Looking at photos

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?

President Obama & @FLOTUS Michelle Obama dance together at the inaugural ball last night in Washington, DC:
President Obama & @FLOTUS Michelle Obama dance together at the inaugural ball last night in Washington, DC

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 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.

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.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

49 thoughts on “Looking at photos”

  1. loved this post, and thank for the shout-out to my faux-vintage essay! agree that this trend of photo-abundance is part of the story here, which i tried to make sense of by bringing Snapchat into the picture: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/pics-and-it-didnt-happen/

    the short of it is that Instagram responds to photo-abundance (and thus the decreasing value of an individual shot) by mimicking the style of photo-scarcity through faux-vintage filters. but instagram just adds to the abundance, and each shot just slips down the stream, unlike a real old photo. there’s a mismatch between the affordances of the instagram network and its aesthetics, a problematic tension akin to hipster-hate, as you smartly point out. Snapchat responds to photo-abundance by creating *actual* scarcity by having the photos actually disappear…i’ll let my essay speak for itself from here if you’re interested…

    1. Thanks for both articles!

      Snapchat and the concept of choosing which photos should be saved is a very interesting trend. Though it’ll have to take off tremendously for it to make a dent in the current abundance of permanent photos.

  2. I was thinking about just this yesterday (and did a post accordingly) but a sentence by Zygmunt Bauman slid into view. He writes in Liquid Modernity that “Ours is, as a result, an individualized, privatized version of modernity, with the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsi­bility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders. It is the patterns of dependency and interaction whose turn to be liquefied has now come.” [7-8] Is there something to be said for connecting authenticity-out-there in a tangible object, and the idea that we have all but done away with any such idea of authenticity in our social and politically constituted reality?

  3. Even if you did a Vulcan mind meld on a person just before taking their photograph, so that you knew every little detail about who they were and what they thought about where they are, you still wouldn’t be able to interpret their photograph. Because you’re not really seeing them, you’re seeing what you believe about them.

    People don’t see the world the way it is, they see the world the way they are. Our own ideas are the most powerful “filter” on what we perceive to be reality and we cannot see beyond what we believe. The second we make a decision about something that we are looking at, we leave out 99% of the information that is there. The moment we change our minds, the world opens up.

  4. Before digital photography, you could tell a lot of more about the time period and circumstances of those photographed – the quality of the image, the feeling of the photograph paper in your hands, what people were wearing and if they were posting.

    Back when film was expensive and cameras an uncommon luxury, a photo, and how it was kept could say a thousand words. A young man headed off to war keeps a snapshot of his intended bride in his helmet. A young mother frames the print of her gap-toothed second-grader in her annual school photo on the wall. The corporate employee uses the photo of her cat as a computer screensaver.

    Perhaps it’s more about how we use photographs rather than what is in the composition.

    Thank you for giving me something to think about. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  5. I’ve never been a fan of family photographs. All together now? Smile? When does that happen when the camera is off? Never. The best photos are almost always candid.

    1. True..But not all of us think to take candid “just because” pics..I still think a picture often times can silently speak a thousands or more words..And I miss the backintheday days when we had stacks and stacks of “actual” pics(not digital) that we could flip through; in photo albums. Those are things my family has passed down from generation to generation..What will this generation have to remind themselves of the next picture wise? Its quickly becoming a thing of the past

  6. I’m new to WordPress, and to find a blog that is this interesting within a week has made it worthwhile…. A very good read, refreshing and something to get the mind working….

  7. Where’s the love button? I love my camera and photography, in general. I have a DSLR, and even get some really good shots in at times. I have no intention of “going pro.” I know enough professional (and trained) photographers and study enough photography to know what the pros do and can do. A good camera alone can’t do what the pros do! Sometimes, I want to tell the many others around me snapping dozens of photos to just stop. Sometimes, it’s necessary to put the cameras away and just enjoy the moment(s).

  8. I’ve been publishing two blogs, one of mostly my photos and one of old family photos. I’ve found myself moving toward more editing and gentle processing of my own work, hopefully because my eye has gotten better. The old family photos sometimes need some gentle work to make them readable. They also get some explanation, some stories, and usually prompt the relatives to share stories, which was the real reason for that blog. My own photos get posted without an explanation, but I will reply when asked. The family ones really are the story, not in any organized sense, or in any chronology, but they are more like conversations at a family reunion. Some people we all know, others no one can remember. They rarely like photos of themselves, but love everyone else!

  9. Wonderful thoughtful post…great image of everyone taking photos of the Obamas and great quotes and thoughts throughout. I hadn’t used cameras for twenty years because I would rather experience than record the moment. Then a loved one became housebound due to disability and I started to bring him the world on my phone camera (not a good one) and then the main character of my novel-in-progress wanted a photoblog, so I learned how to use a friend’s camera and have been photoblogging since. Sometimes it feels like looking through the lens deeply engages me with the world and people in ways I wouldn’t have before, and sometimes the photoblog feels like a waste of time and energy. Yet the immediacy of pictures is compelling. Thanks for the post and congratulations on getting freshly pressed.

  10. Very well stated. It’s all a part of how the entire digital realm has so deeply infected our lives. The better our devices get, the stronger our depenence. Our devices have become an integrated part in our being, obsessive and compulsive in our chatting, texting, tweeting, gaming, talking, and yes picture taking.
    Your great post has filled my head with too many thoughts.

  11. A large part of what photography is for me, is an extension of journalling. A way to capture and express a memory.

    For me, documenting the journey is often part of the journey itself. Balance is key. Not every image gets photographed and not every thought gets captured. Sometimes the image in the viewfinder does not do justice to the image I see and experience with my eyes and mind. Other times the image in the viewfinder captures a unique perspective or angle, a spectacular view on what might otherwise be a mundane subject.

  12. They estimate that 10% of all photos ever taken were taken last year! That is staggering.

    I work in a tourist area and I am amazed at what I see people taking photos of and I am also impressed with the talent that some of my co-workers have.

    Digital cameras have allowed more people to become artists and opened the door to much more mediocrity.

  13. Great post! I agree entirely… it’s not a new thing though. I was reading something the other day and came across a quote by (the wonderful) Walter Benjamin in which he described photography as “useless chattering”. I thought that was great, but what I mean is, it’s always been a problem, or a perceived problem, rather, and you are so right we just need to turn that on its head and stop thinking that photography is in a permanent crisis IT ISN’T! People are just communicating, really. Thoughtless, maybe, but not harmful, and certainly not a crisis (but yes, they do need to learn to edit better).

  14. I am never without my camera…I just want to be able to share the wonder of it all. The earth and life and other stuff I see but “you” might have missed. I think of myself less as an artist and more of a chronicler and therefore agree with orestgtd. But I appreciate the true artists, esp those who came before digital, who got magnificent shots because they worked for it and timed it right for natural light and didn’t have the chance to make it clearer or saturated with color…etc etc. I’m trying to appreciate the art of image manipulation, but I find it hard to call it photography. To me it’s more computer arts than photography and so should be judged and appreciated differently. BTW congrats on the freshly pressed!

  15. With the use of Instagram and faux filters, this gives an added dimension to reading the image. The filter can tell us something about the mood or feelings experienced when shooting the photo. The feelings are similar to those that are evoked from older images that have a similar look. With modern images esp digital and online eg. Twitter and Instagram there is a comment and hash tags that feed more context to the image and help improve the reading.

    Interesting post and quotes.

  16. This is absolutely spot-on. I increasingly feel overwhelmed by the daily torrent of mediocre imagery. Where is the art? Where the images that take your breath away and linger long in the memory. I suppose they’re still out there but that much harder to find. Anyway, great post: erudite and apposite – well worth the “freshly pressed” label. Congratulations.

  17. Great article. I’m currently studying an MA in photography and have been reading a lot about whether or not a photo can tell a story on its own or if captions are needed. As part of the MA I have also been forced to give my work a much longer thought process, a task which at times has been very frustrating but having read this article and being able to relate to much of it I realise how important the edit is in the digital age.

  18. photographers don’t get enough credit in this world i swear! There is a lot of places people can’t go in a lifetime and there is a lot of animals and other things people will never get the chance to see besides in a photo….we need to appreciate our photographers more and the hard work that they do….to get a photo of a tiger in the wild for example: think about what all that photographer has to do just to get there….then they have to find the animal! And not to mention how dangerous that would be….but photographers do that kind of stuff everyday and its truly amazing! Photography is art and its art that i love dearly and appreciate with every fiber of my being! Great Blog and i appreciate your work! ~ Shane: Writer/Book reviewer and Historian!

  19. Juicy, thoughtful stuff here! I have or maybe I just ignore the fact that there is so many images out there, and I add to those images everyday. Whether posted or just downloaded to my computer and back.
    The joy of making photographs is the whole purpose, sharing them, a small portion, is rewarding in it allows us to know some type of acceptance!

    Thank you for your thoughts and links! Well done!

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