One of the attendees of my workshop told me this little anecdote that I absolutely loved. A friend of his is a teacher at a high school, and asked her students one simple question: “Can you name any photographer, living or dead?”
Silence. One student picked out a business card someone had given him and read the name off it.
If that doesn’t sink in, let me put it another way: In American culture, “The Situation” from Jersey Shore is way more famous than any photographer in history. Let that sink in for a bit.
At best, this entire industry has one rock star (Annie Liebowitz). Also, one classic pop diva ignored by the hip young masses (Anne Geddes). And I’ll give you Ryan McGinley as an indie hit.
There are a lot of things to take away from this — yes, you can bemoan a lack of education in the arts. But I LOVE it. Photographers aren’t important — their work is. Honestly, I couldn’t pick Richard Avedon, Alfred Stiglitz, or even modern masters like Steve McCurry out of a line-up — but I know their work inside and out. The Internet makes everything personal, turns everything into self-publishing, making the individual more important. It opens new opportunities, but it can get things twisted around.
Why does this get under my skin? It’s not a matter of individual behavior — most really well-known wedding photographers are the nicest people you could hope to meet. And, as the ad above shows, lots of industries have “rock stars.”
It’s all about what people aspire to. Is what really drives you to become more and more famous, or to do better and better work? Maybe fame is simply supplanting money as a form of currency — there have always been people out simply to get rich — but the central problem is that I believe that what wedding photographers do is more important than what many rock stars or celebrities do.
We aren’t important, but our work is. Love what you do and do it well, and you will spend a lifetime crafting the memories and social histories of people on the most important days of their lives. You will take photos that make children gape in amazement that their parents were so beautiful, you will take photos that will be laid with people in their caskets, you will take photos that can make people cry even if they don’t know the people in them.
Is that really less important than being the drummer for Nickelback?
UPDATE: Mark leaves a fantastic story in the comments: “I teach a HS class in photography. When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher. Then they saw a grown man cry!”