The so-called "digital tsunami" has unleashed an unprecedented number of new photographs on the world.
It's marvelous, literally—in the sense that it's something to marvel at. Doesn't even need to have a number attached, because the numbers are past human scale—untold billions, trillions even. If you are the median age in the USA—37 years old—and you will live an average lifespan for a male, which in the USA is 77—and you looked at one picture per second full time, eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year for the rest of your life, you wouldn't have enough time left in your life to look at all the photographs that are uploaded to Facebook in one single day. One day. (The numbers are 288 million—that's the number of working seconds you have in 40 years, and 350 million—that's the number of photographs being uploaded to Facebook daily, according to a Business Insider article published in 2013 which cited a Facebook white paper.) And that's just Facebook...never mind all the other pictures uploaded to thousands of other sites, and never mind all the pictures that are taken but aren't uploaded anywhere.
And never mind the pictures that will be uploaded tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. And when are you going to catch up on all the pictures that were uploaded before yesterday?
That's the only way I can quantify the digital tsunami to myself. Other methods boggle the mind.
The French theorist Roland Barthes was the first person to suggest that when any of us talks about "photography," we are only talking about the small subset of "photographs I have seen." We've all seen millions of photographs, enough that we all feel we know intuitively what photographs are and what photography is all about. But now more than ever, the subset of photographs that each of us has seen is infinitesimal beyond human comprehension, like a handful of sand compared to ten galaxies. We can't even comprehend how little it is.
I would suggest (he wrote dryly) that in these circumstances, the sensible course of action is not to depend on volume as a strategy for getting your work noticed or seen.
On the good side, it's probable that more people than ever before are looking at more photographs than ever before. The audience is bigger and, even as we decry "shorter attention spans," visual literacy has increased such that viewers can take in more picture more quickly.
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Traditionally, the way to draw attention to a photograph was to work hard on it. Plan intelligently, shoot carefully, craft well. Example: Walker Evans could work hard all day for the FSA and come home with six sheets of exposed film.
Then, with rollfilm, a new method arose: shoot looser, be more experimental, and let your "hit rate" (as it's called now) plummet—and edit after the fact, ruthlessly, using only those few shots that seemed to have some special sort of magic or that together make your artistic point. Example: Robert Frank exposed approximately a roll of film a day for two years while traveling all across America, roughly 28,000 frames, to get the 83 pictures in his book The Americans.
Both methods allow a lot of control and authorship, but in different ways.
In the 1980s, an accomplished pro (standing at the counter of the old Penn Camera in Washington, D.C.) told me a guild secret. The only difference between a pro and an amateur, he said, was "we shoot more and show less." Even as a full-time art student, I couldn't shoot much. I bought my film in bulk rolls, loaded it into cassettes myself, and developed it by hand, but it was still expensive and time-consuming. So when digital came along, it was assumed it was going to be a huge boon to everyone. Now, everyone could "shoot more." No more per-shot cost. No more time-consuming chores just to get to the proofing stage. Everybody's work would improve! Now anyone could shoot 28,000 frames to get 83 pictures.
Well, no. If Walker Evans was a Gen-X'er today, he'd be shooting 200 "captures" with a high-MP FF camera every day and mentioning to friends how far behind he is on his editing. And admitting ruefully that he hardly ever gets prints made any more. Robert Frank, of course, would have put all 28,000 shots on Facebook and would spend his days fishing for Likes.
And of course no one would have heard of either one of them.
My point here is just this: that the point of being able to take more photographs is to show fewer of them. Not more. Be more selective, not less. Digital is fantastic—if someone previously threw away 90% of their shooting, now they can throw away 99%. If they previously threw away 99%, now they can throw away 99.9%. It should help the quality of peoples' work to improve.
What else are they taking all those captures for, anyway?
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Paul Emberger: "Something else interesting has happened in recent years: people spend less time looking at photographs, and attention span has decreased. When you take this concept together with shooting more, you see interesting behavior.
"My students shoot a lot of frames, but they spend very little time sussing out the image from each subject. I'll see 200 frames in an hour of shooting and only one, maybe two frames of any single subject. If there are more, it is of the 'spray and pray' variety.
"I implore them to slow down a bit and think more about their compositions. I also encourage them keep shooting beyond the point at which they think they "have" the shot.
"One of my favorite assignments to hand out is to shoot 100 frames in 100 minutes of the exact same subject (all frames must be different). They loathe the concept when I tell them. But by the end, most see that the best images they made were after spending considerable time with the subject.
"One interesting space where my students are ahead of me on the curve has to do with the feeling of individuality. When I came up, photography, as you've said, was expensive. It was also mainly a solitary pursuit. I spent years both in and out of school honing my craft. I began to develop a sense of individuality and that my images were markedly better than those of the average amateur. At the time, this buoyed my sense of being a professional, which I had been since 22. I erroneously thought this was sufficient to make me different from the masses for now and in the long haul; after all, I should only get better...right?
"Where as my students have come up in the time of ubiquitous cameras. They're everywhere. Everyone take pictures of everything. And photography is no longer solitary. They organize huge shooting parties and outings. They see from the beginning that others are capable of making images equal to their own. And that an eye towards composition is not unique.
"In this new era, I've had to re-access my position in the world of image making, to realign my center with the fact that there are thousands of people capable of making the images that I am capable of making. It has been an interesting few years for me. But my students are there by default. They don't have to suffer the tortures of King Sisyphus, as I do."
Lynn: "There may well be a digital tsunami of photographs, but most of them are not what 'photographers' would think of as 'photographs'—they're the digital equivalent of post-it notes taken by cell phones and pasted on social media. Here's what I'm eating at the moment. Here's Karen doing duck-lips. Cell phone cameras and social media have enabled this. Amateur photographers are taking more photographs thanks to digital, but I suspect that after the first few years of enthusiastic spraying with wild abandon, the task of editing might encourage a little more thought before filling up another hard drive. Although now with unlimited cloud storage and better tagging, I wonder if people will bother to edit. Particularly if the subject is cats."
mbka: "I have similar misgivings about commenting on blogs. Any conceivable comment I could make, or thought I could have, has already been made and thought by someone else.
"Seriously though, I do notice something different in pictures of masters vs. pictures of amateurs, even good ones. I often look at floods of images on DeviantArt. These are mostly by good amateurs, very good ones, or pros great at their craft, but not 'masters' for lack of a better word. And I really just click forward. I don't spend more than half a second per image. These are often technically outstanding images, mind you, pre-selected in groups by subject.
"Then at some other point I look at portfolios of true masters somewhere else, or single images coming up in news. And I look at them far longer, I find them emotionally compelling, outstanding as images, not just as captures. I could never pinpoint why that is so. But some people do shoot images that are more compelling.
"So digital has enabled a leveling of the craft side. Good craft has become commonplace. But it has not done the same for the art side. Good art is still rare."