I often myself slightly bemused by the thought that I, as a moderately accomplished amateur photographer, am but one small part of a vast photographic community.
A community made of people of widely varying talent and widely varying esteem, either self-esteem or popular acclaim.
As a viewer of the results of the efforts of this community, be it on Flickr or 500px or Zenfolio or a host of other photography sites, I see images that appeal to me and those that don’t. Sometimes popularity and my own appreciation coincide; sometimes they do not.
Which is how it should be. No one has identical tastes. Some of us have very strong opinions on what constitutes a good photograph. These opinions can also vary widely. And although I can discern to my own satisfaction a good vs. a less good photograph, it would be arrogant of me to impose that judgement as an absolute. We are all prone to implicit bias, and often fail to acknowledge this.
Which is why I find the tendency of photography hosting sites to establish rating systems a mixed blessing. Certainly, I am pleased when I photograph I show gets acclaim. On the other hand, many of the photographs I personally rate highly get only marginal approval. Am I to take that as a mark that my image is inferior?
Perhaps. Many photographers are able to apply positive emotions to an image by being fully aware of the context and history behind that picture, situational cues that are inevitably denied to an unknowing viewer. To them, what you see is what you get, and the power or lack of found in a photograph becomes far more dependent on aesthetics and universality of appeal of the composition.
But even that requires the viewer to have a sense of such qualities, drawn from their own lives and experiences. Education too – an innate knowledge of aesthetic principles is gifted to relatively few of us.
All of which takes us a long way from the simple joys of getting out with a camera and photographing a scene of pleasure or interest. So much so that it can become inhibiting. One of the admirable qualities of the recently discovered and much discussed photographer Vivian Maier is the almost complete rejection of an audience for her work. Her art was for herself, albeit an obsessive-compulsive self whose own mental distortions undoubtedly played into her own assessment of her work. Still, despite walling herself off from any public acclaim, I suspect she was aware of her own talent and followed a personal and finely honed sense of what comprises a good photograph. It’s debatable how much of this was voluntary and how much was compulsive, but that’s nothing new in the world of art. We can just be thankful that John Maloof, the discoverer of her work and in his own way another compulsive individual, brought her to public attention.
Of course, when I am out in the field, somewhere like Columbia Bottom Conservation Area with my cameras, I really don’t think consciously about any of this. I’m just looking to take a pleasing photograph. Ultimately that’s why I do it, and it has nothing to do with fitting into a world of millions of photographers.
That is just as well. It’s why I continue and will always do so.