A Photographer’s Lament

Untitled

Key: R20131117-191652

I see that it has been almost one year since I lasted posted here. There are a lot of reasons for my long absence, but in the spirit of a blog as journal, I feel I should share the main one that has kept me away. Perhaps any few readers that might still have left me hanging in their RSS feed would have some comments to share–I’d be interested to hear your take.

I know a lot of photographers have different ideas of when the “golden age” of photography was (or is). Many feel we are in it now. Perhaps there never was one; I really don’t know. But I think we are definitely moving farther and farther away from anything like it due to the fact that the photograph has been devalued (in any sense of the word value) to almost nil. There are many contributing factors to this, but I would claim the most important ones are a perfect storm of: smart phones with cameras, always connected internet, and the embrace of social media to photography. I know some would argue that this is yet another case of technology creating a great democratization, where everyone is enabled to share their great “photographs”. All I know is that I’m tired of looking at pictures of restaurant food and pets lying on the couch.

There are so many images flooding by online that the attention span that anyone has for any photo, taken in any way, is down to fractions of a second. We scroll by hundreds of images in an internet session, barely resting on the occasional one for a second or three. Once in a great while one will make us stop for 10 seconds–and that must be a damn interesting image to do that.

In such an environment I’m just not that inspired to put my photography out there.

In retrospect, this has been a long time coming, and I think that a lot of the inner artistic turmoil that I’ve been putting myself through in the last couple of years was rooted in this growing feeling, although for a long time I could not articulate it. I was looking for anything to make photography interesting enough to make me want to post photographs again. But in the end there was no holy grail. I continued to make pictures that were meaningful to me personally, but the idea of sharing them online became painful to even think about. So I stopped.  I don’t want someone to “like” my photo–I want someone to engage with it.  And that just isn’t going to happen online these days.  The ship has sailed, and it’s a brave new world.  The photograph is dead.  Long live the photograph.

I’m not ready to give up photography. It’s too enjoyable and too much part of who I am.  But it is going to change for me. Big time. I need to rediscover the places to engage in that kind of artistic dialogue with other photographers, artists and thoughtful people that I used to find online.  I find I’m thinking a lot more about prints again, both how to make them and where to show them.  In the past I did a lot with books and folios–these now seem more important than ever.

And the web?  I’d love to be convinced otherwise, but I feel like a tsunami came and destroyed a perfectly good venue for photography.

I honestly can’t say what will happen to this blog.  I’ll probably still post some work here, because it is a personal creative journal, first and foremost, but I’m still coming to grips with the new reality and how I feel about it.  We live in interesting times, interesting times…

13 thoughts on “A Photographer’s Lament

  1. Hi
    A thoughtful and provoking post..Thankyou.
    I reckon the biggest difference is access…Lots of people have always taken bloody awful photographs, but they used to get passed once around the family and then spend their life languishing in a drawer.
    Now, because of the medium of the internet we all get sucked in to that initial pass around….You’re right, it can sometimes, (maybe often), be depressing.
    BUT..the good photos are still out there as well, and if someone genuinely does want to find them, they can, be that on a blog, or at a print exhibition or book shop….How big an audience does a photograph need to be a success? I’d argue that even if it connects with only one other person than the shooter then it’s worthwhile.
    I think if you are still having the sort of thoughts that you obviously are having…How to ‘keep faith’ with what you believe is photographically true and valid…then all is cool.
    Blogging is fine…I’ll do it while I enjoy it, (and I currently do), but photography is much, much more….We can argue that it is diluted/devalued by the internet, but down at molecular, single image, level it is exactly the same as it ever was.
    However you go forward I hope you enjoy it.
    Stuart

    • Good points, Stuart. I’m sure there are people that are still ‘connecting’ with photos on the internet. But just judging from my own attention span– as someone who always enjoyed lingering over good photography– the flood of images has destroyed my own appreciation to a significant degree.

      Maybe the solution is to spend less time online? Every now and then I have seriously considered dumping my connections to all “social media”. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I do put in a few minutes every day or two, just because it seems like it is “the future” and I don’t really fancy myself a luddite.

      • In some ways I am a bit of a Luddite, (albeit a passive one)..I don’t use ANY social media apart from my photo blog.
        But you’re right, it more than likely is ‘the future’, and certainly is ‘the now’…. I reckon we need to just accept it and maybe try to ignore the aspects of it that cheese us off…
        So…I’m not advocating going out and smashing up the looms, but I’m going to stick to my hand-stitching for as long as I can. :-)

  2. Perhaps what we need is a better venue. How about “America’s Funniest Home Digital Pictures”? No more than 5 entries per week please! [big sigh] I think some people DO enjoy the moment when they encounter a great (or even just a really good) picture on the ‘net. But, then again, photography was never a real mass participation art form. There are too many uses for pictures, too many fields of study, and far too many people who think that because it is easy to snap a shutter, that photographs have a low value. After all, if a scene or subject has REAL value someone would spend REAL time and effort and PAINT the thing! LOL. Then there are the exploitation surfers. You know, they find a nice picture, download it and then post it on their own web (mostly without attribution). Weird kind of flattery that.

    Your concept statement is key here: your desire to take photographs that engage people. If that happens on a blog or other ‘net display, fine. If not, then other forms of display are there, as you note. Hook up with a local café or small bookstore and see if they will give you a display space (after all, they need “décor”). I have bought a picture off such a wall because it moved me or caught my imagination. Enter contests of the right sort (there are too many of the exploitation variety).

    There is really nothing WRONG with all the “point n shoot” digital picture taking. Sometimes even I just want to capture a bit of some place I’m visiting or some activity. Heck, I sometimes like to show off my dogs. But I suspect you and I and other “serious” photographers need to concentrate on (dare I say it) pleasing ourselves first. If we are engaged by our subject and the resulting picture, then there is a higher likelihood that we will engage others.

    Good luck, blog on, better yet, let’s go take some pictures that stir our imagination and that makes others wonder why they even bother with their efforts!

    Cheers, Ed – Atlanta GA

    • Hi Ed. Yes, I need to look into the ways to get the work displayed where people will encounter it in a non-electronic form. I’ve always participated in shows, maybe it’s time for a solo exhibition. Hmm…

      As to “vernacular photography”–point and shoot stills–it’s a tradition since the invention of the brownie. Nothing wrong with that for sure and I’m not knocking it. I think that the problem is that sort of photography has never drowned out the more thoughtful sort until the net and social media. For example, back in the days of magazines, you picked up magazines you were interested in and looked at photography that interested you. If you chose to watch TV then, yes, you were in for a continual barrage of images, but the medium was “tv” not “photos”.

  3. Hello Eric, It’s good to hear from you! I was here just last week wondering what had become of you.

    I wish I could put forth an intelligent and reasonable argument counter to what you fess here — for my own sake if not yours, but I really can’t. I found myself mouthing “amen” to much of what you’ve written. Perhaps you’ve hit upon some of the reasons for my own apathy towards my blog and to a lesser extent my photography this year.

    I wonder if the type of engagement you seek/need could ever be found on the Internet and if so what would that look like? There’s been been some good and engaging conversations among the small group of bloggers I often follow, a redeeming light for sure, but I don’t know how to build upon that online so it happens with regularity.

    Your post is deserving of more consideration…

    • Hi Earl. Good to hear from you.

      I once participated in something that was a private photo sharing gallery between about 6-10 photographers. It was by invitation only. You posted something there maybe once or twice a week and the others would comment on the work. I thought this had real potential. But in general the comments tended to be short and not very critical–much like you might find in a photo club where people are patting each other on the pack over a slide show and holding back the more serious criticism. It’s a toss up because on electronic forums where people have never met face to face sometimes harsh things can be said, or honestly given criticism can be taken harshly whereas in person the conversation is moderated by social graces of look and gesture. I don’t know what the best solution is, but it has to be something more than a “like”, a “great shot!” or a dead silence.

  4. A thoughtful posting indeed. I’m not sure about engagement, whether that is an thing that can really happen on the net. But if one takes photographs for the simple reason that taking photographs is interesting/worth exploring, then that should suffice, with or without the net.

    • Hi Juha. A very excellent point, and illustrated so well by your own site: a life lived with a camera is rich indeed. If for no other reason I will continue to take photos. Just not sure if want to keep putting in the effort to post them online.

      If my site is mostly for myself, as a personal journal, I might eventually return to posting to it with gusto. I think the problem is that at some point I felt like it became more than that for me, where I was exploring other interesting photographer’s blogs and they mine, and there were interesting comments, etc. Now that the facebooks, google +’s, twitter and instagram, blah, blah blah are full of loads of photos the attention span that I am giving to any photography has gone way down, and I feel this is happening to others as well, judging by all that I see happening in the wide world of photography. Maybe it’s like I mentioned to Stuart above–I just need to start by changing my own viewing habits to a slower, and much more selective set of reading by stopping drinking from the firehose. A grass roots effort–”think local, not global”.

      • When I think about changing my habits like this, the story of the “emperor with no clothes” pops into my head. Who would I be walking around thinking photographs are still important when everyone else knows they are worthless now? Would I be just fooling myself?

  5. First of all: Good to see you posting again, Eric! And this moody photograph forms a good intro for your lament.

    Then the text. Maybe I just want to be thick and contrarian, but: Of course the amount of photographs flooding the world is intimidating, even deterring. Hell, even in those very seconds I write this comment, probably thousands of picture taking devices are sold worldwide, further adding to that visual tsunami.

    And? Does this devaluate one single image an individual is taking/making. Even more, does it influence the value of one single image You or I are creating and maybe posting? Nope.

    Of course in the large scale we don’t get seen. But the visual market follows its trends and fashions and the (self-)appointed pundits with an agenda that aims at economic success, and we are not part of this crowd. Does it matter? On a monetarian scale, certainly. On a personal scale? Not a single bit. As long as creating and communicating and living this part of our self is so comparably cheap (well, google gets our data, this should be considered a price), I see not much reason to complain: From my blogging, highly valued contacts and communications have originated, and now I even have an original photograph from the occupy-movement on my wall :)

    There’s a lot to be seen and to be learned. We can’t reasonably expect to see or learn all, so we have to develop our preferences and select accordingly. Will we be able to select correctly? Certainly not. Does it matter? No, as long as we try, because this makes our life rich. And therefore I myself continue photographing, blogging, and printing my images.

  6. Hi Markus! Good to hear from you.

    I understand your reasoning, And I do agree that sometimes still an image can make a strong connection for someone, whether because it makes a statement strongly aligned with that person’s beliefs or core values, or maybe reminds them of some pleasant moment in their own lives. I do think that in other venues (museums, cafes, homes, stores, galleries) photographs can retain something of their former power. I am pleased to hear that people may come across the occupy photo in your home sometimes, view it and think about it a bit.

    But despite this, I think there is no escaping the reality that the practice of photography has been devalued greatly, to everyone’s detriment. Straight photography has always had a difficult time justifying a place in the art world, and now I think it has a much harder time. And on the commercial side, you find every kind of photographer (sports, wedding, corporate, etc.) has a harder time finding work or getting anything close to the prices they did previously. Many have shut down their businesses entirely. Major newspapers cut their entire photojournalism staff and rely on camera phone pictures from the public. Magazine art directors buy photos from the internet for a fraction of what they would have paid to hire a photographer to take some shots dedicated to the story. And then the real tragedy– the affect on attention span of the public for looking at and appreciating photographs.

    In this kind of environment can we really sit behind our computer, ignore all the photographs streaming by, and post another one of our own, thinking of its importance in the world? I think it takes a lot of false confidence to believe that it will get more than a few seconds look at the very most, and then passed and forgotten by as a drop in the ocean.

    But maybe your point is really about the human connections that are made when a reasonable amount of interesting text accompanies the image? It seems that writing gets way more importance and attention, and the image just serves a secondary role to bolster and support the text. I know some blogs I follow there is never a photograph without text. And on some, when they post, it is only with some kind of topic in mind, with copious text and multiple pictures in a supporting role. In the past, from a photography perspective, I’ve always felt that these pictures were “diluted” by the text, and it would be harder to focus the viewers attention on a single photograph. But maybe that is the role of the photograph online today, as a mere supplement to focus the attention on the text.

    • Eric, the mechanisms of the internet certainly favour text – all the search engines use it as primary cataloguing source. But the good thing with the internet is the variability it offers – and the comfort, now even certain agencies take care of your
      backups ;)
      I think one has to differentiate between utility photography and art photography: For the first the situation certainly degrades for the professionals as there is just a flood of (merely) good enough photographs and photographers perfectly willing to cut every willing price. On the other hand video footage soars (which I hate, I want to be able to cross read a text to get at the essence and see if its worth reading the whole thing).
      Art photography is certainly a different thing (and I would define it very widely here: all photography that is not made for mere memory or illustrational uses). As soon as you can get away from that swath of more or less coincidental snapping, there are gems to be mined. Lenswork was and is a treasure chest, and so are many blogs we follow. Most of the so-called social websites can be the same, but certainly only in some niches as here the buzz rulez.
      It all becomes difficult if we want to measure success. If we use the current monetarian approach, certainly most of us are failures. When it comes to growing as a person, intellectually, the discourses we have, the images we expose each other to, hopefully become part of universal growth. And that I see as the contrary of failure.

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