Lately, I’ve been thinking about how so much Serious Photography tends to look the same – or at least when I think about it, it tends to be lumped together in my brain to groups of similar approaches and subjects. I’m sure that you, too, experience some form of this: You probably have your own list of some style or subject that you have seen so many times that it fails to merit more than a passing glance…
It occurs to me that this may all be a corrolary of the ‘drinking from the fire hose’ problem of digital culture. The idea fits in here in that we all see so many images that it’s impossible to glean anything from them. We’re simply overwhelmed by images and they then tend to be lumped together in types: One individual photographer‘s work might be highly original and conceptually unique, but there’s just so much work out there that it’s bound to find a double, and that double is bound to have a double, and that double’s double will have a double, and etc. etc.
But I’ve never had a problem of looking at too many images before – the bookshelf behind me as I write this probably contains tens of thousands of images (an estimate, clearly). Instead, I think it is the speed at which they go by us all that leads to this stereotyping.
I’ve written about the structure of the internet encouraging this – specifically how content tends to disappear once it slips off the front page of a site. Because all digital media is organized chronologically. Sites like fffffound, tumblr, and the surf clubs (see Words Without Pictures for an excellent essay on this) encourage users to be perpetual curators – an empowering model for the user as this seems to suggest that our worth is determined by the culture we consume rather than produce. This perpetual curation, though, is not true curation – it is not a space for judgement of the works presented on a website. Instead, it is a space to form a vague sense of someone’s taste and influences, dictated by the overall impression of this torrent of images and not by any reflection on their meaning. All of the archives that we explore – can it really be said that we take more than a vague sense of their subject matter?
But it’s not just tumblrs and this culture of rabid online image consumption that encourages this utter lack of reflection. It is digital culture itself that encourages this. And this influence extends off the computer screen too – the thousands of photobooks being produced on blurb and on small presses and desktop printers all share this. Their very ease of construction, which has permitted this boom in the first place, allows photographers to come up with an idea and have a book a few hours later. I’ve spoken about this directness approvingly before, but a side-effect can be a profound lack of visual ambition. Why spend years fleshing out a project and really making sure that every image is important?
The time span of both production and consumption of images has radically shrunk. [off topic slightly, but see here and here] What used to take days and weeks and years has become minutes and hours and days. We live in a type of constant serialization – one image inevitably leads to the next. It feels like a constant stream, an almost elemental force without end. And without end, there is very little space for contemplation or reflection. It is a visual world that is all process and no result.