Quantum Photography - Part 1

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A 21st Century Recognition Of The Medium

Copyright 2013 Malcolm Ryder / all rights reserved

 

THE WHO CARES QUESTION

The point of all art is to influence.

The essential differences amongst all arts are in what kind of influence is intended for what kind of audience. There is a notion of “importance” attached to art, based on how these occasions of influence turn up, and how they turn out. There are the circumstances of what was supplied to these occasions, and there is the status of what kind of demand was satisfied.

The relationship of marketing to art had always allowed photographers at least two parallel lives. In one, stock photography served the interests of commercial publishing. In the other, galleries promoted recognition of a photographer as an important communicator or observer of life and ideas.

Meanwhile, photography always involved at least two perspectives, as well. On the supply side, there are the production methods of photographs; and on the demand side, there is the environment of available images within which we as consumers form expectations about pictures.

Photographers have been trained for 150 years in techniques that are calculated to allow a goal-seeking image, meaning one that will succeed with a presumed viewer. As part of that, most photographers who want recognition as practitioners, and who want their images to be deemed valuable, will think about what kind of display situation will encourage a viewer to have an experience that, in the viewer’s own terms, is at least momentarily important, perhaps recurrently so.

When more than a million photographs are instantly available to anyone, any time, with a web connection, how does the intersection of production and expectations make some of them matter more than others?

The new landscape obliterates many traditional boundaries that have been used as conventions for evaluation. Creation has become production; Exhibition has become broadcasting; and Marketing has become social networking.

From the perspective of critics, the vocabulary of discussion therefore shifts heavily towards new defaults. Photographs as objects are primarily media presentations. Photographic practice is not a special philosophy of perception but instead just an imaging craft. Almost anything of note is usually about the impact of a picture on the immediate viewer's experience. And in the realm of experiences, it’s a buyer’s market. Photos are just not heavy. 

But from a critical perspective, one bias or principle remains intact. Even if any unit of product is small, lightweight and cheap, the secret formula behind it may be extremely valuable. Increasingly, the concepts and decisions underlying the execution of the work are the formula cited to distinguish the artistic importance of one work from another. The work itself becomes a demonstration. The originator of the formula – the artist – need be more important than the artwork, because we're going to need more product.

The critic’s response to the new environment of images is, therefore, oddly unchanged, while photographers looking for recognition face an ironically hostile new world. Suddenly clear of most institutionalized barriers to exposure, many photographers are stunned at how much less their huge new audience seems to care. The answer to surviving it is in knowing why. Put simply, it takes two to tango, but neither party is doing the same old dance.

This story covers the following issues in current photography:

- Products and Factory

- Method

- Production Values and Performance

- Context and Relevance

- Design and Distribution

- Culture and Critique

- Environment

 

Reference Diagrams, (c) Malcolm Ryder, subject to change:

Quantum Photography Image1.jpg

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Quantum Photography Image2.jpg

 

PRODUCTS

Preparing an image for its artistic engagement mainly involves choices of how to emphasize and assure the provocation of the picture’s intended sensory effects. Part of that delivery involves orchestrating the effects themselves, to create a distinct experience. The experience then determines how the image has meaning for the viewer. In other words, It all involves design.

Yet, despite being relatively fixed by design as an object, the image itself has potentially different meanings for different viewers. This is true because the experience of it is not primarily about the object or its origins: it is about the interaction with the object. Although there may be a goal that informed the design, the actual experience may or may not match the goal.

Now, everything that seemed to matter about making “important” photographs has reached a historical point of cross-over.

Prior to television, no cultures had existed in which a large population had continual daily exposure to a visual landscape that was broader and richer than the local landscape the population physically inhabited. At least as soon as television became an always-on capability, the imaginary visual environment of television began to pervade, even predominate in, many homes, delivering more planned imagery for more hours a day than the rest of the ordinary domicile or workplace combined. A long-lasting negative critique of this influence had then emerged, complaining about the lack of “interactivity” with televised imagery. People wanted it to offer more than it did in their experience of it. There is a maxim about all new technology: initially people will always try to make the new thing perform old jobs. But originally, the complaint about passive TV may have been a reaction mainly to a lack of choice: this was during a period when TV “channels” were relatively few, and its collective content paled in comparison with the established diversity of print media. Later, when cable channels started up, the effect of mechanical reproduction on print media’s proliferation was echoed by an explosion of TV stations and broadcast content diversity.

Within that vast newer visual landscape, literally billions of “pictures” ran day in and out. A preponderance of visual variety made the old complaint about interactivity largely meaningless, because the most significant interaction was being enabled beyond most people’s practical need -- namely, viewer selectivity across the accessibility of the content.

Yet another wave of technology dramatically changed things once more, when image production and distribution suddenly became viable at commodity cost levels for millions of people. The mobile web-enabled camera, which is the most significant visual tool since television, relegates most prior imaging devices to the status of typewriters. With this tool, many new and previous practitioners find that time, labor and previous craft experience have been drastically minimized as barriers to entry. But more significantly, it permanently alters the visual landscape again, this time without the typical financial constraints of television and with almost no boundaries on the range and volume of persistent or recurring imagery. Since 2008, virtually free full-time access to on-line pictures outpaces even access to television.

But already, an even bigger and newer change is already here, deep-rooted, above ground, and growing.

 

THE FACTORY

On the production side, the basic work components of photography - an instrument, an idea, and a shooter - are still around. But, raising the levels of “quality” on any one of the components no longer makes us expect that the product will necessarily become “better” or more important. Thanks to computing, the three components are now incredibly integrated – or more to the point, blurred. The camera can make the decision about what to shoot. The photographer can process digital data (instead of light) to generate ad hoc images of photographic fidelity. And existing visual records can prescribe what other images should be selected and even how they should be composed.

On any given day, the programmable digital camera, editing software and/or CGI, and visual search engines are all running. At every second of every day, all three are processing something, somewhere. All three of these systems can be scheduled to stop, start, act and interact in predetermined ways, creating an ecosystem of continuous, automated image production.

Their overall mechanism, now rolled out to massive populations, is actually not so different from the past. It’s the same as what photographers have always done. The mechanism is: “prescribed intelligence” executes real-time collection, translation and interpretation of data. This applies to 2-minute exposures on glass plates, decisive moments, and freeze-frames from movies.

But, due to technology, the big difference is in how continuously, seamlessly, and (just as easily) on demand this all can be done.

It doesn’t stop there. The increasing geographic pervasiveness of information gathering devices means that even the most privileged domain of conventional human photographers - movement to a desired location and point of view - is becoming virtually replaced by surveillance.

Theoretically, enough real-time surveillance could now supply enough data to a searchable “cloud” repository (an internet-hosted web-accessed online storehouse) such that almost all points of view on anything would be available from any location. Of course, the reality is that laws, expenses, accidents, and habits put a limit on how much surveillance actually becomes both realized and usable. Nonetheless, it is not a stretch at all to anticipate dramatic capabilities. For example, "crowdsourcing" visual data for Google Street View would allow someone sitting in Pittsburg to go on a photo safari in Nairobi, or to investigate landscapes or crime scenes in San Francisco and make new recordings.

With that kind of powerful accessibility by picture users, the major differentiator between commonplace pictures and others will become “relevance”. For producers, the issue is to somehow manage that difference, without which the image may risk never being intentionally noticed.

METHOD

On the spectrum of production options, Surveillance stands as one pole.

The other pole is Animation.

The contrast between surveillance and animation is neither one of simple fact versus fiction nor one of simply being found versus made.

The difference is that Surveillance shoots first and asks questions later to find meaning, while Animation dictates first and shoots later to illustrate meaning. Said differently, in surveillance, the data comes first and is “modeled” afterwards, while in animation the “model” comes first and decides what data will be solicited and accepted.

Thanks to automation, there is already no reason why modeling could not link surveillance and animation together into a continuous loop of processing by which a system could create an endless stream of photography. A model could drive an image search. The multiple search results could be “averaged” into a new model. The new model drives another search; and so on. Essentially, search is surveillance, search results are the incoming visual data, and the “averaging” of it (graphing, filtering, extracting, rendering, etc.) is drawing. The result of the drawing prescribes (animates) the subsequent search. Once it is running, automation of that sequence can make it unnecessary for people to be involved.

The environment of online imagery is such that for any one viewer we already have the effect of continuous unattended image production – streaming photography. But with the current capability to intervene, both in production and selection, more people than ever are in position to enter and redirect the stream to their own satisfaction. They are actively involved in what now remains most significant in photography – deciding what they want pictures to look like; and deciding which pictures of a certain look are the ones they like.

With a virtually non-stop stream of picture-production and distribution, human intervention is important to the significance of images, but not so much in terms of means and technique; instead, it is in motive and opportunity.

PRODUCTION VALUES

For picture producers, motive translates as product, and opportunity translates as context. (This may seem Duchampian, and thus familiar to some. But the ordinary sense is just about things being made, and about how they are offered to be experienced.)  

For picture users, motive translates as requirements, and opportunity translates as timing. (This may seem Warholian, and thus familiar to some. But the ordinary sense is just about desire for things, and about when that desire can be addressed.)

When intervening in the non-stop streaming of imaging, producers and users are different roles, but they have one main idea in common: extract something from the stream by applying their modeling of the desired experience.

That modeling is the essential creative act in photography now. In effect, the curatorial function takes over. And with that, the line between the “photographer” and the “viewer” becomes either increasingly blurred, or increasingly irrelevant. In its place, the overarching role of the image cultivator prevails, with production and user modes.

As the cultivator’s tool of choice, Modeling has two essential standout features: selectivity, and style. These are involved in both production and in usage, with no predictable predominance of certain outcomes.

The unrestrained confluence of producer and user roles amongst today’s staggering volume of imagery affects the notions of why a picture can be important. For example, the idea of a separation between art photography and other photography is frankly more circumstantial and, ultimately, archaeological – recoverable from a survey of modeling activity and its outputs that can be largely statistical, not biographical. It is largely disconnected from the necessity for identifying any solo genius.

The individual producer is therefore less likely to become distinguished through product and more likely instead through persistently producing. It is probably more interesting and more important to be asked to make new pictures and more pictures than it is to be defending any prior evaluation of previous work.

But the strategy for getting asked still requires managing the occurrence of an interested audience. The question is, will the particular formula of ideas behind the production of a picture need to matter to most people, more than any individual image that demonstrates it?

PERFORMANCE

Viewers- at-large may as well assume that the maker of any particular picture is continuously generating images. The individual producer now has the capability to do just that.

“Productivity” is something that could matter now as a rule rather than only within academic or commercial settings. Normally, productivity is a kind of performance measured as a mix of good cost, high availability, satisfactory output, and a given level of demand.

Arguably, the cost of photographic production has never been lower in history than it is now. And more simultaneous demand is demonstrated for more photographs than ever before in history. Furthermore, as a consistent trend, cost keeps dropping, and demand keeps rising.

This leaves picture users thinking about distinguishing and evaluating the performance of a picture producer in terms of the two remaining factors: availability and output, especially “on-demand”...

Performers are easy to think about: quarterbacks, shortstops, guitarists, dancers, actors... We know that with such people, on any random day, high-performers can have a great day at work; but, we mainly notice them because, day in day out, what they try to do works better than it does for most ordinary people.

This sets up an interesting comparison of being specialized versus just being special.

For most of today’s photographers, specialization may not be so important. Being assertively photographic in communicating experiences is probably the first order of business. This is due to no other reason than that millions of people all day are now spontaneously and relentlessly making pictures with no “special” forethought other than willingness. Amongst that output, doing occasional work with exceptional qualities is interesting, but if no one notices then the difference hardly matters.

Not being lost in the shuffle is a key to having exceptional work accomplish anything influential.

One of the first things people may notice about a photographer comes from how frequently they are aware that the photographer is producing new pictures. They notice the activity itself. The experience is something like when someone we know suddenly but casually starts speaking fluently in another language. It's notable because they are executing something wholly different from and additional to the usual, at what seems like an unexceptional level of effort. In fact, beyond our individual subjective preferences, it’s how we usually first notice talent. Our sense of “talent” being something extraordinary, of being special, has always been more about difference than about difficulty.

“Fluency” is impressive in that way: executing something notably distinctive, without making a notable special effort.

In photography, fluency had conventionally been called “Mastery”. But mastery always implied an exceptional level of difficulty under rare control. Now, in relation to "the new normal" of photography, that meaning is losing a lot of weight Thanks to technology, the achievement of fluency characterizes hugely large numbers of practitioners instead of just scarce, unique individuals. More apparent talent is on display, globally and continually, than ever before.

For image makers looking for recognition, this presents another challenging issue. It is increasingly discoverable that even the newest pictures have visual and/or practical similarity to other existing examples. The problem of similarity involves not only the image itself but also the experience it evokes.

So, mastery set aside, before today’s technologies, it was far more likely that an ordinary image could become important just because it could be obtained only under special circumstances.

Today, the opposite extreme is increasingly true: despite talent, an extraordinary image becomes increasingly available under ordinary circumstances, making it seem generally less important as an artifact.

CONTEXT

That broad availability of all images makes each given image even more reliant on the real-time experience it invokes. In response, Producers distinguish between what is important and what is not among their own work, by the attention they invest in staging the image for exposure and use.

Viewers care about pictures mainly according to how they use them. Usage is a simple matter of the occasions in which a picture is desired.

But, for most users of most pictures, it is less important today than ever that a particular individual photographer originated a given individual picture. What viewers can take for granted now is that there is always already yet another photographer, and yet another picture.

Against that backdrop, even the photographer’s fluency cannot be responsible for decisively driving the viewer’s selectivity. As a strategy, the picture maker can choose to work towards particular types of occasions. The picture maker needs to have the benefits of an eventfulness that provides distinguishing markers to the picture’s availability. In effect, the best chance the photographer has to be special is to execute fluently within a compelling event, announcing the picture itself as a performance.

As professional photographers have long known, photographic events all have the same basic feature: the assignment. The assignment provides a “default” Selectivity.

An assignment is, essentially, just a commitment to meet a requirement. Once any photographer accepts that basis, the event can be as small and narrow as the heat of the individual moment; as large as a commission; as long as a project; or as wide as a themed publication or exhibit. In each case, “performance” occurs as fluency within the context of the event. Meanwhile, the nature of the event calls for the images, if not the photographer, to differentiate themselves in the event primarily through Style.

Often “style” is thought of as just a generalized label for visual effects. And of course, without effects there would be no picture.

But Style is not just surface appearances that “make a statement”. Any given statement should intend to make its own case, but today’s easy access to millions of images makes the statement formed in a single picture often “necessary but insufficient” for creating the desired distinctive viewing experience.

Instead, the origin of impact is that Style inherently compares against Expectations (a type of personal experience). From there, the results of the comparison generate distinction. Said differently, context creates significance.

Expectations, by definition, always precede production decisions. Moreover, expectations often lean towards preferences.

But what is style? Conventionally, preferences are associated with Taste, but taste is actually more specific than that. On the production side of things, given a moment when creative decisions must be made, Taste is preoccupied with what to leave out, while Style is preoccupied with what to put in.

Importantly, Producers tend to comply with expectations by using Taste; but they tend to differentiate with Style.

Style figures in both before and during production. Viewer expectations anticipate style, and Producer expectations propose it with the work. Having compared the expectations to each other, a difference may or may not emerge, and the influence of the picture is largely in whether the difference is appreciated or not.

Today, photographic pictures are readily generated from both real and invented information, and from both home-made and out-sourced information. This provides an enormous amount of visual innovation, gradually increasing the range of what we might expect, yet also more frequently beyond our ability to predict. But what actually makes the picture "new and noteworthy" is always the same: an editorial interpretation as applied by the photographer to the information. The interpretation is a model. And Style materializes the interpretation. Then, in a given context, the interpretation triggers an experience by the picture user.

 

RELEVANCE

People have long been accustomed to the idea that an image producer will provide pictures that are "suitable" to an expectation. 

In a common mistake, they have thought that their expectations have been about style, but their expectations have actually been about their taste.

Visual art conventions have existed to provide ways to identify some kinds of expectations. Given those ways, users have anticipated that the imagist's work will "perform" within the expectation.

Regardless of the photographer, it is assumed that most pictures have a chance of success beginning with being presented to a viewer whose expectation is a preference for the picture’s type. Among these conventional expectations, Genre has been king of the domain, or a parent, with its children and grandchildren adding increasingly local precision to expectations.

In the usual pattern, Genre is the general high-level carrier of taste. Then, with increasing specificity, a Theme forms within a Genre, and eventually a Frame (framed work) stages an example within the theme. Each level of specificity is a context that influences interpretive and production decisions about the picture. In effect, these contexts are the default assignments or events of the pictorial performance.

Importantly, part of the preference at work has conventionally been about appreciating the difference between a photograph and other types of images – an even higher level than Genre.

In earlier traditional thought about what distinguished still photography from other visual arts, it had been popularly believed that the default reference for viewer expectations is experiencing “real” life as if through the frame of a window. Today, the image frame still has strong responsibility for supporting the impact of an image; but, the purpose of the frame is not to function as an analog and indicator of realism. In the self-referential context of the art-world, it takes only three examples to show that radical differentiation of the medium has been overtly tackled. Conceptually, the Bauhaus movement’s Moholy-Nagy literally drew and constructed with light; in the ‘70s, Richard Estes painted hyper-realistic images; and once photographers started filing the apertures of their Bessler full-frame negative carriers, printing the film sprocketholes around the camera-captured image raged across portfolios everywhere.

But outside of the art-world, differentiation was probably even more important because it was more pervasive. For one thing, Industry and Commerce invented the billboard, which as much as anything else definitively separates the modern sensibility from the old expectation that photographic realism depended on evoking any portal. And disregarding realism altogether, the billboard dramatically reiterates the fusion of surface and space that underlies all “pictorialism”. Taking a cue from billboards, we know that the essence of a frame is actually to provide a conceptual “stage”. That is, regarding performance, the picture works in terms of what is placed on the stage and how.

DESIGN

In visual terms, the empty stage is a “field”; the field is to be marked, and it is Style that selects and applies the marking.

That is why it is always most probable that for a single still image to stand out, regardless of image size and boundary, Style needs to be overtly noticeable, and even announced. Billboards are designed to confront speed with scale. They deal with delivering high impact in very narrow viewing periods. Likewise, in today’s environment of still photography, when images are generated and streaming globally 24x7, the function of “framing” extends also to distinguishing the event within which the image and its presentation is a performance. The decision about how to present the image is part of directing (modeling) its interpretation. Therefore, choosing, creating and communicating the event is part of promoting the Style of the picture. In that extended “framing” effort, Design targets the event that will deliver Style as a differentiator.

As part of that design, the event itself may have an agenda. An agenda is another form of the expectations that may be supplied – whether by the producer or by the viewer who uses the picture.

For example, some work is preoccupied with refining the characteristics of a known style for connoisseur-level tastes. But other work is preoccupied with exposing the devolution of previous styles into conventional tastes. It may use an exposure event to contradict, parody, or just analyze that devolution, frequently by offering something obviously based on a radical alternative.

As artifacts, individual images from both of those agendas intend for the viewer to detect the predisposition of the image. But without somehow proposing their terms of relevance, the images have less predictable opportunities to have impact. Design works within and around the picture, to establish alignment of the image to an agenda.

Seen that way, what we do in photography now is not fundamentally different from before, but generating and regenerating meaning is increasingly affected by techniques of the future that affect both selectivity and style. Searching; digital copying and editing; semantic tagging and filtering; multichannel broadcasting; all of these computing-enabled actions can instantly form, alter or obliterate the original styles and contexts of pictures and are now “normal” factors in the lifecycle of a picture’s presence and influence.

Consequently, to manage the impact of the picture today, design must immediately extend beyond the frame of the image into the process and mindset of the viewer. The purpose of design is to fit the form of the image to the usage requirements of the user. But given current technology, which blurs the separation of producer and viewer roles, the big question raised is this: at any given moment, who is really the Designer?

DISTRIBUTION

One key side-effect of the unpredictability of ad hoc design is that we do not know what picture will actually be used until the heat-of-the-moment of usage. Said another way, the possibility that a given single picture has importance becomes less and less about its uniqueness and more and more about its availability. Current technologies mean that the production of still images has never been easier, but also that the significance of a given still image is much more obviously determined by how it is used instead of by how it is made or who made it.

Stock photography emerges as the single most affected paradigm in the current photography environment. This change is not about “professional” photography but instead about the discipline of the image-maker to execute against self-determined assignments. Technology has vastly expanded the assignments that even a casual photographer can take on. The ability to then distribute consistently from one’s own stock is the critical ingredient of getting any persistent recognition. Yet, achieving the consistency mainly means effectively targeting the audience. Ironically, the current environment makes it easier to find an audience, yet harder to predict what audience will be found.

One approach is to work hard to re-present the same picture again and again. In the conventional world of performing arts, performances are commemorated, anecdotally or by recording, staging a recurring influence. In photography, the picture is the performance. The performance that is occurring is observed as the set of things that the picture offers to evoke ideas within the medium, genre, theme, frame, culture, location and moment of its appearance. But that performance has impact or has significance because of some “reason” that must also be directly reiterated. For example, the image artifact has been asked to perform as document, illustration, and proposal.

Meanwhile, plenty of “technology” has contributed to the meaning of a single image. It has been carried on the tabletop, on the page, on the sign; in the portfolio or gallery – but also in the slideshow, in the filmstrip and in the videostream. Today, the single image can easily migrate from any place in this range of presentations to any other place. All of these presentation platforms have an equal opportunity to be the host container for any image, and all images are potential content.

In that seamless environment, it is exactly the ease of re-use that is the most profound influence on artistic expectations. While the volume of relatively innovative and exciting imagery is likely at an unprecedented high, creating seams in the visual environment is what has the most weight. Marketing is probably now the single most critical factor in the likelihood of the single picture generating notable attention to the artist.

As an example of what this marketing has turned into, there is the comparison of social networking to conventional publishing.

For picture-makers, having work “go viral” amongst picture users has a greater impact on gaining recognition than does being distinguished by institutional editors. Basically, such editors provide two things: promotion; and, some reliable persistence in the maker’s assumed “public” identity. Of course editors also do more than that. But aside from sales figures and reputation, it is unclear that conventional editorial distinction now translates into artistic influence in any way more interesting than one picture producer’s ability to directly affect the decisions made by another picture producer.

On the other hand, while productivity has dramatically risen for a vastly increased pool of diverse image-makers, editors are of course present, too, among the gigantic pool of viewers with access to the work. So the more interesting question is who are the editors’ customers? Social networking breeds naturally editorial communities that are, for practical purposes, small markets each consisting of mutual customers. Their basic activity is content-sharing, and the feedback is reliable. Then, multiple communities interact, and content proliferates with the “agency” of their common interests. These interactions essentially become channels, and the producer’s requirement is to feed the channel. This is seen as self-publishing, but it effectively becomes self-marketing. Community familiarity is what translates into recognition. That part is not new, but now the diversity and number of communities is volatile and almost incalculable, within which their aggregate predispositions are more of an ecology than of any hierarchy. This ecology reflects current culture.

CULTURE

Virtually all uses of the term “culture” refer to the same thing: a set of predispositions along with their traceability to the original conditions and events explaining the persistence of the predispositions. Any picture is used both by a culture, and within it. For some communities, the most aspirational use of a picture is as art.

Definitions of art have always been in plentiful supply, but consensus has generally been mostly philosophical. How does one know when work has become art?

The simple answer would be that “art” is a type of experience, in which a framework of expectations and actions allows events to reveal different ways of generating meaning, based on evident ways of managing a user’s perceptions.

Work most often becomes artistic when the work is focused on finding and trying out ways of generating meaning. The work itself can of course produce artifacts, which are then rightfully referred to as art works in order to signal an observer’s recognition of the experience evoked by interacting with them, attributed to what the work shows about how it was done.

Politics often tries to dictate the acceptability of meanings, and Technique often tries to dictate the acceptability of methods. Together, politics and technique can always form a “rhetoric of practice” that is enabling to some parties but as likely suffocating to others. A dispassionate acknowledgement of these differences amounts to nothing more nor less than a history of cultural variety, not a canonical hierarchy of relative value.

Continued in Quantum Photography - Part 2

Copyright 2013 Malcolm Ryder / all rights reserved

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