Sunday, December 4, 2016

The End is Nigh!

I'm just going to revisit some themes I've talked about in the past, and most likely I'll express opinions that contradict previous remarks. That'll happen from time to time.

A common essay to write, if you're some irrelevant artist or thinker, is the one about how many trillions of photographs are being made every nanosecond, and how this spells The End for photography, or whatever. Then you hand-wring about Quality and Skill and how nobody cares about them. The implication is, of course, that the writer is making Wonderfully Skilled Photographs and is only being held back from great success by the lousy taste of the unwashed masses. Tragedy!

I no longer think that the trillions of photos being made is having any impact whatsoever on Photography as these writers think of it.

The argument is that, since everyone is exposed to so very many lousy pictures a day, since everyone can and does take their own lousy pictures, that this causes a devaluation of photographs across the board. I can practically guarantee you I've made that exact argument. And it's wrong. Even the fattest head can tell the difference between a bunch of photos of their friends on facebook, and a print hanging on the wall in a gallery. These two objects are no more related than a brick and a Michelangelo's David, and everyone knows it.

The vast majority of photos are ephemeral objects. While they might persist on some disks in some cloud somewhere, they are in effect gone. There's no serious intention by anyone that they should exist for more than a few hours. Facebook and so on only retain them at all because the lifespan is open-ended, and it's cheaper to hold them than to work out when and how to discard them. So, the stock discussions of "a stack of prints to the moon" are meaningless, nobody is printing these things. The idea of printing them is absurd.

The ones that are left over do cover a wide gamut. You can't identify the "permanent" photos by type. A vernacular photo might be immortal, if someone loves the way it depicts something deeply personal. A Fine Art photo might well be ephemeral. We'd be well served if more of them were more ephemeral.

If you, as a Fine Art Landscape photographer, are having a hard time selling prints, look to yourself. Your problem is not the selfies on facebook, your problem is that your business model sucks. It was never very hard to churn out your kind of stuff, and technological changes have indeed made it incrementally easier. If you are a wedding photographer, having a hard time selling your services, ditto. There is a population of these folks who were (or would have been), just barely, good enough to make a living in the film era. They were already pretty close to the line, mainly because they had no vision only a desire to churn out the same old stuff, and now they're on the wrong side of the line.

Photography is still everything it ever was. It hasn't changed into something new. What has happened is that photography is more, now. It's ephemeral "look at this" imagery, as well as the permanent artifacts of Sontag, of the pre-digital/pre-Internet age. These changes have been happening since the beginning. At first, photographs were unique objects, obtained with great difficulty. Then they were objects that permitted replication. Then they were objects obtained easily, as well as being endlessly reproducible.

The "OH MY GOD HUGE CHANGE" we've all commented on is in fact not, it's merely a new facet, no more interesting and game-changing than roll film, or dry plates. We're been fooled by the enormous size of the facet, by the sheer numbers of pictures, into thinking that it's a huge change.

We're at the beginning of realizing this, I think.

More and more we see articles and notes and essays about how people are printing more, and doing this or that more, and so on. These pieces are positioned as a recovery from the Vast Sea Change, but in fact I think the Vast Sea Change never was.

This whole thing finds a nearly precise allegory that is barely an allegory in the lives and methods of the working photographers. Serious photographers who bridge that era from 1990 to 2016, let us say, hardly noticed what was up. They may, or may not, have purchased new cameras. They may, or may not, have begun to approach their work a little differently now and then. In the main, though, they simply chugged along doing what they had been doing all along. Their photography changed organically, as their vision, as their ideas, changed. The Vast Sea Change wrought by instagram et al? It never even happened.


  1. Chapter and verse! Chapter and verse! Chapter and verse! Your fans demand it!

    1. Are you proposing that I cite my *own* errors, or the errors of others?!

    2. But Andrew - you are error-free (except in your next pieces, of course!)

  2. It always irritates me if people think about my photography as a business. For me it must be worth doing even if I never showed it to anybody. If it was just numbers, there are better ways to invest time and money.