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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Meaning in the Age of the Internet

Brooks Jensen has written an interesting editorial in his most recent issue of LensWork. In it he poses the question, essentially, of what we ought to do in the face of billions of technically excellent pictures, where "we" is in rough strokes those of us who are trying to use photography to make personally expressive artwork. Jensen uses several further phrases to elaborate on who "we" is, but let that one stand for all.

His editorial is substantially more sophisticated than the usual "OMG INSTAGRAM" hand-wringing, but I do think it leans rather too far in that direction, and that it ignores obvious solutions.

First let us review a little history. In the beginning, or near enough to it, we had Robinson literally constructing morality plays with his compositing techniques. A little later we have Emerson thundering at anyone who would listen that photography's job is to reveal what is truly there, that the photographer must look, must see, and then reveal. After Emerson, Stieglitz makes his "Equivalent" photographs, attempting to translate emotional states in pictures of clouds. Adams tells us over and over and over that the photograph must be, above all, a true expression of your emotional reaction to the scene.

In short, the major voices in photography have always told us that the point of photography is more than just a picture, more than technical excellence. It's about story, about emotion, about something bigger.

Now, I became conscious in the early 1970s, so this next bit might be wrong, only appearing correct to me because we're transitioning from things I have read about to things I have personally experienced but let us forge ahead. As a direct result of Adams writings being willfully misread by a technophile audience, together with powerful marketing from equipment vendors, technical excellence became a replacement for all of this stuff. Emotion, artistic meaning (whatever that is), and so on became things we paid lip service to, or ignored altogether.

I insist that technical excellence was and remains, in important ways, a substitute for meaning. My error, if any, is that it was always that way, and that what I see as a "new" phenomenon is nothing of the sort. Still, I don't see anyone except me thundering away about meaning. I see a few tentative voices poking timidly at the question, at best.

Consider the availability of materials in this era. Platinum printing, gum bichromate, carbon transfer, calotypes, salt printing, and on and on became the domain of a very very small number of weirdos, you could order up the chemistry from a very very small number of places. I do not, to be honest, know quite when this occurred, but it's more or less concurrent with the rise of straight photography and the f/64 group, and persisted for far too long. The materials and tools all converged on a sort of Best Practices which were all about technical excellence. Say what you will about the vast array of emulsions and papers available in the 1980s, they all pretty much looked the same to anyone who wasn't pre-digital "pixel peeper." Yes, there were differences, and yes I can see them. They were, and are, pretty subtle. The expressive possibilities of generally available photographic materials were, for many decades, essentially straight photography.

In the "high art" world, mind you, we still have all the good stuff going on. Fashion, of course, has no truck with soulless work and carries on pushing the emotional reaction of "I want that" better than ever, and probably a few other niches that are well away from the amateur, serious or otherwise. Everywhere else, though, it's about sharpness and gear.

Jensen asserts that technical excellence was a marker which showed us that the artist was serious, and that we ought to pay attention. I think this is, at least to some degree, false. Technical excellence was in fact largely a replacement for meaning, across vast swathes of the photographic landscape.

Jensen asks, in his editorial, what should we do?

The answer has not changed, and I dare say it will not change. If you seek to "use photography to make personally expressive artwork" then you should go and do that.

This is what every artist ever has always done. Even Andy Warhol was doing this, it's just that media, marketing, and fame were his actual canvas.

How to do it? Well, you get to decide that, and it is for you to work out. There are many paths. I can guarantee you that making a bunch of loosely related and technically excellent photographs is not the answer, although it might be a little piece of it. Obsessing over the number of followers you have on instabook is probably not a good thing to devote any time to.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I agree.
    I do believe that some folk have substituted technique, whether excellent or not, for meaning. It possibly is one of the reasons why so much is so mundane.
    I'm reminded of Richie Blackmore who, and I paraphrase here, said he would rather play guitar for normal folk, rather than for other guitarists. In context he was saying in that interview, that he sometimes had to force himself away from technical perfection just for the sake of it. In other words, play music, not just perfect guitar, I guess.
    Same applies to photography.
    Some folk would be better just photographing - whatever that means to them - and try not to get too caught up in the details of striving to hit 'perfection' merely to please either themselves, some fellow photographer, or heaven forfend, some nebulous gatekeeper at the fortress of high art.