Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Silos of Photography

Our friend Jörg has published a little think piece over on his blog: After Social Media. There's some sighing about the good old days, and some grumbling about how awful social media is, which is all true if a bit shopworn at this point.

Then he gets into the meat of the thing, an actual proposal, which I find fascinating. He talks about having a relationship with his readers, and mentions mailing lists which sounds very interesting. A mailing list in this context can mean one of two things, at least. The first one is a synthetic email address which, when sent to forwards whatever got sent out to a list of real email addresses. This is, essentially, a discussion group implemented over email, and as such predates practically everything electronic.

One receives an email with some remarks, and by hitting reply and typing, one sends ones own remarks out to the same list of people, and so on. These were A Thing back in the day, and they work very very well indeed up to a point. Notably, they create relationships.

It sounds, in context, like this is where he's headed. Alas, he isn't. What he means is the second meaning of mailing list which a list of email addresses that Jörg sends a newsletter to. It is not a forum, but a pulpit.

There's a whole newsletter thing going on in that social scene. Every Serious Academic Photographer has to have a newsletter now. I subscribe to none of them, but I know exactly what's in them: lists of blog posts and news items the recipients of the newsletter have already read. The fantasy is that people outside of the relevant social scene will subscribe, but this is mostly a pipe dream. We are hammered, daily, with popups asking if we'd like to subscribe to some newsletter, and most of us have learned to find the "No" button without conscious thought.

The people who subscribe to Jörg's newsletter will be the same people who follow him on twitter: his friends, and various sycophants who don't read a word he writes but hope that if they pretend to he'll help them get a book deal.

How this is supposed to create "the one-to-one relationship I used to have with readers in the past" is a bit of a mystery. It is worth noting that Jörg does not allow comments on his blog, which is certainly the simplest way to create this one-to-one relationship. I'm sure he'd tell you it's because trolls, and I am sure he believes it. People would definitely post comments that disagree with him.

It happens that in photography there are many silos of interest and personality. Each silo contains a bunch of people, and to a large extent each such community is almost completely unaware of the others. To the extent that they are aware of the others, they think the other ones are stupid and pointless.

You can name these silos by any prominent member. Let's say Kevin Raber, who is a fine fellow. He is a leading figure in a sort of well-heeled amateur community that does a lot of landscape photography, who think that more resolution and "better color science" is pretty much always good, and pretty much the only thing you need. These folks think that instagram sucks, and any photograph in the MOMA that's less than 50 years old sucks. They have no patience for the Colbergs of the world.

Colberg might as well represent the Serious Academic Art crew, which contains a few dozen people, and they think instagram sucks, but they probably lump Kevin Raber's community in with instagram. They think any photograph in the MOMA that's more than 50 years old sucks, and is Extremely Problematic too.

Daniel Milnor maybe represents another completely separate group. They know about Jörg and his little clique of predatory publishers, but they're not fans. These people are the actual working artists, neither celebrities not MFA weirdos. Maybe think of them as blue-collar artists.

And on and on. instagram, although I spend no time on it, almost certainly contains 100s of communities, each convinced that they Are Instagram, filled with people who will tell you about what instagram is all about. Almost none of them have even heard of anyone above. Internet forums ditto. Each forum thinks it is the representative Voice of Photographers (DSLRs are not dying, why, I bought one just six months ago!) My very very small exposure to real-life camera clubs suggests that they are just forums with cookies, coffee, and very very old people.

The common thread is that no silo has the slightest interest in any of the other silos, because all the other silos are filled with wrong-headed idiots.

My speculation is that what Jörg wants to accomplish with his newsletter, and all his friends newsletters, is some kind of outreach. He wants to add people to his social/poltical scene, ideally in the role of acolytes. I suspect that he has no interest in actually hearing other voices from other silos, he and his friends already have all the answers. The problem he seeks to solve is that almost nobody listens to their genius.

To be honest, I'd like to reshape the world (ideally without expending much effort) to be basically me and a bunch of acolytes too, but I am (barely) capable of grasping that maybe I'm not actually right about everything, and that maybe there is room in this big world for other ideas.

If Jörg actually wanted to make things better, he make an honest effort to reach across silos. Maybe he could start creating some sort of content to explain MFA/Academic photography to the denizens of dpreview. Perhaps a hopeless task, but at the very least he'd gain a better understanding of his own silo, and his own silo's work.

I spend a lot of time wandering across silos, and I should remind myself to be less dismissive of whatever is going on in each one, however fun it is to throw shade on everything.


  1. You might find this pretty funny. I do.

    I don't subscribe to any newsletters, but I read several blogs by photo-critters, and some of them let you preview their newsletters, which generally are nothing more than spam about their blog and stuff they are trying to promote/monetize.

    There seems to be some hand-wringing going on ATM about how awful social media is. I totally agree that social media is awful (or has been used by awful people to do awful things, which is one way to sell a lot of advertising, I guess). I don't have an account, but I lurk on twitter to read others' bon mots and announcements about things I might be interested in.

    I'll be curious to see if all this kvetching actually goes anywhere. Will these cats actually close their twitter accounts?

    1. I know of at least one who has quit recently. I am sure they are, en masse, pretty disappointed that this foray in to social media has not caused their blogs to be launched to, um, heights. They all have basically zero engagement either on twitter or otherwise.

      One of my hobbies is replying to tweets in various areas in which I have interest, and seeing how much engagement my tweets get (twitter shows you) as a proxy for how much engagement the tweet I am replying to gets.

      Let's just say that their engagement is not proportional to their follower count. I am pretty sure they get a lot of "follow-mute" activity, because a) people want a book deal but b) they certainly don't want to have Colberg's tweets mucking up their timeline.

    2. I don't understand how all this likes, follow &such really works and not too interested in that, what does strike me is the homogeneity of subjects, scope and opinions expressed. Not too much divergence going on, it's all so carefully calibrated to whatever passes for a zeitgeist. That in itself is depressing.

    3. God knows what any of these chaps actually thinks, but it is definitely the case that you can predict more or less verbatim what they would tweet on any given subject.