Every photographs tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man.
—Joerg Colberg, Meditations on Photographs:
Josef Nowak by an unknown photographer
I really liked this post since Colberg manages to put his thumb right on one of the things which bothers me most about a lot of photographs—in particular vernacular photographs. Between the rosy past which old photographs hint at and the way we’re trying to ape that look with hipstagram filters in digital photos, we’re trying and struggling to get our photos to tell a story through just their appearance.
Most photography has always been personal. We make personal images for our personal use. They help us remember and remind us of the past. They don’t tell a story, they prompt the stories. Each image in a scrapbook presents an opportunity for a relative to tell a story associated with it. But by themselves, the images don’t mean much.
Old images though do hold a special appeal. That they’ve survived means we tend to treat them as objects rather than images. They often look extremely neat and it’s a lot of fun to see the old fashions, etc. But even when we know who the subject is, they don’t really tell us much about them. When I looked through the box of photos I brought back from Hawai‘i, I found myself more interested in seeing bits of my cousins in the photos of my grandmother.
It was nice to get some background from my mother about who the people were. But none of those stories were in the photos.
I submit that we have chosen to create and view faux-vintage photos because they seem more authentic and real. One does not need to be consciously aware of this when choosing the filter, hitting the “like” button on Facebook or reblogging on Tumblr. We have associated authenticity with the style of a vintage photo because, previously, vintage photos were actually vintage. They stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, they earned a sense of importance.
—Nathan Jurgenson, The Faux-Vintage Photo
This sense of importance via survival can’t be ignored when thinking about how we look at photos. It’s the background context for everything. Pseudo-vintage filters took advantage of this by triggering a lot of the vintage feelings.* And I suspect that, while not fully articulated, a lot of the outrage about the filters** is the same reason why we all hate hipsters. We don’t like cultural capital to be appropriated without authenticity. It’s not exactly lying, but it triggers some of the same responses as lying does.
*Though it should be noted that there is something about real vintage photos which shines through even if they are instagrammed later. The mind is not fooled that easily.
**I have to admit that I find filters to be fun.
At the same time, importance via survival also points at a key distinction between photography in the past and photography now. Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers. Editing is hard. Time is a great editor and makes our jobs easier. Yes, there are boxes of prints and negatives in many attics. But many many more of those are lost or destroyed.
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.
—1/125, Pull it Down or Burn it Up
Which is where I think a lot of our anxiety about the current proliferation of images comes from. The anxiety is not new. What is new is the loss of our editor. If nothing can ever be deleted from the internet, mere survival is no longer noteworthy. We’re all looking into a future of billions of unedited images with no easy way of distinguishing keepers from discards. This is indeed scary.
At the same time, while we know what we’re walking into, we’re also unable to stop taking more and more photos even when what we’re photographing is, or has been, photographed better by someone else.
What are we actually looking at now?
The White House (@whitehouse) January 22, 2013
The foreground of this photo is amazing. Everyone is recording the scene on their personal devices. People are holding phones and camera up in the air hoping to get some sort of record of the scene. I can’t imagine that any of those are better than the official footage. It’s not like any of them will have an opinion.
In many ways, we’re no longer taking photos at all. We’re viewing, and reviewing, life through a viewfinder.
We need a new vocabulary to deal with this. There’s the phenomenal use of pictures, and there’s photography as a self-conscious practice. They aren’t congruent anymore.
—Francis Hodgson, Photography Changes Everything
The act of photographing, the gesture, has become part of our interaction with the world. You photograph just like you look. You know that you can never look at all of those photographs again (in all likelihood you never will—who has the time?), but it’s not about the photographs—it’s about the photographing. The act of photography might have turned into the equivalent of whistling a song, something you do, something that might or might not have beauty, a communicative act just as much as an affirmative act: I was there, and me being there means I had to photograph it.
—Joerg Colberg, Meditations on Photographs:
A Car on Fire at the Mall by JM Colberg
While some people say that the art of photography is knowing what not to shoot, perhaps the art of experiencing life for a photographer may be knowing what not to record. Watching the world through a viewfinder certainly distances you from what’s going on in front of you.
—Jason Schlachet, Recording the Action, or not
Life through the viewfinder indeed. Taking pictures is how we interact with the world now. It’s probably best that we distinguish taking pictures from photography the same way we distinguish using words from writing. Not everyone who uses a camera is, or intends to be, a photographer.* Many just want to take pictures to interact with the world.
*Flickr evidence of so many new DSLR owners wanting to “go pro” to the contrary.
“I was here.”
“I ate this.”
“So this happened.”
Most photos now have the same ephemeral quality of tweets and facebook status updates. Yes, they’ll live forever. But they’re not intended to be permanent record—even though we, collectively, should know better.
With the trend moving toward constant documentation, it’s pretty clear that things are only going to get worse unless we can figure out how to edit.
Either that or we’ll start to turn off the cameras once we tire of recording everything. As much as photography is how we interact with our world now, it’s still used more for unique experiences. When something is new or novel, out come the cameras and out come the photos without anything truly interesting to say. This is why travel photography often sucks. And it’s why most of my bird photos sucked. And it’s why I haven’t been photographing my second-born child.
Once something becomes routine, the cameras get put away.
After the novelty is gone, the choices are to either work for the really interesting photos or experience things without being filtered by the camera.
I always enjoy this stage. When I’m only looking for specific things and no longer feel compelled to shoot everything, the act of photography becomes much more enjoyable even while I take fewer photos. Photography is zen. Taking photos is not. But then I get the sense that I’m somewhat weird in this regard. I enjoy seeing potential and would happily forget to use my camera while I record a scene in my mind.
I think my biggest problem with Google Glass though is that I don't want to record what I see but rather what my mind sees.—
nick (@vossbrink) February 23, 2013
I don’t expect most other people to share my view though. I also don’t expect people to learn how to edit what we shoot.
So those of us who care about photography are left having to learn how to edit and share what we’ve edited. Or, in other words, follow Andy Adams’s lead. Curation and critique, if done properly, is a legitimate creative outlet now. Instead of writing endlessly about “is photography dead” or “how do we handle all these images” or “are apps/photoshop/whatever cheating,” just a simple “I like these because” will help clear the noise.
Photography bloggers and writers, please repeat after me: We do not need a crisis in order to talk about good photography.—
1/250 (@one250) February 25, 2013
Looking at photos is going to continue to be more and more difficult. Let’s help each other out and point out what we like and why. Especially the why. It can even be from your own photos.
One of my old posts is about the concept of being a photography guide. I’d forgotten about it until I was working on this post. It’s a concept I need to revisit. To the items in my post,* I’m adding the concept of just flagging “hey, this is interesting because.”
*Pointing out what’s worthwhile in a given body of work and helping people figure out exactly what it is they find appealing.