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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.
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© Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

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?
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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.
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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?

Posted by author: Sharon
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12 thoughts on “Vernacular Photography and Digital Sharing

  • Ref: Nan Goldin – is it really now a matter of course? I don’t see any pictures of post-coital, drug-taking , black-eyed teenagers on Facebook. I know I’m middle aged and probably qualify as middle class – but I see plenty of teenagers who “friended” me via my kids FB activities. I think Goldin’s approach is still unusually intimate. Some of Tillman’s stuff seems to run it close – but he’s not a teenager on Facebook. It’s difficult to tell if we’ve become exhibitionist – the opportunity wasn’t available before – so we may simply be extending traditional teenage show-off behaviour into a more accessible media.
    I would suggest Schmid is trying too hard. We only have one free hand, two feet, a single head and shoulders and, heaven forbid, one groin – so the number of permutations of selfie is inevitably limited. If you take thousands of these images and deliberately search for patterns it’s not surprising that we get hands, feet, cleavages and groins. Call me a rationalist.
    Sunsets were popular long before smartphones existed – there is clearly something about them – for me they recall memories of other times I’ve stood watching them. They are a way of revisiting the past in some senses. Of course, it could all be related to diurnal bio-rhythms and a primeaval reminder that we ought to be returning to our cave before the horrors of the night descend on us.
    And to your final question – I take photos to help me make sense of the world and to help me remember. As to why i share them..I didn’t until I started with the OCA – not in significant quantities anyway. where I did I suspect it was simply because I wanted independent confirmation that my photos were something were doing.

    • Hi Nigel, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you about Nan Goldin. In fact I think her work is still a shock to suburban conformity and still causes outrage to those who couldn’t conceive of being so open. And her life was unusual, at least in middle class facebook style terms. But I did get what he meant in a way.
      I should clarify that Schmid wasn’t only collecting selfies. I think is work is very interesting. Have a look at his fleamarket finds in Archiv. http://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1986-1999-archiv/
      I think I’m still figuring out why I take photographs. I like your idea of using it to make sense of the world. I suppose I do that to a certain extent too – or perhaps to make sense of myself. I share them because I like conversations.

  • With the selfie, you have ultimate control over the editing, appearance and publishing of the image. You probably wouldn’t ask a friend to take a picture of your six-pack for example. I think in days gone by, you had to rely solely on others to take pictures of you and had to hope that they were good ones. Even then you were limited in the editing and extremely limited in where they could be published. We all want to look good and the selfie is a great way to show your best side. I know, I’ve done exactly that and still do! :-). I agree with Nigel, in that without a bit of thought or expense a selfie will inevitably include an extended arm or a flash in the mirror.
    As to why I take photographs, I’ll be honest, I want other people to look at them and like them. Often I take them to get better as a photographer (my coursework ensures that I do this! ) but at the end of the day I want them to be enjoyed, I want people to be impressed and think, Chris is a good photographer! That said, I want people to like the photographs that I want to take, so if I take pictures of a landscape, or people, or whatever, I need to be enjoying taking them. At this moment in time, I take the photographs that I want to take (maybe one day I may do it for money which is a completely different matter) and I want to like them myself, but if there were no one else to see them I doubt I would bother.
    It would be interesting to know how a professional photographer would answer this question.
    I am also a musician, and in slight contrast, I can enjoy making music without the involvement of others. I’m not quite sure if this is an appropriate comparison.
    Also. I have an awful connection speed writing this so haven’t been able to edit this to improve my explanation!
    Enjoyed the article Sharon. Very thought provoking.

    • Thanks Chris, glad you enjoyed it. I’d like to pick up on your comparison of making photography and music. It’s interesting that you don’t feel the same need to share your music. (Is this right?) I wonder why that is. At assessment recently we were talking about who we make photos for… ourselves or others and why that might be different for people. I certainly want to create a dialogue when I take pictures and being connected is important to me but at the same time I take my pictures for myself, with no commercial purpose in mind.

      • Hi Sharon,
        I think that the difference with music is possibly that it’s less easy to record and share and is more time consuming for the listener. A photograph is now so easy to share and it so accessible to the viewer that you’re not demanding anything of them. In my case with music, there’s probably also the fact that even though I enjoy making music I dont think the quality is good enough to share – in the same way that I don’t share photographs unless I think they are worth someone else’s time to look at. A selfie (which will invariably be a poor quality image for various reasons) will also attract more attention than say a poor quality sunset simply because it includes a human being, and particularly so if it’s someone you know. I should correct my previous comment actually where I said that I might not bother taking photographs if there there were no one else to see them. This probably isn’t actually true as of course they do serve a purpose for remembering your own past!

  • I don’t agree that in the past the selfie didn’t exist. In the seventies, when I was a teenager, My friends and I spent a lot of time and a fair bit of our pocket money in photo booths- the kind you get for taking passport photos. There was one at the train station and on a Saturday afternoon we would cram in there, sometimes four of us, and put on funny faces, show of our latest haircuts and clothes and generally lark about. Sometimes we would hold up items like teddy bears and fancy key rings. I continued his practice into the early eighties when I was a student. Some of he photos were individual ones and these we would swap with our friends. I still have them and they are lovely to look back on. It’s not really that different. Another thing I used to do when I was about eleven was to spend hours making mirror faces on a fold down shiny table. I would sit opposite my friend and we would be in stitches at the grotesque images we came up with. Now my daughters do similar things an their iPods with ‘photo booth’.

  • Hmmm – with reference to Schmid ” 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?”
    Has anyone here read _The Ongoing Moment_ by Geoff Dyer? The whole point of the book is that the same subjects keep reappearing in the canon of different photographers through the ages… also about how subjects move in cycles.
    This is true of all vernacular photography, Erik Kessels exhibition _Album Beauty_ at Format 13 took this further by grouping shots not only based on subject, but shows how the composition of images of the same subject, shot by the same photographer, changes as the subjects ages. e.g. in one set of shots by a husband and wife, how the wife, as she ages becomes a smaller object in relation to the flowers she stands next to in botanical gardens – as she ages he stands further back… and reinforces it with other vernacular shots of the same subject.
    Thematically we “absorb” and “copy” what we see, so the more vernacular shots of meals show up on Instagram the more will get taken… is this creative conformity?

    • I don’t know if it’s creative conformity Graeme. Perhaps it’s just a fact of life – cameras exist, people exist, artists exist so when you throw them altogether and you get an Erik Kessels or a Joachim Schmid. I like what they are doing and in the relative scheme of things they are doing something a bit different than adding to the wealth of sunsets.

  • I like this article. I won’t get any work done this afternoon for thinking about the questions, but I like it.
    I take photographs (the non-commercial ones) because with a camera and software I can capture, create and express in a way that I can’t with a brush or pen and sometimes can’t do as well with words.
    Posing that question at the end of that article probably helped me nail my answer in a way that I couldn’t previosuly, so thanks!
    I think I share my photography, or make it available for viewing because there are things I’ve seen that I’d really like other people to see. Photography is important to me because I want to represent those things as well as I can. As for my digitally artistic imaginings, well, maybe it’s akin to telling someone a joke, embellishing a story or sharing details of a weird dream.
    Like Chris, it’s very nice when people like my work or comment on my ability, but it’s not my primary reason for taking photos or sharing them.
    Incidentally, I learned to play the guitar because I wanted to try to share the experience I thought that a particular musician must have when he’s performing his songs. I wanted more than just to listen. But I had no desire to play for anyone else or publicise my output. I did perform for other people and enjoyed it, but that wasn’t for me and I’d already gotten what I wanted from playing his songs myself.

    • Thanks Paul, I appreciate your thoughts. I like the idea of visually interpreting your dreams. Essentially it sounds like for you photography is about communication, which I imagine is true for many of us. I find it interesting thinking about who we make pictures for – ourselves or others and if we can ever really know our intentions.

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