medium and meaning

WARNING: this article may be rambling and disjointed, as it’s just kind of a stream of consciousness of some things that have been kicking around in my head the past few days.  Further disclaimer: while I am talking about film/digital this is not a film vs digital superiority debate.

One of the non-photography-related blogs I like is Seth Godin’s blog (for those who don’t know Seth is a *legitimate* marketing guru, (unlike the “OMG use Twitter to make millions types), and posts various thought provoking comments/thoughts on his blog  every day)

Yesterday I read the following on his blog:

Email is dying because it’s free. If you can send an email for free to 100 of your closest friends, instantly, you probably won’t abuse the privilege. But someone else will because they might define ‘friend’ differently than you or I.

100 times 100 is ten thousand. Spam.

So now, people don’t reply when you send them a resume, because it costs too much to do that ten thousand times.

Twitter is next. The paradox is obvious: to grow, you need to remove friction from the medium. If it’s not easy and free to use, people won’t. But then it gets big and it becomes profitable, so people use it too much.

The churn rate at twitter is reported as more than 50%. That’s because of lack of friction as well. Easy to get in, easy to get out.

Stamps are underrated. Friction rewards intent and creates scarcity.

I like that quote “Friction rewards intent”

It also made me think about Alec Soth – Recently I also had the opportunity to see Alec speak, and he opened his piece by talking about a recent “crisis in photography” that he was going through.  Albert over at has a nice summary/analysis of this, which I will summarize/quote instead of trying to write out my own long winded piece 🙂

In short – photography is suffering from “information overload” much like email or twitter.  There are 4 *million* pictures uploaded to flickr every day, the vast majority of them snapshots – fragments.  Digital cameras give us this capability, they remove the “friction” from the medium.  Cameras are ubiquotous, there is no “investment” involved in taking a picture.  *anyone* can literally take a picture of *anything* without even having to think about it.

William Eggleston made an art form of elevating photos of the mundane to the extrordinary.  but what happens now when you can take a random selection of snapshots from flickr, mix them in with Egglestons’ work and unless you were an art historian probably couldn’t tell the difference. Alec pointed out Flickr’s 2 *billionth* (with a B) photo, and how it looks remarkably similar to an Eggleston.

We have accepted that Photography as an art form can make the mundane extraordinary, but what about when the mundane is just mundane?   And if so, is this particular aesthetic losing meaning in the realm of photography – largely discredited because of the medium itself?

How are these “random snapshots” different than the work of the “masters”?  or are they even different at all?

does the sheer volume dilute the meaning of the medium?

Of course the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room is *digital*.  Film provides “friction” to use Seth’s term.  There is a *physical* limitation to shooting film that provides constraints, both physical and otherwise.  I’ve hear of digital wedding shooters coming home with 8,000-10,000 images from a single wedding!  try doing that with a Hasselblad!  It makes me wonder if they are even *looking* at what they are shooting or just pointing their camera at everything in sight and holding down the shutter in burst mode until the card fills up.  But in essence, why shouldn’t they?  there is no penalty for doing so – no film to pay for, develop, make contact prints (or scan), print etc…

No friction.

The best photographers will tell you that they are always shooting.  always carry a camera, always be making photos.   But that presumes that we are *thinking* about the photos we make – that there is intent, purpose.  When every click of our shutter costs a nickle, or a quarter, or 5 dollars we think alot more about what we point it at when we click that button.

What happens when the friction is removed from that as well?  On one hand it’s a great thing – now we can Always Be Shooting without hesitation or worrying about film, but what happens if and when we stop *thinking* about what we are shooting? does it change the meaning of the activity?

Have you ever gone to a tourist spot, and seen hordes of amateur photographers standing in the same spot, taking photo after photo of the same subject?  It puzzles me – why take 27 photos of the exact same thing?

No Friction.

Medium and meaning, meaning and medium.

Where I think this is going is that while there is no question that digital has changed the way we “do” photography, the question is: has it actually changed the *meaning* of photography in and of itself?

I don’t know the answer to that question, or even if there is one.  But it’s definitely something to think about, particularly when thinking about purpose and meaning in one’s own art.

3 thoughts on “medium and meaning”

  1. The so called “photography crisis” has nothing to do with photography, and everything to do with a perception of photography as art (using the term widely) and the photography profession as stagnant. Just like anything else, photography can be art but doesn’t have to be. And just like every other profession, technology is changing the way you make a living with said profession. All these amateurs producing photos dilutes the brand of the photography profession to a degree, and that makes it harder to make a living in photography. As they say, a million monkeys typing on a million type writers.

    So what does that mean for “photography”. It means photography is in a great position because of demand. It means better cheaper equipment. It means faster innovations. It means more talented people producing better work. And it means that its harder to be a pro. Its harder to set yourself apart when there are so many good amateurs. It means you can’t just show up someplace and take some photos for a newspaper and call it a day. It means times are changing and if you want to be a pro photographer you have to change with the times.

    long rambling stuff that i was going to post and then decided to write the above shit, but still wanted to include it:

    1. Since when is email dying?
    2. Having lots of “chum” does make it more difficult to find the good stuff, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t added value to having an increased amount of something. In the email example, because of all the spam it makes it hard to tell which emails are legitimate, but that problem is solvable to a great degree.
    3. Most of the shit put up online isn’t intended for broad viewing. I don’t put my pictures on flickr for random people interested in photography to look at. I put them up so my friends and family can see whats going on in my life and for me to be able to go back and look at those pictures from anywhere.

    Lets take your example of the wedding photographer who takes 10k pictures. Sure digital makes that easy to do, but if you took the best 100 pictures from their shoot and compared them to the best 100 pictures from a wedding photographer that took a reasonable amount of pictures you’ll probably find that the smaller set produces higher quality individual photos. More skill needed, more thought per picture, lighting that can actually keep up with your shooting rate, etc. What does the market demand, more pictures or more quality?

  2. I would tend to agree with most of your points, but that is not exactly what I am talking about.

    – I am not talking about the photography “industry” or photography as a business or pro vs. am etc… I am simply meditating on the actual act of taking a picture, the “meaning” of taking that picture and how the changing technology is changing the medium and potentially changing that act itself. I am not making a good/bad judgment, it’s just something interesting to think about – Does the actual act of photography have the same *meaning* today as it did 100 years ago when you were using tintypes or mixing chemicals on a glass plate?

    Of course technology is only one factor in this equation – there are social, sociological etc… factors as well. All intertwined, with no clear outcome. Again just an interesting thought.

    When I used the term “crisis” I was quoting Alec Soth and his personal discourses on the topic, not referring to a “crisis in the industry”.

    The point in the friction analogy is that IHMO it is one of the key ways in which the “medium” is changing, and thus may be one of the determinants to the way the “meaning” of a photograph is changing as well.

    just some food for thought.

  3. Ed, you have kind of stumped me on this one. I’ve written a rewritten a response. I think what many photographers are experiencing is a crisis of relevance. Are photographers relevant?

    As I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He is a carpenter, or at least was, until about ten years ago. He I first met him when he left the industry. He still did a lot of his own work, but stopped doing it professionally. He always said this; “I used to think it was the man who made the tool, but with the new tools, it’s now the tools that make the man.” That attitude and seeing his high end finish carpentry being done by people with no experience drove him from the industry. Well about 6 months ago he returned. He started working with a custom carpenter. He said the whole process of doing things had changed. They were able to do stuff that he never would have thought possible ten years ago. What he now believes, is the true artisans will use the tools that they have, but will rise above them.

    I think that is what we have to do as photographers. We have to take the tools that we have today and rise above them. You use the example of Eggleston and ask the question about if he is art. Well, I for one would say he is no longer art. That doesn’t make his work less important. I would even say, his work is still art. However, if he tried to do that now, it would not be art. It would be snap shots. In fact I would go as far as to say that the very existence of his work, or any work, for that matter, will eventually nullify their work as art.

    We see the same thing in all forms of art. At one time, the great cave paintings of the stone-age would have been the fine art of their time. If someone tried to claim that as art now they would be laughed at. We would probably say that it was the work of a third grader, and not a very talented one at that. Even look at the art of the middle ages. Art will always be progressing

    This does not mitigate the artwork itself. The great cave paintings are still great artwork, medieval art is still great.

    What photographers, and I am included in that, need to do, is accept that maybe are work is no longer art, and change. If we wish not to change, well then we can stay back in the masses. That’s fine. We always need factory workers. If you still want to be an artist, find a way to elevate your art to something beyond what the everyday person can do.

    I think this is what people like David Hobby are trying to do. They are taking tools that have been around for a long time, tools that everyone has access to, and then elevating their work beyond it. Lighting equipment has been cheaper than ever. Why aren’t more photographer getting some high-end studio lights. All you really need is a free wall to have a studio.

    Eventually, that may become the tool that everyone has. Maybe one day the high fashion, high art photographs we see today will be the snapshots. It’s not a bad thing. It’s only bad for those photographers who don’t realize they need to move.

    I first started out my adult life as a software test engineer and a systems administrator. When I got my first real job I managed the hardware for a test lab and wrote the testing scripts for several large projects. 10 months later when my contract ended I had set up a team of student testers, who cost the same price as one full time tester and did at least 7 times the work. I had eliminated two-thirds of the systems administrators needed to manage the lab. When the contract ended it was not renewed because I had eliminated my position. It was not a bad thing. I realized that this was the natural progression of all things. I moved on and got bigger and better skills, I became a security tester. That eventually became irrelevant as well.

    What I am trying to say here I guess is the medium does not produce meaning. If that were the case we would all be painting cave art with chewed up charcoal that we spit onto the wall. Meaning creates the meaning. There is no need to prescribe meaning to a work of art simply by how it was done. We too frequently do this. Think of it this way, most painters would say the photography is not art.

    There’s my two cents.

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