or Who Stole The Carrot?
I’m a photographer. I’ve been one for 50 years now. Photography is what I’ve done since I was 12. It’s what I studied in college and received a degree in. I’ve made ads, annual reports, portraits, three books, and numerous mistakes. I’ve taught, mentored and spoke numerous times on photography. I’ve had solo shows worldwide and am in some nifty collections. My peers have awarded me over 100 times for my pictures, and for that I am most appreciative. I never lie, but have been mistaken. Most importantly though, I’ve been able to do what I am passionate about with my life. There, that’s my resume.
I share my resume to help you understand who this tiny essay comes from. That being not a writer, analyst, critic or curator, but rather a practitioner, one who supported his family by his art. As you may imagine, I have some insight and observations garnered from 50 years of photographic history and I make it a point to speak with a lot of folks who have something to do with photography, decision makers who affect our craft like picture editors, curators, gallerists, publishers, critical writers, managing editors and researchers. Some of them I am friends with. Some, maybe not so much….Did I mention I never lie?
This short essay addresses an issue that is infecting our art, one I am quite concerned over and that I regrettably feel will have serious repercussions for the future of the medium. I have always believed in content over craft, but the two are not inseparable as we all know. It’s apparent the magic of the silver image is now relegated to the past, utilized by practitioners who desire the process for presentation of their content, some unfortunately letting the process dictate content. The masters are those who integrate the process into the final image allowing technique to support and enhance the content. I have great respect for those few who accomplish this symphony of blending aesthetics with content. To those I present my kudos and say thank you. You are the keepers of the light.
Unfortunately there are not many of these masters left in our medium. What we do have is an abundance of ill prepared “practitioners” creating a barrage of images presented daily to an apathetic audience, specifically the 1,800,000,000 photographs a day posted to the internet sucking the air out of our craft and creating a visual vacuum. This may be great for Facebook, Instagram, Tumbler, Pinterest, Twitter, and the milieu of other platforms encouraging this visual maelstrom in return for advertising dollars, but not so much for the serious photographer. Unfortunately, this visual barrage of vacuous pictures created a visual apathy which lead to visual atrophy and ultimately the current state of visual illiteracy. Simply put; people just don’t see any more. Oh sure they spend nanoseconds looking at pictures social media platforms, and they look at hundreds if not thousands of pictures a day. But they do not truly see. I don’t blame them, they simply don’t know how to look. They need to be informed, but good pictures are not easily accessible on a smart phone, tablet or computer screen. They may be there, but are well hidden within the 1,800,000,000 other pictures posted that day.
It’s apparent that now the “Medium is the Message”.
Not seeing photographs has become a serious issue for those of us in the “seeing” business. We need trained eyes to assure our existence as viable artists. We now rarely get experienced eyes on our pictures, and the vast majority of those few visually literate viewers we do get are sadly other photographers in search of eyes for their own work. This becomes an incestuous formula for failure. Any economist will tell you the market for your product won’t be your competition. The outlets we had as photographers are also suffering from this blindness. The print media is in it’s death throes because people are now too impatient to flip a page or hold a magazine. Add the fact that the magazine and newspaper experience has diminished because the quality of those media have so drastically declined. Less readership means more cuts and further decline. It’s an accelerating downward spiral towards oblivion for conventional print media if they do not act to set themselves apart from social and internet media. One way to do that is to improve the experience for readers by printing high quality pictures, writing, and design. Make a magazines special newspapers smart.
Journalism and visual documentaries are available on the internet immediately, stacked tens deep and proliferated with poor pictures. This visual void is filled by picture editors selecting content supplied by the masses or, even worse, stock agencies. This practice serves only to visually dumb down the readership. Many gallerists and curators have sacrificed the good for the novel in an attempt to stop untrained eyes long enough to make a purchase. Many gallerists attempt to remain vital by selling bad pictures to the blind, but the good gallerists know they are best served by engaging and educating their clientele. Unfortunately there is little of lasting import to most “novel” work. To that I say “But, the king has no clothes!” I told you about the not lying thing.
So what’s a person in our business of seeing to do? Despair is not an option. I believe we should work towards increasing visual literacy. We need to bring back the magic of our medium and the best way to do that is to set an example and encourage others to do the same. We need to help people see again and foster the interaction and enlightenment which seeing brings. The best way to do that is to only do good work. We should slow down, look longer, post less, post better. We should fight for our craft and the integrity it deserves. We should respect good pictures, the photographers who make them, and those who support good photography. We should be supportive of our peers. Those of us who are more experienced should mentor younger photographers by encouraging them to find their purpose and respect their craft. We should share our passion. We should set the bar higher and learn from our failures. We must persevere. If photography as a viable art form is to survive we must create a new visual literacy. And if you want to truly see, pull up a chair.