The dark side of photosharing sites?

There is no question that digital imaging and the internet have revolutionized the art of photography.  Now everyone with a camera and a computer has the ability to take literally unlimited amounts of photographs, without any of the previous “arcane technical knowledge” required in the days of manual cameras and instantly display them to an audience of millions of people.

Now I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, it’s just a fact.

The flipside to this is that now millions of people sitting on the internet looking at photosharing sites are now essentially “photo critics”

This is an extremely thought provoking thread on which raises a lot of tough questions about the nature of Art and Photography.

first some background: There is a Flickr group called “deleteme” where members post photos, then *in theory* the rest of the group critiques them and then votes whether to “save” the photo in the group pool, or “delete” it and remove it from the pool.  The idea is that eventually, the only photos left will be the best of the best, worthy of saving.

Unfortunately in reality, this is not always the case – very often the comment threads simply become a popularity contest, or a bunch of camera-snob wannabees ragging on anthing that is not their idea of a “good photo”

Now, I suppose on a lark – one member of the group posted a Henry Cartier-Bresson photograph into the pool, without labeling or indicating what it was.  This photo was “Mario’s Bike”, considered by most to be a masterpiece, a true work of art.  (and if anyone doesn’t know who Cartier-Bresson was, he is generally considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, his philosophy was “The Decisive Moment” which has influenced generations of street photographers, and revolutionized the genre).

Anyway, what resulted was a flamewar of epic proportions.  Many folks obviously didn’t recognize the piece (kind of surprising for anyone with even a passing knowledge of photo/art history, as it is such a seminal image) and basically wrote it off as junk, voting to delete it from the pool (blurry, not in focus, grainy etc…)

The photo and thread in question can be found here:


Of course, all the folks who knew it to be a HCB masterpiece, had a good chuckle but the thread raises some interesting questions:

is it still a great photo even if the majority of people think it is junk?  who decides what makes it great?  This question essentially is going back to the eternal question of “what is art” but this just shows how much more relevant this is becoming to photography.

As the barriers to entry in photography are lowered (Owning a dSLR is now pretty much within anyone’s reach) – what happens to the “art” of photography?  Is there still an absolute standard of what makes a photograph art?  or does photographic art now encompass the abundance of “oversaturated, oversharpened flower macro shots” that seem to dominate the photosharing sites as the most highly regarded.  Don’t even get me started on HDR!

the other effect of this ease of accessibility is that “everyone’s a critic”  from the most highty trained photo curator or artist to grandpa joe who just bought his first digicam last week, and now fancies himself and expert on digital photography.

With the “great unwashed masses” having easy access to photography, without any actual knowledge as to the *art* and *craft* of photo making, there seems to be a paradigm shift in appreciation of photography from something that is art to something that is just “pretty pictures” without going beyond that.

Not to say that there is anything wrong with “pretty pictures” – I take plenty of ’em, in fact I wouldn’t have the hubris to claim that 99% of my own photography is anything more than that.  But I am always striving to create “art”, and I would hope that I have an appreciation for the true artists and masters of the medium.

And this is essentially the crux of my question:

Is the “easy availablity” of digital photography & the internet destroying our collective appreciation for the true art in the medium?   Have we been so overexposed to supersaturated, supersharp, over-digitalized photos that we have lost the appreciation for other artistic aesthetics in photography? 

Further, how much of our appreciation of art (photographic or otherwise) is influenced by preconceived notions?  Is is possible that the only reason I consider “Mario’s Bike” a masterpiece, is that I know it is by HCB?   How would I have judged it had I not know who it was by?  I like to think that I would have appreciated it on it’s own merits, but since I can’t look at it without knowing the source, my speculation is tainted by my own knowledge.

Honestly, I don’t have the answers to these questions, and similar thoughts have most likely plagued artists and critics ever since the first scrawl on a cave wall.   However,  with the advent of technology that makes photography instantly available on demand to anyone, these questions become more relevant than ever!

P.S. – I hope this isn’t too much of an elitist rant!  I happen to love flickr and all the photosharing sites, and my personal opinion is that they are a good thing for photography if for no other reason that it makes it easier to find new talent!

13 thoughts on “The dark side of photosharing sites?”

  1. I think this question could also be asked of “writers” having access to publishing platforms like blogging. Now there’s less keeping a crappy author from being read.

    However, for both, if no one looks/reads, then you’ll never know who they were.

  2. That Flickr thread is pretty amusing. Did someone say “HDR”? LOL If you missed it check my blog.
    Its a sad day when classics aren’t recognized, but it doesn’t surprise me that there is this kind of reaction. For each era there is a unique style that is appreciated because its never been seen. There is an evolution to this. Each generation of viewer comes to expect more than the last. Over time whst was once unique and different is just ho-hum. Photo enthusiasts now have more opportunity to see a variety of imagery these days. The good… I’d that we can see a lot of work easily. The bad… Is clearly as a result its easier for us to become jaded. The ugly… Is surely that many novices are completely oblivious to the classics as is the Flickr example you’ve pointed out.

  3. Trevor – Good thing for me, huh? now everyone can see my crappy photos AND read my crappy writing! 🙂

    Jim -you raise an interesting point about the evolution of tastes… I suppose it’s similar to the impressionists who were dismissed by their colleagues as amateurs and dabblers, and now are regarded as some of the finest artists…

    It will be interesting to watch this revolution as well, and see how it changes the artistic landscape.

    In the meantime I will keep making pretty pictures, and maybe someday I will make “Art” !

  4. Richard – yes, that’s very true. I intentionally did not address that since I did not want to get off on a tangent regarding the legality/morality of his actions.

    I believe that after the intital discussion, the OP revealed and labeled the picture, crediting HCB. I’m not a copyright lawyer, so I have no ideas as to the legality of it but in the end he was not really trying to pass it off as his own photo, just using it to illustrate a point.

  5. There’s never been a shortage of mediocre media (music, novels, photography, paintings, etc.) and there never will be. Over the past few decades as poorer and poorer excuses for music are more readily available and harder to hide from, good composition, lyrics, and talent are still recognizable when they are present. Think of Flickr and other sites as a radio for photography. I know when I turn on my radio to the closest commercial frequency I won’t find “art.” We are just beginning to be exposed to everyone’s personal photography; some will shine others won’t. And there will always be the “critic” who will pick The Ramones over Vivaldi.

  6. I wonder if the cause to this is that the cameras price tags drop lower and lower, and it’s becoming a norm that mobile phones equip with camera/video recording functions, the Net is a perfect platform for sharing one’s photos – whatever quality they are off – and when everyone who owns a camera do the same, we have too many photos to look at, as a result, fewer people would look at that world of photos seriously – to say what’s good/bad about each of the photos is terribly time-consuming, and the effort might not be appreciated. Too many photos uploaded to the NET hourly, and it’s hard to guess the one behind the camera like his/ her photos being commented (in-depth), so the easy way out is to write single-word-comment if any photo’s particularly eye-catching, else people do nothing.

  7. well, here is my two-cents worth.. 😉 I’m new to photography, I thought I’d taken some pretty darn good “snapshots” until I saw what other had done. I have a long ways to go.
    Personally I feel that people are too quick to criticize in a field they know really nothing about, or very little. Just because you have an expensive camera and know how to point and shoot, doesn’t make you an expert, so stop knocking somebody else’s work. Let me give you and example of un-asked for and stupid criticism…I am a novice sculptress, and the very first bust I’ve ever done has actually one a few awards, yet a “friend” decided to point out all the things that were “wrong” with it. I never told her that I’ve won awards for this first piece of my attempt at art. Many people will stop doing, will stop learning, will stop their artistic pursuits because some fool has criticized without knowing a thing about art. Photography is a form of art…. some you will like, some you won’t… get on with it and stop acting like you are such a masterful “critic”….

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