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.
"Style and fashion are the tip of conformity's sharp spear." -Charlie Martini.
Graffiti above from the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas.