Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What is Success: Part 2 of 2

Part 1 to the question What is success? came yesterday. Here is Part 2.

Scroll down for answers to the question from:

Harry Hardie of Here  




"What makes a photograph successful for me is a very difficult question. It is not asking what makes a "good" photograph. However asking that question maybe answers the first question.

If what gauges whether a photograph is successful is how it changes or affects public opinion,  then one has to look at the pictures taken by, and which "star" Lynndie England, the US Army reservist who, either took or produced the pictures that came out of  Abu Ghraib in 2005. Should she get a Pulitzer? a World Press? Maybe, although that was not her aim as such...

For me personally a good photograph works in the way that, in literature, magic realism works. It is a photograph of a reality, of something based in the real, and yet alludes to something stranger or greater, however subtle, hence enhancing the reality..

It is also a question of layers, and understanding in the work, a successful photograph can be enjoyed or inform in different ways (on different layers) all at the same time. One minute its the content that engages you, then its where that content fits into history, and then the context of how, when and why the picture was taken, and of course the formal beauty of the photograph."



I think the word success is very difficult to define, because is it determined by the outside world's reaction to the work, or within the mind of the person producing the work? And if the register is set too far to either extreme, the work can either become self-indulgent or disposable. The artist can become too reactionary to internal or outside impulses.

At the same time, we are accustomed to a world of tangibles, of definite objects. Success is amorphous and changes shape with time. A failure can shift into success; a one-time success can erode into embarrassment.

Success for myself is not just about doing good, professional work.For lack of a better word, there's an element of magic. An innocuous detail that pushes the image into another level. When we're lucky, when we trust our instincts, we're hit with an electric charge. Does
this last? Oftentimes it doesn't. When the initial burst of clamor fades, but there's still magic in it, people still respond, you still feel something when you see it. That to me is success.



Thank you for asking what you called a stupid question, but which is arresting in the sense that I really had to pause and think how to answer it in an intelligent way. Success for work normally is taken to mean that it achieves whatever its maker intended, n'importe quoi. It could be all the things you mentioned: personal, financial, moral, social. Since it's always a good idea to ask what the question really is asking, I ended up looking at where the modern concept of success had come from. What is "success"? Do I really know my English, or am I like my friend from college days, who confessed having no clue about some of the words she regularly used. 

Looking it up (knowing it is derived from Latin), I found this explanation for the original meaning of the word, which designates "that, which comes after" :

 "Imagine a procession [pro + cedere = going forward], led by a dignitary. Behind him are his underlings, i.e. those who are "under" him. They therefore "go under" or "succeed" him. That is the original meaning of success/succeed in English. It is still used in that way to mean somebody following another in office, e.g. the succession to the throne. According to this site: {link}"succeed" was first used with the modern meaning (i.e. of accomplishing a desired end) in 1586."

In that dry sense, success is simply that what comes after, what follows. So, taking it from there, I guess that if very little follows from setting your work free in the world, it is said to have little success. If much comes after, you have a huge success. Having a lot of success can be like having a crowd of followers; it depends very much on what your viewpoint is, what you care to see, and how you value what comes after. For some work it might mean getting the secret service on your tail... in some cases a desired end, in some cases maybe not.  Sometimes your success - the amount of stuff and people who start following your work and sometimes even yourself - might hamper freedom of movement, much in the way a long train of a dress would. Lots of people get tangled up in that kind of stuff. 

For me, personally, at this point in my life, real success would most likely consist in getting many things to follow from a photograph - of whatever nature you desire these things to be  - yet without this long train of things restricting the free movement of the work, slowing down whatever you sent it out to carry forward in this world. I see work as that dignitary heading the procession. In the word dignitary hides the word dignity. If you look it up - e.g.  in the free dictionary - you see that it has a threefold meaning, and each of these can be said to apply what is considered successful work. 

Some work is esteemed in and of itself, it has so called intrinsic qualities.

We all want to believe our own work has that noble quality of true worth. This is the kind of success that waits to be discovered - or not. 

Some work is esteemed for its formality in bearing and appearance.

This is work that creates the impression that it is important, that we ought to pay attention and respect to it, rather than banking on its intrinsic quality. We could all name a few works that could be subsumed under this header.

Some work is esteemed for the rank or the station achieved.

Very few people contest the success of an Ansel Adams these days. Some living photographers act like they have already achieved that status. This is the kind of success one should be very suspicious of, where you should start to have doubts of a royal nature. It is the shiny kind: it tends to reflect mostly on the people who hang around merely for the advancement of their own interests. 

Of course this is a grossly cynical generalization of successful work and their makers, but it reinforces the metaphor of your work being put out in the world to carry something forward, to create things happening in its wake. Sometimes your work can be advanced by other people or events for reasons beyond your control, which can be a good or a bad thing, again depending on your perspective, taste and aims. 

However, what I have come to learn, is that it is takes courage to defend the integrity of your work when entering the public arena, which is the ultimate place to see if the work really has that kind of stamina and worth, the ability to carry something around. Personally, I am interested in works that light up the place by itself, rather than shine in borrowed lights, in work that brings energy into play, and does not drain the available resources, in work that creates space rather than takes up space.  



I think the answer is that it changes as hopefully I mature as an artist/photographer. As a student it was to please the tutors. After college it was to succeed as a 'professional photographer' at any cost. It then became about competition/approval. Now and this sounds a bit wanky, It's about pushing myself and making something which I believe in and that feels true. I am an artist who has chosen to use photography as my medium. I believe in photography as an art form which is why I sometimes get so critical about the 'photography world'. I gave up on the financial side years ago, although I wouldn't complain if some big fuck off gallery wanted to sign me up!



Funny enough I had this conversation with a friend a few weeks ago. I think ultimately for me it is having an audience, sharing my work and having a reaction or emotional engagement with it. My work is deeply personal but if someone else can identify something in it or with it then I am very happy and therefore successful.

Would I like to make money? Yes, that would be nice but regardless I will keep doing this, it is part of who I am (I know, a cliche, but true nonetheless).


If people can connect with my pictures and enjoy them that is enough for me. It’s like you are walking down the street and you smile at someone and they smile back. There is nothing given and nothing taken. It is just like a little nudge, a recognition of humanity and life. That is what photography means to me. It is my profession, it is my religion, it is my karma, it is my life.


Since Sleeping by the Mississippi was my first project and I had virtually no audience, the goal was to try and finally make something good enough for a pretend audience. Up to that point I’d done some decent work, but I never felt a full project was really good enough for a broader audience. My primary goal was to make something worthy of showing to anyone beyond my little circle.

Now I have a bigger circle. But since I have a few bodies of work under my belt, the danger is becoming stale. The goal with the new work is to make something that feels fresh and unforced. Of course I also want to make something good.


Anastasia Taylor-Lind

The value of a photograph is in that it is a form of communication between 2 people (a way of communicating something between the photographer and the viewer).... this is the point of photography. Considering this, photography has little value if no one sees it. Johnny Cash would not have served the world if he had sat in his bedroom singing his beautiful folk songs to himself. So, the most important consideration of whether a project is a success to me,  is if it is seen.

Money is in many ways irrelevant..... there are easier ways to make money than shooting long-term personal projects (waitressing for example). That said it is also hard to quantify how "much" money one makes from a story. I guess the most obvious way is through editorial sales... how much money do you make from people BUYING the pictures. But a project can also make money through awards, grants and scholarships that give cash prizes or expenses to shoot a new story. One can also raise your profile within the photographic community and expand your client base, or be commissioned for an assignment on the strength of a specific story. At the very least, each new project strengthens your portfolio.

I personally don't believe that images, or the act of photographing can effect tangible change, although photography can certainly be use to "make a difference". Marcus Bleasedale's work from the Congo is a very good example of this. Certainly, in this case, it is not important how many people see the images, but WHO sees them. But i think it is the way one uses the pictures in a campaigning context that bring about that change, not the photographs themselves . Photographs are humble things, and i think it is naive to expect too much of them. If i was primarily concerned with changing the world, i would have become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a human rights activist.

I guess, on a personal level, I am happy for myself if I feel a story communicates in some small way the experience of being in a particular place, at a particular time to someone else, who wasn't there. Photographs of course have great value as historical documents. They are also of great value to the people in them. Perhaps family photo albums are the images with the most value in the world. It is important to me, and I suppose you could say it is a measure of the projects success, that I send prints to the people in my photographs, that they like them, that they put them on their walls... and that the experience of  having a photographer (me) living with them and photographing them is a positive one. For me, photography is mostly about traveling around the world, on my own, and making friends. If I develop friendships that last longer than the time I spend shooting a story (as is often the case), then that project is also a success.



Gemma-Rose Turnbull

Success is measure in tiny incremental goals along the way. It’s someone discovering how to focus a camera, or someone being excited by the photographs they have taken. Someone relishing the opportunity to share their story. For me it’s taking time to get to know and care about the people I am working with, rather than running through their lives and taking their images from them for my own personal gain. 



Your question is not stupid and I think I asking myself this question all the time. for a "young" photographer I think that success of a project or image is getting a feedback from someone that visited the web site or saw one of my exhibitions. I know that my works are not that commercial. In this point of my career i wish to get to more and more people and don't think about selling prints and most of all I wish to enjoy my act of photographing and get satisfaction. I'm working as a printer in one of the wellknow photo shops in Jerusalem so I have everything that I need for my photography. I wish that someday I could live from my art but right now it's only a dream.


It's a complex question of course, and in the end it depends on what you consider success.
In the end for me it's pretty personal.

I  suppose I should write about Sweet Nothings as it's the work of mine that's received the most public and private attention. I made the work at the end of my time living in Turkey ( though in reality I'm back there pretty often).

Somehow I managed to both consciously and intuitively make this series. I was somehow driven by a sense of clarity, and a desire to be completely simple... The physical act of making the work required for me to work with  cumbersome equipment, loading and changing film in not such easy circumstances, perhaps this physicality appears  somewhere in the images  too.

More importantly are the girls in the images far beyond me and my camera...what happened in front of me/my camera was something else.

Of course I set the scene if you like, and I have asked of the girls to look directly into the camera's lens, but all the details of their expressions and body language were and are the thing that I feel make the pictures...these accumulative and individual aspects of these young, vulnerable, proud, shy, girls set in this landscape on the borderlands.

I remember each and every one of them, I remember the before and the afters....our brief encounter together touched and impressed, and still impresses me.

Since making the pictures they have taken on a life of their own,...in the end the responses I receive on a personal level are the ones that resonate most powerfully the responses often of ordinary, people who are not necessarily photographers, how they feel somehow connected with the girls in the photographs.

Finally, I imagine when I return to the girls will really be an important moment, of whether or not the images, and I suppose the remembering of having had their images made, will be the real test.


2 comments:

Stan B. said...

One helluva easy question to ask, and equally difficult to answer, particularly without cliche. Harry Hardie makes a very valid point about the Abu Gharaib photos- they really should have won something, many things, and nominated for many more!

Maybe this all leads towards what is perhaps the more pertinent, relevant question- what motivates us?

cafe selavy said...

Hmm. The story behind the story, of course, is the meta-question of choosing who to question. What I take from the responses of this very wonderful group of photographers, though, is that success is what keeps you taking photographs. What is it that lets you pick up your camera and start again? Failure is the thing that makes you put it down. You can argue this the other way too, of course. They were a brave lot to answer the question. Kudos to them for that.