In high school, I spent much of my time as an underachieving B- student. It wasn’t that school was particularly difficult from an academic perspective; I was so distracted with video games, girls and basketball that I was simply content to get by with passing grades. There was also an infectious insanity prevailing some of the young men in school, passed along by subtle but powerful peer pressure: that anything above academic mediocrity was uncool. Yes, it made absolutely no sense. In any case, I stepped it up enough in senior year to get accepted into college, but it wasn’t until I nearly flunked out following my high school formula for deliberate mediocrity that I fully realized how much I was only hurting myself. I could do better, and I knew it. After some soul searching (and some major student loan payments), eventually I would get it together, gradating with honors. As I look back on those years, I do wonder if I needed to understand and experience what academic mediocrity was (and what was feeding mine) in order to break free from it.
That memory brings me to the the notion behind this post. Does photography need mediocrity? Is it necessary to experience a deluge of fair to middling images in order to understand what exceptional photography looks like? Of course, comparing the objectivity of academia, with its pass/fail, 0-100% scales, to the subjectivity of a photographic image is a challenge. One could also debate the impact of deliberate mediocrity (where a person fails to achieve simply because they are lazy or distracted) vs what I’ll call “genuine” mediocrity (where a person who is giving an honest, wholehearted effort still simply lands somewhere in the middle). Genuine mediocrity is a topic for another day (at what point should a person who is genuinely mediocre simply give up vs. struggling with being considered mediocre forever? And what determines greatness vs. mediocrity – is it “art world” acceptance? Print sales? Sponsorships? Books published? Social media mentions? Workshop revenues?). For the purposes of today’s attention span, I’ll stick with reflecting on deliberate self-mediocrity. And, let’s assume for the sake of argument that photographic mediocrity is purely subjective and based on one’s personal definition.
What are some of the causal factors of deliberate mediocrity in photography; issues that cause some of us to feel like we are doing “good enough”? Undoubtedly, social media rises to the top of any list, where what’s popular is so easily confused with what’s actually good. To illustrate, anyone living in or visiting Detroit these days will notice that there are no less than 30 new places to get a hamburger in the downtown area. At least two of those places (one near Campus Martius and one in Greektown, for those guessing along) consistently have customer lines that extend out of the store and down the block – extremely popular. But neither is anything to write home about (sorry guys) compared to any number of local hole-in-the-wall establishments that put them to shame in the taste department. Popular does not equal good. Anyway, back to photography. Several social media outlets – ok, MOST – are based primarily on algorithms meant to reward popularity, pushing visibility to accumulate followers in volume. Such popularity can be gained in a number of ways, such as false reciprocation (follow me/I’ll follow you back, like my photo/I’ll like yours back) combined with some form of bait (name dropping, print giveaways, workshops, commercially endorsed blogs, etc.), making it relatively easy to amass hundreds, even thousands of followers. As those followers perpetuate the game of reciprocation, a vicious cycle culminates in the golden currency of social media: precious “likes”, in the form of hearts, thumbs up, smiley faces, and so on.
The attention can be intoxicating and distracting. If, for example, my black & white, full dynamic range, long exposure, silhouetted solitary figure self-portraits attract several hundred “likes” on Flickr, but my seemingly mundane aerial or architectural photographs only attract a few dozen “likes”, does that say anything about the quality of the images, or does it merely suggest some level of flavor-of-the-month popularity? Is it possible that the small screen format of phones and tablets used by most on social media favors images that are bold, graphical, and simple vs. those that need to be viewed larger to be fully appreciated? Most importantly, is it possible that worrying too much about the answers to those questions could negatively influence my own work, causing more deliberate “crowd pleasers” rather than the pursuit of what I feel to be a higher personal standard? What about you?
On the other hand, “knowing is half-the battle” (80’s babies will get that reference), right? What if there was no superficial social media to vividly illustrate and reward populist tropes, even of my own doing? Not that I’ll never attempt another conceptual self-portrait, but would I be able to recognize that I needed to push myself harder without social media induced introspection? Would I be inclined to expand my skillset and experiment with new approaches to go beyond my own deliberate mediocrity? What about you?