I deleted my accounts on Flickr and Instagram in October. It’s been a long time coming – I removed the Instagram app from my phone quite a while ago, because it is such a time sink (and I’ve been there before). Spending 10 days almost entirely without social media during our September trip certainly helped to see more clearly as well. It’s still surprising though what a relief it was to finally just let go of it. And once Instagram was gone, I realized that I was on Flickr for the same foolish reason: thinking that somehow, I should be on there, holding on to… something, when in reality, it doesn’t matter, at all.
I think as photographers, it’s only natural to think that we should have a presence on every major social site and photo sharing service. For me, the question though was not only what these services do for me, but also what they do to me.
I’m sure a lot of people have plenty of fun on Instagram (otherwise it wouldn’t be so successful) and Flickr (otherwise it wouldn’t still be around – in fact recently bought out of Yahoo’s carcass, by SmugMug). If you thoroughly enjoy using these two services, then please, don’t let my words here spoil your fun. Also, I’m well aware that there are certain photographic professions (wedding & portrait photographers, for example) who will probably benefit a lot from getting the public’s eyes on their work.
Building Meaningful Connections
Yet I’ve found that, very often, social media and photo sharing sites connect photographers with each other. It is certainly true for me, and yes, I’ve met many of the people whom I now call friends on one or the other photo sharing or social media site. That’s nice! At the same time though, I find the exchange of “social pleasantries” among peers on those sites can’t be the purpose of spending time there to build and maintain a presence. At best, it eventually culminates in a personal meeting with some of the folks but honestly… over the years, I found that I prefer “let’s just go out, have a beer and chat” over the usual “let’s go out and shoot!”
I meet other photographers to socialize, not to make photos. I hardly produce any meaningful work in the company of others – I’m only compatible with a select few photographers as company. ;-)
More importantly though – I’d like to find/build an audience of people who are not necessarily photographers. People who are interested in my photos and the stories/backgrounds and, as an extension of that, me as an artist. In the constant flux of the endless photo streams though, there’s no room, no time, to create a more lasting impression and more importantly, a more lasting connection between viewer and artist. Especially not on Instagram, where every grand scene and carefully composed photograph with intricate detail is reduced to about 3 inches across, on the tiny phone screen.
In addition to that, the focus on sharing and perhaps “celebrating” a single image posted on Instagram like some people do (they post a “story” with their image, announcing that they posted that very same image!), is a huge turn off for me. I could ignore and unfollow those people, sure – but what I’m after is that single images matter less to me nowadays than small groupings of photographs like I show them in my blog posts, like in my “Small Sets & Themed Galleries” (and in my portfolio galleries too, of course).
Also, I’d like to think that the words that accompany my photographs in my blog articles are (sometimes…) rather important. I know the dogma “a photograph should speak for itself” and I disagree: a photograph should be compelling enough to draw attention, to be a source of interest. So much interest that the person who sees the photograph then wants to learn more – and read the words that go along with it.
The words provide context, and more meaning to the photographs. I’d like people to “click through” to my website, and not just give their “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on photo sharing sites and services. That’s why I syndicate links to my original content to social media (currently
Google+ and Twitter), instead of sharing the photos directly, and why I promote subscribing to my blog posts via email – hoping that the notification in your inbox will perhaps last a little bit longer still than the social media share that disappears quickly (or isn’t shown to you at all, thanks to their algorithms).*
This is the way I want to present my work. Everything else takes something away. People who don’t click through don’t have the time for my words – that’s okay. But I don’t need to “serve” them my images without context. I know that most of my photography isn’t capable of “wowing” people in the fraction of a second of their attention that I get on Instagram and Flickr. I know that a lot of what I show in my blog posts in particular is often very much “in the moment” and when I look at older posts I regret that I posted those photos… it’s a process, a development, and I made the decision to share it with the world.
“You will never make a photograph that everyone likes,
so make sure that you like every one of your photographs”
Realizing all that, it was easy to let go of the two services that fail to provide what I’m trying to achieve.
Icons and Sunsets
There’s another dimension to this, though (and I’ve written about it before, too: Worn Out Beauty). Peter recently called me an “anti trophy photographer” :-) because I do not photograph “trophy” locations and iconic scenes often. The beauty and the challenges of intimate landscape photography, abstracts and floral close-ups interest me much more than the 100th repetition of one and the same photo. I don’t think I can add anything to these, or say something meaningful in them. Not about the place, and not about myself.
Here are just a few – for your entertainment and to make my point, I linked them to a DuckDuckGo image search:
The Tetons reflecting in the water of the Snake River at Schwabacher’s Landing, or as a backdrop to those darn barns. Delicate Arch. Horseshoe Bend. Antelope Canyon (overcrowded so much that tripods are no longer allowed at Lower Antelope Canyon anyway). Mesa Arch and False Kiva. The Subway at Zion. Keyhole rock at Pfeiffer Beach. Yosemite’s Tunnel View (with a clearing storm, please!).
In case it’s beginning to sound like I’m lecturing you to photograph different things – I’m not (but do read on, please). Maybe you’re on a photographic scavenger hunt as part of your travels. Maybe it’s all that your time allows on vacation with your family – and most importantly, you are having fun doing just that. That’s totally fine! No one will stop you – certainly not me.
But please ask yourself what these photos say about you as a photographer. At most, that you’re technically proficient enough to get a sharp and well exposed image (big deal with today’s cameras), perhaps that you’re willing to get up early, stay out late or endure other physical challenges for a photo, and that you know how to develop your photos on the computer.
Again – if that satisfies you, and if that’s what you want to get out of photography: good for you! I’m not sarcastic, I really mean it. I know that I am not satisfied by that. The quest to find and define myself through photography, to find what is “mine”, is perhaps neverending for me… maybe it’s the search that keeps me going.
The Familiar Gets the Most Applause
But I’m also tempted to think that photographers are doing themselves and the entire art a disservice if all they do is to “chase trophies” (and sunsets). The audience reacts in a predictable manner when they see that now their friend Moe has “shot” the same photo that their friend Larry has also “shot”, and they see the pictures as equally good on their tiny phone screens. “We know that location, and you’ve done well!”
As Brooks Jensen put it in his Editor’s Comments to LensWork No. 129 from April 2017:
“Viewing artwork has become a matter of thumbs-up or thumbs-down – with little, if any, effort to probe or understand what escapes instant comprehension. Where art used to be a field of questions, now it is a field of opinions.”
I would add the following: In the never ending influx of photos in their streams, people don’t have time for something they don’t understand. They don’t need to spend the time – because the next repetition of a trophy photo or a beautiful sunset awaits when they just scroll down, easy to digest and understand.
If Joe stood at the exact same location as Moe and Larry, and made a photo of something entirely different that attracted his personal photographic eye more, then people don’t understand that photograph – and Joe. Perhaps it would be time to change that.
Feedback and Influences
Or perhaps it’s too late? This mechanism of “the familiar gets the most applause” was most apparent to me on Flickr and Instagram, and witnessing it is demotivating for me. I know that’s a problem that only exists in my own head of course – but I had to remove myself from it because it’s not the kind of feedback I want to get from using a photo sharing site. I’m influenced by it, and it’s time to change what influences me.
I’m looking for ways to expose myself to more diverse art – not just photographic art. Social media and photo sharing sites rarely provide that. For example, visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe (mentioned in my September wrap-up) has done much more for my own photographic vision and understanding (and in such a short time!) than years spent looking at photographs online.
All this didn’t happen overnight of course. It’s the culmination of many years of being passionate about photography, my love for the land and nature, and most recently, the addition of printing my own photos at home. Then add the September trip and Georgia O’Keeffe, and “suddenly” (not really…) I’ve reached this new level of clarity.
It took long enough. How about you? Comments are open. :-)
*) in addition to that, I’m hoping to build a more lasting presence on the web, which will hopefully be liked enough by web search engines – during our ten days of travel in September, traffic to my website coming from social media essentially stopped, simply because I stopped posting new content. Traffic from search engines remained steady though, even without adding new content to my site. It’s the search engines that matter, not social media…