Romanticizing the Excess. An Occupational Hazard for the Sentimental.

I've taken a week off from blogging but I didn't get any smarter. I missed the daily routine of grappling with words and sentence constructions. I missed the pithy comments of my regular readers and the inanities of the more casual visitor contributions. But I did more thinking than usual and I keep coming back to the same ideas. I've come to disregard photography (for most practitioners) as an art and I'm coming around to the idea that it's more like playing poker or sports. It's fun to do while you are doing it, the stakes can be as high as you like, you're playing against yourself as well as against all the people who also practice the kind of work that you do. If you are really good at it you may beat the "house" from time to time. At other times it seems like you are betting the house...

I've also done some thinking exercises that, to me, prove my point that we've moved past the pure art of unique creation and into the realm of entertainment and sport. Here's how I think about it: When people first started making photographs in earnest, after the invention of flexible film, there were scant, and highly time-delayed, feedback loops which prevented, in a way (or for a span of time), the relentless copying and referencing of an individual style or way of working. In all likelihood a photographer like Paul Outerbridge ( you look it up and link it, I'm busy writing....) worked for years in his quiet darkroom to perfect his skills as a dye transfer printer. His subject matter was considered prurient/taboo at the time and so he didn't display his work publicly during most of his working life therefore his very unique vision, subject matter and processes weren't accessible for others to copy or imitate until years or decades after he made the works. 

In the same vein, most photographers who worked outside the news and advertising fields during the film years labored for months or years on styles and subject matter selection before finding an audience for the work, or a platform on which to show the work. In a sense there were very few data points to use for making references to other contemporary work. This low density of accessible examples, by extension, meant that the average art worker (photographer) could either craft their own style (or copy) based what they saw in the photography magazines of the day or use their own compass but because of the sparse access most people had to  the bulk of contemporaneous work the notion of exacting copying or close derivation was less practical. And less practiced.

Making cohesive re-constructions of prevailing styles becomes easier and easier when more and more data points became available recently; in the web age. This enormous data pile creates a faster and more direct feedback loop or accession loop for the less gifted. In turn it engenders more copying and process duplication. We've gone from an early age where trial and error was the currency of the day, and an age in which one could spend a lifetime using one camera and one kind of film, to a much different age; one where everything is presented in almost real time and then ruthlessly and relentlessly copied, referenced, homaged and replicated around the world. A piece that trends well on Instagram from a photographer in Kansas will be seen nearly globally, and, in the course of only hours will be assimilated into the millions of carbon copies and billions of data points about the practice of photography, and then regurgitated in countless micro-tangential facsimiles. Once we hit the access point to billions and billions of data points, along with the conjoined how-to-do-it videos explaining every nuance of technique we, as a cultural force, will have effectively destroyed the concept of the singular artist and replaced it with an interconnected global hive which replicates and publishes, in real time, just about everything imagined in the moment in visual culture. Our craft moves from the slow singular vision of the cave painter to the relentless assimilation and distribution of the Borg. (See Star Trek Next Generation to understand Borg reference).

What's left of individual vision? Not much. 

In the world of commercial photography now it's mostly a game of the clients approaching the photographers after having seen thousands and thousands of profoundly similar works in a popular style and directing the photographer to make yet more work in that same homogenous style, rationalizing that, since the style is popular with a large subset of audiences it's a good bet that it will be popular with that art director's target audiences and so by doing more or less a straight replication of styles (think out of focus backgrounds behind fill-flashed blond beauties in bikinis on white sand beaches, or cute kids with pigtails working on melty ice cream cones...) the art director surely feels that being in the middle of the herd is much, much safer (economically) than being an outlier, separate from the herd. In the design world it's analogous to everyone using Helvetica type for everything all the time and then, when some lone, anonymous "pilot fish" abruptly changes direction a massive "school" of graphic designers shifts on a dime and uses nothing but Palatino type for everything. And so on...

And I'd conjecture that at this point, like a star collapsing, or uranium rods melting down, that the process of relentlessly making the same photograph over and over again in a prevailing style is an ever-accelerating, continuously tightening and unstoppable spiral. 

How then do we re-enjoy our chosen art form? By making it into a game or a sport. That seems to be the way of western civilization. How fast can you shoot? How big is your file? How long is your lens? How low is your noise? How sharp is your image?  Etc. Etc. We walk around our towns hunting for things to shoot because we crave the meaningfulness of activity but are more or less un-selective about what we shoot as long as it feels like something we've seen before and to which we're adding our own (micro-)subtle appreciation and twist via some small variation of technical parameters. 

Think if paintings could be made in seconds rather than in days, weeks or months. What if our days were filled with countless contacts with paintings? What if everyone painted? The vast majority of paintings, like photographs, would be entirely derivative of each other because of the current synchronicity of human existence. We're all wired together. We're only hours away from seeing a style change build momentum like an overpowering wave. We ride the wave. We, along with myriad other photographers, master the wave and add minutely to the wave as it manifests everywhere with an effect that seems globally spontaneous. If everything is a copy of everything else how can anything be individual and unique? It's now like playing poker. There are 52 cards. There are a finite number of card combinations. The play is a matrix of probability. Only the mixed drinks, cigars and table chatter add an individual signature to the mix. Same. 

But that doesn't make the process or the game less fun. It only changes our philosophic perception of unique creation as we move from singular image predator to participant in a giant ant colony.

"Style and fashion are the tip of conformity's sharp spear."  -Charlie Martini.

Graffiti above from the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas.


Nigli said...

Kirk, that's interesting timing- I listened to an interview with Steven Soderbergh, the director, today and he said he treats his directing as sport. I heard it on Deutschland Funk so I won't send a link.

John Krumm said...

I'm still having fun, and my photography feels a little closer to art than my other interests. I read Edward Weston's journals a few months ago and you could really feel him living the life, struggling between art shots and portrait sessions that helped pay the bills. Life was more social before social networks, I think. I read about this guy in the Times today. Maybe it takes putting yourself in a corked bottle to make art, so to speak...


ODL Designs said...

Hey Kirk,
YOu present some interesting thoughts. I went down the same thought path, which at one point left me feeling a bit futile about my craft. Eventually I realized photography isn;t about the artist as much as the subject, we are primary documentarians of our lives, our family's lives, our surroundings and travels etc. The real value of our body of work arrives when what she shot is not available, when people are grown or gone, when spaces have changed or disappeared... not in our expression as an artist but in our eye for the interesting.

If I could add some content to the discussion (think of these not as assumptions on what you dont know, but additions), artists have always copied each other, movements might have had a studio they sprang from, but the spread of each movement led to a great number of artists painting in a similar fashion. When art would travel it would have a profound impact on the local artists and work... The speed it spread could probably be relative to the speed they worked.

We are a social creature, we like to share and share in what we are doing, I would speculate that seeing your style make an impact must be quite an experience.

The time it takes to paint a piece of art is obviously much longer, which prevents the frivolous and spontaneous approach to fine arts that photography enjoys, and is in fact its greatest strength.

The mass has always sat in the middle of the curve, with the new being criticized, ridiculed etc. until it catches on and the leaders move on.

It is okay to enjoy the technology. As someone who comes from a painting and drawing background (my paintings and sketches have even been used on wine labels for a major winery) I can tell you we do still have fetishes for paper, brushes, paints, pens etc. With the same feeling that, with this new ink my next pencil and ink sketch will be amazing :)

Anyways, I think your feeling of the art closer to a sport is probably correct insofar as even artists compete, the old salons were a very competitive space!

David said...

"...the stakes can be as high as you like, you're playing against yourself as well..."
No, that's called playing with yourself...
Naughty man. You've been looking at the internet instead of doing your work.
Those you write about have never experienced the joy of doing their work. You can see it in their photographs.

Ray said...

I'm really happy that you're back online but, Holy Cow, that was a depressing article.

I'm glad your dad is doing OK and that your mind is clear. I hope all is well with your immediate family and I'm visibly impressed with you having swum 4,000 yards. Keep up the good work. I'm looking forward to a few more years of daily entertainment from VSL.

Lenya R said...

Kirk, first, it is great to have you back, the week without you and Mike was long! Second, an inane comment: I can only speak for myself and a couple of friends but I think a chess analogy may be in order. Yes, computers can beat any grandmaster, and yes it has affected the professional play, changed its style, and ways they prepare for games. But no, this did not take any joy out of playing chess with a live human at an (advanced) amateur level, and we are all doing it as before, trying to be a tiny bit better if we can. So it might well be true that the professional photography is in some sort of a crisis but the masses of amateurs are simply trying to do what we can to improve ever so slightly and make some family or friends smile (without condescension) when they see our "work". There is an old saying "I wish I had your problems!" And you won't fool even us into thinking for a second you believe a "style" makes a great portrait.

MikeR said...

Kirk, the emotional coloring I feel from this post is, like, "Out of the depths I have cried..." (De profundis in my old RC church Latin).

I see what you are saying, but look: Gutenberg vastly accelerated the velocity of propagation of the printed word. Linotype machines stepped on the gas. Then there came blogs, accelerating it to light speed. Notwithstanding all that velocity and ubiquity, I have not found any other writer on the web who has the voice you have in VSL. You create it constantly. Is it "Art?" Well, you've mastered your craft, but each work is unique. Each post is a creation. Some are "better" than others. A good many are "thinkers." It's like viewing an exhibition. Every so often, a piece provides a different way of looking at things.

There was an Andrew Wyeth retrospective in Philly a number of years ago, and on one wall there hung all the working drawings leading to his finished "Groundhog Day." I think I spent a half-hour going back and forth, from early sketches, to the final piece, trying to wrap my head around both how he worked, and what he was thinking. I came away from that exhibition with a respect for his art that I did not have going in.

You have written pieces like that, ones that I may read with morning coffee, go back to at lunch, and come back to later in the evening, just mulling over what you observed and evaluated and wrote. In most cases, none of these were about pictures or cameras.

Please, pause for a moment, and take the time to value the talents that you have,both in writing and in portraiture, (and in other areas, probably, that don't show up in a blog post).

HR said...

Good, insightful thoughts. You wrote:

"the art director surely feels that being in the middle of the herd is much, much safer (economically) than being an outlier, separate from the herd."

Back many years ago when IBM was king in the computer world there was a saying: No one ever got fired for recommending IBM. It made it hard for other computer companies to get their foot in the door sometimes. Of course, eventually things changed though. :-)

MO said...

I agree to some extend. But... the story can't be staged though. The story comes first, the way you tell it second then the comes the tools You use to tell it, which might affect the 2 above to some extend. But the story can't be tough.

It can be retold though.... and that's kinda agreeing with You again. But the love of telling stories is the driving factor for me.


Michael Matthews said...

Thank goodness you’ve returned. The hive is humming harmoniously once again.

In tne past few days I’ve spent far too much time trying to figure out how to download a clip from a 1953 movie and post it as a comment. Little Brandon de Wilde in his bib overalls plaintively crying out: “Shane! Come back!”.
I found the clip but for the life of me could not figure out how to post it as a thumbnail capable of activating within the blog comment section.
Probably just as well.

Your mention of typeface fads (VW beetle ad with one-word headline: Lemon.) reminds me — I think there’s sheet of Letraset Cooper Bold buried somewhere in the bottom of one of my desk drawers. Bet that could be used to set off a new wave of replication. But to what should it be applied? There lies the creative challenge.

Russ said...

Yikes, that was a bleak post. I feel sorry for the professional and aspiring professional photographers out there who read this to find out that they are "athletes" rather than "creatives". I'm so glad I'm outside the loop as a amateur/hobbyist. Being able to satisfy my creative impulses via photography hasn't changed for me over the decades of technological change as the end result, the printed image, hasn't really changed that much (pixel peeping not withstanding).

atmtx said...

I'm pretty sure I have not broken any new ground with my photography. But I have fun shooting, trying to be creative in my own way, and writing about it. It beats all the other mundane and derivative things most of us do every day. So ultimately, I try not to worry about it and just continue making photos.

Paul said...


My father passed away about 18 months ago and it definitely depressed my inclination, ability and time available to take photos, this was compounded by my father being the person who introduced me to the world of photography and darkrooms, so I think some of what you are going through is pretty normal.
To me art is definitely in the eye of the beholder and at a rough guess none of my work would be considered art. But I don’t take photos as art, I take photos because I can switch off from my other world (like atmtx) and use the other half of my brain. Much of what I photograph is probably more like a sport, just a fleeting glimpse of what I saw at the time. Much like the street art illustrating your article, it isn’t meant to be long lasting it’s meant to be a mini time capsule of style, colour, politics and events.

Do I borrow from other styles? Hell yes - you can’t see photos, read articles and take photos for 40 plus years without being influenced by what you see.
Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so, if I could imitate one or two of your portraits I would be over the moon with happiness. For me I’m more interested in pleasing myself and occasionally the subject than anyone else in the world.

Just a suggestion, one way I got back my interest in taking photos again was breaking away from my normal genre of photos and going and doing some solo walks and landscapes. The photos weren’t fantastic , but they got me looking at fresh subjects in new locations outside my normal lap of the city.

jtsmall said...

The internet. Ubiquitous. Today that thought cannot be divorced from its sibling, smartphones. Everyone with a smartphone is a photographer or an Instagram troll? Perhaps most are in reality bots and not photographers. If so, then perhaps we are as safe today in our creativity as we were in the darkrooms of yesteryear?

As I was reviewing my images of Christmas 2018 posted on pbase, I became acutely aware that what I had considered my creativity was entirely derivative of my wife's creativity around our home. To be sure, it's my perspective. Still her amazing creativity.

Both observations above occurred as I was mulling over Kirk's thoughts, albeit posted nine months in the past and read minutes ago. Which suggests not everything travels at the speed of light or is fake.

If it ever does, I will take refuge with my F100 and F2E as I complete my ultimate darkroom. And once, for all take up medium format.