examples that I remember are the Hosemaster Phase in the late eighties, the overpower the sun Octabank phase in nineties, the make the subject look like an idiot short-lived fad in business magazines in the eighties to the lens-baby throw it out of focus trend, the over-exposed FL look on color-negative, the list goes on and on.

    If the image has content and a purpose, then you remember it or are impacted by it. If it is just the trend of the moment, it glosses by.

  2. Let us not forget the cross-processing fad of the mid-90’s. I remember seeing this for the first time while in high school and thinking ‘wow’! When I went and tried it myself for a photo II project, my David LaChapelle aspirations were quickly dashed in a sea of bad c41.

  3. Like vintage cloths, trends are revisited. My humble opinion: worry most about content and how it impacts your viewers – technique is a given, you need it to survive but the emotional content of the image is what will eventually make you a great photographer.

  4. The way I see it, in these modern glossy times, you’ve got to have both. You’ve got to have compelling imagery, and strong personal vision of the world, and also some slight technique to separate your images from “the twelve other guys with the 5Ds”.

    Platon: Low angle, wide lenses.
    Paolo Roversi: 8×10 Polaroid, 1 sec exposure, slight blur
    Schoeller: Large format, in your face, strip boxes
    Fiscus: Tons of Post.
    Dan Winters: Ringlight fill, mixed with great lighting.
    Nadav Kander: Slight bleaching, and/or post.
    Corbijn: Darkroom bleaching.
    T.Richardson: P/S camera, toss in some blatant sex.
    J. Teller: P/S mentality.

    So many of the really successful guys are doing both — some slight schtick, and also compelling imagery, (and having a celebrity in the shot doesn’t hurt either). And they’re doing it consistently, day in and day out.

    Yes, there are guys just shooting straight stuff, ie, Meisel, Klein, McDean, Tim Walker, but also having awesome talent in front of the lens doesn’t hurt either.

    How many times have you looked at an image and thought to yourself, “If there was not a celebrity face in this photograph, would this image still stand on its own, graphically? If this was just some first-year model, instead of Kate Moss, would this photograph still be amazing?” That’s a sobering question sometimes.

    But the way I see it, you’ve got to be doing both things: some kind of technical wizardry that instantly sets your images apart, (like PE mentioned about Dan Winters, recently), and also strong concept and composition. The guys that only bring one of those two to the table are the ones that I think are frustrated, at least in my opinion. Let’s face it — there are a million photographers out there. The ultimate “Buyer’s Market” for a Photo Editor.

  5. Distilling the above photographer’s work to technique is far from doing them justice. Example, Platon can get an iconic image from important (but unphotogenic) subjects in the 5-10 minutes he gets to photograph them..often less time. That has nothing to do with low angle, wide lenses, or the vignettes added to his photos in post.

    Fiscus is tons of lighting in addition to tons of post.

    Meisel, Klein, McDean are far from “straight stuff.” Especially the latter two..they do as much post as Fiscus, and by “they do”, I mean their retouchers do.

    In the end, people get so caught up in technique they don’t realize that treatment is what ties a photographer’s body of work together, but not what makes their work, work. I don’t think anyone’s work listed above would be any weaker minus the treatment.

    ps: 10 22/23, this isn’t directed at you. It’s general commentary on treatment.

  6. Agreed. If you re-read the sentence following the list of names, you’ll see that I meant that they were doing both — strong imagery coupled with excellent treatments. Maybe that was not clear.

    That’s why they’re the leading names in our industry right now.

    What’s not mentioned here is also the ability to simply deal with people, and to “guide” people/talent/subjects into their photographs. That, to me, is a third category that truly separates a true professional — the ability to communicate their vision, under pressure, whether in the studio, or on location.

  7. I worked for a photographer who had taught a great photo seminar class while I was in art school. It was obvious that his busy time had passed but I held his work in the highest reguards….. until I assisted him. He was trying to push his work into another realm which was exciting, he had hired me to be on his team and to be part of this big change over. When I got to his studio I was in shock and dismay. The set crew had built a set ” inspired ” by a photo in a book by another photographer. Reluctantly I stayed on for the day, wowed him with what I knew and had a check cut for me that night. He still calls to this day and I don’t pick up the phone because, all I can think of is him showing up to set dressed up like the photographer who he wanted to copy while wearing a wig.

    And to reply to Oct. 23rd: those photographers that you list are all great. they make timeless classic images. but how you think the photos happen, you are wrong.

    NO NAME said it best:
    ” In the end, people get so caught up in technique they don’t realize that treatment is what ties a photographer’s body of work together, but not what makes their work, work. I don’t think anyone’s work listed above would be any weaker minus the treatment. ”

    & Jim Fiscus is f*ck!ng amazing!

  8. Chris wrote:


    … Care to elaborate…? Wasn’t that a tad covert?

  9. October TwentyThird Says:
    … Care to elaborate…? Wasn’t that a tad covert?

    not really, you seem to have it all figured out.

  10. What about being visually relevant?

    A over-lit flavor of the month photographer (or is over-lighting still a flavor?) was dispatched with his two assistants and a cast of extras to shoot me for Wired magazine. Since I’ve been blessed with so many people being willing to play along with me on my shoots, I decided to only worry about being the subject.

    I was a good sport and pretended to take a bathing beauty photo on the beach (even though I hadn’t done that in 20 years) and load up the lighting cases into my car with my camera strapped across my chest.

    After that the writer called back to fact check his quotes, and then an additional fact-checker from the publication called to be sure that they had the brand of my favorite breakfast cereal correct.

    After all the facts seemed to be squared away I mentioned – by the way do you care if any of the photos that were taken actually represent anything that I actually do as a photographer? I went through the list of how the photos were inaccurate and a small cropped head-shot ended up with the feature.

    The photo-editor schemed up a concept and called up a visually acceptable photographer without the concern if they represented either me or the cover story the writer was presenting.

  11. All this talk of technique is very relevant, but it’s only about 1/4 of the big picture. What makes someone’s work “visually acceptable” and separates them from the rest of the photographers out there is most of all about their point of view and also what they choose to put in front of the lens and this all determines how their work fits into the marketplace.

    I don’t think Terry went out and said “I’m going to do point and shoot because it will fill a niche in the market” – I think he probably thought it looks cool. And guess what: his work originally came out of (or was “inspired by”, if you will) his dad’s and his dad’s contemporaries (ie: Helmut Newton) and so on. Without Helmut we would never have a Terry… and Ryan McGinley and Kenneth Capello’s work is “inspired” by Terry’s (actually, Ryan’s work also looks a bit “Nan Goldin” and I’ve heard Kenneth called a “baby-Terry”, which I don’t think is fair to him)… and there are be people out there who are “inspired” by their work. I have seen a bunch of it when I guest-critiqued at an art school a little while back. They were all baby-Ryans, Juergen-wannabees, mini-Gurskys and Inez and Vinoodh clones. The fact is, like Terry, Ryan and Kenneth’s work or not, it’s got their own stamp on it and that’s why they fit into the marketplace.

    Anyway, my point is that you have to do something original at ALWAYS or your work will flop and your career will die on the vine. If Annie Liebovitz had kept doing softbox-lit, over the top, “concept” portraits her career wouldn’t be what it is today and she would be one of the above-mentioned photographers publishing and republishing only decades-old work.

    Oh yeah, and you’ve got to know how to shmooze and party with the right crowd.

  12. Cameron- Style to my mind is unfortunately 65% of the battle as content matters much less than we would like to believe. An art director or photo editor will look for a contemporary style into which they can insert “their” content. They need to know that they will get the job done in a timely and “visually acceptable” manner to his bosses and superiors. If on top of it all you have content, well hell, that’s even better for some but the majority will either need it be “stamped with prior approval” or run the hell away from it. It’s often worth taking a chance, unless it’s that front of the book, let’s see what he/she can do without getting myself fired. There is a disconnect between the editors who need to illustrate a story or render it publishable and the idealist photographer who stubbornly believes that originality will rule the day.

    Dude- Originality is good and fabulous when you can afford it, as a matter of fact, originality, when you are that idealistic photographer is by far the best there is. We should all aspire to it, but when it comes to commerce, its the baby out with the bath water. Funny you should mention Leibovitz as she is the ultimate survivor. She perfectly understand the disconnect I mention above and does not waste her time thinking about the dichotomy between art and commerce. She keeps changing according to the times, she even admits this without shame or guilt. Let’s face it, most of the top dogs out there are the second comings, the babies as you call them, of a more original artists. Sometimes I come upon the works of fabulously successful commercial photographers, the top tier shooters, and I can pick out with absolute certainty which fine artists, painter or writer they are copying.
    I won’t name names but a lot of those guys take a “innovator’s” work and popularize it for the masses. I am willing to go as far as saying that most of top notch guys making all the big bucks and shooting all the stories we wish we were shooting fit that mold.
    The road to photography hell is paved with the corpses of unbelievable talents who never went anywhere because they were too original for their times, too difficult to work with, too dead too quickly, too poor to continue doing it. I could go on and on and name thousands. As for making a living it be best to do as Leibovitz; she does what works and shoots her personal work on the side, which BTW is much better than her editorial and commercial work combined. Those are the skills we need to learn and remember, it’s not easy because we have had idealism and the myth of “originality will always prevail” drummed into us since we were born. Separate church and state and you shall be a happier camper. Keep your originality to yourself, and the commerce for them.

  13. Olivier Laude wrote: “The road to photography hell is paved with the corpses of unbelievable talents who never went anywhere because they were too original for their times, too difficult to work with, too dead too quickly, too poor to continue doing it.”

    Indeed. However, that same road is equally littered with the eviscerated souls of mimics as well. Failure is everywhere and is not the singular domain of originality.

    Soth’s comment – paraphrasing – that photographers fail to imitate, is not the issue. That notion may enhance participation in this discussion, but if anything photographers are the most blatant and unabashed imitators known to all humanity. Perhaps this was not the full context of what Soth intended – I’ll have to read his full comments.

    But I believe the key issue is that they fail to imitate the right photographers or that they imitate for the wrong reasons. It is wise for students to learn the elements of constructing photographs through imitation. But the key to maturing from student to artmaker or craft guy is attempting to divorce oneself from imitation. Sure learn to walk by watching others, but once you learn seek your own directions.

    Emotional content most certainly matters, although it makes for a tasty argument to the contrary. And yes the decisions a photographer makes before the shutter is the best focus, which is what Cameron was saying. In fact I remember our distinguished anonymous photo editor stating in his view – paraphrasing – that what matters most is what decisions are made prior to pressing the shutter, which I coudn’t agree more. And yet, not a day goes by when my studio doesn’t get emails from students and professionals about my post imaging process, which I’ve been doing for well over 6 years – (OK, perhaps they just think mycontent sucks!) – when my care is really on the characters, expression, their stories, styling, lighting, ie., the content, within the frame. But these are always the first questions out of the mouths of babes.

    And yet I do agree with Olivier that personal work that seeks to avoid intersection with popular mainstream consciousness is doomed to one of Dante’s most horrific one hand clapping rings. And in many ways so it should be. The job of Editorial, Advertising and heaven forbid, Fine Art work is, afterall, to communicate. Yes, fine art is a job. The success or failure of that work is as Olivier points to, how well that work taps into the current psyche of the viewer, and the more viewers, the more successful. It just so happens that a mural of Terry Richardson with cum on his face taps in really hard.

    However, content most certainly does matter, because it’s inextricably mated to our psyches. So the point that content doesn’t matter is beyond silly. How many times do working professionals have incredible visual charge going or the perfect technique, expressions or attitude except a trained creative or editor just can’t relate to it because it’s a picture of a shoe instead of a purse.

    Emotional content as DeBoer stated here. Emotional content is afterall what drives Terry Richardson’s work. That’s his flame. He even says so. Like him or not, it’s the stuff of emotional content and context that defies the road of mediocrity. It just so happens that his emotional content resonates right now. It’s palpable emtional stuff, tangible, like it or hate it, and it’s visceral and right now it connects, whether he cares or not.

  14. In the end with few exceptions photographers have a season.
    Like Actors like Musicians Like so many Artists ( if I may use that term)
    The better you are know for something in one photo age the harder it will be for you when the “age” changes.
    The eye loves to be challenged. You have a season use it well.
    (ps I gave my season for my kids)

  15. for fifty points and the chevy malibu, name five commercial photographers in the last ten years, who have successfully achieved “multiple seasons”. describe the old style, and then the new style.

    hmmm. tough one.

  16. Heavy Sauce – interesting question.

    The ones that come to mind don’t have a pronounced “style” per se, which mean they are better at bridging their work between ever changing seasons. Their emphasis is on content, emotional power, vision, an uncanny abiliity to be working no matter what, or just consistently great work.

    Yet another reason to avoid mimicing a style. A style can make you money today, but consistently engaging content is what makes money time and time again.

  17. Good point.

    I feel the technique needs to be driven by the content and the story not some preconceived notion by an editor or photographer for that matter.

    There’s definitely a place for technique/style, but shouldn’t it work in harmony with the story?

    I guess that’s where finding the right person for the job comes in.

    My weary eyed thoughts.

  18. I’m surprised Canikon hasn’t created in-camera processing presets for popular “visually acceptable” editorial styles. I mean, that is where we are headed, right?

  19. Phase started that whole “look” trend for post RAW processing. I remember sitting through their seminars three or four years ago and laughing at the presenter for putting on such a performance. Then the guy managed to make me piss myself by saying, “And you can share with your friends and fellow photographers!” That’s when I got up and left while trying not to laugh too loudly.

    While on that note, digital capture is in an extreme and horrifically bad place right now. I hope Christopher Bush is wrong on that sarcastic prediction, although I wouldn’t put it past Canon or Nikon. With Hasselblad’s greed, Leaf’s bad design team and Phase’s struggle to stay alive long enough to sell their company for a large profit, I can definitely see Canon taking over the majority of medium format’s market, perhaps enough of it to kill the market entirely. That’s scary, isn’t it?

    Anyway, you all bring up good arguments for Photoshopping a look to one’s work. But at the end of the day, doesn’t it only matter if the image is great or not? Is “the look” terrific? Is the lighting spectacular? Is the subject appealing? Is every hair or ribbon, depending on the subject matter, in perfect placement? That’s what counts: The “Wow Factor”. Do people viewing your book stop and screech with delight, “Oh my God!”, or do they turn through as fast as possible and shuffle you out of their office with a limp handshake and no eye contact?

    Oh, and whoever said Jim Ficus’ work would be the same without his insane amount of post is a moron. It might actually look like a photograph, which might be kind of cool. Sharpening sure has blurred the lines between illustration and photograph. Not hating on the work, I’m just saying Jim owes a lot to his crew, and he knows it.

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