Sunday, July 15, 2018

The End of it All

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.


  1. And Eggleston started it all... Oh no, sorry, he's excused. It's the unwashed, the unchosen, they're the ones who brought us to this pretty pass. Eggleston, Moriyama, the Bechers, that Rhine guy ... they're above it all because they have been anointed by The Moneyed.

    1. (I realize you are being somewhat tongue in cheek here)

      It isn't really anyone's fault as such, it strikes me as a perfectly natural progression. While it is perennially popular among the wilting princess set to denigrate Sontag (without specifying quite what she said that was wrong) she noted correctly that we make things special BY photographing them.

      Who doesn't want every single facet of ones life to be special? As the financial, logistical, and psychological barriers to photographing (and thus making special) every facet of ones life drop to zero, it is absolutely natural that everyone ought to do that. It is to that end that photography has been trending since its inception. The whole thrust has been to make the technology of picture-taking more accessible, more convenient, and cheaper.

      So here we are, at or near the end.

      Now what?

  2. In the end, any process that can deliver quality results with minimal effort is eventually going to threaten to drown us in mediocrity and ubiquity, especially once the gatekeepers have started playing silly, confusing games with "so bad it's good" aesthetics. The challenge is to keep swimming, or head for higher, dryer ground.

    In such a democratic medium the difference between the efforts of those who actively seek to make expressive work, copycat hobbyists, and those who are merely recording their lives, because they can, may not always be obvious. But, after all, where are all those millions of 6x4 Kodak Moments from the previous century? And where are all those boring Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, and Stephen Shore wannabes? Gone, effectively. So, relax: all the dross will blow away in the digital wind, as if it had never been. Some excellent stuff will disappear, too, but enough work of value will remain (it's salutary to note that 80% of plays from Shakespeare's London have simply vanished, and how close we came to not having most of his best work). We, of course, have little or no idea of which is going to be which.


    1. Well, sure. The endless moments catalogued on Facebook and Instagram are gone almost the moment they are posted. I don't really care about the pictures.

      But there IS a cultural phenomenon here, and contrary to the wilting princesses exhausted groans of boring it all is, we are arguably at some sort of inflection point. Or at the very least at a point of legitimate uncertainty.

      Not with "good photography" whatever that might mean, but with vernacular photography, I suppose.

  3. Photography’s great strength – to capture the world literally -- is also its great weakness here. The path painting will follow in the next few decades is largely unknowable because painting doesn’t depend on recording reality. Did anyone actually see Cubism coming? Apart from the hindsight is 20/20 crowd, I have to think the general reaction was “What the heck, wasn’t expecting that!” Caveat: it’s probably tough in painting to produce excellent work that is also genuinely novel without being stupid. But it seems possible at least simply because, collectively, human imagination is pretty vast.

    Where does photography go once everything has been photographed? There’s room for endless technical trickery (HDR anyone, clean ISO 250,000 images, novel lighting techniques…). And there always seem to be subjects that nobody bothered photographing before. Pictures of people’s text messages shot over their shoulders on the streets of New York City come to mind (talking to you here Jeff Mermelstein). But photography that is new only based on a novel technical trick or a new way of breaching social conventions gets old fast.

    I just looked at a collection of pictures that were apparently published based on two kinds of “novelty”: the subject was garishly interesting interiors in a private building that had never been photographed seriously for public consumption before; and some kind of directionless lighting was used that made everything look like CGI. Apparently it was really hard to do. The pictures are a fine addition to the garish interiors oeuvre. But I feel like with those pictures we pretty much have what we need now in this subject matter. Done. More importantly, I don’t think photography’s Cubism is going to emerge from new ways of lighting things.

    Human beings like pictures so demand for photos of people, places and events will stay strong. I’m actually not worried about vernacular photography and photo journalism. It’s a good thing that photography is easy nowadays. Let a 1000 flowers bloom, etc. It’s “serious” photography (read Art) I wonder about. It really does feel like there’s a finite stock of genuinely interesting and new in photography that continues to rely first and foremost on pointing a camera at the real world, and we’re drawing it down rapidly. I hope I’m wrong.

  4. "... there’s a finite stock of [the] genuinely interesting and new in photography that continues to rely first and foremost on pointing a camera at the real world, and we’re drawing it down rapidly."

    Seems about right. If everyone on earth produced 500 novels or paintings a year like they do photographs, those art forms would adapt or die.

  5. Here's a parody for the pearl-clutchers' delection:

    "Don't Belch in my Ear" (a photo book)

    1. That's awesome! And largely indistinguishable from the sorts of things that get lauded by the pearl-clutchers! All you need is some sort of concept!

      (and as an aside, I rather like some of the pictures, so there ;)

    2. "I rather like some of the pictures"

      That is the concept. ;-)

  6. Interesting thoughts here.

    A couple of mine:
    1. Everything ends up being mediocre. Eventually. Just ask Bob Dylan.

    2. That photographer that spent one weekend zipping from yard sale to yard sale “could” produce a brilliant, unique piece of work, and the guy (and I’m assuming it’s a guy because only a man would do something like this) who spent a year of his life documenting the myriad details of yard sales “could” produce a work that is a total snooze. Inspiration is funny like that.
    (I have a series I started after a visit to a place that I was very excited about, a sort of impressionistic visual diary. After two return visits to flesh out the I am not so sure about the whole thing. I should have just gone with my instincts and called it “good” after that initial visit, but instead I wanted “better” and ended mucking it all up.)

    3. Don’t confuse the photo with the thing. A photo of a barn is not a barn. But some photos capture the sense of “barn-ness” better than others. That’s what makes this all so interesting.

    1. ...try and take a photo of a barn that 1) doesn't hit your intended audience in the face with "BARN!!!", 2) they're not really even sure wtf it is, and 3) will never end up on some barns calendar at the drug store -- that's a photo I want to see.

    2. As close as I’ve gotten, so far...

    3. You've got some good shots there. The one with the dog at the top of the stairs is the most startling.

  7. I wonder if this has something to do with the younger generation pushing back against social media and digital photography. It seems both my tween nieces don’t use social media and prefer Fuji Instax over cell phone photos.

    Perhaps it’s an unconscious need to again define what is actually special in life after observing older people’s oversharing? I suspect some of it has to do with growing up having seen people’s lives destroyed by over and/or inappropriate sharing enabled by social media and digital photography.