Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Coming Flood of Photographs

Brooks Jensens writes (in his editorial in the Nov-Dec 2006 LensWork) about the impact of the coming flood of fine art photographs caused by digital photography allowing more people to engage in photography, and allow all photographers to produce dramatically larger numbers of images. It's a good editorial, well worth a read. (If you don't subscribe, well, why don't you?)

Jensen seems to see the coming tsunami of fine art photos as a paradigmatic shift, and I get the feeling he's bracing for the changes, but I'm unconcerned. I know a fair number of fine art photographers - not a huge number, but quite a few.

It turns out that the vast majority of fine art photographers I know aren't worried about prints at all. Oh, they make prints, sure. They struggle over the prints they make, trying to make them better. They are wholely engaged in the process of making photographs - going out and making exposures, coming back and making prints. But the goal is not the prints, and if you told them that in 100 years, no copies of their photographs would exist, their response would be "You think this is news to me? Who cares?" That's because their goal is not to make prints and have the prints be treated as valuable artifacts, their goal is to be engaged in making photographs. The process itself is the goal.

Once again, I've come around the the difference between art as a verb, and art as a noun. Predicting a tidal wave of new photographs swamping the planet, Jensen is worried, because that instantly changes the game, and if you're thinking about art as a product, increasing the supply of the product without increasing the demand has some pretty significant impact.

But I'm thinking that it will cause people to change their view of photographic art - to turn away from the 'art is a noun' view, and turn toward the 'art is a verb' view. There are some number of photographers who will look around, see 1 billion other photographers, and say "Why bother? Everything's already been photographed. It's all been done. I can't add anything". Their focus is on the product - the finished photographs and their place in the world of saleable objects. I agree - the future there looks bleak. Just look at what's happened to the stock world - shot to hell almost overnight.

But there are other photographers who are in it for the process; they're in it for the experience they have making those photographs. They want the deeper engagement with the world around them; they want the sharpened vision and the sense of flow and the satisfaction of holding the finished print in their hand. If their work has limited audience, or no audience at all other than themselves - well, that's not desirable but it won't stop them either.

And look at the bright side - instead of having millions and millions of people who never try to make art at all, maybe we'll end up with millions and millions who try to make art on a daily basis, by picking up their camera and chucking it in the car when they drive to work, or head out to lunch.

It's hard for me to see that as a bad thing. People's experience of art should not be limited to seeing art made by someone else, hanging dessicated and petrified on a museum wall complete with a convenient plaque next to it describing it so that you don't even need to really look at the art - just glance at it and then read the explanation the art historian wrote up to make it easy for you.

Art should not be a spectator sport. Art should be participatory; people should have art-making be a part of their ordinary, quotidian lives. That would be good, not bad. And if digital photography shatters the fine art photography market but enables vast swaths of humanity to make first hand art instead of view secondhand art, I'd call that a damn good deal.


Blogger matt~ said...

On reading this post, my first reaction was "How do you sell a verb?" It seems to be a valid question for someone that wants to make their living as an artist in a world where art really is becoming a verb. The dire predictions seem relevant, but it's interesting to juxtapose this change with the growth of the market for photography as a art. See this article.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

I'd say, off the top of my head, that selling a verb would look a lot like helping people improve/enjoy their process in exchange for money.

For instance, teaching workshops or private lessons. Helping them with printing by offering printing services. Writing articles about the process (and improving it) and using that writing to lure readers to a website, where you might eventually find a way to turn those gathered eyes into a revenue stream.

Funny - that sounds a lot like what I'm doing, doesn't it? What a coincidence!

12:59 PM  
Blogger Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

Looks like you are faster off the mark than me. This was going to be my blog post tomorrow!

I don't know. All these bloggers. It's all been written before. Why do I bother?

Actually I have a different take on the same editorial. Entirely agree with what you've written. Especially the selling "the verb" bit.

Right, back to the magazine.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

auspicious, you say:
"All these bloggers. It's all been written before. Why do I bother?"

...and I hear others saying "all these photographers. Its' all been photographed before. Why do I bother?" ;)))))

I mean - come on, write! Make photographs and write. Write and make photographs! Go for it, go! :D

2:19 PM  
Blogger Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

Er, rudolf, irony :-)

11:00 AM  

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