Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Single Use Photo

In what follows I will sound, I am fully aware, exactly like a grumpy old man shouting at clouds. Be that as it may.

Back in the Good Olde Dayes, say, the 1990s, we mostly walked around with, at most, 36 exposures at our beck and call. More if we wanted to fiddle around changing film. We tended to gravitate toward pictures with some weight, whether memorializing something or trying to make a picture somehow "worth printing." We might take a bunch of crummy snaps of Christmas, but because it was Christmas, because it was a memory we wanted to preserve. We might take a bunch of pictures of the crane silhoutted against the sky, but generally with the idea that one of these frames might be a wall-hanger or that at least we were developing skills aimed at some day taking a wall-hanger.

The advent of digital photography made it free to press the button, and the advent of social media created a whole new category of venue for our photos. No longer did they have to have gravitas, no more did they need to be wall-hangers. They could just be pretty, or witty, or fun. Go nuts, take a 100 of them.

Of course, in the old days, we took these things too. Less of them, I think, and we threw them away because there wasn't anything to be done with them. Oh look, a pretty flower. Oh look, a funny sign, or a sign made funny by the guy with the hat standing in front of it. They're not wall-hangers, they're a new kind of consumable, intended to be looked at one (1) time only. They're single-use photos.

"Street photography" is maybe where this is most visible. Compare Robert Frank's book with the stuff we see today. Every frame of Frank's is loaded with meaning, with symbols, with structure. He's trying to communicate something. Most of modern street photography is making a throwaway joke, or noting a momentarily interesting juxtaposition of stuff. Yeah, yeah, there's all sorts of material about a story, but that's BS. The point is that the triangular shadow is pointing at the guy, wow, or that we have strong foreground elements framing a background element, or the complete stranger is doing a funny thing. These are are "lol, next" single-use photos.

The Guardian's "LensCulture street photography awards" are pretty much all of this sort. These are mostly photos nobody would have circled on the contact sheet, but since we've been mired in a photographic culture built around "lol, next" photos, this is now an actual style, a genre, that gets awards. Look at how many of these things are literally "someone's head is covered up by a foreground object, lol."

We see the same phenomenon on random social media, as well. I won't name names, but this morning I ran across a photo, a perfectly pleasing "pretty" picture of nothing, that someone posted to social media. He will never print it, it's very much a "look once, and never again" photo, although it's perfectly pleasant to look at once. Some rando made a negative comment, which is neither here nor there, and then of course the original poster's friends jumped all over extolling the virtues of this essentially throwaway picture. A tale as old as time, if we take "time" as beginning about 2010.

I'm not even arguing that this is a bad thing, it is what it is. The point is, it's a new thing. The idea of the throwaway picture, the "hey, look at this, cool huh?" "yeah, cool" photo, the single-use photo, is by far the dominant idiom. It is what photographers aspire to learn to do. There are millions of hours of youtube videos that teach you how to do this. It mostly didn't exist before 2010.

I have this vague notion that I wrote something like this a long long time ago, the idea of a photo as an artifact that says no more than "look at this?" but I can't find it.


  1. The Guardian did up an online article, but it's a "LensCulture" thing: (a Guardian staffer was on the jury). I'm curious if any of the winners are professional photojournalists. There is no bio info that I can find. I suppose I could google them one by one, but this seems like a curious omission. Suffice to say, it's a pretty random package, including the anodyne and arguably irrelevant title, "What is life about?"

  2. This is the price we pay for the Web's abolition of "curation". Once, apart from someone else's family album or holiday slide-show, you'd only ever see photos that had survived the passage through many layers of selection and editing. Now, it's like the crowd has broken down the fences at the festival, and invaded the stage.

    These "single-use" photos are crowd-pleasers, photos of the crowd, by the crowd, for the crowd. I'm all in favour of democracy, but I want to see the result of fair, orderly elections, not an angry shouting mob. (Yes, draw your own Trumpist conclusions from that).


  3. The Street Photography days of Winogrand and Meyerowitz are over. I would say that 90% of the Lens Culture Street Photography Awards were not what I knew as street photography. I personally don't think that the demise of film and the rise of digital photography is the reason so little of meaningful photographs. It still depends on the individual photographer. Even if he or she takes 32 shots with a digital camera, he or she still has to find one, if there is one, that captures the reason the shot was taken. -- Arthur Shapiro