Use the medium, explore the medium


General Photography

I don’t know how often I’ve written a follow-up post to something I published earlier in the day. But after writing Can the web deal with complex photography?, reading Blake Andrews’ thoughts on Tumblr, and after stepping away from my computer to tend to my vegetable garden, I suppose it’s time to come back to something I said in the past in similar form. As Blake notes, Tumblr is great for all kinds of things, and people are using it very creatively. Tumblr is also a great example of how the medium has instantly created people who use it in a very specific way. Unless you follow a Tumblr via its rss feed (which is something I do for some, mostly for random reasons), for example, its content will be, well, tumbled up in all kinds of ways, by being interspersed with all the other Tumblrs you follow or by people reblogging content. This makes for an exciting format, but it also destroys pretty much most of its usefulness as a serial medium - serial in the sense of someone wanting to relate a previous post very specifically to the one that follows it. (more)

As a consequence you can’t really use a Tumblr to create strictly serialized content and expect people see that content that way. In all likelihood (unless they only follow your Tumblr) they won’t. I’ve been intrigued with the idea of using the web to serialize photography for quite some time, and Tumblr is not the medium to do that. If you have a project that you want to share on Tumblr but the order doesn’t matter all that much it’s great, of course.

Blake calls this the “shuffle culture,” and I’ll admit have a love-hate-relationship with it. As much as it excites me to find great stuff on my Tumblr feed, the fact that I’m bombarded with one liners, one little blip after the other, exasperates me. Well, it is what it is. If Tumblr were a candy it’d be M&M’s. It’s not the best chocolate, but it’s fun chocolate alright, and if you eat too many (as you inevitably will) you’ll feel sick.

How about more complex photography then, something I wrote about earlier today? How would you translate that onto something online, something where you really want to be able to see the progression from one thing to the next? Tumblr and Twitter are bad tools to do that. For all kinds of (obvious) reasons, Facebook is, too. Turns out that good-old blogs might actually work, so that’s an idea.

At this stage, people usually mention “ebooks.” I don’t have a problem with “ebooks” as long as you don’t call them “ebooks” (you wouldn’t call a racing-car simulation game an “ecar,” would you?), and as long as you don’t try to emulate a photobook on a computer. A photobook, after all, is a very specific object with all kinds of properties and restrictions, many of which don’t exist on a computer (or tablet computers). To take properties of a book and to try to emulate that on a computer strikes me as not a very good idea at all. Why would you do that? If you have a bound book, unless it’s an accordion-style book, you can only see one spread at a time, and there are only two ways to get to a different spread (turning a page backwards or forward). On a computer, you don’t have that restriction. So why slavishly enforce it?

When talking about photobooks with my students I always ask them what experience they want the viewer to have. I think that’s a slightly better question than “What is this about?” For many books, it’s very hard to say what they’re about, but it’s not so hard to talk about the experience you have when looking at them. The experience usually determines the form and that then determines the edit, the sequence, the design, the way text is treated etc. Much the same is true for creating something on a computer. Whatever you want to call that thing that you can look at on your computer, the physical experience is very different than the physical experience of a book. But in an ideal world, the experience, that which people take away, should be as close as possible.

The challenge is to use the medium to translate the collection of photographs plus whatever physical restrictions it has into that experience. In all likelihood there are many things you can do in a book that you can’t do on a computer (and vice versa), which means you should really be using those. This means that you would have to think about your computer photography app or website as being very different from a photobook of the very same photographs or an exhibition of prints. Not just conceptually, but also in terms of the experience there is a big difference.

Having worked on and followed the internet for the past ten years, one of the main problems associated with it is that it’s constantly in flux. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. New tools constantly pop up. But the problem is when we move from tool to tool, without ever exploring their potentials, and when we abandon perfectly good tools just because everybody else is hopping on the next bandwagon. I don’t think this development serves photography tremendously well (it certainly wastes a lot of everybody’s time).

In particular, with different sites exploring different properties of the internet, we don’t seem to be getting an understanding of how this all works. Who has the time to do that? And the moment you know how to finally produce the perfect blog post you gotta jump ship, because now you need a Tumblr (and of course, you gotta do all that “social networking” on Facebook, right?). Who knows what’s next? I certainly hope it’s not Pinterest (if Pinterest were a candy it’d simply be plain sugar).

And to bring this back to my original question today - how is this all going to serve more complex photography? The answer might well be: It doesn’t. More complex ways to treat photography might simply not happen online. Or maybe the only aspect of the web will be that that’s where you’ll find those photograph apps that then give you a more complex experience on your computer.

Which would be fine, I suppose. But I’ll admit I’d be a bit sad. Call me naive, but I genuinely still think that the internet potentially offers more for photographers than what is currently being en vogue. The internet is a great tool. But much of its promise seems to somehow have got lost. In particular, I remember how years ago, photographers were genuinely excited about using the internet. I don’t sense much of that excitement any longer.