The Audience Provides the Measure of Worth
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 215, May 2018
Not every photograph published or printed by Henri Cartier Bresson was great. But it is certain that every offering that made it to a public stage from the great man of photography has been written about positively and intelligently just as every artwork credited to Rembrandt is the subject of many great essays and academic theses. It is simple to dismiss the ‘reach’ of an image by ascribing to each work the measure of fame of the photographer or artist who made it but there are lessons for every practitioner here when evaluating the force and depth of their own work. The audience itself is the key to discovering the power of an image.
Tired arguments still persist around the validity of one form of photography over another. The number of times a conversation still occurs in which someone wonders (aloud) whither photography is going when everyone on the planet has a camera, is inumerable. This persistent rumination manifests only insecurity – it is the plaintiff cry of the photographer who doesn’t know who his or her audience is. Where does this particular photographer’s work fit in when all that seems to sell in galleries is massive, blank-faced colour portraits of adolescents or photographs of young people doing drugs and having sex? The irreducible fact is that almost every living photographer finds him or herself to some degree at odds with the mainstream and ignored by the world in general.
To complain that we live in an image saturated era is to ignore how important imagery has become in the digital age. Imagery is now the mainstream of mass communication. Words are being edged out. Media outlets and major brands are finding new ways to communicate with people quickly and meaningfully. In the New York Times there is a piece by Nellie Bowles entitled ‘Welcome to the Post Text Future’ (9th February 2018). The article is a text-lite, image-rich disquisition on the way that images are being appropriated by all manner of agencies; from tech giants to political parties, as we leave words behind.
Every single picture must compete in this new era of image-soup. On the one hand, for example, Instagram is an excellent resource for photographers – it allows for the construction of networks of like minded artists. However, to cope with the vast number of images being posted daily the mechanism for viewing work is necessarily breezy and superficial. Networks on Instagram are not critical ‘forges’. They are more akin to the backslapping communities of traditional camera clubs where little is risked, little is tested. Because of this Instagram is not an effective environment for artistic growth.
Or perhaps work can be placed on a photographer’s own website with the hope that people stop by and spend time getting to know the carefully selected and presented work, allowing the balance of composition, tone and subject to wash over them in a shower of undiscovered talent. It won’t happen – it doesn’t happen. Google Analytics spells it out and it makes pretty grim reading. Bounce rates of close to 90% (a ‘bounce’ happens when someone lands on a homepage and then exits before going deeper into the site) are normal. Even when someone doesn’t ‘bounce’ and looks a little deeper the important word here is ‘little’. The time spent on photography sites is typically under 60 seconds. How much of an impression can a photographer’s work make on anyone in that time?
So there is a choice; the photographer either has to make pictures more immediately proposessing in order to garner more ‘likes’ on Instagram and Facebook and benefit from the capricious algorythmic rays of attention that result or, alternatively, choose very carefully to whom work is shown and, when it is, to make the viewing a more visceral, intimate and potentially risky experience.
Increasingly photographers are reacting to the ‘Age of Insta’ and choosing to show their work in smaller groups. For example, London’s Photographers Gallery runs a monthly workshop called Portfolio Friday. Participating photographers spend the first half of the day presenting their prints to each other and discussing their work. Then, in the afternoon, each photographer is allocated a small white desk behind which each sits and sets out their prints. The doors are opened to the public who are invited to sit with each photographer in turn and discuss the work on show – table by table. This is a very popular event and you can see why. It offers participating photographers the opportunity to turn the visiting public into knowledgeable experts of their work; a happy or perhaps very depressing experience. The risk that a photographer takes in baring their soul to another human being in such a naked and potentially uncomfortable way will add greatly to the artist’s relationship with their own work.
Seeking the accolades (or perhaps aprobrium) that work deserves is the first commitment any photographer needs to make who wants their work to be relevant and worthwhile in a world already drowning in imagery. Criticism is the lifeblood of artistic growth. Trusting others with work is the only way to evaluate artistic development. The question that every photographer has asked themselves – why do I take pictures? – will be answered only when work is appraised by an intelligent, inquisitive and potentially critical public. It is up to photographers to seek that connection. Cartier Bresson was not born great. We did, the viewers of his work, made him great.