NYC Photo Snobbery

Oddly, I found this yesterday in a book I’m reading and it’s very appropriate for the comments on the post from yesterday. The nut graph (love that editor term) is at the bottom but it’s a doozy.

From “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

… consider the effect of the first music recording, and invention that introduced a great deal of injustice. Our ability to reproduce and repeat performances allows me to listen on my laptop to hours of background music of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (now extremely dead) performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, instead of to the local Russian émigré musician (still living), who is now reduced to giving piano lessons to generally untalented children for close to minimum wage. Horowitz, though dead, is putting the poor man out of business. I would rather listen to Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein for $10.99 a CD than pay $9.99 for one by some unknown (but very talented) graduate of the Julliard School or the Prague Conservatory. If you ask me why I select Horowitz, I will answer that it is because of the order, rhythm, or passion, when in fact there are probably a legion of people I have never heard about, and will never hear about–those who did not make it to the stage, but who might play just as well.


Furthermore, I believe that the big transition in social life came not with the gramophone, but when someone had the great but unjust idea to invent the alphabet, thus allowing us to store information and reproduce it. It accelerated further when another inventor had the even more dangerous and iniquitous notion of starting a printing press, thus promoting texts across boundaries and triggering what ultimately grew into a winner take-all ecology. Now, what was so unjust about the spread of books? The alphabet allowed stories and ideas to be replicated with high fidelity and without limit, without any additional expenditure of energy on the author’s part for the subsequent performances. He didn’t even have to be alive for them–death is often a good career move for an author. This implies that those who, for some reason, start getting some attention can quickly reach more minds than others and displace the competitors from the bookshelves. In the days of bards and troubadours, everyone had an audience. A storyteller, like a baker or a coppersmith, had a market, and the assurance that no one from far away could dislodge him from his territory. Today, a few take almost everything; the rest next to nothing.

By the same mechanism, the advent of the cinema displaced neighborhood actors, putting the small guys out of business. But there is a difference. In pursuits that have a technical component, like being a pianist or a brain surgeon, talent is easy to ascertain, with subjective opinion playing a relatively small part. The inequity comes when someone perceived as being marginally better gets the whole pie.

In the arts–say the cinema–things are far more vicious. What we call “talent” generally comes from success, rather than its opposite. A great deal of empiricism has been done on the subject, most notably by Art DeVany, and insightful and original thinker who single mindedly studied wild uncertainty in the movies. He showed that, sadly, much of what we ascribe to skills is an after-the-fact attribution. The movie makes the actor, he claims–and a large dose of nonliner luck makes the movie.

The success of movies depends severely on contagions (Egads, I had to look that word up: The spread of a behavior pattern, attitude, or emotion from person to person or group to group through suggestion, propaganda, rumor, or imitation). Such contagions do not just apply to the movies: they seem to affect a wide range of cultural products. It is hard for us to accept that people do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community. By imitating, we get closer to others–that is, other imitators. It fights solitude.

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. Sad but true. Not being confident of our own experiences and opinions, we most always equate talent with success. Originality is treated with suspicion because by definition, it is yet to be successful.

  2. I’m not against living outside of NYC and I don’t mistake success for talent, but my point is if you want to swim with the big fish, ya gotta be in the ocean.

    NYC is the biggest market in the country and if you want to participate in a big market you have to BE in that market. A lot of these “NYC” photographers live outside NYC. I’m one of those “bicostal” photographers previously mentioned in other threads. Why? Because I want to be in the LA market and there is an open niche there for people who shoot sophisticated images that DON’T pander to the dominant industry there (Celebrity). I didn’t mean to offend anyone with my playful jab at LA, but there is a lack of photographers who don’t do typical pander-to-the-celebrity images in that market. So my clients fly me in quite a bit, of if it’s attractive enough a job, I say “sure I can be in LA on Friday” and I buy a ticket on Jetblue and swallow the cost so I can compete with local photographers.

    Get your work out there because most photo editors and art buyers (and especially ones who have a limited ammount of time to produce a shoot) don’t look at local media (if they even have access to local magazines from Anchorage or Muskogee or wherever) so you have to be visible in the NYC (or LA in my case) market.

  3. a long-winded way of describing the “flavor-of-the-month” phenomenon wherein the perception that an artist is hot becomes a major factor in their becoming even hotter.

  4. What I get from this is a reminder of the basic truth, “Success breeds success.” Whether a photographer that did a job well for a client once and is asked back or word of a photographer doing well at another publication or agency and getting new business, success breeds success.

    This is why so many new photographers are willing to give away (or do for darn cheap) the first job in many cases. They want their chance to prove their ability. Creating new images outside of the working sphere, personal work so to speak, can generate interest but it still takes a photo editor or art buyer a good bit more legwork to get the decision makers to take the leap of faith that this photographer can complete a project professionally.

    What option do photographers, or any artist for that matter, have other than to create to their own liking and the best of their abilities/situation, hope to get their work noticed, and find a patron to award a job? Great talent does rise, sometimes it just takes longer to be noticed.

  5. Great entry. For those of you who are frustrated with the process or photography in general just go to and follow the links to the “Genius of Photography” download. Great BBC program about the history of photography. Well done program, nothing like the classroom you might have sat in and wondered why you had to. A nice way to reconnect with your old friend, Photography.

  6. I’ve been taught that if I can’t say anything nice, not to say anything at all. That however does not apply to pointing you to someone else who has nothing nice to say. Here is a post about a couple LA photographers, LA apparently being the 2nd “best” market in the US.

    These are two “successful” high demand LA photogs. Personally I don’t think Kwaku is that horrible, but for the love of god Jay S. is just… wait, what would mom say if I finish this sentence:


  7. Michael T. Murphy

    Wow, great quote!

    It goes far beyond photography, to the heart of all fashion, and consumption. Plus I am *very* impressed by your personal reading. ;>)

    I see folks here complain about the commonality of the work they see in magazines. I think your analysis previously was right on in terms of who you are willing to hire. It applies to *any* kind of risk analysis, as your quote above applies to any kind of consumption:

    [I] “where x is the cost of plane ticket and hotel and y is the chance a photographer already living there whos work you like will fail and z is the cost of a reshoot” [/I]

    I would turn the question of “Visually Acceptable” photography around, though, and ask which magazines you and others think *are* worth looking at?

    I have a list of more than 50 I would like to subscribe to. Many are from the UK or Europe. I really enjoy (some of) the work I see in them. At the start of every year I review the list and decide which to subscribe to. Some from my current list:

    Exit, Big, Wad, Qvest, Another Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Zoo Germany, Metro Pop, Surface, Flaunt, Zink, Blind Spot, Hobo, and Crash.

    FWIW, I have chronic back pain and can’t fly anywhere. I am going back to fine art photography to do exactly what I want to do. ;>)


  8. The long term (not 15 minute) success of any artist relies on the people that tie their own continuing reputation/investment/business success to that artist’s work. Take for example the work of Alexander Calder. We can argue the aesthetic merits of his sculptures or mobiles, but his long term success relied on having customers (patrons, whatever) wanting their investment to return. Thus they pushed his work on their friends, businesses and other philanthropic enterprises. Example: his work was donated to the Smithsonian. Since it’s at the Smith, it must be good. Thus, more people buy it on that merit. The donor who gave it to the Smith owns other Calder works, which acrue in value beyond the original value of the donated work on the merit that it’s at the Smith. This makes the donatino a sound business decision. End result- Calder’s work is worth quite a bit more then monkey change, based on networking and marketing and other people’s needs (greed), not just on the merit of it’s own artistic worth. We can go down the annals of art and see this happening. It’s the difference between a ‘big’ artist from a specific period and a not so ‘big’ artist.

    Networking for the win.

  9. I gave my hat off to all on such a rich education in one HTML page.
    Now let me go whisper my name on the right streets.

    pssst I’m a artist pass it along.

  10. Magazines come out monthly or quarterly.
    Each issue should NEW and interesting.
    If it isn’t, it would only come out once.
    And then it would be called a book.

  11. Adam bird- You are exactly correct, value and the continuity of that value is what perpetrates good art and bad art regardless of what we think of it, past and present.

    Once value has been ascribed to a piece of art or to an artist good luck changing that perception. Those artists that have been chosen for whatever reason, wether good or bad, timeless or not will remain well know or valued precisely because they are economically valuable, in part.

    A self perpetrating myth is created over time to uphold the work as important, worthy of its price tag. Over time much of the artistic importance give way to economic importance.

    The only way “important” artist are dethroned over time are societal cataclysms like wars or the destruction of the art itself or its patrons. Once that happens it lives in the imagination and the myth becomes the story itself, generating value as a story in fiction, popular culture or economically successful story telling.

    Investments, especially artistic ones are fiercely protected because they very much unlike stocks and bonds, they are not nearly as capricious as the vagaries of economic conflagrations, quite the opposite.

    With artistic success comes value and with success comes the story to reinforce and justify that value to secure and reinforce it. Entire institutions are created for that single purpose, some are called museums, others are call endowments…..etc…. Wether they choose to see themselves partially in that light is a matter of honest discussion.

    Multiply this principle by a million on a micro and macro level and there you are.

  12. Brand Manager

    Darrell wrote:

    “Magazines come out monthly or quarterly.
    Each issue should NEW and interesting.”


    Dream on. In an ideal world, yes. But in this modern world, each magazine is a “brand”, just like Pottern Barn, or Pier One, or Taco Bell, or Starbucks.

    You flip thru Vanity Fair — they sell ads, based on dependability of the look of the product. Same for Martha Stewart Living, or InStyle, or W, or Dwell. In a way, it’s based on NOT surprising the reader. It’s about repeatability, month after month. Of course, each issue should be “new and interesting”, but only so far as the same reader demographic is offered new clothing, accessories, or perfume that’s within their brand range.

    Trust me, Annie and Seliger and Norman Roy are a commodity. Even Roversi and Meisel. It’s kinda nasty to think about, but in that hard-core money world of advertising sales, they certainly are. They will continue to bring home the “visually accepted bacon”, month and after month, that fits within that brand.

  13. hah. after that, i wish we were still living in caves drawing 2D mammoths for entertainment.

    anyway, isn’t this the economic theory for an open market?

  14. Brand Manager – You wrote what I was thinking. Thank you, I wasn’t literate enough to translate my thoughts to html. I love this blog because it’s filled with egos equal to mine, talent greater than mine, celebrity artist hopefuls, and down right good smart people, but regardless, if the most talented among us can’t find a place in the economics of the national / international brands, they’ll be living in a 150 sq. ft. studio in NYC or LA for the rest of their lives.

  15. sorry that was for the p.e. post and the issue about inequity where the marginally better gets everything, and the rest gets almost nothing.

  16. I have not read this one, but I read Fooled by Randomness by Taleb and I believe that one of the points he is trying to make that becoming “visually acceptable” can be attributable to randomness, simply because the contagiousness is quite unpredictable. You only know it is a success once it is a success, and being a little successul increases the chances of being very successful.

  17. What a totally unexpected post – and it has Nassim Nicholas in it. I guess that settles it, lets roll the dice.

  18. Once something enters the “success” phase as stated in the last paragraph of APE’s post, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine how it got there to begin with. So many factors are thrown in to perpetuate myths of persona or of the work (contagions being only one of them), and at that point, trying to figure out why someone or something is successful becomes moot.

    What is more interesting is the initial recognition that someone or something receives (before the “success” phase), which I believe comes from a small group of like-minded influential people who wield all the power — those so-called “gatekeepers”.

    In the case of cinema, it might be different than photography because “success” is almost aways determined by box office sales. In photography, “success” is more determined by landing prominent gigs, a show at an important gallery, etc. It is almost always not determined by popular consensus (with the exception of internet celebrities).

    Of course you could argue that cinema operates under the same rules if you consider that the gatekeepers are the producers who really decide which people to hire for a likely “blockbuster”, but that is another conversation.

    Anyway, I believe that in photography, it is good to look at someone’s earliest work, just prior to or at the point of initial recognition, free from contagions, influence of gatekeepers, or any of the other factors that start the self-perpetuating cycle of success. That is where you can really tell how they were “interesting.”

  19. The subject of media as a reductionist mechanism of talent/opportunity is a compelling one, but I would rather stay away from it on the main, and touch on other aspects of success engendering then suppressing talent.

    The effect of schedule compression on risk and creativity is well documented in the field of Information Technology. Books like “The Mythical Man-Month” and “Surviving the Death March” reveal the fallacies that create this paradigm, but they do not fully succeed in revealing how death marching destroys creative thinking.

    In IT, creative thinking is often an elegant sauce on a main course of grunt work, but in photo editing as well as graphic design in general, it is part of the meat, per se.

    Further, deadline compression increases the incestuous regionalism and faddishness that passes for (and often defines) the au currant. It finally filters down to regional markets, whose ‘edgy’ work looks horribly dated before it it leaves the light table.

    Like the photographer’s need to avoid being pigeon-holed and then eventually being made irrelevant, the designer/editor must look away from what the cultural trance is fascinated by, to other ideas, images, and memes that are compelling on their own face. The creative dynamo gets spun in the office, but the magnets that resist it and the wires that carry the current come from the world around you and beyond you.

    You need to fight back against the tug toward death marching. That way leads to greater mediocrity. And while no one thinks badly of a mediocre programmer, mediocre visual products get blown away by the first paradigm breaker who gets a clear shot.

    Dynasties ossify and break. Only stuff with real live sap running through it survives the April storms. The fact that you are being squeezed only makes the need to refresh your eyes and broaden your scope more compelling.

    Just my .01’s worth.