Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Fleeting Attention

Among the many tropes of the "social media is ruining everything" think pieces is the one about how nobody really looks at photographs any more. I've certainly observed the appalling way that instagram is actually used: glance, swipe, glance, like, swimp, glance, swipe. I've probably written about it. God knows what dumb shit I said. God, and anyone willing to spend a minute or two searching, I guess.

It's certainly true that social media encourages a very very lightweight engagement with, well, everything on social media. People won't read an entire tweet, or Facebook post. They glance at photos. Videos play more or less unwatched.

But back to photography. There is a planted axiom in these think pieces on photography, which is that in the past people used to look closely at photographs. Usually there is some drivel about The Print, and how detailed it is, how a well made print "just glows" and so on. Half the time, at least, the piece is being written by someone too young and too hip to actually have ever held a decent print in their hand, although I dare say they've held a small number of shoddy ones.

There were no glory days when loads of people really looked at photographs.

What we have today is a billion times more engagement with photographs than ever before. All those people doing the glance-swipe thing on instagram? 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I can promise you that they were not sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat with incense burning, making love with their eyes to a single glorious print. They were watching TV, playing some 2D video game, skateboarding, awkwardly trying to talk to girls, maybe fixing a car. They were doing anything except looking at photos. I was there. Nobody looked at photos, except a few weirdos.

It's a lot like today. Only a few weirdos really look at photographs. Perhaps a few more than 20 years ago.

Even in the glory days of the mightiest of the mass media photographers, Ansel Adams, when everyone who wanted to look a bit clever, a bit artsy, bought a poster of some Adams picture, I don't think the posters got all that much attention. Sure, you hung it up, and people glanced at it. It was recognized by people. Many people could probably even name the giant stone in the frame (probably "Half Dome" which is fairly easy to remember, since it looks like half of a dome.) But that poster in your dorm room didn't get a lick more attention than the picture of a waterfall you stick on your instagram.

One of the consequences of the modern era, in which everyone is a photographer is that now everyone has a mild interest in photography.

Rather than being a niche activity that a few people take very seriously, it is now a not-quite universal activity that almost everyone takes mostly unseriously.

This, of course, gets under the skin of those of us who still take it seriously.


  1. Sounds about right. My family had a ton of photos because my dad took a lot with a nice little fixed lens camera he bought while stationed in Japan in the fifties. We had no respect for the physical print, though. When my brother and I were around 11 years old, my dad gave us a each empty albums for Christmas. Later when we filled our albums we got to fight over the photos in a big box of extra prints, the years of accumulated rejects and duplicates. I thought it was a neat idea to cut most of the prints in various shapes, close to the subject, so I could fit many more on the page. Context be damned. Still have it, 40 years later.

  2. As usual a fine essay.
    I've tried to make sense of the current state of photography, find something positive about it as opposed to the "nobody really looks ..." complaint. Our culture has been immersed in photographs for many generations now. It's like an atmosphere. Maybe we don't look very carefully, but many images and their variations recur so reliably it is as if they hung in our living rooms. And I think many non-photography-buffs do look at the posters in their rooms, deliberately or at idle moments. But as it has always been, if you've got a pretty art print that you want people to see (or a book of them), it won't be easy.
    The real significant development is the camera-phone. Now people post pictures rather than using words to each other. Photography has become a kind of babble, replacing talk or writing. How is that going to affect us and our languages?

  3. Not sure how to explain this, but most people don't look at what is actually being photographed but rather at what is being represented-sort of an avatar. The most striking example of this I remember was when I was showing a recording of MST 3000's viewing of "The Giant Gila Monster" (a truly terrible movie) to a friend-a very intelligent, art-conscious woman-who never perceived that the images of a train changed from switch engine to road engine (F-series GMC if you care) to steam locomotive during the chase sequence. All she saw was "train." It takes a pretty powerful image for the viewer to see the actual subject instead of its general category (Brooklyn Bridge instead of bridge).

  4. Many pundits assert this is a new condition. It's just scaled up, because of the accessibility and convenience of phone cameras. I have a book, "Snapshots: the eye of the century," curated from the Snapshots Archiv Skrein, which (if nothing else) reminds the mass ubiquity of photography in former times.

  5. Most people are only interested in their own photography or cameras or the work that the institutions tell you is good. Considering how ubiquitous photography is it's damn hard to find new engaging photographers to follow on social. Nobody really cares about it.

  6. “nobody really looks at photographs any more” is really a bunch of BS as far as I am concerned. Actually, the only BS is “any more,” as though they ever did. I remember distinctly that MOMA or somebody of equal gravitas did a survey/study, in the pre-digital days,and concluded that museum visitors took an average of 15 seconds to look art stuff hanging on the walls.
    The very small town where I lived for several decades was known to have a ‘wonderful artists community’ and tourist would come in significant numbers to wander around town. I used to hang out at our Arts Center because that is where I used the darkroom, and at a couple of the galleries because that is where I could find some of my friends. And now, as well as in the pre-digital age, my conclusion was that people would only give a cursory look to the art on display, by that I mean if they actually stopped and looked at something/one piece for more than ten to fifteen seconds, it was noteworthy.
    As far as photography is concerned, how it is perceived, I think has changed. Back in the film/darkroom days giving somebody a print of one of my photos, or asking them to pose for photos and then giving prints in return, was special. Now, not so much so. So when dealing with people photography, offering a print in return has lost its special appeal in most cases.

    1. Most are only there for the coffee and carrot cake.

    2. That maybe true for art openings, but not really for people who paid for entrance to a museum or who are shopping for art.