It occurred to me the other day that the conversation on photography has changed. Now there's a manifest statement, you're probably thinking, One as obvious and evident and omnipresent as the sun itself.
Of course the conversation has changed. Of course The Internet has not only weighed in, but has, in fact, hijacked the entire dialogue and regurgitated the finer points in a new dialect that only bears passing resemblance to its former subject. This is like saying, "It is Winter, therefore it is cold outside," or, "I haven't eaten in eleven hours, and it occurred to me that I am perhaps hungry."
I came of age on the cusp of The Internet As We Know It. The World Wide Web turned twenty recently while I (also recently) enjoyed thirty candles on the proverbial cake. While some born a few years after me will testify to the all-encompassing warmth of growing within the belly of the beast, I have the advantage (if you're an optimistic sort) of remembering Life Without. (It bears mentioning that I am not the optimistic sort.) I also came of age as an artist in the company of those who had the audacity to ascribe value to the medium of Photography as Art (and not Photography as Commodity). I am well aware that in order to survive while tinkering away in a visual medium, I must embrace both ideas. I am also well aware of the fact that the democratization of photography--as heralded by the proletarian availability of its tools and its message--has been both a boon and a bane.
I've always felt that an image, when amputated from its source, has no more oxygen to prolong its life than a goldfish flopping on a waterless surface. There's a vitality to an object of desire (in this case, a photograph) when it remains tethered to its creator. This symbiosis perpetuates a conversation both about and with the object, and in doing so, ascribes value not only to the object in question, but also to the person who created it. It breathes. It goes on. What we're talking about are human beings harnessing their faculties for artistry and awe and imagination, and then--a miracle!--creating something out of it. A photograph! A communiqué to the rest of the world: I saw. I perceived. I interpreted.
What's more, a photograph is never merely about consumption. It is, at least for me, about a conversation. Not only that, it's a two-sided conversation, which is itself a novel concept in an age where self-reflexive, single-sided communication often takes the place of the gloriously unpredictable give-and-take of a real exchange between two gloriously independently-minded individuals. Wim Wenders writes in his (also glorious) book Once:
"Taking pictures is an act in time,
in which something is snapped out of its own time
and transferred into a different kind of duration.
It is commonly assumed
that whatever is captured in this act
lies IN FRONT OF the camera.
But that is not true.
Taking pictures is an act in two directions:
A photograph is always a double image,
showing, at first glance, its subject,
but at a second glance - more or less visible,
'hidden behind it,' so to speak,
the 'reverse angle':
the picture of the photographer
The camera therefore is an eye
capable of looking forward and backward
at the same time.
Forwards, it does in fact 'shoot a picture,'
backwards, it records a vague shadow,
sort of an x-ray of the photographer's mind,
by looking straight through his (or her) eye
to the bottom of his (or her) soul.
Yes, forwards, a camera sees its subject,
backwards it sees the wish
to capture this particular subject in the first place,
thereby showing simultaneously THE THINGS
and THE DESIRE for them."
Did you read that quote, or simply gloss over it to arrive more succinctly at this paragraph? Go back. Read it again.
There is desire and humanity in every image that is created, yet these images are often consumed as objects stripped of their context. Images on the Internet (Pinterest, Instagram, blogs, Tumblr...the gang's all here) have found themselves guillotined from their source. The image stands alone, its value determined only by its own contents, a mirror reflecting on itself and back again, infinitely. This means, of course, that a person's attention span can only breach the distance between desire and disinterest for so long. It has nothing to do with the why or the where or the who but only the what. The sun shines on and on, but there's no shadow to infer depth or dimension or even context.
I found myself on the receiving end of a vexing conversation recently, the subject of which centered around my work and how easy it was for the man on the other side of the tête-à-tête to subvert, recontextualize, and belittle my images until they were a pile of data--merely pixels arrayed on a screen, printed into the physical world, and then passed around as a joke. The very idea was odious to me on a number of levels, but the miasma I couldn't shake--even now, days later--is the fact that it's so very easy for this Nobody to render something I consider precious into utter meaninglessness. A gag. Simply a matter of clicking, dragging, and discarding.
As I mentioned earlier, in order to be granted the immense privilege of doing what I love for a living, I am forced to interact with my medium in ways that I love and in ways that I loathe. I love The Internet. But I loathe the way it has affected the way we view photography. Images do not exist merely for your own consumption. They are an act of humanity, and they will always be extensions of the hands (and eyes, and mind) that created them. When we gobble up the product without paying any mind to its maker, we perpetuate the notion that thoughtlessness, ease, and immediacy will always trump the very real, very human qualities of perseverance, toil, and triumph. We strip art of its dignity, and in doing so, rob ourselves of the joy of experience.
To make anything outside of oneself necessitates ceding control so that it can live, in some ways, apart. But make no mistake: Whether or not my name, my watermark, my shadow, is impressed upon my work does not diminish its value. The conversation on photography may have changed, but now it's up to us to direct its course.