I grew up understanding a fairly clear demarcation: some photographs were made to be taken in quickly, even instantly, and others grew on you slowly, or demanded closer attention...or rewarded closer attention. The former were superficially attractive and evoked a sort of low, knee-jerk response, of the sort that men get from pneumatic cleavage or women get from cutesified babies. Or however it might be done: with schmaltzy colors, or clichés, or conventional "composition," whatever.
I took it for granted—equally unexaminedly, probably—that other photographs were worth looking at longer, puzzling out, feeling into, living with. They could be quiet, or confrontational, or challenging, or mysterious. They yielded up their pleasure more slowly, but their rewards were more nourishing, more complex, longer-lasting.
Lately I've been feeling that people in general do much less of the latter kind of looking now. Is that true? I don't know what the basis is for that conclusion—is it just me? Could be. Is it that photoculture has really changed, and people are looking for a quick "Like" and then—harried, overwhelmed—move on? I don't know.
Maybe it's just a sense I get. I know I, personally, don't see nearly as much coherent, redacted, conscious work as I used to. Maybe that's just a factor of my age and stage; when you're new, naturally you look at the greatest hits of the past, like someone learning about classical music for the first time will listen to Beethoven's Fifth, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Arts can seem richer when they're new to you, because you're speeding through the crème de la crème. And when your main way of looking at photographs is either books or shows, naturally there's a tendency for such expensive, limited methods of presentation to require a lot of back-end work on the part of the artist. It's certainly not like I don't look at books or shows any more, although I see fewer of them. But most of my viewing is done online, and collections of work thrown together online are seldom so thoughtfully presented, even when the artist is trying.
Maybe, here on TOP, it would be fun to find a photograph every now and then and really look at it. I don't know how much patience people would have with that, though....
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bill Poole: "Interesting! I'd comment on this, but I really don't have the time. Gotta go."
lyle (partial comment): "For your consideration: from Artnews: 'According to one study published in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts, museumgoers spend an average of just 17 seconds looking at an individual painting.'"
Bill C: "Timely post. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Thumbing through back issues of LensWork one finds so many photos worth exploring over and over, just as one example of the latter category you describe. I would love to see TOP explore some individual photos in more depth. The site contributors all have tremendously informed opinions as certainly do the majority of this site's visitors. Not only would it invite deeper discussion, I think it would inspire all of us to make more prints, or plan a book, or otherwise think about how to contribute to the depth that this form of visual communication is capable of."
Stan B.: "No doubt 'everyone' now looks at photographs like editors burning through a pile of year old, cold call portfolios. It's all part and parcel of the instant access, instant sharing digital revolution. I know this for fact because I frequently fall into said trap, more than ever now, and have to remind myself to slow down and look at the photo, not past it. Enjoy it, savor it, look at it close up and from a distance, notice the details (not the pixels), ask yourself questions about it—and then at some point, return to it."
Auntipode: "The photographic equivalent to the devolution from literati to twitterati, perhaps?"
John Garrity: "I’m sure you are right. It’s an inevitable byproduct of both the proliferation of photographs and the predominance of distribution and viewing online, with its few knowledgeable curatorial gatekeepers. It’s always been the case that some photographs were designed to have an instance impact, compared with the slow burners. Now, however, the slow burners are overwhelmed by the predominance of the easily consumed.
"In the distant past I was blown away by a Eugene Smith photographcarefully designed and crafted by him to produce a visceral impact on the page. At the same time I didn’t get Walker Evans. It probably took me three years before I could 'see' Walker Evans properly. Now thirty years later the Smith picture which made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, leaves me cold, while I continually find fresh things in Evan’s work. This was only possible because the work of both was available in books, both of which I still have and which will still be functioning perfectly long after I am gone."
Joe Holmes: "I think you're onto something. I saw the evolution of something similar a while back. About ten years ago I shot a project that consisted of silhouettes of people at the Museum of Natural History gazing on the African Mammals dioramas. The series was so successful that I returned three years later to shoot additional images. But in that short time, things had changed dramatically. I found it almost impossible to spot people stopping to contemplate the dioramas. Instead, people would cruise the room with their tiny digital camcorders, seeing the exhibits float by on the LCD, or they would shoot them with little digital cameras. It was so striking and dismaying that I turned it into a new project (and you can compare the two projects on my portfolio site). No more gazing. No more contemplation."
David: "I would really enjoy a regular exercise of seeing a photograph and having you give your interpretation/deconstruction of it. I enjoy photography and looking at photos, yet I'm always bothered that I'm likely not diving past the initial impressions due to my lack of visual literacy. I started the MOOC class offered by the NY MoMA through Coursera (Seeing Through Photography) that you linked to a few weeks back. The class has helped, but I feel it gives more of an art historical perspective (not unexpected, of course), whereas I wonder if there are other approaches. I feel frustrated at times because in my attempts to become more visually literate, I feel like I need to read a thousand books on art histories and their corresponding time periods, politics, cultures, and styles, etc., before I can even begin trying to tease more meanings out of a picture. I'm hoping a regular exercise such as what you propose will help better inform me why I like certain photos. And that will hopefully translate into me adapting a more focused approach to becoming more visually literate.
"Please do this sooner than later!"
c.d. embrey: "Show me something I haven't seen before! It doesn't happen very often. I see very few photos that are worth a second look (because I've seen them all before). YMMV."
Graham Byrnes: "The problem would seem to be deciding where one should invest one's time: there are many that will not reward long-term viewing, and most of us have limited time to invest. Once upon a time we relied on editors, gallery owners and curators to do a preselection, on the basis that if it was being hung in an exhibition there must be something to it, even if I don't see it immediately...so I'll persist. One supposed that the market had selected those gallery owners and magazine editors able to make valid, relatively rapid judgements...just as we relied on movie and book reviews. However that was corrupted by some practices of conceptual art, where the fact of being hung in a gallery was the only thing that made the work special, or the work was selected to represent the vested financial interests. So the web promised to bypass these problematic gate-keepers...at the cost of leaving us to try to select from the auto-route traffic of images zooming past, those which I should pick out and investigate...."