There’s the idea that the internet offers photographers a unique chance to reach new audiences, and that’s certainly true. Photographers are being told that they have to make use of the internet to spread their work in all kinds of way, using “social media,” for example. Again, this is not a bad idea per se. However, in most of these discussions the focus essentially is on the consumer, the person who will see the photography. And that’s where things actually get a bit more complex. I now think that the sole focus on the consumer is actually harmful for many photographers who work in the area of fine-art photography. (more)
For reasons of simplicity, let’s just define this as the kind of photography that is produced without a use in very specific contexts in mind (thus separating it from, say, commercial, editorial or photojournalistic work). Fine-art photography comes in all kinds of shapes, and of course it has long been turned into a commodity as well, spawning the gallery system that we are all so aware of. But at its very core lies the idea that it is made for itself, to be as useful or useless, and certainly as effective as poetry.
Much like poetry, fine-art photography is created to be shared, to speak to at least one other person1. One of the crucial aspects of this sharing is that that other person has to be willing to subject her or himself to the rules of the artist. That is where most of the art is actually happening. It’s not just that the artist will say “Hey, look at this” (which would be “social media” territory). It’s the artist saying “Hey, look at this, enter the world I made, a world that is different than yours” (which, essentially, is terra incognita for “social media” where the focus overwhelmingly is on making the consumers/viewers happy).
This mechanism is why the gallery system is so revolting for so many people: Turning that exchange between an artist and a viewer into a commodity simply violates the most basic premise of art. You can’t really sell that exchange. Instead, you can try to sell all kinds of other ideas, for example the idea that people should be art collectors (because, supposedly, that’s good for people - but first of all it’s good for people who sell art). Needless to say, that’s a topic for another day.
But this exchange between an artist and her or his audience is also where the idea of what one could call “content management,” the use of the internet to produce something for viewers online, runs into tremendous problems: Art typically is made to have the consumer (the viewer) cater to the whims of the producer (the artist). If you go to an art exhibition, you don’t necessarily expect to be entertained. You don’t expect to be told exactly what you already believe in. You go to get shaken up. You go so that when you leave you’re a slightly different person.
Regardless to what extent you expect your art to change you, there always is that act of submission to it and to its maker. How can this experience be brought online? Obviously, the answer cannot be to tell artists to make sure their desired audience is happy with what they put online - or even with the way they do it - because that’s the complete opposite of what is happening in the exchange of art.
Needless to say, there is no simple answer even for this tiny area of photography, because even fine-art photography splinters into all kinds of sub-groups. For example, you might have fine-art photographers who produce single images. The internet in its current form revolves around single images (compare my earlier article). If you produce single images, images that need not interact with other ones, you’re good to go. If you don’t produce single images, if your images need to interact with other ones, if the order in which they’re seen is crucial, you’re in a bit of trouble.
One of the currently most popular blogging websites, Tumblr, by construction is unusable for anything more complex than a single image or for a body of work that does not require the single images to be anything other than very loosely connected. People have already misinterpreted my comment about Tumblr as me saying that I don’t like the site, but that’s actually not true2. My point is not that Tumblr is bad, my point is that it’s a useless tool for anyone who wants to make sure that viewers see images in separate posts in the correct order (where the order is determined by the artist).
Obviously, you could wait a few years until some other website becomes popular, and Tumblr enters Flickr territory (that sad place of previously popular websites that now live a half-dead life, being used mostly by die-hards who - often for the right reasons - refuse to follow the bandwagon). But that can’t be a solution for artists, to wait until the right web platform becomes popular, because there isn’t even a guarantee that there will be one that works (certainly not if a site like Pinterest becomes dominant).
There are at least two problems here that artists have to solve: First, how do I present my work online in the way the work demands, the way that will bring to the internet the kind of interaction I want viewers to have with it? In particular, if the popular tools available online do not seem to offer what I need how do I deal with that? And second, while artists might be well advised to use “social media,” having the content seen is actually only secondary to being able to present the content in the desired form.
This means that for artists the time spent on “social media” should really be just a small fraction of their overall time. The bulk of the time, the vast majority of one’s effort should be spent on the work, and on making sure the presentation - including online one - looks its best. The idea that you need to spend 20% of your time on PR (or whatever other numbers I’ve come across) might make a lot of sense if you’re a commercial or editorial photographer, where you’re in the position that you have to find people who’ll give you assignments. But this idea makes much less sense when there are no assignments, when the whole idea is not based on the rules in that segment of the photography world (which calls itself an industry for a reason)3.
We need to have more discussions about how to present content online. There are many different solutions for all the various types of photography. There are quite a few types of photography where there is no problem. But for what I called more complex photography in an earlier post, there is a tremendous problem, and it’s a problem we need to solve - unless we’re happy to be able to use the web only for single-image blips or for the kind of multimedia that already existed before the web (think static documentaries with zoom-ins on images and some “moving” music underneath, with some sort of narrator, but without any viewer interaction). Single-image blips here of course include the kind of photography that I’ve come to call “art-editorial,” fine-art photography in the editorial mode. Again, I’m not opposed to that kind of work, but I want to think that the internet also offers a potential for photography that requires a more complex interaction with it than seeing one - more or less isolated - image per day.
1 Yes, I have run into artists saying they essentially are creating their work only for themselves. And yes, I do think those artists are kidding themselves.
2 As an aside, the web is great at simplifying discussions into little useless snippets that often aren’t even correct - this is a huge problem for long-form writers.
3 To be honest (quite a few people have said this to me as well) I do think that for many photographers the fact that they spend so much time on social networking shows in their work, and not in a good way. Spending a lot of time promoting such work really only ensures that a lot of people will see essentially unfinished or unpolished work.