By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO TAKES PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE LOVED already has a headful of problems, none of which can be adequately dealt with in this space. Social media has, inarguably, made many of us slaves to the Dreaded Like Monster, that faceless, shapeless judgy universe of people who render some kind of…what, verdict? on one’s humble images merely by twitching their thumbs. I’m already on record in these pages as saying that the need for such faux validation can make a slave out of an artist, and promote the very worst (or at least the most mediocre) in photography. With all that in mind, however, we are, still, human, and the online embrace or rejection of a given photo can sometimes make us wonder about our choices. Was the picture that good? That bad? And who, really, is the arbiter of those terms?
You can’t help it: you sometimes fall in love with one of your pictures, even though, in a public forum, you can’t seem to give it away, much less make people fall in love with it. Really, though, how can it be otherwise? No one knows your instincts or intentions better than you do, let alone appreciate what technically went into the making of your work. That said, no one besides yourself can measure exactly how near or far from the mark your final effort has turned out. Of course, the argument is often made that we, as artists, are too close to the process, that, having sweated over a picture from start to finish, we can’t possibly be objective……an argument to which my reply might prove unfit for a family newspaper.
What are we saying? That the invisible mob, with a flick of its wrist and a stab of its “like” button knows more about your work than you do? Ridiculous. Now this is not to say that some people aren’t seriously flawed in their evaluation of their own stuff…with both a tendency to be too generous, and too critical. A truly balanced talent for self-editing is like a well-toned muscle: it only comes with uncompromising work and time. But there will always be those images that you feel you nailed, or at least came damned close on, but which do not connect with anyone but you. The temptation will be to react like a promoter trying to bring a product to market, which means regarding certain pictures as “failures”. However, this is a trap. Photography for the masses should be governed by popular taste if you’re doing product shots of cheese in order to up the sales of the Dairy Council. But when it’s a tool for selling your ideas, you can’t succumb to the temptation to make everything about gorgeous flowers and cute kitties. Creativity is not a commodity.
Full disclosure: the image seen here is one of my least “liked” images, if you’re measuring by the regular approval yardsticks of social media. I have many such photographs, pictures which are just plain invisible to others but, for a number of reasons, favorites with me. Given my intention for this photo, I can’t really apologize for it, since I don’t know any other honest way I could have made it, based on what I was going after. Notice, in that previous sentence, all the personal pronouns: if the picture doesn’t work for me, there is no way it can connect to anyone else. Art may sometimes be an inefficient delivery system for one’s visions, but it is never, ever served by a lie. Doing pictures so that they will please an audience is essentially fraudulent, and is really the only way your photographs can “fail”. If you believe an idea, chances are better that you will find someone who genuinely gets what you were after. Ignore those who echo the empty maxim that you have to “give the people what they want”. Figure out what you want, and either wait for others to follow, or get comfortable with standing alone. You’ll find that alone and honest is less lonely in the long run.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOCIAL NETWORKS HAVE PRODUCED TWO PROFOUND EFFECTS in the world of photography, one essentially beneficial, one essentially harmful. Certainly the ease with which photographs are instantly publishable on every conceivable distribution platform is a boon to communication and art. In one sense, every photographer has the potential to have his/her work seen: the world is now a gallery. However, that very same effortless global forum has the potential to flood the world with images that are ill-conceived, trite, lazy, or just plain banal. The world’s shooters are fully woke, for sure, but the world’s editors have joined the ranks of Rip Van Winkle.
Photographers before the web era were hemmed in by more stringent parameters of quality than is typical of the digital age. In professional circles, editors rejected 90% of a shooter’s work to select the small number of shots that would pass through the narrow neck of available publication platforms. At the same time, cost and technical barriers kept the total number of people who could even be photographers artificially low. The result was an exclusive club limited to only the best people and their best work.
As for the amateur market, people’s good and bad personal pictures had no practical publication platform beyond albums, slide trays and shoeboxes. Good and bad pictures alike seldom traveled beyond one’s own inner circle. Now consider the present landscape: no picture needs remain private or unpublished. Taking pictures is cheap, fast, and technically effortless, as is the kick of instant gratification as we click to make our images the world’s instantaneous and universal property. Equally fast counter-clicks deliver the drug of instant approval through reflexive “likes”, keeping us addicted to the entire feedback loop.
However, just making pictures available does not guarantee that anyone will actually see them. In fact, much of what we’e done on social media is create a vast dumping ground for nearly everything we shoot, a belt of data bits girding the earth like an orbiting loop of space garbage. Art is not improved merely through the generation of tonnage. More is usually less, and even our best work may be hidden in plain sight.
The lifelong perfecting of our own seeing eye, along with a fiercely developed and objective editor’s sensibility, is the only thing that can produce great photographs in an age where excellence and mediocrity are rewarded exactly the same. Social media will continue to snare us with the promise of cheap reward regardless of the quality of our work. The only cure for this slouching toward sloppiness is in ourselves. We need to love ourselves a lot less and love true excellence a lot more.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS about reading photographer’s discussions of their most celebrated work is that, frequently, they can only guess at what accounts for the success of one of their images over another. Even more fascinating is when they express their dismay that some of their personal favorites actually fail to connect with the public. I take heart at such accounts, because I, like many of you, have no idea what makes a photograph “work” for anyone else…not, at least, beyond what I hope for.
This, to me, rates a “hilarious” on the irony meter, since the present age values “likes”, “faves”, and “LOVEs” above all other laurels in photography in a way that has made us slaves to popular approval even as we remain completely clueless as to how it’s earned. No cute tricks succeed. We can’t just replicate what people liked about our past stuff. We can’t cynically analyze what vaulted others’ images into the like-o-sphere. We can’t even play to what we believe others’ biases to be. And, for the sake of our photographs, we’re foolish to even try.
As a personal illustration of my point, I have absolutely no idea why this image has, at this writing, racked up over 4,000 views in the space of three days. This is not me boasting. To boast, I’d have to be taking credit for something I understood or had something to do with. No, this is me being dumbfounded. The picture represents, for me, the most transitory of whims, a final frame clicked off in impulse on the way back to my car after I thought I’d done the “important” work of the day. I thought there was something mildly (underlined) interesting about seeing this public pool “at rest”, if you will, just a week ahead of the end of the school year. No kids. No noise. Not a ripple or a wave to be had. A picture of something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s it. It was truly a case of “let’s shoot this and see what (excuse me) develops”.
And so the views and likes pile up for this one, and knowing that fact is no help at all. I want to take the brief flashlight being shown on my least favorite child and shine it on my pet instead, but it don’t work that way. Humans are perverse. We desperately seek to make a connection, then kvetch about whether it was done with AC or DC current. We want you to like us, but we want you to like the same thing about us that we like about us.
This gap between what photographers hope is important and what strikes everyone else as noteworthy reminds me of the actress Nastassia Kinski, who once came onto the Letterman show with her hair pasted into a straight vertical spike two feet high. Dave decided to act as if this were as normal as having a nose between your eyes and proceeded through the the interview without a remark. As the segment drew to a close, a slightly desperate Kinski purred, ” you haven’t asked me about my hair..”, to which Letterman replied, “Oh, you want it to look like that…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION OF MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY IS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD. On one side of the blade, we have effectively eliminated the time-consuming trial-and-error that frustrated generations of shooters. Pictures come practically at our whim, and the instantaneous ability to correct images in the moment results in a learning curve shortened by years. We can potentially get better and know more faster and faster.
That’s the good part.
On the rustier side of the sword, there is the potential for us to crank out photos so quickly that we take less and less time to evaluate them individually. The subtle changes in quality that are contained in a burst of twenty quick shots are lost to us, along with whatever lessons they may impart. We make a general, slapdash call as to what the so-called “keepers” in a batch are, and rush them into the public arena for instantaneous approval. This sprint toward the highest count of “likes” and “views” usually means that we are putting many pictures out there that are not ready for prime time, simply because, technically, we can.
Social media offers very little in the way of qualitative feedback on what we’ve done right or wrong with a picture. Only our own objective editorial judgement can truly provide that. But we are abdicating that role in our all too human desire for approval, even though online clicks are not so much “approval” as reflexive twitching. Most of us won’t have the luxury of working for hate-crazed photo editors or presenting our work in truly competitive environments, and that puts the responsibility squarely on us. If we don’t act as our own best critics, taking the time and deliberation necessary to evaluate where we’re growing and where we’re stunted, then who is to blame for our failure as artists? Our pals on Facebook?
One great thing about the film era: it forced us to proceed at a more deliberative pace. We were producing photographs slow enough to allow us to make real judgements about them as they emerged. Now we are more like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. We strive to stay ahead of the merciless assembly line, rather than see if chocolate 5,556 is actually better, or worse, than 5,557.
If you believe, as I do, that more lessons are learned from the pictures that fail, then you must slow down long enough to make sure those lessons are not lost in a meaningless blur.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN’T SAY IT’S JUST UNCOOL PEOPLE ANYMORE. In recent days (this being April 1st as you read this, and no joke), both the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have joined the growing ranks of public attractions that have decided to prohibit the use of the selfie stick, that telescoping extender wand that stretches the human ego beyond all endurance. Now, the only proofs you will have that your wonderful personage graced a certain locale on a certain day will be (1) memory (2) the enjoyment of the moment, at the moment, and (3) all the other standard-issue, stretch-your-arm selfies you intend on inflicting on mass media in much the way that polluters truck their waste loads way out of town to dump them at remote sites.
If you infer that I am less than suicidal at this news, you infer mos’ correctly. Although you are technically taking a photograph when you use one of these annoying fishrods, you are certainly generating nothing of visual value. You are merely creating a disruptive warp in the travel-time continuum, crowbarring yourself into scenes to…what?….render them more relevant, since you decided to drop your divine butt into them like some kind of Where’s Waldo tribute? Suddenly, it’s not look at this beautiful cathedral. It’s now look at me in front of this beautiful cathedral. Instead of isn’t this an inspiring sunset, we get look at how inspired I was by this sunset.
I suppose, in the desperate cyber-playdate that social media has become, it was inevitable that the standard selfie, already the online equivalent of roadside litter, would have to metastasize into something even more self-absorbed, and so, on the seventh day, they created the stick, and they said, be fruitful and multiply. Only, you see, a line has been crossed. Your love affair with yourself is now prodding me in the butt, blocking my view, and annoying my mother (and believe me, no one wants that). In other words, your favorite social plaything (you) has become anti-social. And boring.
There is an amazing tradition, among photographers great and small, in the self-portrait. But put some study into it, rather than having it be a reflexive tic whenever you become bored with the rest of us. Approach it with some intent, some technique, or at least more forethought than it takes to flex one knuckle of your index finger. Of the loss of all thinks stick-like at concerts, Jacqueline Verdier, CEO of Selfie on a Stick, said the festivals were going too far and that the sticks can be used safely. “I think it’s really doing a bit of disservice to the attendees,” Verdier said. “They’re not going to be able to capture the same memories.”
Yeah, Jackie, true that. And they (and we) can do one helluva lot better in the memory department if we’ll just stretch our brains a bit. So go convert your product to a line of premium backscratchers.
Then you’ll at least be performing a public service.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY OVERHEARD A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO YOUNG WOMEN which involved the viewing of one woman’s phone images, which she was sharing with her friend. Perhaps “sharing” is too generous a term, as the review of pictures, rendered with a cross-telephone swipe between each one, took approximately ten seconds, punctuated by the following remarks:
“That one’s REALLY cool…send it to me, willya?”
“Oh, too cute…”
The present age’s crushing overload of sensory information, including the billions of photographs snapped each day, has turned us into a nation of glimpsers. We sense images only fleetingly as they zoom past our window, each new one obliterating the one which preceded it, each one awaiting its own turn to be eclipsed by something newer, cooler, cuter. While the operative word for those viewing the world’s first photographs might have been: look. Now that word is simply: next.
Whatever, dude. We don’t even care whether someone has examined, considered, or absorbed our photographs, as long as they issue a perfunctory, agreeable grunt of some sort between each one or reflexively (and meaninglessly) twitch a “like” click in the appropriate box. The sheer volume of things to be reviewed, and, God spare us, ruled on in some way has turned us into a race of card shufflers. There, we promise. We’ve processed your output and pronounced most of it passable.
Gee, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.
The ability to churn out photographs like potato chips certainly provides more opportunities for more people to produce something great. However, if our view of those scads of potential masterpieces is akin to watching bicycle spokes whiz by, then we cannot meet the photographer’s vision with any appreciative seeing of our own. Certainly, some photographs are not worthy of large audiences, but we also have become lousy audiences for the pictures that do deserve to be lingered over, thought about, treasured.
Do a favor for the people in your lives that take photographs. “Like” them a lot less. Look at them a lot more. There is no rush, except the one in your head. Appreciating beauty, or wonder, or art is not a homework assignment, to be tossed off on the way to the next, new thing. Give the pictures time to talk to you. Give yourself back the ear to hear.
Slow the bloody hell down.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE LATEST THING.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OBSOLETE.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS DEAD.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS JUST BEING BORN.
All these statements are true.
Art cannot hide from the world, nor can it sequester itself away from change. There cannot be one “final” or “permanent” way to create a painting, one lasting method for bringing forth a face from a block of marble, one eternal way to capture and shape light. It’s more than obvious that, like most arts, photography has been in a constant state of metamorphosis since its inception, something which should comfort those for whom things seem to be, at present, “moving too fast”. Comfort, however, is not in the offing for many of us.
The sense that nothing is “permanent” anymore in the making of pictures is especially keen in recent years, since the shift from film-based imaging to digital has been such a convulsive and comprehensive break with the past. But, even though we’ve been using film for over a hundred years, the kind of film we use has always been in transition. We feel a little less solid right now because the technical means for photography are changing on a much more fundamental level. And we’re just getting started.
The explosion of the post-processing photo app, itself a product of the ongoing evolution of the telephone, is changing the terms of engagement for everyone who takes pictures. Everyone. Okay, you don’t have a smartphone and don’t want one. I get it. That doesn’t change the fact that the essential means for capturing and shaping an image is shifting into overdrive. More than ever before, anyone can take a picture…..anywhere, anytime, instantly, and under damn near any circumstances. The walls of experience, privilege, and access between pro and amateur are dissolving faster than Splenda in a non-fat latte. Techniques which used to be the exclusive domain of the learned, the elite, are now available to the peasantry. There are no more secrets. The Bastille has fallen.
Apps are leading all this, making any kind of effect, tint, re-focus, re-balance and re-do feasible for anyone. The tsunami of new images flooding into the internet on any given day is the output of people whose vision can now be acted upon, without exhaustive expense, without years of slaving in a newspaper bullpen, without decades of chemical-stained fingers and dingy diligence in darkrooms. If you don’t have a good eye for what makes a good picture, then that one factor can keep you from greatness. But access to tools is no longer, and can never again be, a disqualifier.
Apps are already raising the question of whether bulkier cameras with costly lenses are even needed, and the next step is for apps to answer that question with shortcuts that will, at the very least, render whole classes of cameras superfluous, and, eventually, remove all but the most basic functions of traditional lenses themselves. Custom-made “glass” is one of the remaining barriers to complete photographic democracy: it costs too much and requires too steep a learning curve for today’s ADD universe. It will have to go.
And here’s where you decide whether, in your own case, that’s a positive or negative thing. The bad news is, everything is changing. The good news is, everything is changing.
You pays your money and you takes your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONUNDRUM OF AUTHORSHIP, OR WHAT WE NOW TERM “INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY” RUNS ON A PARALLEL TRACK with the history of photography. Being a mechanical process of printing and reproduction, imaging has, from the first, proven more vulnerable to theft than anything created by the painters’ hand. Indeed, the very means by which photographs became reproducible in mass media such as newspapers and magazines became the first access afforded to thieves of what we ourselves had crafted. It became an unholy bargain. To be seen and discussed, our work had to employ these methods of distribution, and, at the same time, render ourselves vulnerable to those who would spirit away and claim as their own that which they did not create.
Which brings me to the recent brouhaha over Instagram, and its latest user agreement, going into effect in mid-January 2013, which allows the site to redistribute, lease or allocate use of members’ images with no obligation to inform or compensate the creators of those images. This is not my “representation” or “interpretation”. The language of the agreement is so brazenly clear that it’s breathtaking.
Reality check: it can easily be argued that our best efforts to certify our claim to our images, through copyright laws, watermarks, terms of service, contracts, etc., still leave us as exposed to harm as a naked mountain climber on a blustery day. But, dear God, that is no reason to help the thieves, or, worse yet, to put ourselves in jeopardy by willingly consigning our work to websites whose stated purpose is to financially benefit by the exploitation of our work.
Instagram has millions of subscribers around the world. Do not ask me why, since I have never seen the benefit of taking mostly mediocre snapshots and rendering them murkier, darker, dirtier or more flawed by the post-application of “fun” filters. I spent my childhood longing for cameras beyond the scope of the cheap plastic boxes affordable to a 12-year-old. Light leaks, color streaks, vignetted corners and lousy chroma were the chains I was longing to break free of, not the post-ironic posturings I thought would render me hip. Toy cameras made bad pictures compared to the cameras grown-ups were using.
However, while personally writing off Instagram as a harmless toy (even one which has yielded some superior images, by the way), I never saw it as a threat to the sanctity of authorship. Until now. The digital imaging age has encouraged all of us to “give it away” just to get our work noticed (that unholy bargain from Paragraph One), encouraging us to do insane things like send our “on the spot” photos of events (unpaid..!) for use on-air by local TV stations too cheap to put their own photographers in the field. How nice that we have volunteered to be their uncompensated photog team. What a feeling of community, of belonging. Ick.
It should be noted that, following a crap-storm of anger over their announced new user agreement (as of 12/18/12), Instagram has sought to “clarify” their intent, claiming that the agreement’s “language” may have caused consternation.
We’ll see what happens, but as of this writing, throngs of tweeters and others have announced their intention to bail, like the jilted lovers they feel themselves to be.
Like I said at the top, it is our need to have our work seen that has often made us shake hands with the devil. With the Instagram debacle, however,we are also fixing him a hot lunch, offering him wine and cigars afterward, and finishing up with a deep tissue message so he can digest properly.
If we sign up for this swindle, it’s on us.
- Why I Quit Instagram And Am Moving To Flickr (readwrite.com)
- Instagram backtracks after user privacy revolt (wtvr.com)