Monday, November 6, 2017

A Shift

I've been noticing a shift in photography over, oh, the last several years. It just crystallized in the last few days, though, into an honest theory, or hypothesis anyways.

PetaPixel has, over the last few weeks, featured articles on three different photographers, including these pictures:

Christoffer Relander does landscapes in jars, using double exposures:

Denis Cherim finds visual coincidences and shoots them with great depth of field to make this sort of thing:

And Stefan Draschan finds people in museums who are dressed or otherwise resemble paintings, and waits for them to align with the painting:

These are all very cute, enjoyable to look at. But lightweight. Set aside the issue of whether they're photshopped, the conceit is invariably that they are not, and that is certainly possible.

These all share certain properties. They're instantly consumable. Sometimes you have to take a moment to get the joke, but then you smile, and thumb the Like button on your phone, and swipe on to the next picture. They're all perfectly readable on a tiny screen. None of them particularly engage, but they do generate a certain "oh, neat" or even "oh wow!" response.

Add in to this mix other genres. The UrbEx guys taking pictures of their own feet swinging over a vast city. The #wokeupklikethis hot girl. The picture of my lunch.

These are related to the selfie, the photo of friends at a party, the slice-of-life moment, in that these are meant to be consumed in a moment. There it is, "ha ha", Like, and move on. They are not, however, the same. They're meant as serious pictures, these people are working on these things. Sometimes very hard. They're intended to be universally interesting, not merely interesting to friends and family.

These pictures live in a strange zone. They're lightweight, to the point of the purest fluff, and yet they are also serious.

My first thought was that they would not translate to other settings but I rather think they might. In a gallery, they're consumed the same way. Look for a moment, and move on. Just like things in galleries always are consumed. If you want to irritate the other people, stand in front of an interesting piece and drink it in for a while. Nope. Nope. Glance and move, glance and move. It's the 21st century! A book might work too, glance and flip, glance and flip. Every page, every picture, you get that little jolt of pleasure, there's nothing challenging either visually or conceptually.

It's like fast food, I think. And I don't mean that in a negative way, particularly. The french fry ("chip" to our British friends, I believe) is delicious. I love them. They have more or less negative nutrition, but they're good. They're broadly appealing, everyone likes these things. There's no harm in eating them from time to time, and they give enormous pleasure when eaten. Chips are great!

I don't know about these picture specifically, I don't think I really enjoy them, but I dare say that a) I am a bit of a drip about photography and b) there are probably other, similar, genres I would like. I like cat pictures!

These are certainly the product of social media. The machine that is social media has successfully evolved an area of photography that perfectly fits the needs of the machine. The photographs attract the eye, even on the phone (so you can be shown ads) but don't retain the eye (so you can be shown more ads on the next one). Ever watched anyone "read" instagram?

They look and decide within, literally, milliseconds. A picture that does not attract is flipped past in well under 1 second, the good/bad judgement is almost immediate. Strikingly, even a good judgement buys your picture something like 1-2 seconds of attention. Just enough time to thumb the Like icon, and then we're on to the next one. It's a wild universe.

The engine of Like-and-Follower driven positive feedback has surely driven this evolution, to a large degree.

I posit that another aspect is in play. Followers can be monetized in these degenerate modern times, if you have enough of them. You probably cannot actually make money, and almost certainly not a living wage, but you can get paid. I have a nasty suspicion that people who actually become Influencers, and actually get paid real money, were already rather affluent. It takes real money and real time to create this kind of work. There is evidence that the serious players employ staff. Sure, they're getting paid $170,000 a year, but they're spending $250,000 a year. And they can afford it, because they're already rich.

Like most dreams of riches, the actuality is not available to the poor, or even the middle class. Anyone can become president, or prime minister, anyone at all. As long as he's rich.

Not everyone aspires to be a Social Media Influencer, but that possibility exists, hanging out there like a dream. It encourages everyone, no matter where they sit on the spectrum of Influencer to Loser, wherever they claim to aspire to sit on that same spectrum.

With the increasingly constrained middle class, with the increasing dominance of the gig economy, of stitching ones life together from multiple temporary jobs, surely the idea of monetizing a following is attractive to nearly anyone.

That the possibility exists, dangling out there, surely motivates a little bit of this evolution of the form. To, perhaps, our detriment? But then, I do like chips.


  1. I think what you say about the influence of social media is true, but the tendency that is being reinforced has long been present in photography. You could see it way back in the film era, not least when magazines ran serial competitions (this week, round four: "still life"), and successful entrants would spend hours getting a shot of a splash in a wine glass, or pouring different coloured paints over something, just to get some perfectly exposed, perfectly lit, "witty" competition-winning shot. It's not art, it's packshot photography, highly skilled but (as you say) lightweight and as short-lived as a sugar high.

    To a lot of people, this is what photography is about. Not least because it's the sort of photography that surrounds us in magazines and on hoardings everywhere. But also (to echo your own recent comment on TOP) because it reframes a (pretty meaningless) aesthetic challenge as a technical challenge, which is the Comfort Zone of so many photographers.


    1. Yeah, I actually thought about Photo Mag Contest Pictures as I was writing thing, and there's a lot of similarity.

      These "new" things I claim to have identified strike me as even more disposable. They're super-chunky, graphically. Very simple, 1 or 2 big fat shapes in the middle of the frame, so you can grasp it on the phone, and I think the general theme is to be even more quickly consumed, more quickly grasped.

      There's still the lightweight "ooo!" factor, but perhaps dialed up a little and dumbed down a little more. There's nothing in the picture that rewards more time spent looking, except by accident.

      But the main difference is that now it's a Major Genre, it's Trending. Artists that do this are profiled more or less daily, somewhere.

      It's also perfectly possible that it's just the same, only a bit more, just like everything else photography!