A Plague of Images

In my quieter moments, I’m finding myself more and more averse to photography. I’m pretty much sick of it. That’s what too much of a good thing will do. I’m overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of images via the internet, on my phone and computer, all made effortless by cel phones. Images have no value anymore. They’ve become the visual equivalent of junk mail, usually now in the service of someone’s idealized version of themselves or their lifestyle.

I’ve found myself painting again, probably because I’m increasingly frustrated by the lack of satisfaction photography offers me as a creative outlet. The photo above is a case lesson in why. I took it with a large film camera in 2005. I thought it was pretty cool, so it hung in my house. 15 years ago I could think it might say something about how I see things, something unique about me, both my creative vision and competence in the medium as a means to accomplish that vision. Now, it’s just another phone pic with a filter, something a 12 year old can do with an iPhone. Tell me why anyone should be impressed or even care.

And then there’s the sheer volume of images constantly inundating me everywhere. I’m bombarded with vulgar, banal and stupid images. It’s worn me out. I want to go back to a time when a single picture could move me with its unique beauty. Usually, the photos that did were relatively small and framed and hung on a wall someplace special. They were simple technologically – usually black and white – but they felt like precious jewels. See, for example, the exhibited work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, Walker Evans or Josef Koudelka. These works enriched my life, maybe because they were rare and beautiful and thus possessed a value that transcended their aesthetic worth.

Now, nothing can have that value anymore.

*************

James Lovelock talks of the serious malady affecting ecology, what he calls ‘Disseminated Primeatemaia’, the “plague of people” that threatens to overwhelm ecological balance. I immediately thought of the photographic analogy, ‘Disseminated Photomaia’, the plague of images overwhelming us. I’ve elucidated its subjective effects above.

This plague of images contains the kernel of a more existential transformation as well. It threatens to overwhelm and transform our conceptual reality. If you think about it, this is a plague unique to industrialized modernity. Prior to the 19th century and the advent of technologies of inexpensive reproduction and dissemination, images were rare things, encountered in churches and, more rarely, as artistic creations in the service of social and/or political power. Your average peasant very rarely encountered images in his daily life, maybe 10-20 in his lifetime. We encounter that amount every minute or so.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet really internalized what this has done to our understanding of what’s ‘real.’ We naively consider ‘reality’ as being separate and distinct from images that reflect it; we think ‘reality’ creates its images. In fact, it’s the opposite. Even prior to the internet age, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) noted that we post-industrial moderns inhabit a world created of constant and pervasive imagery, what he termed ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard claimed that this hyperreality has reversed the relationship of image and reality: images now precede and shape reality as opposed to reflecting a prior reality. The image creates the reality; hence, the rise of the absurd phenomenon of internet “influencers” and other moronic Gen-X agit-prop airbrushing the real. No wonder kids are mainlining heroin, jumping off buildings and shooting up schools. Their ‘reality’ is an incoherent, fucked-up mess of false perfection, self-aggrandizement and consumerism.

Our experience of the world is filtered through preconceptions and expectations that are products of media culture. As John Divola notes in Continuity (1997), the images we see offer a representational ground on which we base our sense of reality, “the millions of such images seen in a lifetime form the internal visual index of what we accept to be real.” In a world saturated with reproductions, representations, and imitations, it becomes very difficult to conceptualize a ‘pure reality’ to which we can contrast the myriad of simulated realities we create out of image environment we’re imprisoned in. Simulations have transformed modernity’s conception of what is real, in our behavior, our bodies, our buildings, our procedures, and our environment. The arrow between the real and the image has been reversed: now ‘reality’ is an effect of images, rather than images springing from something prior to and deeper. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

29 thoughts on “A Plague of Images

  1. Dan Castelli

    Time to ditch all the sources that are causing you photo stress. Continue painting. Shoot to please yourself. Find one or two people that like your work and say to the greater world, F-off.
    Too much crap out there that is called photography because it’s recorded on a phone with a lens and a capture device. Imagine if everyone had to write a description of their pink-hued cocktail or the scene behind them rather than snap an image.
    I taught photography for over 35 years. I looked at 1000’s of photos. I would get home and not have any strength (visual type) to work in my darkroom. I made enough prints to keep my skills up during those years. I never tired of looking at work, because there were always new interpretations of the same subjects.
    But, when I retired, I rebuild the darkroom, shed most equipment, and began to shoot for myself. I’m not burnt out. I only subscribe to a couple of sites dedicated to photography (you’re one of them.) I’m drawn to exploring artist and their creative process. A happy shooting day for me is to spend it in a museum, watching people and photographing their reaction to art. A good coffee and a nice dinner in an Italian restaurant would round out the day.
    I feel if I had attempted to shoot full bore all those years, I’d be toast by now. I pace myself. Do other things (just build a small garden shed.)
    Good luck.

    Reply
  2. Rob Campbell

    I don’t know why you are surprised. Terence Donovan said years ago, and I try here to paraphrase: the most difficult thing for the amateur to do is have a reason for taking a photograph.

    As a retired pro that strikes me as friggin’ self-evident: I am currently sweating my blood away worried sick about Brexit and how that’s going to impact my medical chances out here in Spain if the result is a no-deal break and I lose social medicine access. Now, some time ago I photographed a shop front that had a reference to Little England and British food; the shop was closed, barred. That was during Mrs May’s rule. A couple of days ago I wandered past it again, and it now has a For Sale board hanging from the bars. I thought yes, another shot in the series, showing what seems likely under Mr BoJo’s rule, what Britain will turn into when it wakes up from its impending leap over the cliff, should it wake up, that is. And the point of relating this? Today, I told myself that after lunch I’d make that photograph. Had a good meal, returned home, watched the news, and then I opened the cabinet and took out the camera. We looked at one another for a few seconds, and I put it away and locked the cabinet again.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Ultimately, if the message is still missing and the motivation unable to flourish, the darkroom becomes a self-inflicted, expensive further waste of time.

      All artistic ventures – and I’m assuming amateur (as in non-assigned) photography beyond pets and holidays to be within that fold, at least in intent – requires some strong motivation that forces one to expend time, energy and financial resources on the process. That’s the big hurdle, the first and greatest of them all. If motivation is absent you may as well enjoy a good walk, unemcumbered by straps, weights and thief bait. It’s what I did yesterday when I decided the planned “For Sale” shot wasn’t worth the inconvenience of all the above. (However much style I might try to layer over it… 😉 )

      Frankly, I believe that I have just explained to myself the problem with photography for me today: it’s too much hassle. Something the size and weight of an old M3 machine might just be worth the trouble, but hey, forget all that scanning ever again. It wasn’t the scanning wot dunnit – ’twas the interminable spotting repairs! Please don’t suggest an iPhone type of solution. Not gonna happen again.

      Reply
      1. Nick

        “Ultimately, if the message is still missing and the motivation unable to flourish, the darkroom becomes a self-inflicted, expensive further waste of time”.

        Don’t worry, the message comes with the medium, no motivation required.

        Reply
  3. Tam

    You would have hated working in a one-hour photo lab back in the day.

    Let me tell you, people blazed away with 110 or Disc just like they do with cell phones. If a photograph requires a subject, most of what I processed and printed back then was just exposed film.

    Reply
  4. 32BT

    I’m inclined – let’s say for the sake of discussion – to vehemently disagree. I will make a futile attempt at arguing my case. Whether it is futile on the transponder or on the receiver’s side, I’ll leave up to individual judgement.

    Mike over on theonlinephotographer will occasionally muse about the number of images being shared and posted, versus the number of images we actually manage to see. The former number being so vast that even if you spend the majority of your time watching images each and every day for your entire life, you will end up having seen an excessively small fraction of a fraction of all images taken, posted, shared, or otherwise available.

    Which means that even if you form your reality based on images you see, that “staged” reality is still just a fraction of a fraction of the reality potential of the complete available photosphere.

    In other words, yes, we select images in a filterbubble, but that filterbubble is very evidently a choice. It is not a result of the images themselves. The question is more something like this: if you use past image sensibilities to select your images, to separate the wheat from the chaff, then with the increasing amount of images available, how do you stop your sensibilities, your filter, from overload?

    Clearly, if you look for symbolics and narrative in images, then the majority of the images shared online, especially in the instagramsphere, are not going to pass muster. If you search for such images there, it will be like continuously trying to solve unsolvable crossword puzzles in an attempt to find that one puzzle that actually completes. You are very soon going to grow real tired of “solving” crossword puzzles because they don’t complete.

    Thus, and this is probably an important lesson in general, we need to teach ourselves (and our children) where to search for information that is actually relevant. This of course is where the danger resides. With the increasing amount of (mis)information and the prefiltering that AI provides, we add several layers of polarisers that, given the right combination of rotation, can turn either completely black, or completely transparent.

    If we fail to learn (or teach) how to search within ourselves for what we believe to be “relevant”, we do end up with just a multitude of judgements about outer shells. That’s when teenagers (and god knows how many adults as well) will start to believe that porn is a representation of an intimate relationship. That’s when all women will have to plaster layer upon layer of make up, because that is how the mobile phone camera’s AI pushes out portraitshots. That’s when trains with faux-motion-blur become an indicator for the state of photography in general.

    Which brings me to an important point. The point of taking photographs. And Rob, please take note:

    This is why it is vitally important that some of you, no matter how hard it may be sometimes, keep posting “relevant” images. Images that require the viewer to engage their mind. Images that provide any combination of symbolics, narrative, or mood. Images that at least attempt to be complete crossword puzzles, and not just some dope reflection of some non-existing reality. You provide the water in the desert, and if you provide the water in the desert, you provide a vital, life-saving service. You have an obligation. Your existence, as short and insignificant as it may seem in the grand scheme of things, still helps other people forward.

    If it helps any, both Rob and Tim: you guys trigger me to sharpen my image sensibilities. And for that, to finish of with a high note, I’d like to thank you.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Thanks for the thanks! I’m not sure that there’s anything altruistic in what I do: more, I think it’s a way, an outlet that prevents me sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp of my own bleak nature. Looking back, it comes as little surprise to me that only much, much later was I ever able to see just how fortunate I was at many points along the way to now.

      I guess some of the obstacles to being prolific are: small-town blues and that numbness that comes from knowing a place too well, to the point of blindness, almost. For quite a while I was able to walk these same local streets, avoid the dog shit and chewing gum, and still find pictures jumping out at me. What happens now is that it’s the same pictures still jumping up and asking please, please see me! which I do, but like with some chicks I’d fancied in the past, they only make me wonder what the hell I’d been thinking about first time round.

      There is an answer, of course: travel to another place. Which is more easily said than done. As you know, I’ve been trying to move for over three years… nobody wants to buy unless it’s zillionaire villas. I don’t have one. And even that slowed down after the original 2008 panic to get out of all cash, and the later Brexit-inspired one to get rid of sterling. Property can be one helluva trap when you grow old. But only if you have a wandering nature. Without that, have another drink and let life’s little bothers all wash right over you!

      Judgements based on shells is a very nice way of putting it. Mostly, it’s the only choice that we have; people today, especially on the Internet, have every reason to hide themselves behind avatars and the like. Before the Internet it was different, and probably more easy for people to develop a professional persona: unless you knew them personally, you saw a relatively small and highly edited version of them through their work in the magazines, and that was pretty much your only set of clues. Before the Internet I had one concept of David Bailey, but today, that first one seems so naïve: seeing so many videos of him has altered my impressions of him to such an extent that I might have been thinking of at least two entirely different people. The first guy was a lot more pleasant. But isn’t that just opinion again, and the result of even more contemporary manipulation and trickery and presenters’ points of view? Maybe the real Bailey will always remain a mystery. Like most of us, perhaps, even to ourselves.

      And yeah, one can create a personal set of filters only too easily. I have a massive collection of photographer websites that I started to build during the time that I used to buy French PHOTO magazine; I had a pretty extensive collection of my own known photographers too, but here’s the thing: at lunchtime I can sit in the restaurant and stare at the iPad blankly, wondering whose name to punch into the thing. I have my very short list of personal favourites, but that puts me on automatic and instead of seeing the pictures, I see old friends, which is perfectly okay, but I don’t want to dine with them every day! Yet, I am so blinded by that tiny list that the other names vanish into blankness and habit takes over yet again. Conditioning through personal use of your polarisers, or age and the effect of a single glass of house wine on a mind and a body medically limited to one glass per day?

      Rob

      Reply
  5. Keith Laban

    Concerns such as Tim’s aren’t limited to photography.

    Many a “Sunday Painter” now has the starting point of a photographic image, run through a computer paint program, mimicking watercolour, impasto, or the like, before being slavishly copied in paint and the result proffered as painting. Hopefully this methodology wouldn’t have bothered the likes of Freud in the least – Lucian, of course, not his grandpappy.

    Reply
  6. Lee Rust

    Now that photo imagery is everywhere all the time and the value of any one picture seems nil, many of us are feeling the same frustrations that you are expressing here.

    Personally, most of my photos are taken strictly as a visual diary for my own recollection or self-reflection. I use a variety of cameras, both film and digital, but that’s because there’s something tactile or mechanical about each of them that I enjoy. Once in a great while somebody sees one of my images and requests a copy, but that’s pretty rare these days.

    We all go through cycles of creativity. If painting is giving you more satisfaction than photography, then do it, and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      But Lee, what happens, then, to Leicaphilia?

      Where do we go for mental uplift if it stops in its tracks? There’s even less to say about painting that would hold me than there is about snaps!

      ;-(

      Reply
      1. Lee Rust

        Even now these discussions are more often about aesthetics, philosophy and sociology than mere camera technology. The possibilities are endless!

        Then again, I imagine that Tim might still give his Leicas and Sigmas a little touch now and then. Click the shutters once in a while… you know… just to hear the sound.

        Reply
  7. Stephen J

    One of my favourite painters is Turner, I often pop into one of the galleries for a gander.

    But he wasn’t truthful, he had no light sensitive paper or celluloid to hold him back.

    Bon voyage Tim.

    Reply
  8. Wayne P.

    “Plague of photographs” is correct……If you choose, via internet, to subject yourself. “Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art” is also true; has been true ever since since “mass media” became a common term. A couple years ago I began to see www as an addiction: what I had identified as a stimulating source of knowledge and entertainment had become a mind-numbing distraction. It had become like having an open sewage pit in my front yard: unpleasant, yet impossible to ignore. I have it under control now, and visit only three web sites, Leicaphilia being one that made the cut. I sometimes think there are influences out there that exist for no other reason than to identify things that all folks have an interest in, e.g. visual imagery, and then use them to create- for lack of a better term- “mob mentality” that can be readily influenced. Things that once allowed pleasant interludes toward the value of existence, as an individual, become buried in a compost heap. Painting may seem a safe refuge, but as soon as market analysts determine a significant up-tick in sales of of painting supplies, in a matter of time, it will become difficult to distinguish the product of real artists from those who have simply been enabled, through technological advance, to present their output as art.

    I am with Lee Rust; will continue to do my best to enjoy the things about photography that bring me joy.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      It could also be that, seeing so much imagery, we have conditioned ourselves to expecting a personal output of many good images as an ongoing state of affairs.

      It was seldom the case: the good ones were always something special, the only difference being the starting point, the datum line of that judgement call. For some gifted people it was up in the sky, yet even they have shots that stand out from the other good ones.

      So perhaps a contributing problem is in the relative cheapness of producing digital pictures – we think we should be producing more good ones just because we shoot more stuff, not understanding that it takes more than that. I’d also put luck high on the list of those elements that go towards producing something special.

      We need to calm down and be realistic with ourselves and, directly, out expectations.

      Rob

      Reply
  9. Andrew Molitor

    While I do take your larger point, and with all due respect, things like this:

    “The image creates the reality”

    are sheer sophistry. The image creates something, sure. It creates a lot of things. It creates culture, it creates mental states, and so on. The one thing it does not do is to create reality, unless you first define “reality” to means “whatever it is that the image creates”

    “I refute it thus!”

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Andrew, I don’t believe that was the implication.

      I interpreted that line to suggest that the way things are, with the huge amount of imagery that is seen every day, by young people and especially in social media, they have become accustomed to making their judgement calls about how things are by the standards of the manipulated images that are presented as online reality, rather than by basing their judgements of what is normal according to the physical experience they have every day with real humans. The image is the yardstick.

      And I can see and understand the temptation: how many beautiful people cross your path every day unless you live in London, Paris, New York, Milan, Rome or Hollywood? Precious bloody few. So few, in fact, that we all tend to stop noticing because it is a very depressing picture out there; better perhaps to keep our heads bowed, and gaze upon fantasies that at least allow us to sigh.

      Reply
      1. Andrew Molitor

        Oh, I do take the point! I do, I promise!

        I just think that to say that this mental construct, this idea of what is real, created by these media, is literally “reality” is sophistry. It’s not.

        “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

        Reply
  10. Dogman

    Oh, hell! What you need is a good kick in the ass to get you motivated. So here goes…

    If you give up photography, that takes one of the good ones out of the game and the manipulating pretentious flower petal bastards win. Do you wanna be responsible for that? Remember it’ll be your fault. Your Fault!

    So get outta here and make some Art, ya freakin’ slacker! We all have to wade through waist deep crap pictures to find the one or two good ones worth the slog.

    (So? Did that work?)

    Reply
  11. StephenJ

    Anywhere near Hilton Head Tim?

    Only asking because you might be able to tell me whether the condo that I built is still standing? 🙂

    Reply
  12. Rick Smith

    My solution to cyberphotorhea: (1) Minimize the time you spend looking at photos online.
    (2) Look for subjects that no one else would think of photographing.
    (3) Photograph only to please yourself; having others enjoy your work is certainly a bonus, but it should be a secondary goal.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      (1) Why deprive yourself of the pleasures of seeing good work? You just have to know for what and for whom you search. It has never been so easy to discover exciting people and pictures. And if you don’t look, how will you ever separate wheat from chaff? Or find out how good, comparatively, your own work is?

      (2) Perhaps that’s because most of the “others” have thought of them before you, but find them of little to no interest. Are you sure there are specific attributes to such forgotten subjects that truly make your instance different and desirable and, most of all, worth the effort and energy, both in personal terms and globally?

      (3) Makes sense: for the amateur if he can afford to do what he truly wants to do, without being compromised into shooting for the sake of shooting, which seldom rewards; for the pro if he can choose his work without fear of consequential poverty.

      😉

      Reply

Leave a Reply