Photography as a currency exchange

Considered how photography is being experienced, with a consequent loss of value, it also occurred to me that more than a loss, there’s been a mutation of that value into something different, a substantial change since the system has changed itself.

The main use of social media like Instagram is mostly to grow hordes of followers, therefore the real objective is not photography itself but the numbers of followers. There are a few techniques to help the process, nevertheless, the main vehicle is still the images that fill up the feeds.

When the images become a value in order to achieve a second purpose (the real one), the images themselves cease to have a photographic quality (by the way, already dismounted in the first place by the very semantic value that Instagram carries) and surrender their signic charge to the real purpose (i.e., to increase the followers). Heterogeny of ends is what describes this situation in a rather accurate way.

Besides automated tools created to increase the number of followers (bots), there are methods that people regularly use. The mechanism is really simple: I like your image if you like mine. The consequence of this approach is that images are now being used as a currency value (and I’m specifically using the word images and not photographs because it’s rare, if not impossible at this point, to see photographs that have not been manipulated one way or another – Instagram itself is a container that manipulates and changes the nature of what people publish regardless of what has been done at the source).

For reasons discussed here, and for the fact that images on social media can also assume a currency quality, it follows that they can hardly be considered photographs anymore. If, on top of that, we also take into account McLuhan and Baudrillard it’s easy to infer that not even in the best case scenario (e.g. when an honest example of photography is on a social media) we can consider what we perceive as a true photographic experience.

The day Social Media killed Photography

I’ve been wondering for quite a while now whether I should keep my Flickr account or not. One of the reasons why I didn’t close it yet, is because going on Flickr and seeing what others were doing made me feel I had to work harder in order to improve.

Slowly this feeling vanished, nonetheless I thought it was an opportunity for me to compare my work with the work of other photographers. But then I realized that there’s no reason to have a Flickr account for that. I can simply look at those galleries without necessarily having one. Or better, go to a real gallery and see actual printed photos. For what concerns having my work in a social media gallery, there isn’t much reason either, really. What would be the point? Let’s do a quick analysis.

Two good things about social media which aren’t so good.

  1. Followers. There are techniques to gather a growing multitude of followers. It is simply questionable the morality of such methods. In fact, the very understanding of those techniques made me question the sense of a Flickr account in the first place, or more in general, of any social media.1
  2. Gratification. How nice when we get that comment or we see our favorites counter increasing! Well, assuming I didn’t go the dirty technique route (which I will explain later), and I’m playing a clean game than I shouldn’t feel bad for some appraisal. After all, I worked for it! But the thing is, a comment like “Nice capture” doesn’t help me getting any better, it may only help my self-esteem which, if that’s the case, it means is not photography what I need in order to feel better, but some evaluation of what I am as a human being. In other words, I believe whenever people look for an “Awesome work!” comment, their main aim is not the work itself, but something personal that goes beyond the nature of the job they’re doing.

But why we never get a comment about the composition, the light, or what we could do in order to improve the photograph? Two reasons: people are not interested and people don’t know. To be precise, we must take into account a third reason: the time. There isn’t much time to go through all the things we have to do every day, and also give some random dude we don’t even know an elaborate, serious feedback about one among the myriads of pictures we’ll see in just a week. And that’s the problem with social media, an intrinsic one and to be clear, this is not the case of “there’s nothing wrong with it, it is how we use it that makes the difference”.

Some things are built wrong.

General David Sarnoff made this statement: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” That is the voice of the current somnambulism. Suppose we were to say, “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” Or, “The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” Again, “Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” That is, if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good. If the TV tube fires the right ammunition at the right people it is good. I am not being perverse. There is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

So, what is wrong with social media? Let’s consider the popular Facebook. Hundreds of posts every day, many of which irrelevant. Some selfie here, some cat there, a status update, some life logging. Then there’s a little conversation, which usually involves a few “likes”, perhaps a link or two to some website, and that’s it. This is the average scenario. Facebook has not been created in order to provide people an exhaustive means to communicate. It is a platform where people can experience little samples of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame phenomenon but it is not meant for any serious conversation.
It is also permeated by a narcissistic attitude although it is a deceiving idea of narcissism. Of course, we do like feeling appraised but it is not just that. McLuhan has a better explanation of narcissism. For him is what we perceive as an extension: not being able to recognize the image reflected, there’s a deceptive perception of the other than the self, hence a fallacious certainty that the image is an extension which eventually will anesthetize our perception.

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

A large part of the tools we use nowadays, especially the most appealing ones (technological tools, electronic devices, social media, and so on), fall into the McLuhan’s narcissistic interpretation. The tools we use have become extensions, hence we can’t disconnect, we experience them in a sort of endless loop, a closed system as McLuhan describes it, where the input and the output overlap, and what could be expressed with own sentences and words, becomes a link to a website, a quote, an image, a photograph. And since the tool is our extension, hence the idea that a professional tool makes us professionals. We all, at some point, saw someone with a big, expensive camera and thought, even if for a moment “he must be a professional”.

We experience signs, not symbols.

The need to speak, even if one has nothing to say, becomes more pressing when one has nothing to say, just as the will to live becomes more urgent when life has lost its meaning.

Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication

Considered a significant part of our communication is today experienced through the use of images, the quote above is pertinent to photography as well, thus “nothing to say” sounds particularly appropriate looking at the plethora of images produced every day. How many accounts on Instagram, Flickr, 500px and so forth, are really needed? Let’s rephrase it better: how many of those accounts really add something significant to the language and the evolution of photography?
Now, of course, we can’t evaluate all those galleries from a quasi-elitist standpoint. A lot of them simply fall into the category of people who does it for fun; after all, life needs some amusement. The problem is, there is no difference between a gallery by a truly passionate and one by somebody who has no particular interest in the photography per se, but rather in the social experience that the network fosters. Social media really are a leveler. What really matters are the numbers, and those numbers have little or no relation to the quality of the gallery itself or with the content.

Where it gets really dangerous is when we realize that the quality itself really doesn’t have much relevance anymore, because the very signified is being exhausted by the signifier.

Information devours its own content. […]
Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

In other words, what really matters is the means itself rather than the outcome. Whatever the meaning may be, it is the signifier that now takes over. It is not what we read or see on Facebook, it is the very experience of Facebook that in the end overshadows its own content. It is not the gallery on Flickr with our work and hours spent in order to produce it that really matters, it is the number of followers, favorites, comments that come into play here. Also, notice what happens to your picture when you post them on Instagram: they suddenly look different. They have to adapt to a format, and that format is what gives them a new form, almost as if those pictures were taken by someone else.

The symbolic power of the work of art has surrendered to the subduing speed of the sign. What we experience on any social media ceases to have any meaning and becomes a strand which is part of the flow that travels faster than any form of media we experienced thus far in our entire history. Ever wondered why so many copycats nowadays? And yet, rip off is not even an issue anymore. If a sign is floating on the Internet, then is practically available to anyone. Mantras such as “steal like an artist” are all over, there’s no copy anymore, there’s only the illusion of the real. The output and the input are now part of a closed circuit, whatever goes out comes back. There is no source as the user is the source and the destination at the same time.

By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials – worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

The sign is indeed more malleable than meaning. Being the sign less abstract (the name is the thing, the swoosh is the shoe, the flag is the nation, money is power, and so on), being the sign a closed circuit, it is paradoxically more open than the meaning as I can virtually use anything since there is no need to expand on the absence of a concept.
The system we experience has, ultimately, become self-referential. We, the so-called “content creators”, are at the same time producers and consumers. In this unprecedented continuous overflow of signs which along their path have to cross no boundaries, it has become indiscernible where they originated from and where they are headed to. It is a liquid network, where no boundaries exist and no differences either.
We believe that having a faster way to communicate at our disposal it also triggers a more creative environment. I don’t agree with that. More often than not, I find that disconnecting and be my myself is the only way to cleanse my mind from all the so-called references, which I believe have just become repeating patterns rather than inspirations.

How to increase your followers.

So, what about the techniques I mentioned earlier?
They are very basic, and they work. Let’s take the case of a Flickr account (but it may well apply to other social media).
First, you need to start following people, the more users you follow the better. Then, you want to start picking your favorites, a load of favorites. Now you start slowly posting your own images and, as you do that, you won’t stop doing the first and second step. And now comes the best part (you might not need this) as, among the steps mentioned here, this is the most embarrassing one: you now have a good amount of followers, and you want to keep growing your audience so you keep adding other users, with a difference, though. Check if they start following you as well, if not then un-follow them. Basically, what other people’s galleries look like has no importance, because once you have gained enough followers, they are just numbers. Hence, if they follow you, they are worth it, otherwise, don’t give them anything for free.2

The outcome.

Is photography dead?
Being photography subject to the culture where it’s produced, experienced, and used, to give a proper answer we need to look at the context where is employed. The nature of the Internet, and more specifically of the social media, works as a filter which turns virtually anything into its own byproduct. It makes more sense asking: have the social media changed the way we experience photography? Definitely, and it’s been a drastic change to a point of no return. From this standpoint in a sense, photography is dead, although it is insofar we keep experiencing it the way we currently do.

The way social media work doesn’t allow the luxury of any suspension. There’s a massive loss of meaning, a staged illusion took its place. How can photography outlast then?
Despite photography by nature is a fast means of production, on the other hand, the complete assimilation of a photograph as a work of art would presume the very suspension which we seem to lack nowadays. Experiencing photography as we do these days undermine its very nature.
I have personally lost any optimism in the social media idea. I deleted my Facebook account already 6 years ago. I keep a Tumblr account only as a repository for things I find around which I consider interesting, or stuff that might be useful for my work.
The two accounts left are Flickr and Linkedin, and I’m seriously considering closing the former.

Streets of Los Angeles and a side note on picture perfection

This is a challenging city for people who want to take photos in an urban environment, or maybe not, depending on what the photographer is looking for. Still, it’s kind of a unique place. One may find similarities between, say, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and so forth, but not with LA.

Distances are really something here. You can see lots of cars, but not a lot of pedestrians. And even the streets, which you would expect full of cars, suddenly might look empty.

LA West Pico, an usual busy road
LA West Pico in broad daylight, commonly a busy road.

Alright, that’s a street of no particular interest.
Let’s see what’s going on in Downtown then:

Clifton's Cafeteria, Downtown LA
Historical Clifton’s Cafeteria, Downtown LA

That’s as busy as it can get on a Saturday on Broadway, in front of an iconic LA place.
Back on Pico:

Pico Blvd

Now, considering I don’t take pictures of homeless people, I’m not interested in landscapes, buildings, flowers, wildlife, staged pictures, portraits, the only thing left, which is people, is not an element easy to find here.

Anyway, I keep trying although I have to admit sometimes it gets a little discouraging. These might not be the streets of my beloved European cities, nor Tokyo or other majors, more traditional urban-like style cities such as New York, nonetheless there are people
though, because of a different environment (i.e., physical space and the way people relate to it), habits and behavior are different as well.

dsc02397
People of LA

The back view issue.

Another thing I tend to avoid, besides photographs of homeless people, is back views. It just feels effortless, an act of a lazy person, it’s a frame that lacks interest as we don’t see the face. That said, I took the picture shown below because I thought that, despite we only see the back of the two gentlemen, their posture and the rotation of their heads, should be enough to make the connection with the sign the woman is holding. Whether that’s enough to turn it into an interesting picture or not, well, that’s a different story.

Is it the arms enough to avoid the lack of interest of a back view?
Is it the arms and the heads oriented toward the sign, enough to avoid the lack of interest for a back view?

Things I don’t consider.

My own pictures.

All in all, I don’t care too much about the pictures I take. I enjoy taking them, I have fun when I edit them, but that’s it. The interest I can have wondering whether a picture works or not is strictly because of my interest in the discipline itself, not the picture in particular. In other words, when I look at my photographs, I look at them as a means to figure out what photography is to me, not the photograph itself.

Picture perfection.

In the Clifton picture, as well as in the Auto Repair one, there’s some quite noticeable lens distortion going on. I just don’t care. And I don’t, not because the pictures I posted here are among those I don’t consider good enough to end up in my gallery. I’m not obsessed with perfection for the pictures that go in the gallery either.

I think nowadays we have become obsessed with perfection.
To begin with, it’s just annoying and boring. It seems everything needs to fall into the perfection rule basket, turning the majority of the images we experience every day, treated as they were clones or as if they have been produced in a factory. But even more terrifying, is the idea of perfection itself. What is perfect and how we judge that anyway? “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, someone might add. As if the beholder doesn’t have his own prejudice, as if his notion of beauty has not been trained over the years by what the beholder experienced around him, his culture, his level of knowledge.

What makes one’s idea of beauty more valid than someone else’s? Here it gets complicated. It is not the intention of this post to investigate further into this topic.
For now, let’s just say that distortion can be part of beauty. Greeks did this centuries ago when they built their columns. I still remember my high-school teacher explaining that there’s a connection between the oval shape of our eyes and the way we perceive, which is why we don’t see perfect, straight lines, but curved lines and that’s what Greeks have done with their columns:

Entatis – Convex curve to “fix” the optical illusion

That explains also why in theaters screens are curved, which is in order to compensate the distortion along the edges at the peripheral areas.

Same applies to the lens choice:

The Dark Knight - lens distortion
The Dark Knight – lens distortion

 

Bridge of Spies - lens distortion
Bridge of Spies – lens distortion

The two examples above might look exaggerated, especially the screen grab from Bridge of Spies. The thing is, when we watch a film, we don’t pay attention to these details, as our brain has to keep up with a lot of things happening at the same time (acting, direction, light, music, etc).

When I watched Bridge of Spies the second time, I wanted to pay attention to some details as it was kind of a more analytical watching. Even though I knew about the lens distortion and how the brain compensates for it, there are scenes from the movie which literally tricked my perception. When I was pausing on a frame, the distortion was there, clearly noticeable. When I was playing back the scene, the distortion was gone. That’s part of what can be achieved with a good camera blocking.

Another blog about photography? Not really

It seems that lately, anyone with a website and a photo gallery needs to have a blog and share techniques, tips, and their own point of view about Photography.
I followed several of these bloggers, read many articles, went through the comments and almost every time I did it, I felt disappointed, annoyed, discouraged (and of course it’s totally OK if you have the same reaction while you’re reading this).

Either they are strictly technical (new camera vs old camera), hence not adding anything new to the plethora of blogs already out there, or when they try to get more philosophical, they deliver the same trite formula of advice, which is very popular nowadays: 5 techniques to become a better street photographer, 6 lessons I’ve learnt from (add whatever photographer’s name here), how I overcome the fear of shooting in public.1
Sometimes a tip or two might actually be useful. Most of the time, though, it’s nothing you can’t figure out by yourself already, which would also give you the joy of experiencing it at first hand (the best way to learn something).

This is not a blog.

So, before I move forward I want to be clear: this is not a blog. This is not a place where I share tips, techniques, reviews of the latest gears. I have nothing to share in that sense, neither I’m interested in it.
I’m learning and I’m trying to understand what photography is to me. This is only a place I will use to keep my thoughts a little more organized. That’s it.

Now, despite I consider myself relatively new to photography, on the other hand, I have strong opinions on matters related to photography and the reason for that is my background as a painter. After all, considered that photography and painting are both visual languages, several aspects are common. For instance, I’m still learning the history of photography, nonetheless, I have a pretty good grasp of what surrealism is, and to me, this is not surrealism:

jerry-uelsmann
Jerry Uelsmann

 

tommy-ingberg
Tommy Ingberg – Crow, 2011

 

martin-stranka
Martin Stranka

What this is, has more to do with a visual habit with signs that have saturated our culture (just hop over to this page and notice how many images there are with floating bodies among the works presented). But it also has to do with the idea of creativity. In fact, it has become very common to hear people saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, “it’s Art, there are no rules, it can be anything”, “steal like an artist”, and so on so forth.
The moment you argue with this, you are considered a person who has no creativity, as someone who’s trying to dictate rules (apparently, Art has no rules).

Why bother?

Side note: a dear friend of mine once noticed that Art, after all, is a bourgeois’ manifestation. It almost felt as if spending time tinkering with these matters is a quasi-futile activity (he didn’t specifically say that and maybe it was just my assumption). Anyway, I partially agree with that, but regardless I believe that asking what Art is, is what makes men more aware about what surrounds them: the environment, the other human beings, ultimately it’s what makes us more sensitive to the matters of life.
If that’s true, there are reasons to be positive, as at first glance we could say nowadays we are experiencing more creativity than ever, with plentiful of innovative ideas, images, videos, overwhelming every field. I personally believe things are quite the opposite.

What comes next

So, to quickly recap, there are a few things I mentioned so far:

  • What is Surrealism?
  • Art and its rules.
  • Where we are at with Creativity.

Also, as I started digging more on photography, I’ve found myself asking questions like:

  • What’s the difference between photography and painting?
  • In what circumstance is a photographer allowed to do post process work on a photograph? And how much is too much?
  • Is it photography a big illusion? If so, does it make sense to talk about candid shots vs staged shots?
  • What is Street Photography? Is there such a thing?

I’ll write more on these topics in the following posts (not sure when).