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Do People Recognize Great Photography?


In 2007, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten conducted a social experiment in which he recruited one of the world’s great violinists, Joshua Bell, to play in a Washington D.C. subway station. Just two days prior to the experiment, Bell had played in a sold-out Boston theater in which ordinary tickets sold for $100 apiece. The entire experiment was filmed using a hidden camera:

In the end, of the 1,097 people who passed by Joshua Bell, only seven stopped to listen to the music. His 45-minute performance of six famous (though not necessarily recognizable) classical pieces earned $32.17 from 27 passersby, with some dropping pennies. As a result of his experiment and subsequent article for the Post, Weingarten won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

I recently thought about this experiment, and whether the general public is just as blind to greatness in photography as it is in music. Our our fast paced lifestyles and millisecond attention spans, many recent trends in photography seem to be pushing towards delivering eye-candy and a quick “wow” factor rather than substantive work that will stand the test of time.

For example, consider the following photographs:

On the left is a HDR photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge that was a hit on Flickr, attracting 344,783 views, 1,097 favorites, and 248 comments. On the right is “Los Angeles, California”, taken in 1969 by Garry Winogrand. The image on the left may attract eyes due to its surreal nature, dark clouds, and over-saturated colors, but I would question whether it has any ability to “stand the test of time” and become significant as a photograph. Some might call it “eye-candy” (not to bash on HDR, since I do believe HDR has its place and can be done beautifully).

On the other hand, the photograph by Winogrand may not attract eyes as easily (and some may even ignore it due to it being black and white), but it provides a beautiful glimpse into a period of our history that is delicately mindful of framing, lighting, and timing.

Thus, I feel as though credit for “greatness” is often bestowed upon modern-day photographers whose work may soon lose its appeal and become utterly insignificant, while those who are producing great work may fly under the radar and never be noticed by the general public.

What are your thoughts? Are there any modern day photographers who are under-appreciated now, but have the potential of becoming the next Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange?

Image credit: Golden Gate HDR by vgm8383