Looking at pictures

Image by Penelope Umbrico, featured in The New Yorker‘s article on new technologies applied to photographic art. She uses images found online to create complex collages; the most frequent ones turn out to be sunsets.

Perhaps you are familiar with Nicholas Carr, the author of “Is Google Making us Stupid  and especially his recent book The Shallows, which contends that the internet, as a medium of communication and distribution of knowledge, has changed our mode of thinking.  He contends that its format, with its clickable links, fast-paced stimuli and information bits constantly competing for our attention is leading us to forget how to focus – the basis of deep thinking – and has conditioned us for fast skimming and scanning mode of thought that favors multitasking but also short attention spans. The internet grounds us in an environment that encourages superficial reading, shallow and scattered thinking and the accumulation of piece-meal knowledge. And while it is possible to think deep while surfing the internet just as we can think superficially while we are reading a book, technology doesn’t encourage or reward that.

Nicholas Carr’s ideas, although based on learning and knowledge in the form of text, got me thinking about the influence of the internet on our perception of images. Or rather, how our approach to image-based information of the world has changed because of it.  Does it contribute to shallow image-thinking and consumption? Are we superficial with images and the factual and aesthetic information they carry as we are with words?

The anecdotal evidence is that yes, we have become superficial consumers of images because of the internet. And it seems that it is even worse with those than with words. As we process them faster than verbal information because they don’t require the mediation of reading (an acquired, cultural skill), our engagement with them can be even more superficial.  As they appeal more to our attention than printed words, and content-providers know that, their greater ubiquity makes for a more scattered experience.

For example, it is telling that web specialists in online content advise that the most effective way to capture an audience with images is to use visuals that are graphically simple, have a dominant contrast and vivid colors. Think sunsets. They also have to be instantly clear and a bonus is if they appeal to certain primal features of our minds, e.g. signal danger, obvious surprise, point to a mating opportunity or their cultural derivative like scandal. In other words, they work better if they have a certain shock factor. And as the number of images increases and they have to compete harder for our attention, those who produce them tend to give even more weight to the attention-grabbing factors while expecting a shorter engagement. This is how we become desensitized to shocking and indifferent to deeper, richer visual content that requires more time to explore and understand.

But what does this mean for art photography, for example? Photojournalism, documentary and all that is not just an attention-grabbing device online but is also meant to be printed and hung on a wall?

Well, in the era of iPads, printed photographs definitely have more weight (pun intended) and collecting photographs has acquired more cache. It may only appear contradictory that photography is consistently reaching higher prices at auctions like Christie’s and in galleries.

But I’ve noticed that the short attention span cultivated online means image makers – artists who make photographs and especially who have achieved a certain degree of success – find themselves compelled to constantly produce more and more new images. The audience is so used to a fast rhythm and a constant stream that a pause, a period of quiet and search may mean losing its attention and falling out of fashion.

Even those artists who create subtle, sophisticated photographs that due to the serendipity of the internet get viral status paradoxically complain of that. Instead of enjoying the fame, they resent the massive but brief attention of the thousands clicks and shares before moving on to the next hot thing.

But the kind of photography that has really lost, in my opinion, from the advent of the internet is the documentary and photojournalism. That may sound counterintuitive, if you have heard of many amateur photographers who only had a tiny camera or even just a smartphone but who happened to live in a war zone. Uploaded to instagram or flickr, their images impacted the world. Democratic art, right?

The latest issue of Aperture is wholly dedicated to this new environment in which photojournalism and documentary photography has found itself. The internet and its consequences.  It finds the problem rather aptly:

It’s about having an impact in a very noisy environment. How do we create a focus so people can still feel connected emotionally to what’s happening in a very fractured world? Feel connected in ways that they once did? Without Life magazine, without the front page that everybody reads, how do we create the kind of communication we hope will connect people?

But it is sad that Susan Meiselas, the legendary photographer of historic Latin American events like the Sandinista revolution of Nicaragua (the lead editor of the issue) says that if she were photographing those events now, she would be posting the images on instagram to better connect with her audience. And, she adds, that would take the images to the realm of current affairs, not history.

Something is irretrievably lost when we lose sight of history and remain grounded in current affairs. When we don’t even learn to look for history.

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