An old blog post about gimmickry, from me old blog

Article was originally published on my old blog on July 4th, 2013. Reposting because it’s still relevant to me.

Untitled — Singapore, 2012. © 2013 Callan Tham.

I read this Julian Stallabrass article this morning, and it bothered me in some ways. Leaving aside my usual dismissive ”the article failed the 1978 test” [2] pronouncements, it appeared to be defeatist in his appraisal of photography, unless I totally misunderstood him.

Saying “If everyone is a photographer, then no-one is a photographer” and being reluctant to say if he is a photographer or not (again, the 1978 test is really apropos here, proving Szarkowski’s prescience, and still massive influence) does not make me doubt my interpretation. This choice quote at the end of his article is quite telling:

“It is not only harder to say whether or not you are a photographer, but harder to say where the lines lie between professional, social or artistic work. As the divides between these areas increasingly blur, so it is harder to assign a picture to one realm or the other. Fatal pressure is applied to the ideology of artistic autonomy, and with it the autonomy of the individual. If we are all artists, then none of us are.

I, for one, do not believe that the lines that Stallabrass wrote about matters all that much. Where it matters, and where I think Stallabrass did not fully exploit, is the distribution of photographs, as opposed to the pervasiveness of photography itself. To say social media is shaking this up is an understatement — I don’t think anyone truly knows how this is going to pan out, not in the near future.

The idea of “everyone is a publisher now” provokes a more fruitful discussion than “everyone is a photographer now”. If everyone remembers that, we’d all spend our time better.

It appeared to be a case of kismet that I then stumbled across this quite brilliant article by Mike Johnston over at TOP. His explanation for his distaste for gimmickry in photography is a perfect counterpoint to Stallabrass’ article — that photographers don’t seem to be content to just take photographs, but to hunt for certain elusive, and exclusive, properties that make them stand out from the crowd.
More importantly, Johnston’s point about so many mistaking a photograph’s properties as its qualities really struck home. I think, personally, that this malaise has pretty taken over as photography becomes easier for and more accessible to — creating and sharing and consuming — everyone.

This is symptomatic of that search for uniqueness, that again, Stallabrass hinted at. The application of Instagram filters, the indiscriminate use of expired film, willful cross-processing of slide film, the explosion of lomography, grotesquely composited HDR, the unthinking post-processing using presets in [insert your favourite post-processing software/plugin]…all these are just gimmickry, and has precious little to do with photography.

And gimmickry makes me genuinely angry. It is manifestation of a lazy imagination that is in love with the idea of vision and creativity, but does not want to do the work of creating. It is being in love with the projected idea, a ghost of a vision, without making any effort to realise it.

It is, to put it unkindly, a scam.

Techniques exist to supplement and implement a vision. They should not be the vision itself, and they should definitely not call attention to itself. Photography is a visual art — let the visual content speak for itself, and let the technique fade to the background.

If a photograph is boring, then no amount of visual trickery will make it interesting. You can substitute “visual trickery” with any fashionable photography term (HDR? Instagram Filters? Take your pick.) you want, but it remains true. We should all focus on doing and viewing the work, nothing more.

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