Thursday, July 23, 2020

In Praise of Friction

We don't value things that we don't pay for. If you have something that's worth a little bit, which you don't want, you might offer it up for free. You won't get many takers, and the people that do promise to come take it away generally won't. Offer it instead for a token price, and the situation changes completely.

When people propose online gallery shows, they generally are enthused about the idea that there's less friction. There's greater accessibility. Why, the whole world will be able to see our show! Which is all true, but it's not actually a good thing, it's a terrible thing.

The whole point of seeing a gallery show is that you've made a commitment of time and energy, which completely alters how you take the work. You're going to value it, you're going to actually look at it, you're going to struggle with it. Or, at least, you're more likely to do those things. If it's just a quick click away, you're far less likely to. It costs nothing to boredly click a mouse.

On the flip side, digital photography has reduced friction in the making of photographs. Instagram and its friends have virtually eliminated friction all the way through "publishing." It costs me nothing to snap a picture and shove it out there, it costs you nothing to look at it.

Why on earth anyone would imagine people would, somehow, find value in here is beyond me.

Friction is the point, after all. The value of all these things is completely abstract, completely socially constructed. I can't eat a photograph, and it would take an awfully large print to offer me much shelter from the elements. Removing friction removes some of that socially constructed value, and as such, doing so is a rotten idea.

Interestingly, the use of film and alternative processes is often treated as a form of value-adding friction, and in a sense it ought to be. Some people perceive added value here, for sure. I generally do not, but that is something of a personal take.

Sally Mann's wet plate work, for instance, derives value from the process in two quite separate ways. The first is that sort of socially generated friction-value. The second, though, is that the processes serve the work. The battlefields simply would not work without the flaws and trash introduced by the process. The blackwater photos demand the look of the tintype to work at all.

The second piece, though, the part I see as valuable, could be done equally well with a digital filter. For my money, Mann would do just as well to shoot all this stuff with a good phone and apply a snazzy "wet plate" filter that throws down random artifacts and shit all over the file. I mean, she's welcome to screw around with wet plate if she likes, she's got all the bottles and plates and whatnot, and she's obviously got it all on autopilot at this point so why not?

But the frictional value here, the fact that it's a demanding process, strikes me as largely negated by the fact that this could all be done with a filter.

So what kinds of friction really do add value?

Well, as near as I can tell it's the kind of friction that can't be simulated by the machine, and thus is something of a moving target.

I think (surprise!) that making a book is a good example. You can take your easily made digital photos, sequence them, wrap them in a design, think about stuff, write some copy, and so on. There's real work here, which is not (yet) subject to automation. The work shows up in the result. At the same time, I can't just lazily click a thing, I have to lever my ass out of this chair, pull the thing off the shelf, and, using my clumsy paws, leaf through it a page at a time.

Friction, value.

Putting things in a real white cube also creates friction, and value. Someone's deciding which print goes where. Someone's framing and matting things, and driving nails, and standing back, and adjusting lights. At the same time, I have to drag my ass down there, maybe even pay a fee, and walk through the gallery on my other clumsy paws, gaping stupidly at the walls.

Friction, value.

"Online gallery show" misses the entire point. It's just a shitty version of instagram. Don't do it!


  1. "It costs nothing to boredly click a mouse."

    Dude...I have carpal tunnel syndrome. Thanks for asking.

    1. I have no cartilage at all in my finger joints!

  2. In the city where I live, there is only one dedicated gallery for photography. I'm guessing that this situation is similar in other cities across the country. Generally speaking, I think people over 30 would like more prints being shown on more walls. I think people under 30 could care less. If printing is not yet dead, it's in a coma. In the future all photography will be shown on 60 inch flat screens streamed from the artist's Instragram account.