Photographs are making us richer

Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska.

View up Arrigetch Creek toward the Arrigetch Peaks, Xanadu, Ariel and Caliban, from left to right. A popular rock climbing and backpacking destination, the Arrigecth Peaks lie in the heart of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, right near the Continental Divide. Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. Please click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.

Hey Folks,

You perhaps saw this recent story in the news about our ‘drowning in a sea of images’. It’s an interesting view, and, I believe, a very valid point. Any kind of inundation makes staying afloat a difficult task. And sometimes it’s impossible.

A photographer and artist I admire, Chase Jarvis, recently posted a response to this on his blog, about how we’re not drowning, but getting richer with this unabating torrent of images. That’s kind of a weird take on it. What kind of flood can we swim through?

Chase argues “shouldn’t it be said that we’re not drowning in photography at all, that we’re perhaps getting metaphorically rich off more and more of these veins of gold?”

“veins of gold”? Gold has value because it’s rare. And because it’s durable. If gold were produced quite as readily as iphone “pics” seem to be, and had a similar lifespan of any digital file, it wouldn’t cost eighteen hundred dollars an ounce right now. I’d suggest a better chemical analogy might be carbon dioxide. CO2 seems to be pretty prevalent right now, becoming ever more so, and, contrary to what the s(k)eptics tell ya, it’s not enriching our world.

I suspect the ever increasing barrage of images only serves to dilute how we respond to great work. When we DO see an image of value, we no longer know how to savor it. Or why. Images (and content in general) are thrown at us so constantly, we can’t begin to appreciate them. We don’t have time, and we don’t have the interest. We don’t have the capability. Humans are creatures of habit; we’re being conditioned, and ever more strongly today, to quickly move on to what’s next, to discard and proceed, to eat on the run. We don’t know how to sit and relish some tasty tidbit.

We have no idea what we’re missing. I’ll quote Wendell Berry (always good form):

“Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepated. Anything less is unhealthy as well as a desecration”. – Health Is Membership, from Another Turn of the Crank. (Buy yourself this book. And then buy it for someone else. The first sentence above could be well used, metaphorically, to describe Wendell’s writing)

Chase’s argument, in my opinion, is like arguing that the world of fast food, of sliced Wonder Bread and pre-packaged everything somehow improves our diet over eating home baked bread (which, I can assure you, after my delicious sandwich on wheat today, it does not!) and garden grown veggies. We’re not getting richer on a diet of genetically modified grains; and we’re not getting richer via an endless deluge of pics that we’ll maybe see one time before they’re deleted or lost on some corrupted hard drive. Simply because it’s abundant and easily produced doesn’t mean we’re prospering because of it.

But the real killer, the coup de grâce in the post is this statement: “I prefer to make the argument that the snapshot has become perhaps the most human, the most important photography of our modern era.” (my emph. added)

“our”? His maybe. I’m not sure he and I live in the same universe, nevermind era. This statement is simply wrong on so many levels. “The snapshot is the most human photography of the modern era”? What an absurdly bizarre comment from a great photographer and artist. Is the text message the most human literature of the modern era? A 140 character tweet? Are 30 second advertisements on TV the most important film of the modern era? A junior burger the most human of our culinary efforts? Are

This is not simply incorrect, it’s precisely the kind of thing that contributes to the drowning. We’re also drowning, you see, in a sea of blogs and articles and essays and posts and tweets and shares and retweets and circles and status updates and  texts and … well .. squalor.Everyone’s so keen to make the most noise, and get heard, they’ll write anything, about anything, to ask for attention. Someone writes an article about how noisy the world is? Respond with an article about how rich our ears are. Someone writes an article about how the internet world is too hectic? Respond with an article about slovenly you used to be. Someone writes a great article about anything? You retweet it; you don’t actually READ it, you retweet it. That, imo, is drowning.

Now, if Chase COULD support his point of view with the odd coincidence that this sea of images has coincided with the most expensive price ever paid for a pic. But he didn’t. 🙂

What we don’t need is people like Chase adding to the nonsense; he’s usually an astute and insightful guy, and I enjoy his work. A lot. But this kind of post is all of what’s wrong with the internet, the digital age, and precisely what the original column he mentions is in reference to.



PS: The undrowned image above was taken on my trip to the Arrigetch Peaks, in Gates of the Arctic National Park, this past fall. And not with a telephone.

5 thoughts on “Photographs are making us richer

  1. Jackson Frishman

    We’re certainly richer for images like yours, Carl! But I agree with you. I don’t even look at the reams of junk out there, but I find that I do grow somewhat numb even looking at the many quality photos out there. It reminds me a little of the overuse of classical music as background noise or cliche commercial soundtracks. Even absolute masterpieces like Beethoven’s 5th start to sounds trite when they’re overused and taken for granted. I feel strongly that people who wish to take art seriously owe it to themselves to avoid it outside of respectful contexts, and occasionally fast from it altogether.

  2. Carl D Post author

    Hey Jackson

    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree, and the music analogy is a good one. I remember a friend and I walking into a coffee shop once, maybe 10 years ago, and we saw a CD of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” for sale on the rack, next to a dark-chocolate covered graham crackers and a small biscotti.

    My friend commented that we’d moved downhill, from the days of that album’s release when it was considered so far ahead of its time, so avant-guarde, that even the hippest of the hip musicians said it went straight over their heads. Now, it’s elevator music.

    That’s not progression, IMO.

    There’s simply no way we humans are able to be awed by that we see (and hear) every day. That magic dissipates quickly. Things become, as you say, “trite”. That’s not a recipe for gold, imo.



  3. Royce Howland

    Carl, I agree with your take on this. 🙂 Reading your thoughts here, I can clearly see that this is one of the primary roots of my puzzlement on the general reaction I read across the interwebs on the occasion of that “most expensive photo” sale you refer to above. Setting aside whether people do or should like the piece in question, or even whether the piece is good, mediocre or whatever, the point is there seems to be little considered, appreciative (in the full sense of the word) response to it.

    Most commenters I’ve read know nothing about the piece or the artist, his body of work, the style within which he works, his cultural or artistic context, or anything else about it. It’s quite obvious that the reaction is largely a bunch of nanosecond-considered — i.e. uninformed — opinions based on seeing a 500 pixel JPEG and a web headline announcing the sale. To which people respond mostly with quips and one-liners. Why would this be? Because the flood of snapshots that aren’t presented with any particular intended meaning, and are not viewed or interpreted as having any particular meaning, has acculturated most people to have only the most shallow, cursory experience with an image. Like guzzling fine wine as if it was generic diet cola, or any of a number of analogies from our shallow, disposable, consumeristic age.

    As a writer on the interwebs, a curse I face is that much of what I see being written, I don’t want to read. 🙂 It offers me very little, and unfortunately if I read the stuff, I can’t get that time back. The last thing I want to do it write more stuff like what I, myself, don’t want to read! So I often write nothing. And if there is something I would like to write, I often feel my effort to write it would be largely useless in terms of external value. (Though it would have some value to me; many artists create because they’re driven to.)

    I find a similar type of dynamic tension at work in my photography. But taking and sharing pictures is different for me than writing. Photography represents more things to me, much of it simply a purely enjoyable activity that goes no further than a positive experience with a visual result that perhaps a few people would like to look at. I like to think I’m not just contributing to the endless flood of unconsidered snapshots within which I agree that we’re drowning. And I do aspire to more serious — or perhaps I should say meaningful? — photography work that, for the most part, I’ve not begun to attempt yet.

    What’s the answer to the flood? We can’t stop it, or even channel it in any useful way. I reckon it just comes down to ignoring (or sometimes fighting against) the overpowering deluge of trivia by continuing to speak & write words about things that have some weight to them (not all of them necessarily serious, “heavy” topics)… and doing the same with our imagery. We can’t not create, just because the medium has been filling up with noise.

  4. Carl D Post author

    Hey Royce

    Thanks so much for the comment; great stuff.

    I do agree with you about the lack of consideration given to that image, for sure. In part that’s because of exactly what we’re talking about here; the speed of the internet has pushed out sensibilities towards less appreciation of all things wonderful.

    Remember, for example, that experiment recently by the Washington Post where Joshua Bell played violin in a busy subway all morning and NOBODY stopped to listen? It’s Joshua Freakin’ Bell fer crayon out loud!!!

    I think with Gursky’s piece part of the consideration similarly stemmed from the irony of such a ridiculous amount of money (and $4.3million IS a ridiculous amount of money, for anything) against a world of decreasing economic wealth, global financial collapse and stock royalty free one dollar photo sales. To hear of a print for $4.3million, the initial reaction of ANYONE is going to be one of dismissal .. simply as a self-defense mechanism against incipient insanity, I suppose. 🙂

    The other point you raise, and it really deserves an article all its own (though perhaps, like all things, it sits better in context anyway) is how that affects our own drive to create. As a blogger, I don’t want to read blogs; because very few people can maintain a daily (or near daily) output of valuable content; and so it’s mostly regurgitations of the same old same old.

    I don’t want to write something just to add it to the pile, but I do find myself doing that here and there; we’re so guided towards this ‘oh you have to do things this way’ mentality. So we blog like everyone else does, we friend and Facebook, we post and tweet and take more pictures and post and tell the world. Birds of spring have nothing on photographers with a new social media format.



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