Yesterday I saw Jörg going on about how terribly exhausted he was with the lazy narratives surrounding the ubiquity of photography and what photographing means. Not, of course, that he or any of these other dabblers has much of anything to add beyond lounging about in flouncy dresses dabbing exhaustedly at their own foreheads.
The trigger for him was a short piece somewhere about a picture of a crowd in which it appears that almost literally everyone is viewing whatever is happening through a phone. It was one of the ubiquitous pieces about "wow, we photograph everything, and directly experience nothing" which, sure, we've seen that before. But the reason we keep seeing these lazy narratives is that nobody's got a handle on it, and everyone feels like there's something important going on here.
So here's some thoughts about that.
Some years ago I recall Mike Johnston at ToP telling a little parable that went something like this. In the old days one might have thought "I would like to do something with yard sales" and then you'd go out and spend a year shooting yard sales most weekends, shoot a couple hundred rolls of film, and then pull together the best ten photos. Nowadays, in this era of flickr and instagram, you go out one weekend and shoot 50 pictures, and show off the best 30.
Let's set aside the truth that Mike is prejudiced toward the fine print, and that his model of photography is a small portfolio of beautifully made black and white prints, either 8x10 and 11x14, and that this is a large part of what drives his parable.
Beyond that, Mike was on to something there. There are two fundamental differences in play here. The first is that by spending so little time actually at yard sales the photographer has no time to develop an idea, a position, an opinion about yard sales. The 50 contemporary shots from one weekend will have no point of view. The best you can hope for is that they document in some straightforward way some aspects of some yard sales. More likely they will be clumsy copies of something the photographer saw elsewhere.
The couple hundred rolls of film photographer probably developed a real point of view, and is far more likely to have something to actually say about yard sales. The first few rolls will likely be clumsy copies of other photographs, but rolls 150 through 200 might have something interesting on them.
The second problem is that there is very little selection going on in the second photographer's world. This is connected to the first problem in that the photographer selects, ultimately, where to point the camera and when to mash the button based on that point of view, that opinion, so painfully developed. But also there is far less material to select from, far less material was placed in front of the lens to be shot and far fewer frames are available to select from.
If photography is, as I assert, an act of selection which is morally on the same plane as but different from creation, then the second photographer is simply doing far less of it. Insofar as photography is creative, a making, the second photographer is on firmer ground. But it is not much that.
Consider a world in which each of us simply wears a camera which takes a photo every 30 seconds and uploads it to Facebook. There is no selection at all, except in where we choose to place our bodies. Everything is photographed and shared.
Is this photography? I don't think it is, in any but a most literal and dunderheaded sense.
In this world, there is no selection. There is no privileging of this scene, this moment, this object, over any other. As Sontag noted god knows how long ago, we make things special by photographing them, and in this imagined world everything is made special, and therefore nothing is.
So what is different in the actual modern world?
We have not arrived at the dystopian world of the camera which automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds (although there have been periodic attempts, see Google Clips). But, we are nudging in that direction, we sniff at things that are similar, we can feel the presence of that world in the wind. We may never get there, but we're in the neighborhood.
I think perhaps what we're feeling about the current ubiquity of photographs is that end-game. We're feeling that when everything is selected, when everything is privileged to be photographed, then there is no photography, the world is flattened to a single two dimensional plane of specialness, of value. Your cup of coffee, his new shirt, that pretty girl doing yoga outside a Sprinter van she pretends to live in, and the death of the Hindenburg are all pretty much the same.
What happens next? Do we push every further, asymptotically approaching the dystopian world of "a photo every 30 seconds" by photographing ever more the banal? Does some radical convulsion change everything? Do we arrive at a steady-state in which we're pretty much photographing with a constant density -- now, after 150 years of steady growth?
Having enumerated the names of God, does the world end?
It is this feeling that the final drops are being squeezed out that incites the think pieces. These complaints about how every dolt is a photographer, and photography is ruined, have indeed been going on for 150 years or so.
But today an argument can be made that we, if not at an end, surely wandering fairly close to some kind of border.
It doesn't worry me, or bother me, particularly. But it is kind of interesting.