There Are No Rockstar Photographers

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!”

  • http://www.danielstarkphotography.com Daniel Stark

    “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.”

    Awesome. Well said.

  • http://jamiemswanson.com Jamie M Swanson

    Totally agree. :-) Here’s to simply taking good photos and doing what you love.

  • http://www.kirstenalana.com Kirsten

    So. Well. Said.

  • http://www.godkinphoto.com Ben Godkin

    Amen brother! And yes… I think I am more important than Nickelback. :)

  • http://www.katbramanphotography.com Kat Braman

    The only people I care about thinking I am rockstar is my clients . . . and only because they feel I did an awesome job capturing their big day and all of the little moments and details that makes it uniquely theirs.

    As always, well said Ryan.

  • Daniel Adair

    Hey I am the drummer from Nickleback !!!
    Richard Avedon, Joseph Stiglitz are way bigger “rock stars” than I will ever be!

    Rock On!!

  • http://jesserosten.com Jesse

    Ryan, great reminder on keeping the priorities straight.

  • http://www.lauradye.com Laura Dye

    Yes. Thank you. So, so true.

    In the end, we get paid to do something we love. That’s an incredible privilege.

  • http://www.DustinFinn.com Dustin Finn

    I would still run through and push people over in a crowded subway car to make sure I said hello to you… :)

  • http://www.ryanbrenizer.com Ryan Brenizer

    Hi, Daniel! What are you doing in Ontario? ;-)

  • http://www.dennispikephoto.com Dennis Pike

    I just told the subject of this particular story to check out this post, I think she’s going to flip, and feel a little like a rock star, herself.

  • http://chrislinphoto.com/ Chris Lin

    NBC.com has taken down the video, but Conan O’Brien interviewed the *real* Ajay Bhatt. The dude in the commercial is an actor.

    Here’s the engadget post: http://www.engadget.com/2009/10/10/conan-obrien-talks-to-the-co-creator-of-usb-on-the-tonight-show/

    Bhatt emphasizes the team effort of USB and other Intel technologies. He’s one architect leading a team of engineers.

    And you’re not a rockstar to me, Ryan. You’re a dancing *machine*. :-D

  • http://www.sandrajacksonphotography.com Sandra

    Very well put.

  • Maria Landaverde

    you not are a rock star but damn you are popular!…If only one day can I be as popular and good as you and people start to love my work!… that is the most important thing to me that be a “rockstar”

  • http://www.alenabdula.com Alen Abdula

    So Ryan, what lens should I buy to be a rock-star wedding photographer? :) Great writeup buddy. Very well put!

  • http://www.ryanbrenizer.com Ryan Brenizer

    Definitely a 1200-1700 f/5.6-8

  • - g

    Dude, which Joe Stieglitz are you talking about, because I definitely think the Economist Joe is a bone-fide rock star (shine on you crazy, anti-IMF diamond!).

  • Linnea Pike Barth

    I do feel like a rock star! My students can now name a few photographers this week. Very astute point; the same can be said of art education, I will never be famous, but hopefully I will instill a life-long love of art in a few! Beautiful work!

  • http://thomaslesterphotography.com Thomas Lester

    Well said!

  • http://www.coreyann.com Corey Ann

    So exactly how I feel! I’d rather capture memories that will last a lifetime than have a legacy that will last a moment. I could care less if other photographers want to be me or not, instead I care about making sure I’m the best ME for my clients.

  • http://www.ryanbrenizer.com Ryan Brenizer

    Haha, g, that was an interesting brain fart. I should stop blogging drunk.

  • jenny

    ryan, i think you’re a photography rock star :)

  • http://flickr John

    No, but I bet that pickle will be more famous than Nickleback

  • http://www.ryanbrenizer.com Ryan Brenizer

    @Jenny: I think you’re a rock star bride!

  • http://markandrewphotographer.com Mark Andrew Higgins

    I teach a HS class in photography. When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher. Then the saw a grown man cry!

  • http://www.amberleechristey.com Amberlee

    The girl in green ruffled dress is me when I met you… you’re a photography rock star

  • http://www.tabmccausland.com Tabitha McCausland

    I strongly agree!!! I LOVE that commercial :)

  • http://www.yesterdayslife.com/photofront/oldhamedia Jolene Oldam

    Great post, Ryan. I felt like a total rock star when my name was mentioned at a party and someone said “I love her picture of the swan!” I thought I’d explode with pride. Of course, I wasn’t recognized, but the work was.

  • http://fourpointedstar.com JayLee

    I think that few people can truly see the difference between snapshots and photography, leading to a lack of appreciation of photographers. FWIW: I remember know who Ansel Adams was in lower elementary – maybe that’s lends more to my photographer/nerd status than anything.

  • http://www.avidphoto.net Luis Gonzalez – Avid Photography

    I don’t know – I kind of rock! :)

  • http://www.daniellemccannphotography.com Danielle McCann

    I totally agree!!! My town has a monthly “art fair” of sorts — musicians, painters, photographers, dancers all get together downtown and set up booths to do our thing. I have never felt better than when a lady walked up and said “Hmm, Danielle McCann Photography…” as if she had never heard of me. Then she saw my logo and a lightbulb went off. “YOU did the firefighter wedding!! Unbelievable!!” Made my day. My name meant nothing to her, but the fact that a wedding I had done nearly a year before stayed with her… that was awesome.

  • http://www.suzaidee.com Dee

    Nicely written… :)

  • http://beccadilley.com/blog Becca Dilley

    That is a really great point, and one that is nice for newer photographers to take to heart. In a world of “rock star” wedding photographers, it is nice to have more perspective on what that means.

  • http://www.zachanderson.net Zach Anderson

    Sure seemed like judge joe brown should be in that “rockstar photographer” list.

  • http://www.downtownimagery.com Eric Kotara

    Great article and too true. You could probably get the same response by asking about painters, or ceramicists, or just about any other art. We don’t instill enough art appreciation in our children these days.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/alberthuynhphoto/ albert

    Love what you do Ryan. This gave me the chills. What you said really just changed my view about Photographers. Love your blog, keep it coming. I someday hope I will be as talented enough as yourself to be doing wedding photography.

  • http://DrewWphtotography.com Drew

    Oh my gosh Ryan. This is so well put. This actually feels like a huge wait has been lifted from my shoulders. Thank you very much.

  • http://www.lovehonourandparty.com Gemma Schipani

    Thankyou for this because it’s so true. Sometimes we really do need someone to point these things out to remind us what this business is all about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/spirithandsphoto Robert Snache

    This really hits the point of why I love to shoot. I don’t go for the admiration, I love the response a beautiful shot can have on people.

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  • http://www.thestudioorange.com Robert Wurth

    Another pretty cool thing about this industry is finding out that someone is an avid (and pretty decent) photographer, AND is rock-star famous… just not for photography.

    Case in point: not that long ago I learned that Leonard Nimoy (yep, ol’ Mr. Spock himself) has been a photographer for quite some time. I thought that was pretty amazing.

  • http://www.ryanbrenizer.com Ryan Brenizer

    True, Robert! I actually just marveled over Dennis Hopper’s photos yesterday!

  • http://Luisgodinez.com Luis Gidinez

    Amen. Well said.

  • I_dunno

    that’s mainly caused by the democratisation of the publishing tools and cameras. C.Anderson’s book “the long tail” mentions that, and this post and his book kinda share some ideas

  • http://www.edricmorales.com Edric Morales

    Very well said! I enjoyed this read very much. Good to stay humble and focus on what is important.

  • Tammy Hineline

    Good thing I am the drummer for Nickelback.

  • Ashley MacPhee

    thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou. After a FULL day of photographing my own ‘trash the dress’ photoshoot… directed, and mostly styled by me… reading this just reinforces so much and keeps my head humble. Thank you!

  • http://www.toddbryan.com Todd Bryan

    I love this quote from your article! “When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher. Then they saw a grown man cry!”

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  • Laura Ryan Moakley

    Thank you Ryan… I also teach photo at a high school also and MADE SURE they knew at least a couple of modern day and past photographers.. this is such a sad culture at times.. you are awesome~.

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  • http://joemartinphotography.com/ Joe Martin

    “When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher” that made this grown man LOL good post