It’s difficult to write clearly about photography because you have to be specific to be clear, and that takes far too much space for most readers. Also, writing clearly requires an enormous amount of synthesis in thought which isn’t always at hand. But I’d like to enter into another of Colberg’s questions (he shifted the dialogue on the question of “trusting” photographic images by giving the word a different meaning, but there’s no point in either of us wasting time on semantics.)
I want to talk about the change in what it means to be an artist, an artist photographer, a fine-art photographer or whatever you want to call someone who uses photography to express ideas and feelings and not simply commercial or family necessities. That should mean just about anyone reading this article. It’s all of us.
There are basically two questions to understand:
1) what distinguishes a fine-art photographer from all the rest, and
2) how does the technology of image-making alter the evaluation of who takes the image.
Both are nowadays in serious questioning and Colberg is trying, I believe, to find some standards on which to distinguish both cases. He is trying to charge the questions with larger social issues in order to stimulate a debate. Once again, I am grateful to him for that. Let’s try and analyze the two questions.
What distinguishes a fine-art photographer from the rest? Is he an artist and the others mere amateurs? Are “serious” photographers somehow more worthy of our attention then fun-loving Instagram users? This mixes already the second question of technological expertise as opposed to button-pushing kids with smart-phones.
Culturally, in our technologically specialized world, it would seem that the “serious” fine-art photographer is probably better equipped both culturally and technically to create images of “value”. This appears to be at the basis of Colberg’s argument. We can immediately see, however, that many meanings in my previous synthetic phrase are up for definition. What does “seriousness” have to do with “value”? Just as, what does “cultural” have to do with “technical”? Interesting questions.
The Oxford on-line dictionary (which probably has nothing to do with the University of Oxford) describes the artist as:
1) a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby,
2) a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet or filmmaker,
3) a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.
Interestingly enough, there are no value judgements in question. No one asks if what you’re doing makes any sense or if it’s good. An artist is simply anyone who uses a creative art. But this is certainly not the kind of judgement very useful for understanding what is worth looking at and what is simply rubbish. What’s in question is how we make those judgements and what social habits give us the clues as to what is important art and what is not. We simply can not rely on our instincts because if we do, we are limiting our judgment quite strictly to what we know and therefore what we feel.
Feeling is not a universal language, nor is meaning. Some people feel quite embarrassed in situations in which others are at ease. Some adore rituality while others are angered by its seemingly senseless repetition. As to meaning, simply ask anyone from outside your culture to explain a symbol inside your culture, or visa versa (like Arabic calligraphy or an original base-ball used in the World Series). Meanings are subjective. Always.
So who is an artist and who isn’t depends on your surroundings, the period you are working in, the culture you live in and, especially, the culture who is judging your quality as an artist.
And this brings me to Instagram. Are Instagram photographers artists or just kids playing with their iPhone? Let me quote Ms. Mukti Khaire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who studies the creative fields, “The fact that the Web creates opportunities for discovery and showing that nothing else could on that scale… I think it does change who gets to be an artist… it may not change the definition, but it widens the funnel.” (quote taken from the International Herald Tribune article by Melena Ryzik “Getting their names in lights”, June 20, 2012)
So some outsiders are getting into the photographic field. But there is also a question of quality which anyone who has studied photography recognizes is not necessarily inherent in the filters systematically applied to images on social platforms. Many images look alike, many filters do the same thing to anyone’s images, reducing their contribution as an artist and emphasizing the platforms codified filters: technical choices made in a bundle by some geek somewhere in the world. That’s why SX-70 Poloroids never became a serious photographic expression: they all look very much alike.
This question is inflaming many practitioners on both sides of the question. Kate Baven, on The Guardian’s web site tried too to come down on the side of “serious” photographers, deriding the filters offered by Instagram:
“For me, these filters spoil pictures: they get in the way of the image and they distort the story the picture is telling. It jars to see a picture taken a few seconds ago, in the summer of 2012, that looks like a picture from my childhood… But for me, the Instagram/Hipstamatic/Snapseed etc filters are the antithesis of creativity. They make all pictures look the same. They require no thought or creative input: one click and you’re done.”
But then again, why isn’t Ms. Baven irritated seeing a black and white photograph of an event which obviously took place in color? Her article brought on a wave of response and most readers disagreed. From almost 50 responses on the first web-page, only about 10 agreed with her.
I’ve been following Instagram for a while and I must admit, talent shows through. There is an immense difference between those who are really using the medium and those who are simply copying or taking snap-shots, no matter how well composed. The digital filters do make many images look alike, but only the more modest photographers make images that can be confused for one another. What instant digital smart-phone photography does do is allow people to play with imagery and become, little by little, more visual literate.
And then, there are the professionals who are starting to use Instagram and Hipstamatic on a very serious basis. It’s not the technique, it’s who does what with it. When Ben Lowy was commissioned by The New York Times to work in Afghanistan, he used both his professional equipment as well as his smart-phone. Guess which images The New York Times published? That’s right, the ones done with his smart-phone. Do they look like all the others on Instagram? Well, a little, yes, because they have those mottled tones and special colors, but so did Kodachrome slides, or platinum prints or Edward Weston’s prints developed in Amidolo; they all had recognizable technical traits that made them famous. Just like Instagram or Hipstamatic filters. Lowy’s images, however, go far beyond.
Lanre Bakare, writing in Wired, interviewed the war-zone photographer Michael Christopher Brown and concluded in his article,
“One advantage of using a smartphone versus a digital camera is that you won’t stand out in a crowd or to snipers… The iPhone makes no noise, so it can be used to capture sensitive situations where a camera might intrude too much.” Then, further on, Bakare discusses with Brown the question of quality while using applications like Hipstamatic; “‘Because the application is limited, you have no choice but to slow down the shooting,’ Brown says. This forces him to compose images carefully and pick the right moment, and thus create better-quality work.”
We’re beginning to see how the smart-phone as photographic instrument is allowing photographers to be even more spontaneous and invisible than the Leica did for news photographers in the mid 1920’s.
So Joerg Colberg’s provocative statement: “It might be time to turn around and reject the tyranny of consumption, to instead embrace the promise of photography. And rejecting the tyranny of consumption here explicitly includes rejecting the rapid, vapid one liners our bang-bang-bang culture has come to rely on.” is his attempt to slash out at apps and practitioners of Instagram who notoriously, as Colberg says, produce “vapid one liners” (from a) “bang-bang-bang culture”. Giving Colberg the benefit of the doubt, which I do, we should rephrase this question and leave out the confusion of mixing “consumption” with a “bang-bang-bang” culture. The second is a specific criticism of one aspect of the first, not to be confused with the insinuation that consumer culture is at the basis of the problem. Culture is at the basis of the problem and that is nothing more than the reflection of who we’ve become in our globalized post-industrial society.
As David Campbell rightly states in his web article…it’s time to move the conversation forward. Photography has changed profoundly, despite what many still believe, and its expansion in both users and techniques has opened up interesting questions. We’ll be talking about some of them very very soon.