Until recently, hardly anyone considered why some readers might actually prefer clichés to finely crafted literary prose. A rare critic who pondered this mystery was C.S. Lewis, who — in a wonderful little book titled “An Experiment in Criticism” — devoted considerable attention to the appeal of bad writing for what he termed the “unliterary” reader. Such a reader, who is interested solely in the consumption of plot, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original
… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.
This is quite interesting. While it is aimed at the problem of why people like Stieg Larsson, it is very applicable to photographic contexts, as well. (Would it be too much to say “the problem of why people like Chase Jarvis”?)
If you show the average viewer of photographs (which is to say, an average person in any country which is at least modestly industrialized) a bunch of Chase Jarvis’s work and a bunch of Alec Soth’s work, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get a better response to the former, for largely the same reasons that Lewis enumerates.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in photography, what the photographer or curator is “trying to sell” the viewer will in many be something that the viewer is ill-equipped to recognize. As a result, the viewer will feel that they are being asked to pay a price not only for something they have no use for, but for something which, so far as they can tell, does not exist. And this is not true only for the “unliterary” viewer of photography; consider the critical response initially received by New Topographics.
Are these situations problematic? I think in the case of literature, the answer is, not necessarily. A taste for Dan Brown novels does not preclude a taste for more interesting fare. And in some cases — for example, in the case of Harry Potter — a mediocre work can become a gateway that leads vast numbers of readers on to better works.
In photography, the situation is somewhat more dire, because it is much, much harder for viewers to move freely between the “unliterary” photographic realm and the “literary” photographic realm. There is hardly any middle ground between them, the way there is with books. (I would not personally say “middlebrow,” but I wouldn’t object to it, although I do generally question the derogatory connotation that word is usually burdened with.) Instead of a middle ground, there is a chasm with hardly any bridges across it.
Most people wouldn’t know where to go to find challenging and interesting photographic work if they wanted to. (And what might prompt them to begin to want to?) For many people of the older generations, a good photograph is something associated more than anything else with wall calendars and perhaps magazines. For the younger generation, make that Explore and The Sartorialist.
In a bookstore, one could easily start at Dan Brown’s allotted position on the shelf and then have one’s eye caught by Octavia Butler, or Borges, or JG Ballard, or Kay Boyle, or Ray Bradbury. There are no (or nearly no) opportunities like that in photography. And while that precise example is not easily replicated in, say, Amazon (for which virtual proximity is a function of user tastes, not alphabetic chance), it is still very easy to start with a bad writer and stumble from there to good writers. (Because the tastes of other users are not uniform, “if you like x, you may also like y” engines do not automatically trap users in unliterary ghettos.)
To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment, and one which few people are homesteading. There are a few notable and interesting attempts — I would possibly consider Pictory to be one and certainly 20x200 is — but I have not encountered any about which I do not have significant reservations.