Just one brief comment to follow up on yesterday: a corollary of the huge explosion in democratized media, user-directed presentation of work and small-scale amateur Web curating, and access to self-publishing, is a corresponding diminution of audience.
In other words, the more pictures there are, the fewer people see most of them.
The number one complaint I hear from photographers amounts to "why isn't anyone paying attention to my work?" They work hard, they know they're improving, they think they're accomplishing something—but no one seems to care. It's the shared condition these days. No one seems to even look, for the most part. Unless a handful of three-word comments on Flickr or a handful of "Likes" on Facebook are enough for you.
One of the things that a good critic, curator, teacher, or gallery owner does is to pay attention to the work they think is significant. The exciting thing about John Szarkowski in the 1960s and '70s was that his deep attentiveness to the work of many theretofore unknown photographers (Arbus, Friedlander, Eggleston, et al.)—and his articulateness about why they deserved it—engaged the attention of a much wider audience. But the old structure—galleries, museums, old-media critics, and book publishers—are as far behind the curve now as anyone else. Individuals are struggling to feel their way into the new order. Street photography collectives and social-media meeting places are just one of many facets of this. The atomized and far-flung micro-communities of the Web (including this one, I guess) amount to attempts to address the questions "what's worth paying attention to?" and "who's paying attention?" and perhaps most importantly for most photographers, "how do I get people to pay attention to me?" All everyone wants is a little traction. Or a little more.
From maybe 1965 or 1970 to 1995 or 2000, photography classes in schools were pretty widespread—I taught a program at a small high school for three years that accepted up to 50 students a year, and my son was a photography student at his large public high school when they finally closed down the school darkroom. And that wasn't useful so much as a nurturing-bed for photographers as it was a nuturing-bed for an audience for photographers. Those experiences created an appreciation for photography in people when they were students that often survived into adult life in one way or another. Part of the mission statement of this site is to be part of the audience for photography—to look, to discuss, to appreciate. To pay attention. And simultaneously to help develop and encourage a wider audience as well.
I'm not giving this topic the attention it deserves, of course. (I know, insert rimshot.) I'm bashing out this mini-essay over the course of an hour or two over coffee, as usual, and it will go live well before it even cools from the oven. But I think this is an overlooked aspect of the fast-changing nature of photography in the Digital Transition: the ways we're paying attention, the nature of the audience, the very qualities of work that attract us to it and the attentiveness we give it. (Heh—I mistyped "give" as "gift" at first, and that might even be more accurate).
One thing that I might do over the coming year is to publish "mini-portfolios" of photographers' work, not unlike Carl's mini-portfolio of Texas pictures below. Peter Turnley and I have struggled with this: he'd like an outlet for large sets of work—we've published a few of those, such as this one—yet I've come to feel that TOP isn't really the best place to present successive full portfolios of new work from just a few photographers. But it might be useful to present a "taste" of the work of many varied photographers, iconoclastically and esoterically—perhaps to serve as a roadsign to larger sets on other sites, or as windows to more specialized communities.
(Of course, you know what comes of most of my plans. I have too many ideas, and little in the way of resources or plain old help. TOP is stuck at one tiny stuffed-to-the-rafters office and one overworked guy in a bathrobe. (Not as dramatic as Ed Buziak producing Darkroom User magazine on one creaky little Macintosh in the pantry of a centuries-old cottage in deep rural dirt-road Wales, but take my word for this, it's a lot of work to publish two or three posts a day 350 days a year.) We're just crying out for 600 square feet instead of 100 and a part-time editorial assistant, but I can't make it happen. And most likely never will. (And by the way, speaking of making things happen, we are going to do that reader print sale, I swear. Soon. Someday. I will get around to it. Really.))
Trying to publish mini-portfolios might be a better way to make enemies than friends, who knows. ("That bastard wouldn't publish my work, I'm never going to visit that site again!") And, unfortunately, I know intimately how much work is involved to realize even such a simple idea, and it is non-trivial*. And I have too much to do already. But who knows. I like this thought.
*I'll give you one example. Remember that article I did about shooting Ilford XP2? You'll notice there are four example shots in the article...a mini-mini-portfolio of sorts. Well, to get those four shots, I searched "Ilford XP2" on Google and Flickr and two other sites; spent hours looking at several thousand prospects; searched for the contact details and sent emails requesting permission to publish to eight photographers. I got lucky; four of them replied before go time. Then I had to go get the images and prep them for my interface. Elapsed time? At least three hours, maybe four. In my day, that's non-trivial.
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Featured Comments from:
Kevin Shoenmakers: "What I did when I grew tired of 'nice pic' comments on the Internet was print 30 high quality prints (or have them printed, I should say) and contacted a few places I know of that do temporary exhibits but which aren't galleries. Hospitals, cinemas, libraries, that kind of thing. I'm now on my fourth exhibit, and have another one coming up in 2013. I've sold a few of the prints but I'm not out of the red yet. However, seeing people actually taking five minutes out of their day to properly look at the photos, read the captions and appreciate my work with more than a fleeting glance is just priceless."
Oren Grad: "The problem with the quality of attention is first and foremost the quantity of attention. That is, there can never be enough of it. Time is our most precious and limited resource. There is no general solution to the problem of how to assimilate the massive flow of pictures—it can't be done. Pick your poison—try to drink from the firehose yourself, or spend some of your precious time searching for curators who seem to be sympatico, and who can more efficiently point you toward things you might be interested in. But you will never know—can never know—whether you have missed something that would have changed your life had you only applied a different search strategy. No, scratch that—you can be sure that you have missed something important, and also that you will never know what it was—and it cannot be otherwise."
Steven House: "Can I just say 'Bastard' first and get it over with."
Mark: "Whilst studying on a university photography course we had a lecture from a visiting professor. The main thrust of his talk was 'You are taking too many photographs.' He was referencing journalism more, but his theory (with thanks to Barthes) was that we were experiencing 'A Studium of Punctums.'
"Every paper/outlet/photographer is obsessed with getting that one piercing photo that captures our attention, the Punctum. The result of this many Punctums? Well we just have a Studium of them, they become the white noise and we become so much less sensitive to them.
"I see this reflected on the web, amongst the forums and the photo sharing sites. So many on there seem obsessed with the single image which has to be so attention grabbing, that it actually seems to limit creativity and also diminish interest in them (certainly mine). There are a few places where the multi-photo story still exists and carries on, but I think as an art form we are sadly lacking more examples of that style of work. A sign of the times I guess, and that was one of the points from the visiting professor. Our culture and media that is built around instant dissemination of news and events seems to demand the instant one-off hit...and lots of them."
Mike replies: Interesting. And what he observes is a bit strange when we consider how many art photographers succeed by doing the opposite: just describing one thing exactly but quietly, in repose.