I have been reading Ming Thein’s recent post on The Rise and Decline of Popular Photography and connecting it to my recent experiences in continuing with my urban documentary style of photography in Melbourne. His observations on the current shifts in popular photography are interesting, and they help to put this low profile project of mine into a market and cultural context and, in doing so, highlights what is needed to continue to work on projects such as this.
A core point in Thein’s post is his insight that simple economics means that the business model of the professional photographer isn’t what it used to be, and that the incentive to invest in skill is lower. He says that we are seeing a number of studios going out of business and pros switching to doing other (non-photographic) things. The contemporary visual saturation means that as there are more images being made than ever, so it’s difficult to make an individual image stand out or to justify the time and effort (and cost) invested in its creation.
I am finding this to be the case with the 3 year+ Mallee Routes project. It requires a lot of time, effort and money to make the images for this project and then to exhibit them in a gallery. Similarly with the road trips project or the low key urban documentary work project in Melbourne:
Take the latter as an example. The recent roadtrip to Melbourne and stay coincided with a spike in the summer temperatures. It was hot (40 degrees Centigrade), very humid and the light was terrible when I was out scoping the remains of industrial Melbourne in the West Melbourne area. So I was limited to scoping for a future session, even though I had the large format gear in the car. This meant that the scoping on this trip was just location searching–much like someone whose job it is to go out and scout or look for good locations for a movie film shoot. Having found the gritty, grimy location in West Melbourne I now need to make a return trip to Melbourne in the autumn. This is time, effort and money with no exhibition or book in sight.
Thien’s central argument for his decline of popular photography thesis is this:
And we’re seeing this now: lower sales; previously popular picture sharing sites like flickr and smugmug becoming less and less active, and ever more crap posted to instagram and Facebook – most of which is being used to promote something else, and the volume of images made purely for the sake of photography seems to be on the decline of late, too. Even in Japan, former bastion of photographing everything, I’m seeing fewer and fewer people carry cameras or do anything other than social media documentary on their smartphones. Basically: the last ten to fifteen years has probably been the peak and golden era of photography until there’s another major seismic shift.
I can add that many photo blogs are not being updated. Blogging requires commitment, an ability to write and a flow of content. It is hard to keep it all going year in and year out. What has replaced these photoblogs are gear reviews, videos about cameras on YouTube and rumour sites about new gear, all of which are saturated with advertising. The shift in the photography market is towards studio’s closing down, taking snaps with smart phones, uploading images to the cloud and the increasing use of AI in post-processing. Enthusiasts and professionals constitute a relatively small market.
Thein adds that the decline in popular photography is happening even though we’ve got better tools than ever, the ability to do things we couldn’t even imagine ten years ago, and the creative limit being much, much higher than it’s ever been. Moreover, he says, the dropping out of the unserious’ is not necessarily a bad thing from a professional standpoint: the fewer people left standing in five years, the less competition remains for the really interesting work. He adds that in this context the day to day photography as a ‘reporting on life’ – might not be saying anything deeply fundamental, but at least it’s honest in that it avoids not making images to get likes, but rather to preserve the transient snippet of time and space.
Preserving the transient snippet of time and space of industrial Melbourne through a documentary or topographic photographic approach is important, as this urban form is rapidly being overlaid and transformed by both high rise offices and apartments and the new underground railway stations with their above ground shopping malls that signify post-industrial Melbourne. Soon the remnants of the industrial Melbourne of the 20th century will disappear. Though this North Melbourne area is rich in industrial history the urban renewal will be celebrated as it will be seen to create a vibrant residential, commercial and retail precinct on the edge of the CBD.
Sharing this kind of topographic approach to rustbelt Melbourne basically means posting the images on the internet for others to view on their computer screen through social media. Images such as these are not popular, nor do they appeal to those who view images on social media. The images are ugly, harsh, mess and boring. They will be quickly passed over when viewed on my Facebook page or in Facebook groups with very few likes. Facebook, as a social networking technology, is shaping the way we think and communicate in a photographic culture in deeper way than a form of status display. The tech design is akin to linking pulling a lever with a variable reward.
Facebook and Instagram function on likes and they require you to chase the likes to be popular. When someone liked or commented on a photo or a post encourages you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. Making images to get likes is a short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loop.This digital technology shapes a photographic culture in that decoming popular is how you are supposed to build an audience for your work amongst the deluge of other imagery and the micro-targeted advertising. Shaping this deluge of images and advertising is Big Tech’s intent to hook and the power to shape people’s attention by directing it towards Facebook’s own commercial purposes, as well as deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. The key goal is not to make a product that people enjoy and therefore becomes profitable, but rather to make a product that people can’t stop using and therefore becomes profitable.
The upshot is that this kind of topographic photography of the spaces of industrial Melbourne is pushed into the cultural background, and given the time, effort and money to make the images for this kind of project, it is hard to keep the commitment going. Thein’s point that the dropping out of the unserious’ means fewer people are left standing in five years and so less competition remains for the really interesting work, is an uplifting one; but it means a commitment for 5 years. That time frame would see a body of work produced, and maybe some interesting work in the context of Australian photographic culture.
However, Thien’s other point also holds: given the contemporary visual saturation it is difficult to make a project stand out or to justify the time and effort (and cost) invested in its creation.