How I Offended the World’s Most Popular Photographer

The advent of the Internet was a momentous occasion, one which afforded me a litany of new ways to continue doing what I have always done best but now with a much larger audience — open my mouth and say things I probably shouldn’t. I know, shocker. Consider yourself a gem from Heaven if you are unable to testify to having done it at least once. Go ahead, cast the first stone.

As an aspiring photographer, like many artists, I had a tendency to find masters of inspiration and just latch onto them for all I was worth. I would follow their work, I would follow their lives, I would live vicariously through their utter awesomeness. But, as anyone who has idolized anyone can tell you, eventually your idols let you down, sometimes through no intentional fault of their own.

How I Offended the World’s Most Popular Photographer

There was a time when I was enamored with HDR photography, a whole new world made possible by digital technology. The detail, the vibrancy…all of which led me to Trey Ratcliff, the man behind Stuck In Customs. I was an avid fanboy. No, seriously…I had it bad. Here was an artist on the cutting edge of this yet-to-be-defined universe, and I greatly admired him. His images were what I tried to emulate, their surreal beauty almost taking my breath away.

How It Went Down

Then, something happened. Or didn’t happen…I’m not really sure. Perhaps I simply grew out of my phase, but his work seemed to lack its luster, its edge, its originality. HDR photography lost its appeal. (Perhaps another discussion for another time…) I grew tired and bored and jaded…which is when I lashed out.

How I Offended the World’s Most Popular Photographer

Yes. I said that. I am ashamed. But, then again, there are countless things throughout my life for which I am ashamed. The Internet, with its cloak of anonymity, afforded me a faceless shield from behind which to hurl my insults. So, imagine my surprise when I received the notification for this:

How I Offended the World’s Most Popular Photographer

I was both mortified and ecstatic! On one hand, I had acted like a prepubescent child and people found out, but, on the other, I had an audience with the world’s most popular photographer (Gallup results pending)!

I paused for a moment to analyze why I felt the way I did and say the things I chose to. Had he lost his zeal as an artist? Had his style simply changed? Was I the one who changed? Perhaps all of the above?

There has been a trend throughout the art community for the last half decade or so, a cycle through which many great names have gone. THAT is what upset me most, which inspired my response to Trey:

It got your attention!…although I should have tried a more civil method. Please accept my apologies.

I’ve followed your work over the last several years, and it was you who provided some of my initial inspiration when I renewed my interest in photography. I LOVE following your images from Burning Man each year as they bring out a facet of your artistic vision that differs from your standard work (and I mean that as a true compliment).

Maybe it’s a drifting in personal taste, maybe it’s an increased knowledge of the technical side of photography (although I am professing no advanced level of proficiency), but I’ve been disappointed in a great variety of your HDR work over the last year or so. The vivid images I fell in love with have given way to photos erupting with colors and details in such a way that they distract from the content of the image and overwhelm the viewer. What once seemed to stand out as beacon of photographic advancement has faded into artistic complacency, content to rest on the name of the artist rather than the content of the work.

Don’t get me wrong, there are yet times when I am captured by the beauty of your images, but as an individual who has looked to you for inspiration, I am disappointed in what I perceive as your contentedness with an artistic plateau and a quest for commercialization.

And, that is it…the loss of the first love, the apparent loss of a true desire for something artistically better than where we are currently at. That is what I was grieving. It is so easy to fall into this trap as I have done so myself at many times. It’s natural to develop complacency, a comfort zone, where we know what to expect.

As part of losing that first love, it seems that many great photographers are in hot pursuit of stardom, social media fame, or joining a workshop circuit, striving to be relevant with the masses instead of in touch with their craft. They stop selling photography and begin selling the IDEA of photography. The old adage goes, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and it seems especially true within the photographic community, I’m afraid. There’s a selling out that takes place, and, when that happens, the work begins to suffer. Sure, you may have tens of thousands of followers and a half dozen books published and be part of the inner circle with the software companies, but when was the last time you truly created something that couldn’t be found or replicated on a thousand other websites? What scrap of knowledge is so unique that the continued pursuit of your skills is abandoned in exchange for the sale of your “program” which, again, is often just another voice speaking what others have said elsewhere?

To Trey

Trey, I’m talking specifically to you when I say this (if you ever happen to read it): I am sorry for being a total jackass. I am sorry for acting like a child. It was wrong of me, and I accept full responsibility for my actions. It wasn’t until sometime later that I watched your presentation at Google Zeitgeist in which you explained your partial blindness and detailed how you see images in a unique fashion, relying on spectrums of color to provide definition to make up for a handicap you cannot help. It made sense. I got it. Knowing a bit more of the story behind your inspiration put things in a new perspective.

I do still admire a great deal of your work, and I LOVE your disestablishmentarian stance on breaking the rules of photography! Honestly. Just don’t trade in your artistic innovation to be the popular kid, pandering to the same masses that made Jersey Shore and Twilight hits. Don’t choose to rest on the laurels of your name rather than the valor of your work.

To the Rest of Us

Am I advocating living the life of a penniless artist, scrounging in your neighbor’s organic compost pile for scraps to feed your family? Abso-friggin’-lutely not! Make money!…we all have to. Heaven knows what I would do for a Klondike bar, let alone to support my family.

I am saying, let us, collectively and individually, be ever mindful to passionately pursue excellence in everything we do, especially photography. Let us be vigilant to not abandon our first love or cheaply trade it in for supposed fame and fortune in a world where allegiance is foreign and emotions fickle. Let us never settle for the status quo…because, no matter what your level of skill or expertise, there is always someone looking up to you.

About The Author

Allen Mowery is a lifestyle photographer, pseudo-philosopher, and wannabe documentarian killing time amidst the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania. When not shooting client work or chasing overgrown wildlife from his yard, he loves to capture the stories of the people and culture around him. You can check out his work on his website or follow along on Facebook, Twitter (@allenmowery), and 500px.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff (Stuck In Customs) used under CC licence.

  • Renato Murakami

    Trey is the man! I’m telling you, he always replies to everyone asking around, and he’s always very polite and courteous about it… something I noticed following his blog and content around.

    But I’ll have to disagree with Allen on the magic of Trey’s pics and content.

    It’s probably not that Trey’s content has been lackluster or whatnot, but more that Allen got saturated by his style. And there’s nothing wrong in that, but you’ll also have to see that it’s not his fault too – in the sense that he’s not producing his work for you particularly.

    Let’s put it in another way… HDR work is Trey’s trademark, this far I guess we can kinda agree with, in his almost surrealist style. He’s a reference. So, if you are kinda tired of strong HDR images like his, the rational thing is for you to look into other people’s work, right? Not ask Trey to change his photography style. Same can be said for lots of other photographers who have their own strong styles.

    I mean, it’s pretty relevant that he keep doing what he does (as long as he’s not tired of it), because there will always be people much like yourself sometime ago, that will look at his photos and be greatly inspired by them.

    I’ll also have to disagree with this tired argument on the HDR community that the better photographer you are, or the more you know about photography, the less you’ll be impressed or the less you’ll like more surrealist strong styles like Trey’s. Professionalism or knowledge has nothing to do with it, unless you buy into that sort of falacy which I don’t see as something good.

    It’s purely a matter of taste. I think it’s perfectly fine to admit that you grew saturated or tired of it, or that your tastes changed so you don’t care about them anymore – taste is a personal thing. But when people start to generalize saying stuff like “as I learned more” or “as I became a pro myself” that now I can’t appreciate it anymore – this is bullshit. Sounds like some artificial elitism.

    Point being: Liking or disliking HDR of a certain style has absolutely nothing to do with how much you know about photography itself.

    If anything, I don’t think anyone has the right to say that Trey isn’t evolving, or is only trying to appeal to a broader audience. He’s the only guy I follow around that made huge changes on several parts of his photography that few dared to go on the chances of being hated for them. From changing gears (NEX 7), to trying to open new venues to teach (The Arcanun), showcasing future tech that has lots of hatred around (Glass) and several other stuff.

    Now, it’s plenty easy to pick a point and criticize it without looking at the whole picture, but yeah, it happens. In any case, it’s good that you shared the whole thing Allen.

    • Allen Mowery

      Great feedback, and excellent points!

      I do appreciate his willingness to break out on the tech side (with, perhaps, the exception of Glass). Breaking the perception that one must go trudging around with a Canon 1D (for example) in order to be a good photographer is great on his part!

      However, I disagree with you on your statement that increase in technical skill/knowledge is no grounds for dismissing HDR. Sure, in its purest form, HDR is intended to be a catalyst for a greater purpose and, in that respect, can be applied and appreciated on any and all skill levels. (True HDR, in my opinion, should never be blatantly obvious.) But, HDR for the simple sake of HDR often leads to an abandoning of an image’s core (subject, message, etc.) in exchange for creating something “cool.” As such, those who do not know how to create a similar image (i.e. those still wow-ed by Instagram and all the awesome stuff it can do) flock to HDR in mesmerized wonder. Likewise, those who understand the technical fundamentals of HDR have less of a tendency to get hung up on the “cool factor” and look beyond for something more meaningful within the image, something that should ultimately be enhanced by the use of HDR rather than replaced by it.

      Then again, perhaps it does just boil down to personal preference. Definitely something for me to continue pondering…

      Either way, thanks for reading!

  • mzungu

    If no one is offended then you are really not saying anything of importance.

    I liked how you coined it… “garble mess of mind-numbing color” pretty much described 99% of the HDR works out there. was never much of fan, that could just be my photojournalist training…

    • Allen Mowery

      Photojournalism is what has ultimately always inspired me in photography, even as a child. Sure, some may say it’s just a matter of personal preference, but I believe photojournalism can be traced back to the true heart of the very invention of photography. There is something about telling the story of life and humanity, if even just for a mere moment, that holds more power than anything that can ever be staged.

  • bbluesman

    I was enthralled with HDR photography-the overblown kind that Trey is famous for when i first started getting into photography a few years back.I used to think he was the bees knees. As I started getting a more well rounded exposure to photography,photographs and related techniques I got tired of HDR in my own photography and also for people like Trey and others who basically only do that. That kind of HDR is the black light poster of it’s day-something that is very cool initially but doesn’t have long legs.

  • Natalka523

    It’s okay to offend and create discourse, and I agree with your assessment of Trey’s work. I too was enthralled with it a few years ago, when his images, I thought, were amazing! Then he started spitting out new images every day for no reason, no subject, and a mess of color. Sometimes you have to look hard to see what is in the image. Then I bought the HDR image processing software and learned I could spit out the same images, though with locales not as exotic. Anyway, bravo for creating dialog, and realizing that artists can’t always sustain their own creative spark.

  • patiferoolz

    trendy ratcliff’s over the top HDR is in the past. what’s trendy now is over the top noise reduction, that let everything like plastic. so what’s next trendy’s move? bet on

    • Allen Mowery

      Are there any “trends” within photography that seem to withstand the test of time?

      • patiferoolz

        maybe every trend have a good side. light painting, hdr, long exposure compositions, noise reduction, they all can be to good effect if used with reason. overuse and you’re in the past real quick.

      • Sky

        Black & white.

  • PBM

    He’s hit-or-miss. Sometimes good tips, other times he blogs about his “Six Favorite Photos” and… they’re all his.

  • Jared Lawson

    Way to go – but HDR is not for every photography out there, I personally am not familiar with Tom’s work – but I guess I should browse to see what made you post this comment Photography Tips / Gallery

  • 7188photo

    I met Trey two times, once to organize an event together, and he’s a nice guy. Don’t have much to add to what you wrote, but to be fair his style has been shifting quite a lot and HDR landscape shots is not all be does – there’s some wonderful portraits and recently a lot of more muted work.

    • Allen Mowery

      I have no doubt that he’s a great guy which is perhaps one of the reasons I felt compelled to offer a public apology. And, as I mentioned in my response to him, I’m a definite fan of his yearly images from Burning Man. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but they definitely bring out another facet of his artistic perception.

  • Jiri

    I would not say it better. I can not imagine the nightmare after I would put any of his shots on my walls.

    • Allen Mowery


  • Christopher Stivala

    I see nothing wrong with what you did, you voiced your opinion based on how you feel when you see his recent work. Im sure trey is a big boy and realizes that his work will not be enjoyed by all and is capable of taking criticism and doing something constructive. I had a man crush on him, a modern day Indiana jones of photography but as of late im feeling a lot of sales pitches and not much inspiration. We love you trey but we are getting bored :(

    • Allen Mowery

      That’s exactly the disgruntlement that inspired my initial (albeit less-than-tactful) message. When you start breaking out sales pitches disguised as “photography secrets,” you start looking a lot like Scott Kelby.

      • Christopher Stivala

        Are the greatest photographers the ones with the best social presence, NOT by far! Not that im better but there is a difference between popularity and greatness! Trey pls bring back the greatness and send the arcanum to a place far far away. Maybe just maybe sometimes less is more.

  • ext237

    This really feels like a ego article. “I said something and it got the attention of someone famous.” meh.

    • Pete

      Also, that when you get tired of someone famous’ work it’s ok to call them a sellout.

      • wartybliggens

        When the shoe fits…

    • Etienne

      I love DIY Photography, but this blog post… Can’t upvote this comment enough.

    • wartybliggens

      Uh-huh. Because informing the public he’s hobnobbing with a celebrity (he’s become disillusioned with) was the entire point of the article.

      You should go into business, Sigmund.

  • Michael Comeau

    Don’t know you that the online photography community is a nonstop circle jerk where everything is AWESOME and OMG INSPIRATIONAL? Remember, kiss maximum butt and you will get Retweeted.

  • Gary Orona

    Any time we post it’s more or less an ego trip right? There is nothing wrong with this article. Nice job. I reached out to Trey a long time ago… no response. I’m a veteran HBO/Cinemax creator/producer/director which is a fairly elite crew and he’s apparently just too good for guys who shoot erotica. But here’s the bummer… The fact that we call this guy who shoots primarily HDR the world’s greatest photographer is a tragedy. There are many masters out there who can shoot in multiple disciplines across the spectrum who absolutely ROCK at more than just HDR. It’s Trey’s brilliance in social media and computer science that got him where he is. His photos are very good but there are plenty of guys who smoke him. Okay I’ve satisfied my ego trip for the day. Good Thoughts- Gary Orona.

    • Allen Mowery

      Ego has brought about the downfall of many a man…I suppose we aren’t exclusive in that regard :-)

      In respect to your one comment, I referred to Trey as “the world’s most POPULAR photographer,” not “the greatest.” Popularity and greatness seem, too often, to be mutually exclusive…

      • Gary Orona

        I stand corrected. In my quick read my mind substituted ‘greatest’ for ‘popular’. Wouldn’t it be great though if the greatest were in fact the most popular? I know that’s silly… oh dear. Good Thoughts- Gary O.

  • John_Skinner

    McNally? Heisler?

    Or a host of other people we’ve seen images from for well over 25 years in publications worldwide. But this guy? It was all puppy love, your heart will mend and you’ll get over it.

  • Mike

    True HDR does not look like HDR.

    • Mike
    • Allen Mowery

      That’s my take on it. Sure, the current trends within HDR all help form the industry and, ultimately, the history of photography, but quality HDR is simply a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

  • Andy

    “The world’s most popular photographer” is someone I’ve never heard of. Is he related to Garry Winogrand?

  • Scott Nadow

    I believe you hit the nail on the head….. let the bruised ego’s fall where they may. I’ve seen this trend happening for the a few years now and it’s picking up speed. Hail to the sponsors

  • Matt

    Trey’s ground-breaking images first captivated me into learning digital photography; and his HDR tutorial became my photo Bible (I was a huge fanboy). Back in 2008 Trey’s primary focus was on creating unique images , they were just that — amazing. There wasn’t a mass saturation of HDR images in the market yet and his photos were the cream of the crop. But eventually, everyone started doing HDR and his images began to stand out less and less (and i began to learn cleaner, more realistic photo processing). But then, Trey did something that surprisingly alienated me; he shifted his business model from photography to technology. AND I SOLEY BLAME GOOGLE + on this shift . Instead of pushing his photography to new heights, it appears his focus is more on pandering to his Google + followers. This audience tends to have an affinity towards the technology and gadgets behind the image, rather than the actual photo itself. And DID I MENTION THAT OBNOXIOUS GOOGLE GLASS HE ALWAYS INSISTS ON WEARING?? He’s created a smuggy inner-circle of Google Glass wearers whose focus is on new tech projects, rather than capturing unique images. I get it, that might be fine for some of those folks; but IMO its resulted in stale images the last couple of years. If you want master landscape photographers, I highly recommend you check out the work of Jack Brauer, Erik Stensland and Marc Adamus come to mind.

    • Allen Mowery

      I think you pretty much summed it all up! Great thoughts! The gadgets behind the photo are meaningless if the image itself can’t stand on its own.

    • Allen Mowery

      Oh, and btw, I love Marc Adamus’ work! But, one of my favorites is still Ansel Adams…the man who capture America in a wooden box. (…little-known fact, Adams was also a kick-ass street photographer!)

    • WarrenSearle

      Well put and i cant agree with you more…

  • Renlish

    Err… Who? World’s most famous? No, I’m not kidding, whodafug is Trey when he’s at home? (She says as she googles the name.)

    And yeah, Allen? Pull your head in, mate. If you don’t like someone’s work or the direction that someone has gone in, that’s cool. But keep it to yourself rather than making a cheap grab for attention – because that’s all this reads like. I can’t stand a certain photographer that everyone else thinks is magnificent, but you don’t see me trying to tell him that just to get a response.

  • PBJStudios

    Oh Man! is this ever so true “As part of losing that first love, it seems that many great photographers are in hot pursuit of stardom, social media fame, or joining a workshop circuit, striving to be relevant with the masses instead of in touch with their craft. They stop selling photography and begin selling the IDEA of photography” it seems that once they reach this level of photography they forget why they started shooting in the first place. They do become sell outs. I don’t follow these people… the best photographers are the ones who remain to true to it and you rarely hear about… the only way of finding them is by stumbling over them… these people are so humble when you do.

  • tenja01

    How could you follow and love a photographer for several years and NOT know his “handicap”?

  • JerryFn

    The problem with Trey Ratcliffe is a tendency to generate clichés of his own aesthetic. He has made some remarkable images. However the pressure to produce more and satisfy the demand from his audience has led him to publish some indifferent images in the style of Trey Ratcliffe. The recent Venice images are an example.
    The other problem is associated with aesthetic tending to rely on the romantic and picturesque. HDR does make everything ‘super realistic’ but I it’s an aesthetic that I tend to associate with Disney or promotional adverts. The landscapes can be quite frankly be rather like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
    I am not surprised that he is the world’s most popular photographer but he is at his best when he steps out of the pretty picture mode and gives us something really different.

    As for his business model, I have no problem, very innovative and successful. How else could you extensively travel the world doing what you want to do. I just feel that the world is not always so ‘nice’.