Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Mike C. over at Idiotic Hat has written an incisive essay in which he points out that culture, as it exists as a set of shared ideas, texts, and so on, is kind of disintegrating.

Kirk Tuck wrote this piece on exploring across class boundaries with the camera, which one can argue is as much about culture as shared ideas, texts, and so on as it is about anything else.

Finally, please note the very intelligent comment on this very blog here, on this post, in which mlis remarks that the influence of Serious Photography goes both ways, and that the phone-carrying snapshottist is as likely to be wrapping himself in the mantle of Alfred Stieglitz et al as he is to be up to anything else. A specific shared idea.

Let's noodle on this a little and see if it goes someplace, or just dribbles off into stupidity.

Consider a middle aged white male raised under the aegis of Western European Culture, say, me. I have a cheap edition of all the pictures that appeared in "Camera Work", I own books by Ansel Adams, Sally Mann, Eliot Porter, and so on. I've spent time in museums looking at Monets and Sargents and whatnot. I have seen a lot of pictures of a pretty particular kind. Most of the people I have cited looked at one another's pictures. If we consider the guys who were shooting in the late 19th and early 20th century, it turns out that my culture is derived in a pretty straight line from the one they were raised in.

Consider now the world, the internet-connected world.

Take some guy in sub-Saharan Africa, he takes care of the village's goats for a living or something. But he's got a smartphone, he's on facebook, he's been to school. He's not an idiot, and he's pretty in to using the picture making capabilities of his phone. What's his culture like?

As with all of us, it's shattering and getting thinned out. He's probably got some exposure to the really quite deep culture he was raised in. He's heard stories and legends all his life, of people whose names I cannot pronounce, with morals and ideas that, while not incomprehensible to me are probably subtly different. His ideas about proper behavior, how one ought to live, what beauty is, what Art is, are all probably similar enough to mine to get us both in a lot of trouble when we run into the differences. He's also been exposed to a great deal of exported American culture, which according to reports is mainly about consumption and possessing things.

If he's interested enough in photography, he's probably seen a few of those pictures from Camera Work, but who knows what he made of them on his tiny screen and without any of the European referents. These are pictures of people who look nothing like him, made by people who quite likely would have considered him inferior, people who knew literally nothing of his people's stories, ideas of beauty, ideas of Art.

This is universal.

In western Europe and its colonies, for better or for worse, much of that shared stuff is being supplanted. 100 years ago, children raised in Britain in certain fairly broad economic strata literally all knew the same handful of poems by heart, because that was part of the deal. They literally read the same books by the same dead white guys. They shared a lot and that sharing has value, even if the dead white guys aren't really all that. Now that we're insisting on a broader range of sources, which was in play when I was educated, and seems to be ever accelerating, the body of knowledge is so large that we cannot share it. One student learns these things, another chooses other sources and learns other things.

I make no particular judgement here on whether the dead white guys are all that, but there is no denying that forcing everyone to learn the same small set of stuff, whatever that stuff is, has social and cultural value. It binds us together. When that goes away, the problem of how to reach the fellow in Africa expands out to a problem of how to reach anyone at all.

So, overall, we have an expansion of community (Mark Zuckerberg seems to be committed to getting literally everyone on to Facebook so he can shovel ads down their throats) and a simultaneous dilution and fragmentation of the shared set of ideas and texts that make up our culture.

The basic thing that connects the three citations with which I opened this piece is that the people who take a picture, the people in the picture (if any), and the people looking at the picture are different. Potentially very different, or different mostly in small but critically important ways. The world in which we're a bunch of pompous middle aged white dudes taking pictures for other pompous middle aged white dudes to look at has come to a close.

As I said at Idiotic Hat: Fuuuuuuuuuck.

But perhaps there is some hope. One of the beautiful things about photography is that it is universally accessible. If I photograph a tree, literally every sighted person on earth can recognize that photograph as Of A Tree. A painting, while recognizable, runs the risk of carrying a bunch of my cultural tropes with it, of running afoul of the ways people in far-off lands paint trees. But a photograph is indexical, it's a true etching of the thing itself, and is in that sense universal.

So photography gives us, at least, a common baseline in this wildly evolving world. That's a good thing, right?

It's the interpretations that are going to be all over the place. I can't cite Botticelli in my photograph and have that stick in Bangladesh with any reliability. I can take a picture while lying on the ground, and that point of view will translate. Into... something. Maybe in some cultures the paintings with low angles of view mean something about gods and punishment, for all I know. That seems unlikely, to be honest, and with any luck what comes through will mainly be the objective "low angle of view" idea. In the USA we might imagine it as a rabbit's world view, in other countries a different animal might be substituted in the viewer's imagination, but mostly it ought to be similar.

We could just shoot for people who happen to be a lot like us, people who happen to have read more or less the same books we've read. There's a lot of people on this planet, so that's an audience, for sure. That seems to be what's driving the kickstarter-funded photo book explosion: You get on tumblr or wherever, and find 10,000 people who are a lot like you, and then you buy one another's Art.

We could also try to shoot more universally, in some vague indefinable way.

Something to think about.

1 comment:

  1. And then there's the middle aged white guy (that's me for those following along) that didn't even see what he was actually shooting til it hit him over the head like a shovel.