Monday, February 20, 2017

Richard Sexton: Photography Tomorrow

Over on LuLa, Richard Sexton has written, now, three pieces covering Photography Then, Now, and Tomorrow respectively. I have taken exception to each of the first two, here, and here. It's clear to me that Richard is thinking about this stuff really hard, but that he's basically kind of clueless, as I have noted before.

He's also terrible with apostrophes, routinely using it's when he means its, and introducing the bizarre their's at one point. A piddling issue, but a pet peeve of mine.

As an aside, some of you have probably noticed that I occasionally contribute to LuLa. Kevin asked me nicely, which is pretty much my Achilles heel. Kevin either is a genuinely nice guy, or a skilled actor who plays one brilliantly. So, this might come across as a bitter "my piece is cooler than Richard's piece!" but as far as I can tell, it's not actually like that. Can't speak for the demons down in the bottom of my brain, though.

Richard begins with a discussion of Warhol's 15 minutes of fame concept, which is a bad beginning. Richard is still clearly focusing on global fame as the target, the idea that everyone should know your name. This is wrong-headed and silly, it's the wrong direction. Local fame is the future, the connected world implies it. With no gatekeepers to accessing the global market, the global market becomes (already is) cacophony. On the flip side, with total connectivity, finding one's niche in the world becomes easier. With 7 billion connected souls, surely you can find 1000 that like your work. Richard hand-wrings a bit about How Awful It All Is what with social media and free content etc. The standard Old Guard complaints.

Then he proceeds to prognosticate, to guess at what might be the world in 20 years. Unfortunately his analysis, based on he admits his gut feeling, for where Photography will be in 20 or 25 years is completely out to lunch. It is in fact an accurate description of today, right now, which gives you a hint as to how out of touch he really is. He accurately summarizes the state of photography as a career today, suggesting that this is how it will be in future. "Corporations will use in-house people for many different aspects of media production" - wow, you mean, in 20 years it'll be exactly like now?

Freelancing will be largely dead as a career in the future, except for fashion/glamour. I assume that he selected fashion/glamour as the lucky winner for the future because he's actually writing this in 1996, but with knowledge of 2016? While he might be correct, there's no reason whatsoever to suppose that fashion/glamour won't follow whatever path other editorial work ends up on. Indeed, we're already seeing it happen now. Much of fashion marketing is on instagram, done by people on their own dime with the hopes of being paid by some fashion vendor later. Essentially, they're doing spec work already and I don't see any reason offhand that this won't continue and accelerate.

Then he suggests that blogs are the way forward for Serious Artists (blogs are gradually, inevitably, ticking downwards, and have only been around for about 20 years. God knows what they will look like, if anything, in another 20). This seems to be mainly a cry of "please tell me that instagram is not vehicle by which people will be selling photography in 20 years." Don't worry, Richard. It won't be instagram. It will be something neither of us can even imagine, and it will be much much worse (from your perspective.)

In an almost pitiable coda, he concludes (one of many conclusions) that the pendulum will swing back, and things will go back to pretty much the way they used to be when he knew what was what, and who was who. The pendulum metaphor is horrible. You can always trot it out and arrive at the wrong answer. Things are changing, you observe, like the motion of a pendulum's motion and nobody will call you on it, because the pendulum metaphor is universal. Oh, thank god, pendulums always swing back, don't they you observe next, and then take comfort in the idea that things will pretty much go back the way they were. And the audience nods dumbly.

Photography is not changing like a pendulum, it is changing like a meteor.

He is, I think, correct, that photojournalism as a career is likely to stay pretty much dead. Newsworthy, topical, imagery is ubiquitously available for nothing and there's no reason to suppose that's going to change. Probably new technology will roll out. Ubiquitous drones? Sure. In 5 years. 20 years? Who knows. Smart spraypaint that lets you squirt down a connected "camera" anywhere, maybe. We can speculate, but there's essentially zero probability that we'll get the technology right. Ubiquity seems like a safe bet, though, which implies free pictures, which implies photojournalism is dead.

Technologically, there are really two possibilities. One is that we'll stop right about here. The 2D CMOS sensor with a chunk of shaped glass or plastic in front of it might be just where we stop. The telephone remained, basically, the same for several decades when it got "good enough". The other possibility is that technology will proceed, probably heading down the computational photography path. It leads somewhere, to someplace where a whole bunch of tiny, lousy, cameras are ganged together. Is that smart spraypaint? Is it fleets of bee-sized drones? Is it massive boxes with 100 lenses on the front? Beats me. Could be any of them, could be all of them.

Note that ubiquitous computational photography means that whatever is left of the idea of photojournalism will also die a brisk, gruesome, death. Computational photography makes trivial a degree of editing that is fairly complex and difficult today. The idea that a picture contains anything resembling truth will take another savage blow, should computational photography become dominant.

Consider, for example, that you could integrate a photograph with a digital model, trivially. Now suppose that an interested party offered up a digital model of a particular location in which something interesting happened. Many people take snaps with their phones of the newsworthy event, and then in a fit of patriotism, or because a man with a gun suggested it, they merge their snap with the digital model. Suddenly, 100s of different people post pictures which all show the same state-approved but completely false scene. From many angles, from many points of view. Nifty, huh? You saw it here first.

Either way, though, the ubiquitous camera seems likely in the future. We're almost there now, and there doesn't seem to be any counter-trend in play. Not one that I can detect, at any rate. That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

We can deduce some things, though.

If we assume that money and economics continue to function more or less as they have for a few hundred years here in the west, we can confidently guess that people with disposable income will continue to collect Art. We can guess, with a little less confidence but still with some, that they'll collect photography. Not the least because wealthy people tend to be old people. The collectors of 20 years hence are the 30-somethings of today, and many of them are enamored of film, for crying out loud.

Wealthy people have no time or interest in sifting through jillions of artists. They'll pay someone to act as a gatekeeper. Are these gallery curators? Personal assistants? Will there be new degree programs in Art Selection? Will there be a sort of butler-like education system whereby the designated gatekeepers are trained, by previous generations, how to pick Art? I dunno. Doesn't matter. The profession will exist, and will select Art to be collected, to be purchased at Great Expense. Fine Art in this sense will therefore remain much the same, a weird mish-mash of skill, vision, and personal connections. The people to butter up may or may not be the same as they are today.

That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

Vernacular photography? Hell if I know. I presume that people will be continuing to take snaps of their kids at the pool, birthday parties, etc. Video clips will likely become more and less popular in an ebb and flow. Computational photography may play a role here, allowing easier edits, opportunities for whimsy. Drop your kid's birthday party into space, or a volcano, or a jungle! Whee! Fads will come and go, but computational photography -- if it comes to pass -- will enable a whole new world of such fads, and we may find ourselves in a brave new world of endlessly changing fads. The only constant might be that nothing is real, everything is a collage, except when, occasionally, the wheel turns and the fad becomes #nofilter again for a day or two.

To a moderate extent we're already there. The question is whether the whole idea of a filter is itself a fad, or if it is the new normal. Ubiquitous computational photography would provide a strong push in the "this is the new normal" direction.

If this new normal comes to pass, that will be unfortunate. We will lose an important record, the record will not show what was there but rather what kinds of photographic fads were trending at this moment or that.

It is possible that there will be a rise in documentary photography, in photographs which are distinguished and special mainly because they show what was really there. Who will fund it? I dunno. There's no reason to suppose that it won't be self-funded, or funded through whatever social media evolves in to.

Richard spends quite a bit of time worrying about who's going to fund photography in the future, apparently not aware of the Patreon/Kickstarter model, or if he is one presumes that he's dismissed it because it does not resemble how things were in the good old days. Patreon/Kickstarter styles of funding are either just getting started, or will fizzle out soon. I suspect the former.

People like Art, they like being connected to the Artist, and they're willing to kick in a few bucks. The music industry is a decade ahead of Art here, at least (depending on how you look at it). Musicians have found for 1000s of years that you can -- sometimes -- make a living by playing well and having personal relationships with people who will give you a few bucks now and then. This model has been on the upswing for the last 10 or 20 years, as I understand it. You don't get rich, not everyone can even pay the bills, but some bands can eke out a living of sorts.

It is possible that niches for Fine Art photography, for Real Documentary Photography, even for Journalistic Photography, will be funded in more or less this way. Public Radio has done OK for a long time, doing both journalism and entertainment, in roughly this way. The details, who knows? Could be anything. But it seems likely that there will be something. The connected world, with everyone potentially able to touch everyone else, enables many many niches.

There's room for millions of individual artists and essayists, each with a handful of supporters, each more or less successful in the modern sense of the word.

That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

1 comment:

  1. "Always in motion the future is." Yoda.

    with best regards, Stephen