We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess to a large degree. Among photographers who shoot weddings, there is this low grade grumbling about how tough it is to run a successful business. The economy is blamed, the amount of competition is given as an excuse and the devaluation of photography is also called out for making this career path difficult. I do think some of these factors are valid, but it’s always been hard. Always. Not only has it always been hard, but most photographers chose this life because they want to live it till they die. It’s a life choice, not a trend or a fad. So many photographers today don’t build their life around the long arc. It’s all about microwaving a career.
At the Gathering in New York City last week, I spent a lot of time reflecting on where our industry is and how it has gotten to the place it has. I believe there are a number of different circumstances that have lead us to where we are in 2013, but one that’s not talked about is our role in all of this.
As the new rank of photographers has come along the past 10 years, what has been left behind are the knowledge and respect for the history of photography. The fact that a person can educate themselves through the internet is quite marvelous, but it’s also a curse.
When someone only learns through self-education, they have the power to skip all sorts of information they should have learned. It’s the difference between having a personal trainer that forces you to do the work you don’t really want to do, but need to and working on your own. Humans do much better when we have someone guiding us and keeping us accountable. This is why we have teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, bosses and partners. Left on our own, we typically wander off track only engaged in things that give us a rush of adrenaline.
When photographers teach themselves, the discipline to learn about the deep history of photography is quickly left behind. In its place grows an ambition to see how quickly they can get a profitable business off the ground. There is no time to marinate, to ponder, to freely explore and to gain a deep reverence for the power of images.
A great number of photographers now don’t know who Edward Steichen was or Paul Strand or Minor White or Alfred Steiglitz or Lee Friedlander or WeeGee or Harry Callahan or Emmet Gowin or Nicholas Nixon or Imogen Cunningham or…
This breaks my heart, because many photographers don’t have a foundation for what great photography is. Since this understanding is missing, what has happened is that much of the wedding industry has become a contest to see who is the most clever. Photography has become about who is really witty instead of the human condition. It’s now about materialism, style, looking cool, trendy and ‘with it’, but often the substance is missing.
Wedding photography has become more clever and creative, but it hasn’t gotten deeper. Timeless truths are hard to find in portfolios these days, but it’s really easy to find someone pushing the boundaries of composition or some other basic element of photography.
Photographers tend to be obsessed with photography, but if you look back over the history of the medium, the most successful artists were more obsessed with life, with humanity. Photography was a means to self-discovery for the masters, not the end. The masters often photographed because they felt it ultimately made them better people and that they would understand the world more intimately.
What I’d like to see in the wedding and portrait industry, is to have maybe 20% of the industry creating more mature work. I want to see less images about how clever the photographer was and more about how the bride keeps forgetting her dance steps, about how the groom shows his love by caressing his wife’s shoulder to calm her nerves or about how the bride’s family laughs louder and longer than most people. I want to see photographs about the people, about family, about real life, not about off-camera lighting or about VSCO action sets.
The more we emphasize the surface of life, the less people will value photography, because anyone can learn to capture the surface of things. That’s the easy part. True artists dig deeper, they see the minute moments we all miss. How can you take your work to a deeper level? What truth are you showing us about life that enriches our souls or are you just showing off a really expensive table setting?
Wedding photography has decreased in value because most wedding images are about stuff, material possessions. Wedding images are about styled shoots and models and fancy invitations and paper lanterns. Most wedding photography today actually sells the other wedding vendors better than the photographer.This is why blogs and Pinterest are so popular.
The definition of a wedding has changed. It’s no longer about family and two people committing their life to one another. It’s about throwing a stylish party that shows how creative the couple is. It’s a game to see who can ‘one up’ the other weddings of the world. The Wedding Machine has won.
It’s like this:
‘Oh you thought your wedding was unique? Well, I had mine on top of an abandoned carousel out in New Mexico with a bunch of people in mermaid costumes floating in an inflatable pool. That’s right. My wedding kicked your wedding’s ass!’
We act as though the most important thing to photograph at a wedding is the decor and style of it all, but you know what is the most important thing to photograph? Do you know what the most important thing in life is? It’s people.
The problem is photographers have willing jumped into the wedding blog ocean and are enjoying the swim. They LOVE seeing their work get published, while each blog post shoots all of us in the foot. We are hurting our own industry by not demanding a higher standard of image. I think most of us want to be creating the types of images that most blogs don’t run, but that’s not considered ‘good’ photography anymore. It’s played off as the boring stuff that some mom will buy. That’s sad.
I would love to see several blogs and magazines, ran by people that know the history of photography and understand the power of images, honoring a higher quality. I hate that publications don’t celebrate the interesting human interactions at weddings. It’s the most symbolic day of our lives, but we are more obsessed with the symbols than the actual emotions and people that are there. We’d rather treat our clients as models than human beings with fears, hopes and desires.
When I look at most wedding photography today, I don’t know the couple any better than I would a fashion model on the cover of a magazine. The soul is missing and it’s time we get it back, because this track of personality, coolness and style is quite uninteresting in the grand scheme of life. Don’t we want future generations to know something about the interpersonal relationships of the families we are shooting rather than the fact the bride dropped an insane amount of money on blue Jimmy Choo’s?
As photographers, we have the power to redefine the industry. To say weddings need to be about THIS and not THAT. We need to set the bar, not clients and surely not wedding blogs. All the power is in the images that are celebrated and are on display. We have the power to make weddings more real and less fake, but we have to fight for it. We have to learn to see the world more intimately and we must learn how to make those types of images. Styled shoots are easy, but capturing the human spirit…now that’s a real goal worth working towards.
Founder and CEO of Musea