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.

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.


Quote of the Day

_”Art that gets paid for today is typically art that helps a company get a return on its investment. But as many are beginning to point out, that’s not the only possible answer, or necessarily the best one.” — Anna North_

North’s piece at the New York Times is a fascinating read about art and the price of art in today’s Internet age, but that quote, from the end of the article, is what I have struggled with, and continue struggling with.

Corporate largesse usually isn’t the best answer, not where art is concerned. There are work that will hardly contribute to any effect on a company’s bottom line, but are necessary anyway. Everyone is still trying to find a way to make it financially sustainable, and that is only possible when enough people find it important, or compelling enough to put down money for it. If that doesn’t happen, I can only hope the art continues to get made anyway, because that is what we do, no matter what else we are doing to pay the bills and put food on the table.

When there are so many ways to get things for “free”, it inculcates the mentality that art should be available at no cost. I have no answers to that at the moment, except to keep photographing what is relevant to me; nor is this some sort of apocalyptic warning, but rather just an observation that gets me thinking over a cup of coffee and a cigarette or two.

Will people buy my work? Or prints? Or help sustain what I do? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

The difficulty of explaining photography

“You see a book or a body of work and you know you love it, that it is something that resonates with you, but its a real challenge to say why. This is a constant with my parents or family, people who aren’t involved in photography.” — Aaron Schuman

That quote nails down why photography is so fascinating to me, beyond all the painfully fabricated stories of artspeak that descends upon artists’ statements like a fog of war, obfuscating both the purpose and integrity of the photographs that are proffered up as work. And it annoys me, because I’d prefer to look at photographs than wanting them explained to me.

I’ve always believed that the magic, for lack of a better word, of photography, lies in its processes, its many ways of presentation, its ways of presenting a view of the world the photographer sees it, the way it can persuade, and alter or reinforce perceptions. Photography can be subversive, like all other forms of art, and it can be reassuring, or uplifting, or depressing. It can give purpose, or remove it.

All that power, in the form of a two-dimensional image, be it in a physical form (that I obviously prefer) or on a backlit screen, as it so often happen today. Why do we need to cloud all of that with unnecessary words?

I’m not saying captions do not work; they supply context, and most people who aren’t seriously involved in photography almost require that context, or a back story, to appreciate a photograph. In photojournalism, it is a necessity, and adds great value when done well. What I object to is window dressing, when a mediocre photograph is used to illustrate a story that is far more interesting. The photograph is almost an afterthought in such cases, almost peripheral in its application, and downright unnecessary in many cases.

It is difficult enough to explain why you like a photograph, or a body of work, without using too many words that appear to fluff up the work. I’m a fan of keeping things simple. Speaking plainly, writing concisely, and let the viewer immerse themselves in the photographs. That’s my preferred mode of working, and I believe many prefer it that way. Alas, we are all under pressures to produce artists’ statements, explaining our work, when not all photographs need explanations. “Keeping it simple” appears to be a forgotten rule.

I also believe that finding the right words to describe why one likes a photograph is a challenging task, and as photographers, we cannot afford to take this task lightly. It is challenging enough without needing to navigate the fog of war that seems to permeate many artists’ statements these days, and that does not help us elevate photography to be appreciated on a more down-to-earth, everyman level. How much of that contributes to the idea that photography artists are arrogant, snobbish folk with their heads in the clouds, I’m not sure; but I’m quite sure it doesn’t help, either.

Perhaps when we choose to describe our work in the most straightforward manner possible, in the simplest, plainest language we can muster, photography will be as widely appreciated as novels are. But that struggle continues. For me, I’ll just stick to the ten words that the great Bill Pierce once said:

“I saw something wonderful. Let me show it to you.”


Happy younger people

Is it me, or do younger people seem happier? That’s the feeling I get, and I seem to be photographing more young people these days. Is that a sign of aging? I had this long conversation with an old friend, about his willingness to be 23-years-young again.

I suppose that is a sign of aging.


Using Format