A Plague of Images

I love photographs. I have several thousand photographs of family and places from 1868 to the present. I grew up in a family of photographers. Most are black and white. I used to take pictures myself with my grandfather’s World War II era Voigtlander when I was a child and then with my cousin’s 50-year-old Olympus OM-1.

I guess familiarity does indeed breed contempt – because if I get one more email from a friend who has just returned from overseas with 150 photos attached or from a new parent with thirty pictures of their neonatal nubbin, it may push me over the edge.

I recently went to a wedding where the poor wedding photographer was flanked by half the wedding party aiming their cell phones at every bride, groom and family shot the photographer set up. I thought why bother?

I have a friend who comes to our annual “Empty the Freezer” cookout and then floods me in a monsoon of every photo she took while here, elbows, backs of heads, burning sausages, trees, frogs, the back of a child – an indiscriminate tsunami of deathly boring images.

I’m not a photographer, but I’ve had some experience with the photographic disciplines of carefully composing a shot, then reviewing a contact sheet of one or two dozen exposures and selecting a few worth printing and sharing.

The fact that a camera is now just a cell phone accessory, film processing is a memory, and a gig of storage will hold 350,000 photos has turned the taking and sharing of pictures from an artform into a plague.

When I say we should return aesthetic and editorial choice to the taking of pictures, you may ask, “Why bother?” And I would respond by simply saying it’s an imposition to ask someone to view endless and indiscriminate galleries of lousy pictures. Reread your cell phone or camera’s directions on deleting pictures.

As price barriers for content technology drop away, it’s more important than ever to exercise aesthetic and editorial choice. The new technologies of music recording, book publishing, film making, and photography are all now either dirt cheap or free and have made everyone into an “artist” of sorts. We are flooded with the indiscriminate work of every man, woman and child –or in the words of author and media theorist Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

We are awash in dismal movies, boring home videos, countless on-the-fly pictures, howler monkey music, motel room art, first-draft novellas, and soggy poetry. I know, I know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But the beholder is the viewer, not the self-obsessed, would-be artist.

We need to talk about and teach what constitutes beauty or at least utility. As complicated and subjective as it is, aesthetics has been taught throughout the ages: what makes an image beautiful, how it is composed, its subject matter, and context. We need help. We are already the most over-photographed generation in history.

One Response to “A Plague of Images”

Great observations, Bill! In my own experience as a painting instructor, I often approached by students during workshops who insist on showing me their entire life’s output of paintings – and on the itsy-bitsy screens of their smartphones. I think that is perhaps even worse than looking at vacation or family photos.