Perception Is Everything

I had several conversations last week with photographers about perception. The people doing the hiring arrive at an initial decision about you by factoring in something they think will happen based on their perception of you. I have no real insights into creating a perception about yourself other than there are many factors that go into it and the traditional marketing methods exist not only to reach potential clients but also to build the perception of who you are. The reason I’m bringing it up is because 3 examples of perception were brought to my attention suddenly and I wanted to share them.

Seth Goodin has a new name and forward to an old book of his now called, “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories” (here). In the new forward he states:

“You believe things that aren’t true.
Let me say that a different way: many things that are true are true because you believe them.

[…]We believe what we want to believe, and once we believe something, it becomes a self-fulfilling truth.”

Last month a bombshell dropped in the wine world (here) when taste maker (and vineyard maker or breaker) Robert Parker blind tasted a group of wines he had previously ranked and said the lowest ranked wine was his favorite (before finding out what it was).

Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired and author of “How We Decide” weighs in on this remarkable turn of events:

When we take a sip of wine, we don’t taste the wine first, and the cheapness or redness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisred, or thiswineisexpensive. As a result, the wine “experts” sincerely believed that the white wine was red, or that Lafite was actually Troplong-Mondot. Such mistakes are inevitable: Our brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that our prejudices feel like facts, our opinions indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a grand cru, then we will taste a grand cru.

The Wall Street Journal takes the story further (here) with this article on the wine-rating system:

[Mr. Hodgson] obtained the complete records of wine competitions, listing not only which wines won medals, but which did not. Mr. Hodgson told me that when he started playing with the data he “noticed that the probability that a wine which won a gold medal in one competition would win nothing in others was high.” The medals seemed to be spread around at random, with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.

[…]The distribution of medals, he wrote, “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.”

Finally, Lise Varrette sent me this old story from the Washington Post:

On a cold January morning in a Washington, DC Metro Station, a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time about two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

[…]In the end, only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money, but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. When he finished playing, no one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

[…]It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

Read the whole story (here).

There Are 38 Comments On This Article.

  1. Next time I’m in a conversation about portfolio cases and someone says.. “It’s all about the images, you could put them in a manila envelope if they’re great,” I’ll send them this link.

    I’m not sure if it’s parallel to the Ellsworth Kelly story, but…

  2. I have experienced this system of relativity in everyday life for the last 50 years. I taste wines that my wife raves about and find them so-so to awful. I have convinced myself that I hate chardonnay and look for the post swallow cringe when I drink it, surprising myself when it does not happen. It is human nature to want to predict the future according to our perception of the universe. So, if we perceive our portfolios as being worth a lot, and present them as such, then psychologically we are marketing a high priced item, even if it may also sell on istockphoto for $1.25

  3. I recall watching that video from the Washington Post of Joshua Bell – fantastic and revealing…

    Perception is influenced by context and positioning – things which you may not be able to control but savvy marketers know all about how to stage, influence and gain your awareness so your viewpoint is colored in the best light (perception) for their needs. Brand stewards and managers know this very well.

    It’s not a bad thing, it is how we are. As a photographer it is why I would not approach W&K until I was damn well ready to.

  4. “We believe what we want to believe, and once we believe something, it becomes a self-fulfilling…… *distortion*”

    We are naturally caught in our own frame of reference:

    Some are more easily influenced – within that “frame of reference”.
    It is seen here (and many other places) in discussions daily.

  5. But what happens when everyone starts telling the same “story”? Doesn’t the message get watered down?

    In the wedding photography segment, at least, it seems every photographer bills themself as “high-end” or a “destination photographer available worldwide”–naturally because they want to attract high-budget clients or exotic locations.

    The reality, of course, is that they have little (if any) experience working with such clients and venues. And the truly talented/experienced photographers often get lost in the mix.

    I guess my question is–does the notion of “perception is reality” change if everyone attempts the same perception through their marketing?

  6. Took the time to read the full article. Astounding. So I guess this means that the astonishing packaging that many photographers (used?) to give their books was worthwhile huh? Then for a while it looked as if websites might be the great (monetary) equalizer. Nope.

    Thanks for the post. Reminded me of something I heard from Leslie Burns Dell’Acqua at an ASMP business seminar. To paraphrase: ‘DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT design your own website. You will look cheap.’

  7. Bullshit is an art and its mostly appreciated in advertising which is all about bullshitting the public into buying something that they really dont need. Keep this in mind when you sell (bullshit) yourself to agencies.

    I have friends that land some huge jobs and they are masters of bullshit. They drop names at the right time, wear the right clothing and give just enough gifts to the clients so the client thinks they are not getting their ass kissed but rather have a friend.

    It’s fucking disgusting when I see this in action and hear how good it works with some people at agencies but then again he’s landing way more work then I am.

    Maybe its my morals to feel wrong about whoring myself out but the idea crosses my mind often.

        • kevin halliburton

          @Giulio Sciorio, Interesting. Quite a set of moral conflicts you’ve outlined here don’t you think?

          • @kevin halliburton, It’s a daily conflict. I love shooting ad’s but my moral is with the butt kissing which I do not do. I balance my workload of ads with personal work and working with other artists for music videos and promo photos.

            The majority of ad work I do is not on my site only a few and I post them without any copy on them. I’m also not a fan (personally) of listing who I worked with. I figure if a art buyer likes my work we can have a chat and talk about their project and the work I’ve done for other clients.

  8. What comes to mind is Gladwell’s book “Blink”. He investigates our initial thought process and says “your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. The book shows a variety of situations where this happens, including art.

    Having an open mind is a lot more difficult than we thought.

  9. Well, Im not a wine drinker, so I couldnt tell you the difference between a sip of $400 chardonnay or $4 Boones, nor do I listen to classical music. I can add some fuel to the fire with this bit of personal experience though.

    Before I became a photographer I was a mechanic for about 12 years, the last 2 of which being spent working with Ferrari and Maserati. Having seen the “other” side of those cars I can loosely say that they are pieces of shit. The engineering is spotty, the fit and finish isnt always correct, the reliability is not great and they are not the FASTEST or BEST HANDLING cars out there. Yet see one parked on the street and a crowd gathers, hear one tear by you on the highway and your ears prick up, see one coming the opposite way on the road and you will stare. Im not saying that they arent fantastic cars, but there is more of a hype that carries them then anything else. After all its the way they appeal to the senses that will let you forgive its shortcomings I think. They are just a vehicle, four wheels, a motor, and a steering wheel after all. But the color, the shape of the bodywork, the sound of the engine is what makes it unique. If you could theoretically put earplugs in, and a brown bag over the car, you may not be able to tell the difference between it and a sports car costing a fraction of its price.

    The same holds true with our industry. A lot relies on hype and the show. Sure its just images, but execution, color, composition and presentation all play a vital role in reception and perception. ITs human nature after all. 99.9% of he time the “Ferrari” photographer would be chosen over the “Hyundai” photographer.

    My two pennies

    • @christian, Exactly! Likely why I put up with my Ducati, and sold my Suzuki years ago. What this really indicates to me is the passion in some products, especially Italian cars and motorcycles. Often that passion, much like a troublesome girlfriend, is enough to put up with them.

      If we can show that passion in our images, I do think that changes the perception others have of our images. That’s a good reason to take on projects in which we have interest, and passion, and not just for the money. Of course, we need to continue to show that passion, and I think that is why our personal work has become vastly more important than tear sheets.

  10. Reminds me of a museum that hung a few masterpieces of modern art at a nearby café, and with a similar outcome those works got little notice. Expectations do drive perception, which is why many artists look, and dress, like artists.

    How I have seen this apply to photography has been in writing proposals for shoots. Knowing how much to bid is a fine balance of perceived value and expectations. Too high and one becomes unaffordable, yet too low and one becomes too risky.

  11. Human nature is funny,sheep to the slaughter a lot of times. My kids love the I phone, I don’t. I love Nikon cameras, a lot of my friends don’t, they like the Caa..Cann…. I can’t make my self say it. We do perpetuate opinions, often unfounded, mostly because we heard someone elses opinion without our own personal experience. That is good advertising, like or not.

    The Funny things is, when we have our own personal experience, we wont admit our opinion was faulty, unfounded, Wro…. Wron….I can’t say it.

  12. I just thought of what one of my friends said to me,” You a professional liar!” I looked at he dumbfounded not know what he meant. He followed with,” A recruiters lips move and they are telling a lie.” I laughed, I actually started hearing itmore often while I was a recruiter for the Air Force. Perceptions are hard to overcome good or bad. I still laugh about it today.

  13. I wrote a blog post on Halloween titled “Influence” that addresses this issue, not from the buyer’s point of view, but of the art maker (in general, not specifically written for photographers). But, the idea applies, I think.

    What and who influence our direction-taking and decision-making act on us on a scale of daily, yearly, and over our lifetime.

    When I was vice president of a local camera club years ago I showed several lesser-known (almost unknown) works from photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and a couple recognizable pieces from them as well and requested critique of these works without the audience knowing who the creators were. All works were of comparable quality. The recognizable works received the highest praise of composition, subject matter, and quality of work while the lesser-known work from the same artist received comments regarding the lesser technique of composition, choice of subject matter, and quality of reproduction.

    We know what we know and are attracted to what we think looks good. Perception and impression are important, it seems.

  14. It is a little surprising to read at first and then I catch myself quickly thinking that we are in the business of perception. That is what we do everyday. I think some photographers are better at creating a perception about themselves than others. We all need to be very aware of this in what we do as photographers for our clients and what we do for our own brands.

  15. That all being said, all it takes is a pair of tight leather pants, a gold plated hasselblad with your name in rhinestones along the side, a fake german accent and tell your clients that you shot the cover of Hungarian Vogue and watch your business triple. ;-)

  16. Great post. Although I think for most situations, your instincts and senses are more true than your brain. Maybe photo editors, wine tasters, etc. need to always balance their perception with a gut reaction as a way to keep their decisions honest.

  17. Great post! All sorts of life lessons here. But in the end, I think it illustrates that you must know that your work is great, because very few other people really know, HA!

  18. Undoubtedly our perceptions affect our decisions and the decisions of others every day. It was on a recent road trip that my wife and I discovered this first hand. We grabbed a $5 bottle of wine in Idaho and took it along with us to drink in hot spring. It was probably the best bottle of wine I’ve ever had and maybe the cheapest as well. We had bought a couple of bottles of more “expensive” wine a few days earlier in Washington’s wine country. I don’t really remember how they tasted but I’ll always remember that bottle of Bohemian Highway and our experience talking with strangers in an Idaho hot spring.

  19. I gotta overhaul my pricing for my prints and work on my presentation. Gotta be that luxury photography instead of the economy photographer.

  20. In the piece there are a lot of good arguments and examples (a few bad ones too). On their own they could lead to a useful discussion maybe but how they are mashed together – its just another pile of klischees posing as some revelatory truth.

    I dont know – what I actually find much more astonishing is that how many people, friends and strangers actually do agree on a good wine, concert, music, picture etc.. Yes there are differnt opinions and contexts and some wines may be overpriced (as we all know) but I find again and again that quality is recognized consistently.