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Dealing with the flood…

There isn’t exactly a shortage of images in the world. The two photographs above taken by Jesse Alexander are of the work 24 Hours of Photographs by Erik Kessels. Kessels has downloaded and printed every photograph uploaded on flickr during one 24 hour period. As you would imagine, Jesse is not the only person to have photographed Kessels work – there is no shortage of images of the no shortage of images – try doing a Google search
The abundance does not stop just with images, there is also a very considerable number of photobooks published every year. Here is Alec Soth talking a couple of weeks ago about the state of the photobook. Soth starts by quoting Robert Frank: “There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.” From this rather bleak start, Soth identifies three ways he thinks that photographers are dealing with the flood
Embracing the flood – making the flood the subject – Kessels work is clearly an example of this but Soth also mentions Roe Etheridge. I am not sure about this as I think that Etheridge is arguably using the next approach. Appropriation selecting from the flood rather than taking new photographs yourself. Soth mentions Doug Richard, but I think many British readers will probably think first of the work of Mishka Henner. Finally, Soth identifies story telling citing Cristina de Middel‘s work. People are hungry for stories, he says.
So my question? How do you deal with the flood? Knowing that if you take photographs you merely adding to a global flood, what is it that motivates you to do it anyway?

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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45 thoughts on “Dealing with the flood…

  • I prefer to think of it as a snowfall of images … as each snow flake is unique when seen separately.
    However I always contribute to the “flood” of non-exhibiting images at my local photography festival, Format. These floods of images form quite intricate and organic displays as often people are allowed to curate and patterns of differing concepts like subjects, styles, or colours emerge.
    Having more sometimes is better than few as it showcases the infinite ways of how we collectively see the world around us. Likewise having a thousand contributors and a thousand curators can create a unique experience not shaped by just one viewpoint.

  • The fact that there are millions of images taken and shared doesn’t worry me at all. Its how we get to navigate and find stuff that resonates with us personally that’s the challenge and so the descriptive tags and way images are classified has, I think, become more important.
    But classification brings its own problems because viewers often infuse images with values from their own ideologies and this means that images say about access and or power might not be seen and defined as such by their creators and so not tagged as such. Thus we miss them or only see them by chance because we can’t navigate to them.

  • If you look here – – you’ll see that I have been personally grappling with precisely this issue and using the same ‘water-based’ analogy. I’ve even been dabbling with the one of the first two methods of coping – also in my Learning Log – under Assignment Five. I wonder, to answer Gareth’s question of how to deal with it, whether, as a student at, say, Levels 1 & 2 with OCA, our objective should be learning to stay afloat. In other words, gain an understanding of what this flow of images is all about. Then we’re in a position to decide how we, as individual artists, will deal with it in our own way.

    • In other words, gain an understanding of what this flow of images is all about.
      I like that idea Stan. I think it is easy to start judging too soon. I am reminded of something JH Engstrom said about Mario Testino ‘he taught me to be serious’. It would be difficult to think of two photographers with less in common, but Engstrom got something out of Testino rather than just dismissing him.
      [Video of JH Engstrom talking about becoming a photographer on the OCA Student Site here]

  • I find the flood genuinely terrifying sometimes! This question also makes me think of John Szarkowski’s famous quote from the introduction of William Eggleston’s ‘Guide’ “The world now contains more photographs than bricks..” If this were true in the 1970s then I think there are very many more photos than bricks now. Szarkowski’s challenge, to make some verbal sense out of Eggleston’s (at the time) rather peculiar interests – the everyday and the ordinary – strikes an interesting parallel to your question, Gareth.
    People often forget the rest of Szarkowski’s quote: “… and they are, astonishingly, all different.” I think it’s easy to be dismissive towards the cliches and repetitive nature of domestic or vernacular photography, but it’s necessary to bear this fact in mind.
    You can read the text here:

  • I remember reading a book about Thomas de Quincey writing about the day he realized that, even if he was to read every hour and every day of his life, it would never be sufficient to read all the books already printed and to be printed before his death. I remember being at first terrified about this idea at the time of reading it, but then I realized that there was probably lots of book that I would never want to read – and if there was one day a book that I wanted to write, I’ll write it anyway.
    Regarding photography, which is still something relatively new in my life, the consciousness of the “flood” really changed something. Maybe more as a “viewer” than as a photographer – I tend to avoid being exposed too much to visual media, I am very selective, I am not sure that it is a good solution, but it is how I manage to leave place from my own images, and sufficient attention for other’s images I look at. I probably miss a lot of things, but at least I am really paying attention to the photographs I look at.
    The Museum of Contemporary Photography of Chicago organized last year an exhibition inviting their audience to look at their archives. Afraid of having treasures of photography buried in the amount of pieces they have, they commissioned an artist, Jan Tichy, to elaborate strategies to reveal the uniqueness of each photograph among their collection ( It was one of the most interesting exhibitions I have ever visited. And it might be a good idea to follow their initiative to keep our heads above water during the flood…

  • That’s a great analogy, Stephanie. I’m actually doing some writing on the sublime today and I think the parallels are striking. I don’t suppose you remember the de Quincey book? I’l love to look at it some time.

  • I just listened to Alec Soth…one more way he mentioned… which I relate to most strongly is to do with the physicality of the image, using the book form as a sort of sculptural object that requires you to interact with it.
    For me the end result – what I do with the photographs – that seems most important ….what physical form I put them into, until I’ve sorted that out somehow I don’t feel right about it. This is the case whether i’m using my own photographs, rephotographing my own photographs or taking a more archival approach.

  • This question was once very debilitating. It caused great self-doubt. But I realized it has power only when I demand my work have some easily identifiable meaning. For someone just starting out, the most important thing would seem to be regular practice. Out of this will grow habits, interests, points of view and ways of seeing. I’m looking forward to the day when the answer to this question will emerge. In the meantime, I keep practicing and enjoy exploring the world with my camera. Or as Minkkinen would have it, I just keep riding the bus:

  • Perhaps the real point of taking photographs (and other forms of image making) is how, in the practice, one comes to see more and one’s appreciation of life expands. The flood may be one expression of this expansion, a way of sharing it, as also maybe, one dares to hope, the in life expanding perception and appreciation which the image maker embodies.

  • For me, it’s not only about the final image.
    I get a lot from the whole process of taking the photograph; I learn new things, develop new interests, meet new like-minded people and much more.
    I enjoy the whole ‘bundle’, not just the final result.

  • I’ll start by saying I really like what Kessels does, here and in general. This I see as a mountain of images that have some value to the taker, their close friends and family and even others. The very act of printing them and crudely assembling them devalues them – some are face down or at the bottom. However, the power and real value comes with the “art” of the installation. BTW, I think I heard that there’s circa 400000 images in the room.
    I was going to say mor, Ben my iPad is plying cup an I can’t see what I’m typing anymor…

  • Interesting, it still begs the question what is one trying to communicate, by the positioning of an image in a public space? Unless all images are ‘submitted’ there must be a self-selection, so one must have an underlying motive or an expectation of response.

    • I’m not sure I agree Mary. It may be that one is asking questions, asking questions of oneself and one’s peers.
      Let me give a slightly absurd example to illustrate the point. I am walking down a path. I come across a beautiful butterfly that I have never seen before. I take ten photographs on my mobile phone and then upload the one I think the most successful of the ten on to my facebook and flickr streams with the question ‘what is this?’
      Why did I do this? Is it ego as you have suggested. That I want to demonstrate to my peers that I am great at finding beautiful butterflies and capturing their images. Maybe. But it might equally be that I want to know the answer to the question ‘what is this?’
      Now if this explanation works for the image of the butterfly, why doesn’t it work for other situations. Maybe photographers like JH Engstrom just want to be as famous as Mario Testino, make loads of money and not have to go work 9 to 5. There may be something in that, but personally I believe him when he says he took photographs because he had to, he was seeking to understand.

    • Hi Mary Low, you say : “I still believe most art is put on display for reasons of self gratification.”
      That’s interesting that you call it art, maybe people post it as “visual information” about them, not only because of their ego but because we live more and more isolated lives and we crave for communication. I don’t know, personally, I don’t think that I participate a lot to the flood so I can’t really speak for the other people. But the abundance might be there to fill in a lack in something important: a desire to share, to be loved and envied? To have somewhere a life more exciting than the one one can live?

    • I think “EGO”, which has fairly negative connotations, is far too simplistic as an explanation, as is it’s rather denigrated relation “self gratification”. I think there is every need to “put it out there”.
      There is a tree up the lane from my house which has two names and a date carved in it. The timing pre-dates the invention of the transistor, leave alone Facebook. I believe there are runic graffiti saying the equivalent of “Olaf was here” in historic sites around the North Sea. Even further back mankind has been putting it out there in the form of cave painting and rock art for the last 30,000 years.
      Accepting that it’s not the most up-to-date theory of human behaviour Maslow suggests a hierarchy of drivers for human behaviour. Once we have the basics – food and water, shelter friends and a mate sorted, he proposes it is natural human behaviour to seek to raise esteem and to achieve something beyond mere survival.
      So a more generous explanation might be that we are all responding to basic human psychology – the need for status with our peer groups and the need to achieve more than simple existence. Some publish photos on Facebook, other s engage in debates on art related blogs. This has little, fundamentally, to do with an expectation of response and is qualitatively different, I think, from simple self-aggrandisement.
      All that has happened is that responding to simple human needs has become easier and more visible as a result of technology.

  • I really do think that there is a distinct difference between the motivation of an artist attempting to exhibit here work and the general posting of general images on social networks.
    I would suggest that what Kessels is doing has less to do with the ‘why?’ of this quantity of images but the existential fact of them. I suspect that one of the drivers for the work is the thought that there is this enormous quantity of images made and posted but probably unseen; a metaphor for the consumer society?; a simile for the surveillance we all live under?; a reference to the records kept, legally and otherwise, on all of us? The motivation for the original image making is no doubt various but I think this is only a peripheral, though interesting, consideration.

    • Hi Peter, your post landed just at the same time as mine,
      I disagree, if, for whatever reason, people post on social networks then they are hoping for some gratification, some boost to their self esteem.
      Isn’t that also, at least, a large part of the reason we make art and then show it?
      If Kessels had the thought “OMG there is so many images being made and uploaded”, why was there a need to ‘display’ that piece of information?
      I am merely exploring a question that concerns me as an artist.

      • “hoping for some gratification” speaks of a self-concious decision. If that is what you mean then I disagree.My previous post was intended to suggest it is responding to a basic psychological driver.
        As to what Kessels was trying to achieve – perhaps he was trying to stimulate a debate to aid his understanding of what is going on. he can’t do that without placing his “finding” in the public domain. So his purpose could easily be one of pure research, and nothing directly to do with gratification.

      • I suspect that most posting on social networks is simply following a current convention, like everyone sticking their tongues out or pulling a silly face when making a ‘selfy’; then there is the whole ‘selfy’ thing.
        I really don’t think that the motivation of artists is to boost self esteem, it is merely the work we do somewhat like a scientist or engineer, only the fear is greater! Usually the best effect we can hope for on our self esteem is for it not to be dented too much!
        Most art these days at least, is shown as part of a discourse, a discussion, albeit a rather unspecific one, on the world we find ourselves in. Much of it is questioning rather than trying to provide answers and as such inviting reply. It would be rather unproductive to stand on a cliff top and shout your question to the wind…now there’s an idea!

  • Hi Nigel and Stephanie, your replies do correlate with my thinking too, certainly a student would feel less certain about their art and displaying it would produce an unending round of ‘likes’ and other affirmations.
    One of my enduring concerns is how much of the ‘judgement’ of art still revolves around two areas. How technically proficient it is and how much does the art work comply with cultural definitions of ‘beauty’.
    Sadly I see too much ‘art’ which may well fulfil both criteria but is devoid of ‘spirit’.

    • Artists’ first appeal must be to other artists and so on, rather similar to the peer review system in science. A like on FB or similar is of next to no real value at all. What a student as much as an established artist, should be looking for is informed critique from those who have knowledge, insight and experience, if the public respond favourably to your work then in many ways that is a bonus.
      I don’t know what you mean by ‘spirit’ but informed critique is almost always predicated on content and the technical proficiency is a very secondary consideration unless it detracts from the content and so on. ‘Beauty’ is a noun you will hardly ever hear in informed critique unless to provoke comment!

  • Does how we interpret photography as a medium have bearing, is it art or is it a communication device. Will for example Gursky’s ‘Rhine II’ photograph resonate and effect rhetoric amongst scholars say one hundred years from now?
    Does this work need to be understood and read in a meaningful way or can it just be accepted as an interesting yet creative form of photographic representation. The translation of data to cause this flood is an area to be explored, how would it work if it was converted into ASCII then explored through a textural route, would it have the same visual impact.
    I do find it interesting though how artists are exploring modes of representation and forming new constructs to display and digest work. All is say is open up the flood gates and lets drown in it…

    • There’s photography the amoral process that does what it’s told and photography which is the result of applying the process
      How the results get read is within the purview of the reader once they’re released into the wild. It might be used with the intent to document prisoners so they can be recognised or to record what a city looked like as reference material. A future reader may wish to bend it to their own purpose by creating a narrative and label for their age.
      I’ve seen a stack of dot matrix printed hexadecimals in a gallery which I assumed was an image file printed out in hex. A typical out of camera uncompressed digital image might require 73 million numbers to represent it, that’s 146 million characters, so in terms of size and weight it certainly would have an impact. As an alternative to drowning it could break your bones if it fell on you.

  • “Artists’ first appeal must be to other artists and so on, rather similar to the peer review system in science.” !!!
    REALLY?, as an artist I am not aware of any one in my sphere who regularly invites their peers to critique their work! Most of us who try to make a living from our art hope that the galleries and their customers will find something in our work which appeals to them (enough to buy it) and in the end our work is partially shaped by what sells! Sad but true.
    “What a student as much as an established artist, should be looking for is informed critique from those who have knowledge, insight and experience,”
    so why is the critique site on the forum grossly under used and the students spend all their time doing a facebook ‘like’ to the work that is posted on the OCA and sister sites??
    As to the pursuit of ‘beauty’, every student I have met and most artists appear to be attempting to make something which is nice to look at, aesthetically pleasing, which I find to be very limiting and rather sad but not as bad as the few artists who try to shock.
    Our current conceptions of what art is and what it does seem such pale dilutions of what could be. Perhaps we have misread the signs, perhaps we are heading off into territory that, a;though picturesque, offers little other than entertainment!

    • yes really. If one only makes work to sell then one is a manufacturer not an artist. Any halfway descent gallery, rather than a simple shop that sells pictures and what not, will in effect be peer reviewing the work by exhibiting it, the catalogue essay is also a peer review equivalent.
      What students should do and what they in fact do do isn’t necessarily the same!
      Interesting, arresting, thought provoking to look at perhaps but if they only make work that is ‘nice’ to look at either you are going to the wrong places or have a definition of ‘nice’ that is near to mine!
      I, and I know others, tend to find the accusation of trying to shock (usually implying that it is shock for shock’s sake and very little else) often covers up a certain laziness on the part of the accuser so I would be careful to expand on this when you use it so as to avoid being seen as unwilling to work at interpreting what you are seeing. Disturbing, edgy, unsettling is much more likely to be an accurate description if the work, though I would agree that work that merely shocks delivers little and may not really deserve the time it takes to look at it!

      • ‘If one only makes work to sell then one is a manufacturer not an artist.’
        You have, for reasons best known to yourself, twisted my words, which were,
        “Most of us who try to make a living from our art”
        I feel you have an agenda different to mine which is fine.

        • The point I am trying to make is that unless one is acting as a manufacturer rather than an artist it is more important for one’s art that the galleries feel the art is worth putting before a public (and one would hope, publishing a catalogue with a critical essay) than that a commercial picture shop feels that they would sell.
          Surely the mere fact of exhibiting one’s work is inviting critique, particularly from one’s peers?

          • It has not happened to me after several mixed and solo exhibitions. There is the usual, affirmations and the occasional ‘My five year old could do better’ in the comments book but I have experienced no critique from anyone other than the curating/selection team. I wonder if it would have been a different story in a city gallery?

        • To bring it back to the original sentiment there is obviously more at play than ego, as you imply yourself, if one wants to make some kind of a living from one’s work then one has to show it and one has to make work that people will buy or one won’t make a living from it.
          That could involve compromising the integrity of a strand of one’s work. In which case one would still serve one’s instincts and motivations as an artist by making the unsaleable work and using the saleable work to fund that endeavour. In which case a critical response to that work hardly matters, one’s making it like a craft product because one knows it will sell.
          Some artists are fortunate in that the work they want to make is the work that sells either because their own personal tastes coincide with those of potential purchasers or because their work has been validated by recognised agents, critics and galleries; different products for different markets. It doesn’t matter what the work is called, art or not.
          As to critiques and Facebook ‘likes’ well perhaps a lot of the time there’s nothing much to actually to say, which should be informative for the artist, other than ask about the making process, or maybe people don’t have the language to say what they think but want to give the person support by liking it.

  • I think a lot of this is to do with context. The images Gareth used for this post from 24 Hours of Photographs by Erik Kessels illustrate the keenness of people to share images online. Flickr, since it was launched way back in (I think,) 2004 has become a place where professionals increasingly show their work; and of course where students, like OCA students, also share their ideas of, about and within images. But the majority of Flickr members are involved in social networking and use photography as a way of making links with others. Fascinating, I think. There is an article in a peer reviewed journal here , (which I admit to writing), about the ways in which individuals learn through such activities. I don’t think it is all about ‘ego’, which for me has negative undertones. Why not see the sharing of images online positively? I think it is all about a basic human desire to communicate.

  • That’s an interesting point Julia. The paper goes to the heart of a debate we’ve been having in OCA about the value of sharing images as part of learning. Some of us think it is particularly helpful for visual studies, especially us OCA students who are studying remotely. The photography students have our own Flickr site and those of us who use it actively get a great deal from it.
    As for the wider point of the number of images, I’ve been reflecting on it a good deal. My instinctive reaction to Kessels’ work or the Flickr/Facebook upload figures is to feel overwhelmed and ask myself why I want to add to the flood. However when it is seen in the context of the number of users of FB or people generally it is actually not so many. I don’t feel a strong urge to throw myself under a train when I think of the number of people on the planet so why should I feel so overwhelmed by pictures?
    I agree with Nigel that motivations for sharing pictures are often quite complex. Ego can be in there but it may not be the only or indeed the main driver. That said, I think some of the recent research on ‘Facebook envy’ and the impact of pictures on people’s self-esteem is really interesting. I have a number of FB friends in their teens and early twenties and watching them craft their personas on FB is fascinating

    • Thanks for responding on the wider point Eileen. Originally when I was thinking about writing this post to stimulate a discussion, I picked up on something Alec Soth said, namely ;’..people are hungry for stories…’ [You can still see this in the url at the top of the screen]. I was looking for answers to the ‘why’ question.
      I then realised that the ‘how’ we react to the scale of photographic (or artistic) output interested me more. What I didn’t fully realise however was the way in which the question is pitched problematised the scale – I called it a ‘flood’ not a ‘wealth’ of images.
      Arguably the number of people on the planet can be seen in exactly the same way. As an opportunity to achieve new things or as a problem. So maybe a way to deal with the flood is to refuse to see it as a flood…

  • I wonder how many people really store their images on Flickr, Facebook etc without really thinking about them being accessed by others? In the old days we stored our negatives in files and/or boxes on dusty shelves, then on a multitude of herd drives and so on dotted around the place. I suspect that the average ‘happy-snapper’ of yesteryear who put the en-prints in a shoebox under the bed hasn’t become the phone user who uploads to some site or other simply by default.
    Gareth’s point about the use of words is very pertinent, and I think we must also think to whom the question is addressed. A photographer, a social historian and Walter Pling would, I suspect, all give very different answers both to “why” and to “how”

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