Few things are as insulting to a serious photographer as having their work referred to as snapshot, postcard or cliché. We all wish to avoid the ordinary and the commonplace and to create exceptional work, literally an exception to the norm. And yet, the norm would not be a norm if it did not encompass the majority of work produced by the majority of photographers. The reason may have to do with peer pressure. When online communities and popular information sources place so much emphasis on technical specifications, the latest hotspots, techniques and visual effects, a dynamic is created that rewards conformity and makes it hard for most people to break from the herd or to receive useful feedback when they do.
I am sometimes reminded of my high school years in the days of Punk Rock when so many of my classmates sought to express their innate individualism by sporting Mohawks, torn jeans and metal spikes, ironically ending up looking pretty much the same. In seeing so much repetition of the same subject matter and visual effects in landscape photography today, I can’t help think that the cause is the same: too much emphasis on appearances and bragging rights, and too little on expressing the true uniqueness of the photographer as a person, as a thinker, as a creative artist, as an individual, as someone having a distinctive personality and sensibilities, a unique outlook on life, and unique stories to tell, and the courage to embrace and express them rather than imitate others.
Many factors may contribute to an image being exceptional, but they are not all equal in value. Exceptional images can rely on exceptional subject matter, exceptional light, exceptional technique, exceptional visual effects, etc. But in order for an image to also be meaningful, it must rely on the exceptional vision, imagination and creativity of the photographer.
The Internet, digital photography and the vast array of software tools available today combine to offer us an abundance of visually spectacular imagery. No matter how visually appealing an image may be, though, my impression is always primarily decided by the degree to which it expresses the singular mind of the photographer. Exceptional subject matter is often just a reflection of the photographer’s travel itinerary or ability to sleuth the location compositions already made by others; exceptional light may be completely random and serendipitous; exceptional special effects may reflect on the capabilities of gear and software, etc. All are important to the success of an image, but if its appeal ends with technical excellence or a rehashing of well-worn compositions, the photographer may do well to re-evaluate their priorities to avoid stagnation.
Important images don’t stop at visual appeal; there has to be a narrative to them, a story or meaning conceived of the photographer’s own mind. These are the truly important and exceptional images - images that would not exist were it not for the unique mind of one person.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 30 of Landscape Photography Magazine.