Thursday, November 16, 2006

Big numbers and Emergence

Brooks Jensen’s’ editorial column in the Nov-Dec Lenswork and Colin Jago’s post on Photostream, along with Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert have had me thinking hard about the effects of the ‘coming flood of photographs’ enabled by digital photography.

The naïve expectation is that the photographic future will be just like the photographic present, only more so. If you made 1000 of photos a year, and 1% were outstanding, you’d get 10 oustanding photos a year. If you increased to 10000 photos a year, you’d get 100 outstanding ones. If photographers suddenly are ten times as productive, and we have ten times as many photographers, we have 100 times as many good photographs. Interesting, but not earthshaking.

But this ignored the effect of ‘emergence’ – the property that systems change in fundamental ways as the numbers get bigger. For example, if you take 7000 neurons, and you hook them together, you end up with a nervous system that’s on a par with a sea slug. If you take a million neurons, though, and connect them all together, you don’t get a sea slug that’s 140 times bigger, you get a nervous system similar in scope to that of an arthropod – capable of more sophisticated behaviors than you’d expect looking at a sea slug and trying to scale. And if you take 10^12 neurons and hook them together, you get a human brain, and you also get consciousness, .5mm mechanical pencils, love and hate, Mozart’s flute concertos and Donatello’s crucifixes, and explosions brighter than a thousand suns. And, I’d point out, you might not expect that if you were thinking of a really big sea slug.

Before, lots of people took photographs, but they took 36 photos a year. After the New Year’s hangover subsided, they’d take out the roll of film, get it processed, and look: there’s the photo of Jennifer’s birthday party, and Tommy playing goal at the soccer game, and Aunt Lucy at Thanksgiving, and the Christmas photos. But now, the same people have digital cameras, and they take a lot of photos, and the result is that we have Flickr photosets with dozens of images on the same subject. Photographers like Doug Plummer are returning from assignments with so many photos that they have problems with file names colliding, and just editing the stuff they’ve captured is a significant task. Where they once returned with hundreds of photos, they’re now returning with thousands and thousands.

Sure, there were photographers in the past that made huge numbers of exposures on a single subject; National Geographic photographers were known for incredible volumes of exposures even in the pre-digital era. But they were limited by the finite duration of an assignment; they couldn’t work on the same subject for more than a short time. But now, we have photographers who will photograph prodigiously for a lifetime in a single place, and they’re going to have collections of millions of images all connected thematically. The numbers are so much bigger that things are not going to scale linearly.

Try to imagine a mega-photo-essay which is to Eugene Smith’s photo-essay Minimata, what a web-weaving spider is to a sea slug. Or, if you prefer, imagine a collection of photos that is to Ansel Adam's Yosemite and the Range of Light what a Seeing Eye dog is to a garden snail. That’s a big leap, but now try to imagine a world that’s awash with such mega-photo-essays, and the mind boggles.

My volume of exposures has jumped dramatically in the past year, and I can already detect some interesting effects. There’s a lower threshold to ‘photographic seeing’, with the result that I’m capturing things I probably wouldn’t have seen before. The much larger volume of exposures has also changed my photographic experience of the landscape – it’s started to encompass more subtlety and become deeper and richer, with longer periods of flow and a more meditative quality, and it’s become more gratifying. Because there are more photographs, I’m finding more relationships between photos, and the relationships are becoming more finely shaded. It's not about 'better', it's about 'different'. Making thousands and thousands of photos enables you to see and understand things that making hundreds of photos can't.

So maybe the future of photography is going to be quite a bit different, and not just the same thing only more so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug Plummer also mentions that processing huge numbers of images means he cannot take the time to process them as well as he did with a smaller number. Given that few really good images come out of the camera perfectly formed and read to print, I wonder if the math works the other way - 10,000 photos equals 1 good photo, not 100, because there is no time to post-process the images.

While I think large format photographers using ever larger cameras get in the trap of having the quest for the perfect image keep them from making enough images, I think the trap for the digital world is drowning in images.

It seems logical to me that just as entertainment migrated to the TV, that personal images will migrate to the screen. Folks will still keep albums, but they will be the people who also keep scrap books.

I do not think family snaps ever had much effect on fine art photography aimed at prints, and I do not think the digital revolution and images on screens will change this. I also do not think that 3D milling machines, which are also getting cheap, will affect fine art sculpture.

5:04 AM  

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