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In an Age of Likes, Commonplace Images Prevail

Photographers attending the Visa Pour l’Imagefestival in this small medieval city stroll through the winding streets, stopping to view carefully crafted news and documentary images exhibited inside ancient buildings.

In most ways it is not much different from years past. There is still a nightly projection, in a cloistered graveyard, where the photographers view a selection of the best images of the year. The prizewinners are applauded by their colleagues in the crowd who seem oblivious to the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.

There are well over a billion camera phones being used to photograph dinners, dogs, cute kids, sunsets and body parts — recording every action as if it were of equal importance.

It is estimated that 380 billion images were taken last year, most with a camera phone. A total of 300 million photos are uploaded on Facebook every day. Instagram is growing exponentially and had four billion photos uploaded as of July 2012.

Almost everyone has a camera and is a photographer.

Just as access to pens and paper hasn’t produced thousands of Shakespeares or Nabokovs, this explosion of camera phones doesn’t seem to have led to more Dorothea Langes or Henri Cartier-Bressons. But it has certainly led to many more images of what people ate at lunch.

And while you may not think that my iPhone photo, above, is worth a second look (or even a first glance), I can proudly report that between Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, dozens of people have judged its quality positively by liking it.

And I’m listening to them.

Because of the iPhone and social media, the very meaning of what photographs are and how they function has changed radically in the last four years.

A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel.

This is a fundamental change that must be having a powerful effect on how people view the kind of images exhibited this week in Perpignan.

As far as I can see — admittedly from ground level — there are two possible effects on “serious” photography.

1. The flowering of photographers leads to millions of people who are thinking more visually and whom we may be able to entice to become an audience for documentary and photojournalistic images.

2. We are bombarded with so much visual stimuli via the Web and social media that it becomes almost impossible to rise above the flood of images. And if everyone likes everything, no one photograph is better than another.

I have no idea which of these situations might happen. Or if there will be a combination of these effects.

The issue is not whether one chooses to use an iPhone instead of a Leica but the ideas and vision of the photographer.

The effect of the Web on the photography business is ancient news. Film versus digital — prehistoric, at least in the accelerated time chamber of social media and the Web.

Six years ago the core questions we faced were: How do we distribute our work and make a living in the digital age? Since then, some photographers have survived, perhaps with fewer assignments and more crowdsourcing, foundation grants and N.G.O. money.

The proliferation of a commonplace — or vernacular — photography is a much more profound change. The question is not so much whether this is a good thing for society (or a bad thing for photographers). It is happening, a billion times a day, and there is no going back.

The question is: How does the photographic community harness this explosion of visual energy to expand its audience? This is what needs to be focused on.

via JAMES ESTRIN and the New York Times









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