Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Photographs and the Personal Now

First: We all live, each moment, in a Personal Now. This is Now. Every instant, about 7 billion Personal Nows occur on this planet. Your Personal Now consists of yourself, what you're thinking, what you're feeling, what you're wearing, where you are. My Personal Now is me, my contents, and my context.

Next: What does intentionality have to do with a photograph? Ultimately, a photograph stands on its own. It works, or it does not. It communicates, or it fails to communicate, and that's all there is. Intent matters to the extent that informs content, both the literal stuff in the frame, and the meaning of that stuff as seen by the photographer. This in turns informs, but does not dictate, what will be communicated to the viewer. Intent matters, to a second or third order degree.

Put these together. Most photographs made today, and made each day since the inception of photography, were made primarily to document some Personal Now. There has always been Art photography, and there shortly came to be Commercial photography, but always the lion's share has been documentation of Personal Now. These images communicate that most basic of messages:

I am here. I exist, here and now.

The tintype portrait factories existed to document the Personal Nows of the people sitting for their, perhaps once in a lifetime, portrait. Wet plate work documented presidents and kings, but nonetheless the Personal Nows of those leaders (and, I suppose, one could argue the Now of the nations led, in a sense). Only very special moments, only very rare Personal Nows, were worth the effort of recording and sharing.

As the cost of producing a photograph dropped, and the ability to do so spread we saw more photographs of increasingly mundane Personal Now moments: the wedding, the holiday. More portraits, perhaps one every year rather than once in a lifetime. Roll film brought this to the masses, and soon most middle income families in the western world were documenting the Now of Christmas, the Now of the beach vacation. The cost to record and share a Now was low, so anything a little bit special seemed worth a snap and a 3x5 print.

After a long plateau of roll film, during which photography lost its mystique entirely and became commonplace, digital arrived. The cost of an image dropped precipitously. Over the last 20 years, the cost to document a moment in time has dropped nearly to zero both in terms of effort and expense. We document presidents, kings, weddings, Christmases, vacations, dinner at a nice restaurant, a visit to grandma, and the hamburger we are eating right now. Only a few weirdos serve up live video feeds of their Personal Now, or share a photograph automatically taken every 3 seconds by their digital sunglasses, but we can feel that future and get its shape. The cost of documenting and sharing our Personal Now will soon be, if we so choose, exactly zero. Every moment, however mundane, will be special or interesting enough to photograph and to share, because it costs us literally nothing to do so.

So what?

Those of you following along at home know that I am not very interested in mass photography, I'm more interested in Art, whatever that is.

Documenting the Personal Now is, as noted above, an attempt to communicate. "I am." Art is, in my view, essentially communication. Are snapshots Art? Arguably if the message, "I am", comes through with weight and emotional power, yes. It usually does not.

Art is informed by the mass photography. Art continuously diverges off of the mass, and returns to pillage ideas and themes from the mass. Commercial work borrows ruthlessly from the mass photography (one need only look at American Apparel's ads from about, say, 2005, to see the webcam chic look stolen wholesale from the masses). Art borrows from everyone, if it's any good.

More generally, the mass photography, devoted to the Personal Now, is the milieu in which other photography happens, and is the lens through which other photography is seen. Everyone is a photographer now, albeit a photographer of hamburgers and drunken friends, with their cell phone. Everyone looks at photographs of hamburgers and drunks on facebook and instagram, usually on their cell phone's screen. These are your viewers, your customers.

These are the people with which you seek, though your photographs, to communicate.

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