John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Photography Talent/Popularity Square Dance

in the world of photography

the talent/popularity square dance

Let’s consider two variables that we see in many different photography settings, but especially in online photo-sharing communities:

1. A person’s talent as a photographer.

2. The popularity of that person.

Any given person might be high or low on either variable. If we examine how these two variables interact with each other, we arrive at what I call the Talent/Popularity Square Dance. To capture this idea visually, I’ll use the following symbolism:

Mona Lisa = high talent
Sad Doggie = low talent
Stars = high popularity
No stars = low popularity

Both talented and popular

In the upper left quadrant we find people who are both highly talented and popular. Anyone who’s knows online photo-sharing communities can tell you that there are truly excellent photographers there, well deserving of the recognition they receive in the number of people viewing their work, the number of positive comments posted, and high ratings of the pictures. Although their photography might be surprising, there’s no real surprise in the fact that their popularity reflects their skill level. What’s it like being a superstar? No doubt, there are pros and cons, just as with any type of fame. Some of these photographers probably work hard at drawing visitors to their work, while others might not do much of anything other than post great shots. Popularity does tend to begat itself: some famous people are famous simply because they’re famous. For that reason, talented people who occasionally produce a mediocre photo, or worse, might still get lots of praise for it.


Not talented or popular

In the lower right quadrant are people low in both talent and popularity. Again, the correlation between the two variables makes sense. The only puzzlement is why some of them stay in online photo-sharing communities. I suspect it’s probably because they enjoy taking photos and sharing them with the few visitors that do visit, who are probably friends and family. But what motivates those people who remain online even though almost no one at all views or comments on their photos? Is it the satisfaction of knowing they have made their images, and themselves, known – regardless of the fact that no one seems to notice? Is their online photo collection a way to talk out loud that helps affirm their identity?


Popular but not talented

In the upper right quadrant are people who are low on talent while being highly popular. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve seen people who are blatantly poor photographers receiving lots of attention and praise, but I have seen highly popular people whose talent would be considered average or even below average. If you’ve belonged to an online photo-sharing community for a while, I’m sure you’ve come across these situations, scratched your head, and wondered, “Why is this person getting so much attention?”

There are a variety of possibilities. To boost their visibility and popularity, they might frequently offer positive comments and ratings of other people’s photos, create lots of effective tags for their images, and submit their work to many special interest groups. If you search for tips on how to become famous in a particular online photo-sharing community, like Flickr, you’ll discover other strategies. So, in that sense, highly popular but seemingly untalented people might indeed be talented at attaining popularity. In some cases the recognition they receive might reflect the fact that people like something about their photography – the ideas, sentiments, or stories being expressed - even if the shots aren’t technically or artistically good. Or they simply like the photographer as a person, because he or she is thoughtful, kind, expressive, unique, funny, outrageous, intelligent, or friendly. Lastly, there’s always the possibility that people who seem untalented to you really are talented at photography, but you don’t understand their work, or it’s an acquired taste that you don’t share. “Talent” can be a tricky thing to define.


Talented but not popular

The last quadrant, in the lower left, is reserved for those highly talented photographers who receive little or no attention and praise. At first glance it makes no sense to see the Mona Lisa there, because it’s a renowned work of art. But what if da Vinci never achieved fame? It could have turned out that way. I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon fantastic photographers in online photo-sharing communities and wondered why their sites looked like ghost towns. If they’re doing great work, how come they’re not popular? Perhaps they haven’t been discovered yet. Perhaps they don’t interact much with other people in the community or employ any of the strategies that would draw attention to their work. In some cases, maybe their photography is so unique that most people don’t appreciate it. While some of these talented but unrecognized photographers might feel frustrated, eventually giving up on the photo-sharing community, others might persist in trying to draw more attention to their work, or not really care if they ever get a lot of attention, feeling satisfied with the few visitors who do appreciate them. Some people, believe it or not, aren’t interested in fame.


The dance around the square

OK, so we have this four-part categorization of people, but what makes it a Square DANCE? Well, it’s fairly common for people to hop from one of the four cells to another. For example, if you look at the earliest posted images of the talented and popular photographers, they may not have been very good and didn’t receive much attention. Talent and fame evolve over time. Popular but untalented photographers might fall from their acquired fame when they withdraw from other people in photo-sharing community or stop employing any of the strategies that might draw attention to their work. Even people both talented and popular might lose their status over time, as when they begin experimenting with photography that isn’t especially good, or it is good but not what their fans expect of them. People who are unpopular and talented, as well as those who are unpopular and untalented, might work hard at improving their popularity or talent, eventually achieving both.

Of course, all things in life don’t fit neatly into little boxes. There are a whole lot of people who fall somewhere between the realms of “high” and “low” talent and popularity. Talent and popularity are also always changing, not only in when and how people attain these things, but also in how we define them. We would need to answer such questions as "Talented in what ways?" and "Popular among what kind of people?"

Despite these complexities, the dance is pretty much the same no matter where the music is playing.


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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche