Very few of you will read this jumbled mess. But to the few who do, thank you.
On an inland tack down Ocean View Avenue, Cait Kovac and I discussed the dubious ethics of certain found photographers, the price of art, and the role the Internet plays in connecting artist and audience. And as we plotted an inland tack along the opalescent coastline of the Monterey Bay, our conversation turned to our own ambitions, and how questionable and uncertain the world of photography is in this digital era. She shares with me an anecdote about her Instagram feed:
A photographer posts a picture to a Tumblr blog. That same photo is posted to Instagram, to Facebook, to Twitter, with a link back to Tumblr, and a plea to faceless masses to follow a hyperlink down the rabbit hole from one platform to the next. The amount of work it takes to be recognized as an amateur photographer on the Internet, she posits, is about as much work as getting out and taking pictures at all.
At the time, I could think of no better response than a chuckle, a bewildered head shake. I could relate with the photographer in her tale. How often had I taken a photo and cross-promoted it all over the Internet? Countless times, to be sure. A cursory glance at my Twitter feed is a curious quilt of hyperlinks to Flickr, to Tumblr, to Instagram. In the intervening week since that conversation in my car, I’ve stopped to think about the role the Internet has played in my time as a photographer.
I joined Flickr in 2005. At the time, it was one of the few places on the web to share photographs. I wanted to post snapshots of the things that I saw, and talk to people about them. I wanted to see other things that other people saw, and talk to them about them. It was a social quid pro quo that has connected me with people who have inspired me personally and artistically over a nine year span. In that time, my ambition has been to share and to learn. The great majority of those interactions transpired on Flickr. That was the place to engage, to have the sort of connections I wanted to have.
In 2008, I joined Tumblr. There was a burgeoning scene of amateur photographers there, and when combined with Flickr, I met so many new people with very personal visions, and the friendships and conversations that grew from that period of time were important and lively and challenging.
The Internet had, for a time, lived up to its promise of being a Great Equalizer: professionals and amateurs and all levels in between brought together on equal footing, and many benefited from it.
Cait’s comments on the state of self-promotion got me thinking: when did my personal photographic journey cease being one of exploration, of discovery, of connection, and become one of self-promotion, stats-counting, and page views?
The last time I had a meaningful conversation about my art, it was in a car on a coast road, early on a Sunday morning. The time before that was six months prior in a San Francisco burger joint with two of my photographic heroes. The time before that was with Patrick Joust on my living room couch over Chinese food. The time before that was with Andrew Rose in the Big Sur redwoods, timing long exposures on iPhones. And the last time before that was in a long e-mail exchange with Cait while comparing photos from a day’s shooting in Augusta, GA.
The Internet has evolved to posture itself for the Next Big Thing. Or perhaps it’s just always been that way. But with every Flickr re-design and multi-billion dollar snatch-up of this startup or that app, the artistic net becomes less about interaction and more about promotion. Flickr has relegated its comments to a bland, unnoticeable segment of a sidebar. The Group pages on Flickr have become quiet, unfrequented, or oppositely loud with thread after thread of cross-promotion. Tumblr has very limited capability to interact on a by-post basis. Twitter is a muddled, cloudy explosion of words. But the end goal is the same, regardless of platform — to accrue hearts and stars, to beat the top score, to post humble thanks to the next new integer of followers; to be featured and to be recognized and to go viral and to be somebody. Success in the Age of Social Media is to be ubiquitous.
And so, I question myself: to what end do I share my work today? Perhaps it’s still to share my experiences. But with each evolution in social media, the desire to share is overshadowed by the need to first be seen. And each post, each reblog, each plea for Asks, each shameless cross-promotion from one network to another becomes less about truly interacting, and more about combating the signal to noise ratio of the social web. We’re not experiencing each other in any meaningful way. We’re selling a brand.
My purpose for photography, as it was on that same Sunday on which Cait and I talked shop, was to be seen. My Sunday excursions were to generate enough content to ride out a week, to maintain a viewership that wouldn’t unfollow me at the first sign of slowing down, and to be relevant in some way, no matter how fleeting.
It took some time to concede the point, but I realize now that photography has not been a meaningful act for me for some time. I’ve enjoyed it most when creating it with friends and family (such as the photo above) and I’ve enjoyed sharing it most where there is space for conversation. The aggregation of likes, favorites, and reblogs has cheapened the act for me.
Until social media ceases being about companies and platforms exploiting original work under the pretense of “community” in order to be the you-saw-it-first-here purveyors of viral content, then the prospects of the social web being a fertile place for the sharing of ideas and experiences are increasingly fewer and farther between. The ancillary idea then is for original photographers to be mindful of their goals. Why is it so important to be featured on the curation blog du juor? What do all the reblogs and faves and likes say about the spirit of your work? Would you still take photos if there was no chance of ending up on Tumblr Radar, or if you weren’t exalted in the Notes of a thousand reblogs? What’s the value in all of it, and is visibility worth compromising integrity?