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!”

Published by

Ryan Brenizer

I take pictures.

53 thoughts on “There Are No Rockstar Photographers”

  1. “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.

  2. 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.

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

    Rock On!!

  4. 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”

  5. 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!).

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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

  17. 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!

  18. 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!”

  19. 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~.

  20. Yes, yes, yes.
    Although going from teaching to wedding phtoography, I notice the amount of respect was much higher. Much, much higher. Of course, going from teachering to street sweeping I’d probably notice the same thing.

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