Posted: 16 May 2012
At some point in the last ten years, photography became the ‘easy’ way to become an artist. Now, the rise of social media has allowed an ever-increasing gaggle of wannabes to pass off their snapshots as Art. Self declared genius was once the preserve of the insane. Today, it seems, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
I don’t want to convey myself as a technological N.I.M.B.Y with the progressive disposition of the average English Defence League member but; I hate Flickr. In fact, I dislike almost all photo-sharing websites, their partnered magazines, and the introduction to photography instruction manuals.
This may first appear as regressive photographic purism. Perhaps you have already thought that I am a remnant of a bygone era in a digital age. I must, however, disagree. I, like most, enjoy the advantages of digital photography. And like many, I joined the Flickr bandwagon as if in the heady flush of a new romance. I uploaded my favourite photographs and waited eagerly for signs of recognition that I, as my ego would aspire to confirm, am a photographer of genius proportions. Obviously I was disappointed. Yet my disenchantment was not only due to the demoralising realisation that I was not the next Cartier-Bresson. It was the nature of some of the photographs that were fast becoming labelled as Art that I found unacceptable.
The rise of social networking has exposed one of photography's less amiable by-products. Not a day goes by when my Facebook page is not lit up like Blackpool at Christmas by invitations to “like” somebody’s new photographic business venture. Anyone with a dSLR these days seems to have developed the automatic assumption that they have become a professional photographer without any of the training, experience, or knowledge that I would suggest is a prerequisite. Photography has always been an automatic craft. Yet a level of skill and inspiration is essential to create something of worth and I say this as a member of the guilty party. I too succumbed to the lure of easy money and little artistic input, pandering to the impossible aspirations of the occasional bridezilla.
It should be evident to you by now that I am primarily concerned with those images added to ‘Art’ groups and promoted as such. I realise and accept that a vast number of photographs within these media sources are not described as Art, and are therefore outside the remit of my discussion. Those sharing snapshots of loveable pets and comically shaped vegetables may breathe a sigh of relief.
I do believe that anyone can attempt to make a work of art. Yet the purchase of a digital camera, in my mind, does not qualify or educate a person in the subtleties of Art practice. An afternoon in Jessops does not instantly reward the consumer with a master’s degree in Fine Art, just as an evening playing Operation does not qualify me to perform open-heart surgery. The true Art photographers have the ability to include elements of psychological self-expression. The photographers submitting to Flickr style websites, inevitable fail in this regard. Or worse still, attempt derivative and clichéd copies of previously well-trodden aesthetic paths.
This is not to say that Flickr and the like should not exist. I’m all in favour of social networking. In this day and age how else is one to communicate with long-lost companions and the lady with whom you once had an all too brief dalliance? Many of the photographs within these media are very beautiful. What I find distasteful is the automatic assumption, heavily promoted by camera makers in their billion pound advertising campaigns, that anyone with a digital camera can assume the veneer of Artist regardless of originality or ability.
I could argue that such sites, as well as the many photography magazines offering instruction and ‘How to…’ guides, are educational. Yet a quick glance through these pages will also highlight the unoriginality of the photography they promote. The landscapes all look the same. The portraits are heavily indebted to the style of photography used in advertising. The abstract work is irrefutably simplistic and clichéd. They essentially celebrate mediocrity and unoriginality and encourage others to do the same.
Equally, there is an argument that these media sources cater to a democratic aesthetic. I must, however, point out that most forms of progressive Art have never really been part of a democratic movement of taste. Each advanced Art movement has been heavily criticised during contemporary criticism; the mainstream seldom accepts progressive art forms at the outset. The fact that opinion on photo sharing websites is ruled by the majority, suggests that these approaches to art photography will develop into the future ersatz style; essentially sidelined and aesthetically irrelevant. Like flowered curtains or Ed Milliband.
Admittedly, the users and members of these media sources gain a personal sense of achievement and belonging, and who would cruelly discourage that?
The online photo-sharing community also cultivates interest in photography, which is surely a noble and eminent ambition. The next generation of art photographers are currently cutting their teeth on such media, gaining the imperative experience that the remaining plagiarists critically lack. However, to stand out in the crowded communities of online sharing as original and rewarding artists, the conventional must be rejected in favour of the new. They must leave their comfort zone of contented favourites and ‘interestingness’ and embrace a new revolution in methodology and aesthetics. To do this they must primarily ignore the pro-account criticism and narcissistic advice and have confidence in their own expression.
An example may help illustrate my point. A few years back, during my dissertation, I added an image to Flickr by photographic master Brassaï taken from his seminal work Paris de Nuit. Despite risking deportation for copyright infringement, I had intended to see how the digital world reacted to analogue imagery in an effort to gather reaction, valuable to my final hypothesis. I anticipated a wholeheartedly enthusiastic response. What I actually got was a discourteous and banal criticism added by people who neither recognised the iconic image nor its astonishing psychological virtues. People, with no concept of modesty and even fewer analytical skills, had decided that they knew better than one of the finest photographers who ever lived. Comments such as “Too dark” or “Awful composition” were typical. One supercilious stain on humanity had the bewildering audacity to advise the use of flash, yes; FLASH.
My experiment had failed and I promptly removed the photograph for fear of the dreaded hand of the digital crime squad knocking on my door. But this instance highlighted a particular issue relevant to the aspiring photographic artist today. Opinions and advice are all very well and good, provided they come from someone who actually knows what they are talking about. As Plato wrote: “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”
The state of online photo sharing resembles the ironic subtext of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonists voluntarily offer their creativity and dignity to the uninformed critical hegemony of the ill-equipped. All in an effort to emulate artists of whom they have not even heard, much less understood, on the advice of people who are as oblivious to the subtleties of art as them. With the relentless march of corporate manipulation, perhaps all we can do is accept the loss of artistic photographic progress and join the insanity. Nurse Ratched? May I please have my cigarettes, Nurse Ratched?