Vernacular Photography and Digital Sharing
We are living in an age where photography is everywhere, we share it with everyone and photographs of our everyday existence end up in all sorts of places. It often seems like we are sleep walking in our contribution to mass photography and digital sharing, with examples of people uploading images straight from their camera to Flickr with no editing in place. I was thankful for the opportunity provided by two conferences in London this week to thoughtfully take a step back and critique this modern day phenomenon.
In a well delivered paper at Tate, Ben Burbridge of Photoworks Annual argued that the way we share our digital files has changed the way we interpret Nan Goldin’s work. At the time Goldin caused both an ‘assault on surburban conformity’ and outrage among the public who could not conceive of sharing such intimate details of private life with the public. Now it’s a matter of course. Log onto a teenager’s Facebook, argued Burbridge, and you might see, albeit lacking the formal excellence of Goldin, similar subject matter lining the wall. Due to technology it has become normal practice to share our intimate lives with people who do not know us very well, if at all. Has technology made us exhibitionists?
Joachim Schmid (b. Germany, 1955) was another of the speakers at Tate. He is a very interesting artist using found, vernacular photography. In the obsessive and inquisitive manner which reminds me of Antonino, he has purchased over 100,000 photographs from flea markets and downloaded even more since finding Flickr. He looks at the pictures and notices patterns emerging in how people take pictures. He has found lots of feet, hands and cleavages among others. Then groups of friends, groups of feet and groups of hands … etc. It begs the question why do we all take the same pictures?
Geoffrey Batchen went on to give a brilliant hypothesis of why he thought people photographed sunsets so much. When you see a sunset you might feel thoughtful, it’s the end of the day, something beautiful grabs your attention, the end of the day symbolises the end of your life and you consider your position in relation to a finite timescale. In all those boring (and the other type of boring) pictures of sunsets perhaps there are profound underpinnings. It made me think that with vernacular photography and digital sharing it is easy to dismiss it all as cliché or unthinking but seen in the context of critical reflection these things have significance and meaning.
Over at Westminster Jason Evans was telling us about how he uses interaction in his art installations to make his practice more democratic and inclusive for the viewer. It was interesting to see what could be seen as vernacular make it’s way into the elitism of the gallery world. I believe Evans is one of the few photographers really exploring this. He allowed people to write on work, to take things away and by offering his viewer a real place in the work he is taking sharing to the next level.
Schmidt said he didn’t share the notion (often attributed to Barthes) that photography is equated to death, he sees it more as a celebration of life. I think this is something Evans might agree with. Evans runs his website thedailynice as a means of using photography to help him see something good every day and to share it with the thousands of visitors it receives. In his short story Italo Calvino is less optimistic in his view of the present moment. Antonino takes a photograph in the present to be looked at in the future so in the future he is looking at the past, thereby delaying and never really occupying the present moment. Evans is doing the opposite, using the photograph to appreciate the present.
When someone asked Schmidt why he is attracted to finding these patterns he replied in that wonderful German dry wit “Why do I like women?” implying it was in his make up and not really a choice.
Why do you take photographs? Why do you share them?