Are smartphones and Instagram killing an art form?
"I do believe that everybody's a photographer, we're all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever and at the same time its more dead than ever." Wim Wenders.
Last year 1.2 trillion digital photographs were taken. That's almost 40,000 every second, 24/7, 365 days a year. And that number isn't slowing down.
We're exposed to photos everywhere we go. Whether that's on TV, in newspapers, magazines, online or on Social Media. We're bombarded by advertisements (on average Americans see 4,000 to 10,000 ads daily) or simply just photos of friend’s latest trip for brunch (it sometimes feels like I see 4,000 of these daily too).
Talking of brunch, the home of the #foodies - Instagram now boasts 1 billion users worldwide and it's estimated that 50 billion photographs have been shared on the platform since its launch in 2010.
Photography is no longer the realm of professionals. Technology has now levelled the playing field, and everybody is encouraged to make their own images. The iPhone perhaps more than any other device put the camera in the hands of millions.
But what does Win Wenders mean when he says photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time more dead? Isn't the wide spread use of photography a good thing for the medium?
In our image centric social media universe, some photographers fear for the future, whilst others seem galvanised by it.
At the surface, one could suppose that the pure proliferation of the medium has provided photography with a greater platform for recognition.
It’s so embedded in our visual culture that it can no longer be ignored and pushed to the side by snobbish art types that prefer Old Masters and dusty oil paintings. One could certainly argue that photography has become THE medium of the 21stCentury. The place where we define ourselves and our expression - which at its heart is the very motivation behind art.
Certainly, the list of photography festivals and fairs continues to grow (with pace) whilst the art institutions are starting to give up precious real estate to contemporary photography – London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum just opened a new photography wing this year for example.
And serious photographers – the likes of Steve McCurry (famous for the "Afghan Girl", the girl with the piercing green eyes that periodically appears on the cover of National Geographic) or Stephen Shore (who’s roster of exhibitions include those at New York’s MoMa) seem comfortable with the new way of doing things.
Steve’s following on Instagram is an enviable 2.5 million whilst Shore says these platforms are “a new means of distribution and a new means of communication [which] opens possibilities that didn’t exist before…I find it very satisfying that they’re a group of people who look at each other’s work every day, and they’re all over the world.”
We’re no longer reaching for the pen or even the keyboard to communicate our daily lives. We’re documenting our each and every moment through a photographic journal that appears on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words.
But is photography becoming passé through its very ubiquity? Losing its meaning and uniqueness in an age of almost unimaginable image overload?
Chris Wiley, explained in a 2011 article, “Depth of focus”, in Frieze magazine, a growing anxiety in the heart of photographers about “a world thoroughly mediatised by and glutted with the photographic image”. That "ironically, the moment of greatest photographic plentitude has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion.”
Old Man & Cigar - Jan Olofsson
Is the root cause of our apathy due to an over exposure to ‘bad’ or even just plain average photography?
It’s certainly true that the vast majority of my Instagram feed is nothing to write home about. Whilst even amateurs can pick up cameras with a 24 megapixel lens for relatively little money, this doesn’t seem to help them produce anything but highly accurate photographs.
Technology has levelled the playing field, but as Guadian photographer Sean O'Hagan comments...
'A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera. A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.'
Just as a painter may approach the canvas, there is a vision, interpretation and a finished product. Although technology can help with the execution, it does not provide the inspiration or the concept.
British fashion photographer Nick Knight certainly doesn’t believe you have to have the best kit and famously completed assignments for the likes of Diesel entirely on iPhone.
Lady Gaga - Born this Way by Nick Knight
"What I'm into is a visual connection to what I'm taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It's absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution – what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishise the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don't get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant."
What is clear however, is that the nature of photography is changing.
When photography first emerged in the 1840’s it was a tool for recording the world around us – the people, the environment, the landscape. The first cameras were big and clumsy and required the subjects to stay acutely still for long periods to accurately capture a shot.
As technology advanced across the late 1800s and early 1900s the camera became more portable and documentary photographers set out around the world to chronicle and capture historical events as well as everyday life. It was a tool for documenting not only events, but social change and was strongly linked with photojournalistic practices. Powerful images captured both the good and bad moments of change in our society.
John Dillwyn Llewelyn outside Penllergaer House (circa 1853) Photo Credit: National Museum Wales
The Terror of War Photograph by Nick Ut
Moving into 21stCentury we see the likes of the iPhone make photography even more mobile. It’s become ‘point and shoot’. There doesn’t have to be any planning involved – the elusive moments of the everyday can be captured at a moment’s notice.
And so as this photojournalistic and documentary style photography takes over our news feeds, contemporary art photography is increasingly turning to more abstract and conceptual themes.
In a way mirroring exactly the process that happened to painting at the turn of the 20thCentury when photography arrived on the scene!
It's hard to imagine, but up until the 20thCentury it was the job of painters to produce images of the real world, to chronicle events and to take portraits (not selfies). Artists were even taken on expeditions to map the landscapes. The technical skills of realism were sought after and demanded. Yet with the invention of photography, suddenly they were not.
Lacking the need to accurately represent the world around us – painting took on forms which sought to express an idea or a feeling. The Impressionist movement for example shifted the onus from representing reality to providing a feeling of the changing light, the air and the mood of the scene. It was a shift towards seeing the world differently.
Rembrandt van Rijn 'The Night Watch' Photo Credit: Rijks Museum
Claude Monet 'Impression, Soleil Levant' Photo Credit: Musée Marmottan Monet
Increasingly contemporary photography is looking to demonstrate something beyond the obvious.
In a world where we’re airbrushed and filtered and Photoshopped, contemporary photographers are searching for some kind of authenticity. The camera becomes a tool to investigate and interrogate a subject and perhaps to reveal a hidden truth.
Some of the best photographers of our time simply use their photography as a means to tell a story, to get an insight into what’s just beneath the surface.
Gillian Wearing - 'I'm Desperate' Photo Credit: Tate
Gillian Wearing OBE - British photographer and member of the Young British Artists won the Turner Prize in 1997. She exhibited a small collection of photographs she took of the public in London and called it Signs, asking the public to write down what was on their mind, and with their permission, photographed them holding their thoughts. This particular image became the most iconic in the series of photos, speaking of their encounter Wearing says...
‘People are still surprised that someone in a suit could actually admit to anything, especially in the early 1990s, just after the crash… I think he was actually shocked by what he had written, which suggests it must have been true. Then he got a bit angry, handed back the piece of paper, and stormed off.’ (Unpublished interview with Marcus Spinelli, South Bank Centre 1997.)
Nan Goldin 'Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC' Photo Credit: Tate
Nan Goldin is an American photographer who has photographed for fashion brands such as Dior and Jimmy Choo. In her own work she focuses on the LGBT community, drug and physical abuse, and the HIV crisis. Goldin often takes photographs of friends and of herself in situations some people may find hard to witness, like the aftermath of being beaten. Her photos document a world most people aren't exposed to.
But perhaps the work of Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman provides the most apt metaphor of all...
In 2014, Ulman created an Instagram feed as a work of art in itself creating a fictional persona as a Los Angeles “it girl”. She spun her tale as an optimistic young woman pursuing her dreams in the big city.
Excellences and Perfections - Amalia Ulman
Things started innocuously enough ("another sunny day in LA aaaaahhhh i lov my life," reads an early caption), but after she broke up with her boyfriend ("dont be sad because it's over, smile because it happened"), things took a turn.
She chronicled her post-breakup breakdown -- sexy mirror selfies, escorting, implied breast augmentation, tearful videos -- and her eventual recovery through yoga, meditation and avocado toast. Amidst it all were selfies in trendy restaurants, designer shops and luxury hotels along with a good dose of inspirational quotes, acai bowls and a sense of “cute girl” positivity.
5 months down the line she revealed her true identity to her 90,000 followers and inevitably was subject to a backlash of online anger. Followers raged about her deception. They had invested in her narrative and been deceived. But that was precisely the point of her project: to unpack the performativity of social media itself.
Her work was not just a critique of social media archetypes of glamour and success, but an exploration of how easily “followers” can be mesmerised and manipulated by the same. At its heart, too, was a complex dynamic: how photography can lie to expose a deeper truth....
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