Pull it Down or Burn it Up

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in some of the stuff I’ve been reading and/or re-reading over the past few weeks, regarding the proliferation of photographic images, and how that proliferation changes the way we see and relate to images and to the world. It’s in some respects similar to the case of the 1978 Test, although it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried.

Here are the relevant bits:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Soundings from the Atlantic, published in the 1860’s:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may be got direct from Nature.

There is only one Colosseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed — representatives of billions of pictures — since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth. (pp 161-162)

Wilson Hicks, writing in a 1950’s Aperture article, “Photographs and Public,” reprinted recently in Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976:

[The] public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics…has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say, “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks. Mr. Mumford asks whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism — “make sensation seem more important than meaning” — and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. This apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated. (pp. 152-153)

Alec Soth, interviewed in 2010, from From Here to There:

I’m not actually killing the father, though I know that’s in there. But I am interested in killing that genre of photography going forward. It exists in the history of the medium that you shoot the mundane and make it beautiful, right? So people used to take pictures of old barns. Now we all see an old barn and we say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” It’s a photo cliche so you don’t shoot that, but the world thinks they’re beautiful. That sort of goes on through time. And Eggleston took it to another level with a book such as The Democratic Forest. Just anything, and you can find beauty in it. And I agree with that. But the issue is now, in the digital age, it’s relentless. You have thousands of photographers working that way. it’s really hard to have that moment.

One thing I thought about on that little walk is the scene in American Beauty with the floating plastic bag. That scene has become iconic. I photographed a lot of plastic bags on that walk. In a way, they’re like the old barns. We find the floating bag beautiful now because of that movie, but it’s just harder and harder to do that. (pp. 143-144)

Nathan Jurgenson, writing recently, (via LPV):

Or: Given the proliferation of options, how should I document this cat?

For some, though certainly not everyone, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. The most obvious answer is “don’t document that cat. Enough already.” I’m with you. I’m concerned about how social media documentation changes experience…I think there is good reason for why these types of documentation proliferate: most importantly, to be on social media in all its various forms is, for many, to exist. PJ Rey does an excellent job at explaining why it’s not so easy to just opt-out of all of this. In any case, this is not a post about whether this expansion in the ways of documentation is a good thing, but asking if there is a cognitive limit to all of this. So, again: How should I document this cat lying next to me?….

Can one simultaneously see the photographs, video, audio, and GIFs in front of them in real-time? Can documentary literacy be refined as to intuit between what is most shareable frozen-still versus wants to be stuck in the GIF loop? Can one see the fast Vine video in the sandwich being slowly consumed? Can we keep all of these documentary-affordances and potentialities in our head at once? Is there a limit?

To make this even more complex, we modern documentarians also need to keep all of the different audiences in mind. Indeed, that we now have been connected to large audiences to share our ephemera is in large part why we are being given so many documentary options. To see something as a potential snap (sent via Snapchat) is to already know the taste and expectations of each potential recipient. Vine users are different than your Facebook friends are different than your Tumblr followers and thus expectations multiply within the documentary consciousness.

As the complexities swell, might there be in this ecology of documentary consciousness something to keep mediums of documentation from proliferating endlessly? Is there a point of cognitive documentary saturation? Can we really all-at-once see the world as photographable, GIFable, Vineable, and whatever else comes next? And are those who reach that documentary saturation first at a disadvantage, missing out on the cultural and social capital that social media documentation promises?

Perennial millennialisms

As usually, photography’s chronic problem is to believe that its problems are acute. In this case, it seems that photography has, if not always, then from nearly the very beginning, been in the situation it is now: struggling to make sense of a staggering increase in the rate of production of photographs.

Much as with physical goods, I suppose, changes in abundance and scarcity precipitate anxiety about the value of things — compounded in the case of photographs by the dual impact of proliferating photographs on each other and on the world which those photographs represent. But unlike commodities, the value here is not a matter of monetary worth, but of meaning.

For Holmes, it is the value of real places, subverted by cheap access to photographs of them. (Note: Holmes was writing in a tongue in cheek fashion; he certainly was not anti-photography.) For Hicks, it is the value of “quieter, and better” images which is lost in the deluge — and a crisis in seeing itself, in which we dare not “witness,” because we know that “if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks.” For Soth, it is the aesthetic value of photographic subjects, eroded by our very appreciation (and therefore imitation) of it, which transforms the freshly discovered source of beauty into cliche. For Jurgens, it is the value of routine self-documentation (i.e., the successor technologies of the snapshot): for a given thing or experience, how should one record it — and is it even worth doing so anymore?

To put it in terms of Holmes’s signature metaphor: are there too many ways to “skin” a cat? Having perhaps achieved his vision of men who hunt all things worth seeing only “for their skins and leave the carcass,” are we now at the point where the traffic in those skins — what Hicks called the “derivative, secondhand life” of our visual “ghost world” — has also destabilized and devalued itself? It seems like Jurgens would object to Hicks’s dualism, but shares some of his John Henryesque concerns for the limits of the mind.

In summary, does the proliferation of images sometimes depreciate the value of individual images and/or of things? Is that depreciation a problem? And is that problem newly becoming acute and dire? The answers seem positive, but at least in the case of the third question, consensus is not necessarily supporting evidence when it occurs across time.

I am suspicious of millennialisms in photography, because they tend to recur perennially. (This is also the problem with actual millennial cults. If any of them were right, there would be much fewer of them by now.) Of course, just because the end wasn’t actually nigh all those other times doesn’t mean it’s not really nigh this time. But I am nonetheless inclined to follow the wisdom of Nick Fury: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Tonight, on a very special…

My feeling is that anxiety about too many images takes its particular form from the specific technological and cultural situation at a given time, but is at heart more or less a constant: to put it crudely, the problem is that photography and related technologies have a disruptive impact on what is special. (There’s probably a better term, but I can’t think of it offhand.)

A special person or place, when subjected to mass reproduction and distribution in image form, may become less special, or the way in which it is special, and to whom, can be totally transformed. A special image — whether distinguished by technical innovation or the artist’s style or perceptiveness — is easily mimicked, which eventually removes the special, distinct quality of it, aside from its historical precedence. The stunning moment of beauty and insight becomes the standard subject.

Of course, this effect is inextricable from the basic appeal of photography in the first place, which from the beginning has included the (relative) ease, affordability, and reproducibility of the images it makes possible. The camera has always been a turnkey solution to the problem of the unique. It disrupts the economy of meaning that determines what is special, because it is and always has been a tool for exactly that purpose.

Of course, the presence of perennial problems and purposes does not mean the medium stands still. Rather, they play a persistent part in shaping its progress, for better or worse. I think proliferation anxiety tends to drive a kind of arms race of innovation — an always-escalating quest for new or new-seeming or newly-rediscovered subjects and techniques to distinguish the photographer who puts them to use before they have a chance to become cliches.

Unfortunately, different parts of the audience relate to the medium differently, and react to to its changes at different rates. A great deal of effort and attention goes into knowing what things to be over, and when. And when it comes to rediscovering the old — well, it can get awkward when one person’s current/continuing practice is someone else’s antique novelty. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that photography’s audiences will grow farther apart, and their vocabularies, judgments, and desires become less mutually intelligible.

I think in the case of photography as art, the result is an incentive to move toward the abstract, the conceptual, and the technical, farther afield from the common use of photographic tools — and away from the devaluing impact of naive imitation by the masses. That certainly seems to be an implication (spoken or unspoken) behind some of the predicted futures of photography. (Alternatively, of course, the naive products of the masses can be laundered back into relevance through appropriation by some credentialed party.)

Stick to your knitting

Coming at it from another side, I wonder: how much of this fear of proliferating images, would be resolved by pulling art out of the equation? Or, rather, the artist? The obsession with the unique, the special, the distinguishing, and the fear for the fate of good images that may go unseen in the vast flood of others — it’s not really fear about the quality of photographs or the limits of seeing. It’s about the status of the photographer as artist and author.

In crafts, familiarity or commonality is not antithetical to worth. In that context, one cannot reasonably qualify a description of something beautiful or useful and well-made with a dismissive observation that it is also derivative. In folk songs and stories, the quality of performance often reflects an ability to skillfully iterate but does not require radical innovation. And while crafts, folk arts, traditional music, etc. may be perceived as belonging to the past, internet memes really work in much the same way — and like folktales and songs, they tend for practical purposes to come from a culture rather than from an individual author, even sometimes in cases where we can definitely identify such an author.

I think this is particularly relevant to the question of documentary consciousness/saturation — because I think it points to the fact that as we all become more and more skilled at producing images, and as we increasingly do so for the joy of it, we rely on the camera less as a documentary tool for memorializing moments and more to produce personal variations on standard subjects as an end in itself. Not to the exclusion of documentation, of course, but in conjunction with it. As with, say, knitting, the result is a practice that is partly aesthetic, partly utilitarian, and which imparts a satisfaction of creation without necessarily implying “creativity” in the sense of innovation.

(Please, nobody start pummeling me with your copies of Knitting for Anarchists; I know that many knitters engage in extensive design work, etc. But as far as I know, nobody points to someone knitting from a pattern and declares haughtily, “You are not a knitter.”)

Wait, really?

Well…no. Or, not exactly. In fact, I tend to be on the side of the “quieter, and better” image, too. And I’m copiously on record as resenting contemporary forms of the attention-seeking “sensationalism” Hicks derided, such as the photos that, through a combination of “wow” factor and SEO, rise to the top of Flickr’s Explore.

More critically, I’m concerned for the ability of photographs to let viewers partake of different perspectives (literally and figuratively). One of the most important functions of photography throughout its history is to form connections between people and between communities — even if they have all too often been simplistic and one-directional connections.

That function is not necessarily menaced by the proliferation of images. Take documentary photography, for example: the more universal, common, cheap, and easy photographic production is, and the more people are making photographs, and the more photographs they make, the more chances we have to avoid the great weakness of documentary photography: its dependence on parachuting white guys into any area that needs documenting.

But neither is there necessarily a positive correlation between a more a diverse body of photographs being made and more diverse, broadening photographic experiences for viewers. The increasingly elective distribution channels of the present are only as inclusive and interconnected as we make them. The walls formed by people letting their tastes guide them can be just as solid as those formed by institutional bias and myopia, and numbers alone will not scale them. Someone has to make windows and doors, or at least ladders. It’s a task that gets far too little love.

So anyway, please take about 2-3x the usual dose of salt with everything I’ve said here.

PS: I was also being extremely glib in my comparison of knitting to photography. I did not include fiber arts as an academic practice, or haute couture, which would likely have created annoyingly relevant parallels. Figuring out whether and how those parallels would have undermined my point is left as an exercise to the reader.

But most significantly, in knitting and in many other crafts, there is a direct relationship between the time one must spend in physical work and the result one achieves. Photography is by no means free of work, but the relationship between the time spent in it and the nature and quality of the result one achieves is wildly variable.

The usual read of that is that photography is faster or easier and therefore it upsets balances. I don’t think it’s that photography is faster or easier than other media, so much as that within photography, there is no consistent relationship between the amount, duration, or kind of effort one expends, and what one achieves. I think that inconsistency breeds media-wide insecurity at an hilarious rate.

PPS: This post took me a long time, and in the time between I started writing it and when I hammered into its present, vaguely publishable state, other things have been posted that I really should take into account. But if I stopped to do that, it would be another month before I got this out there, and then the situation would just keep getting more silly. So I’ll just say: read the posts linked here, here, and here.