Friday Fun: Most Influential Photographers, Revisited

Posted by on Friday December 17, 2010 | Fun

A year ago, we asked PDN readers to nominate the 30 most influential photographers of the decade, and then stirred up a hornets’ nest when we posted the results: The voting put popular bloggers such as Becker and Jasmine Star well above photographic pioneers like Robert Frank and William Eggleston. Passions ran so high that we had to shut down reader comments after a few days.

So why would we want to stir things up again? Because Google Labs has posted an amazing and addictive tool–called “Books Ngram Viewer”– that allows you to search for phrases (and names of people!) published in millions of books over the last 500 years, and plot how often those phrases (or names) appear in books over time. (Keep reading to see the charts…)

That means, for instance, that you can plug in the names of PDN’s (reader selected) 30 most influential photographers, and see how frequently they were mentioned in books over time. (Math note: the plots show the percentage of all two-word pairs in 5.2 million books that are the photographers’ names. Those percentages are infinitesimally small, typically on the order of .0000005 percent.) The plots reveal, in a rough way, the arc of each photographer’s career. When combined, the plots provide a rough measure of the relative “fame” or influence of different photographers.

For instance, here’s the plot of the frequency of book references over time to James Nachtwey:

And here we plot book reference frequencies for both Nachtwey and Annie Leibovitz:

Now we add in a plot of references to Seth Resnick (Leibovitz, Resnick, and Nachtwey were second, third, and fourth, respectively, among readers’ nominees for “30 Most Influential”):

By graphing each photographer on the list, one at a time, you can visualize the rise and fall of their careers–as measured by the frequency of references to their names in books, at least. For instance, Leibovitz’s career line (shown in red above) reflects her fast-rising star during the 1990s, and a waning since, although her frequency of book references is still impressive. Elliott Erwitt’s career line waxes and wanes, indicating peaks in the early 60s, mid 70s, and mid to late 90s:

So what’s going on? Through a link below the graphs, Google takes you to the actual book references. And it turns those references include everything: the photographers’ names in their own books, references to their names in other books, and even photo credits. For instance, if we zoom in on Seth Resnick’s reference frequency chart:


and then check Google’s source data, we see that that for about 20 years (roughly ‘79-‘99) book references rose steadily largely because growing numbers of books published Resnick’s stock photos—with a photo credit that Google picked up.  More recently, Resnick’s name has appeared in some how-to photo books. For instance, he and Jamie Spritzer authored The Photoshop Lightroom Workbook, released in 2008. That may account for the uptick in Resnick’s chart in 2008, after a bit of a drop-off in references during the middle of the last decade .

Curiously, the charts of many photographers on the list begin to decline after 2000 (the tool searches books published through 2008). That may not reflect a decline in those photographers’ “influence” as much as it reflects a decline in book publishing. More and more, presence and influence of photographers has to be measured by their online publications and references. (One notable exception: Martin Parr, whose book references keep going straight up.)

For instance, Chase Jarvis, twelfth on our year-old “most infliential” list, doesn’t even register in the Google Books Ngram Viewer tool.

Book references to Jasmine Star (fifth among last year’s “30 Most Influential” nominees) rockets up after 2000, but when you check the references, you see that Google is picking up a recent plant indexing anomaly (…Arabian jasmine, star jasmine, red amaranth…), not references to the wedding photographers, for the most part.

And then there’s the problem of Google’s inability to distinguish between Robert Frank (photographer), Robert Frank (economist), and Robert Frank (statesman). That means it is impossible to plot the career lines of photographers if they have the same name as other notable people who also publish or otherwise get mentioned in books.

The bottom line? Google’s Books Ngram Viewer isn’t a perfect measure of photographers’ influence over time, by any means. It certainly won’t settle the question of who the most influential photographers are in the 21st century. But it’s arguably a good way to compare the relative influence of photographers in the last half of the 20th century, when books reflected the zeitgeist without competition from the web. And it’s a lot of fun, too.

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