Pop Culture

Before photography became my primary creative outlet (which was around 2006/2007), I was making music on the computer. First on the Amiga, through Aegis Sonix and the countless Soundtracker clones to Octamed Sound Studio; then on the PC, with Jeskola Buzz. (the results can still be found on Aminet and Bandcamp.)

I love photography, but looking back, I do have to say that making music made me happier. Why? Because it was before the age of “social” with its like-buttons and favorites and up-votes and view counters and whatnot. All the stuff that makes you and what you create comparable,and somehow seems to imply that your creativity is measurable.

I knew that my music would never fit into the Top 100 billboard charts. Yes, looking at those charts was depressing, but I knew that my music was different, and didn’t belong there, anyway. A small group of people appreciated it, and that made me happy. Besides the creative act of writing a song itself, obviously.

I have always thought the same about my photography, but with sharing my photos on photo and social sites, I find it increasingly difficult to stick to my “doesn’t apply to me” thinking. Why is that so hard?!

With photography and photo sharing today, and being connected to so many other photographers on social networks (and with all of the fantastic photography that is out there, ready to be explored and enjoyed), one enters the “like-contest”, where it’s all about the numbers and the interaction. Social networks with their likes and favorites and view counters are like the Top 100 billboard charts of photography. And I added myself to the charts, by joining these sites.

“I think it really is about the number of followers they have and not about the quality of their images.” (Benjamin Lowy)

And what’s in the charts? 90% pop music (of one or the other kind), that’s what. Now pop comes from “popular” – it has nothing to do with soda, though what is served as pop(ular) music, just like popular photography, quite often may be just as sweet and sticky. Sometimes, real sugar is being replaced by the even sweeter and stickier (but cheaper) high fructose corn syrup, or the empty hollowness of artificial sweeteners that just make you crave for even more. And the world is addicted to it! (you may marvel at this metaphor later;-)

And just like many other photographic artists, I find myself in a personal struggle with pop photography, all the time. The dilemma is yes, I want to show my photos to the world and no, I don’t think that my photography fits in to the sweetened genre of popular photography.

And what do I define as pop-photography, anyway?

To me, it’s all the “quick fix” imagery that scrolls by and tries to get our attention as fast as possible, with recipes and formulas for images that “work”. In my first draft of this post I had a bullet list of such cliche photos and formulaic approaches, but in the end, it all boils down to images that “work”. Work in terms of popularity.

As I already said, looking at the music charts when I was making music myself could be depressing too. How could all the stupid, worn-out, formulaic pop music be successful, compared to the – obviously – most fine compositions ;-) that I had come up with myself, and what my few fellow, like-minded artists had produced? But at least I wasn’t exposed to the constant comparison and measuring that social networks so kindly “provide” today. No one would rank my music. Good!

So in the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to deal with it. By unfollowing, uncircling, unfriending, unliking – oh, how bad all these un-words make you feel! Behind every social profile is a living, breathing and feeling human being, after all. Cutting these connections is un-social and makes us feel bad. “I don’t like you anymore, I’m not your friend anymore, I don’t care about you anymore!” How terrible.

But is that really true? No. It’s more like “I’m drowning in visual and social overload, and I don’t know you too well – sorry, but I have to stay sane.”

Tree strangled by cables, near Blaueishütte, Ramsau, Bavaria. April 2007.
Tree strangled by cables, near Blaueishütte, Ramsau, Bavaria. April 2007.

I disabled the like- and share-buttons on my website. B-b-but how do you show your appreciation? Well, you don’t have to. I make photographs anyway.

I wish I could turn off the likes and shares and favorites on Facebook, Flickr and Google+. I just want to show my photos, and I don’t need the numbers to show me that I’m failing in the popularity contest, thanks. I don’t want to be reminded that for the most part, social networks and photo sharing are nothing but a popularity contest.

And I don’t want to see the numbers of others whom I like and follow, because I don’t want to feel it is a competition that I’m being dragged into, and get the negative feedback from it again and again.

I’m human. I don’t want to envy people for their numbers but I can’t just say “well, I won’t, then!” when they’re slapped into my face everywhere. I want to envy other photographers for the places they’ve been to, and the photos they’ve made, the ideas they’ve had, the approach they took in places where I wasn’t able to make a good photo. That’s inspiring, that’s learning. Numbers are just dumb. They do not add to the experience. They reduce it to statistics of popularity.

In the end of course, I have to learn to accept it. Learn to accept that there will always be popular stuff that doesn’t hold up to the higher ideals of fine(r) art. That’s the problem with most ideals, isn’t it? Or maybe I should leave photo and social sites alone, and find myself a lonely cabin in the woods instead… :~)

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22 thoughts on “Pop Culture”

  1. I remember the Amiga! I also had a few Commodores linked together to drive my midi stuff back in the day and would record to ¼” tape (Fostex). I just do not remember the software. I’ve gotten back into it recently with Cakewalk and a midi controller.
    Checked out Neurowerks…good listening. I used to never have the patience for ambient creating, although with the newer software/samplings, I’ve started leaning to experimentation.
    About photography… I have to agree with the idea that social media (as important as it is) should not drive the creative forces within us…unless we want to be like everyone else. It becomes a bit of a dilemma that the passion of creation that works through our expression has a great audience sharing potential, then seems to get lost (or marginalized) in the flood of available information. Everyone rushes to the next thing in lieu of dwelling on the last meaningful image. When we think of the 10’s of thousands of images pushed at us every day, at what point do we become numb? I have to jump in with short spurts, and like you, trim down my “friends”.
    Is it really possible for anyone to have 1,000,000 real friends?
    BTW, although totally rejected last year, I am going to submit a few to the SD fair. Sadistic maybe, but I’ve found that if shown there occasionally the piece is thoughtfully viewed.

    • Oh wow Amiga and MIDI? I never did that. Occasionally, I feel the urge to compose. Then I look at the software that is available, and how complicated it has become to use it. Increased complexity kills spontaneous creative outbursts. :)

      I haven’t decided yet about the SD fair. Maybe I’m going to submit one photo.

  2. Wow! These are thoughts, you won’t hear from many other artists. I’m not a professional in this area, but anyway full ACK!

  3. Well stated. It’s got me thinking on a few things for my next blog post. The fault lies at the feet of the invention of the ethernet port.

    • The first photo sharing site that I used (Picasa Web Albums, its leftovers being the back end for Google+ Photos today) didn’t have “likes” originally, and no view counter either. Only comments. Which we used to discuss our photos (and not leave empty and hopefully harmless praise because we don’t want to offend anyone). That was good.

      Later on, anonymous likes and a view counter were introduced, but the view counter produced such absurdly high numbers (just like the one in G+ does today) that no one really took it seriously. :)

    • Oh and, what really helped me to finalize the post (I had it in draft for ~3 weeks) was our conversation at Balboa Park yesterday. You surely recognized some parts of it. :) Thanks for that!

  4. “Success is not counted by how high you have climbed but by how many people you brought with you.” -Wil Rose

    Your writeup really resonated with me. I made the decision shortly after the G+ profile view counter rollout to unplug from all “social” sites and check-in/post infrequently. I originally pursued photography a few years back in an attempt to restore balance to what was a very unbalanced life juggling family, the constant demands of work, leading an engineering team offshore… The more I immersed myself online over the past year+ the less balanced and happy I’ve felt. I value the connections I made but feel that social (for me) media has largely only served to tempt me to get caught up comparing to others and chasing meaningless +1s/likes/favs/…

    Anywhoo, keep up the good work! I really admire your dedication to the craft and the diversity of your portfolio.


    Keep up with the music recommendations! My wife and I both have discovered some great stuff courtesy of your recommendations. Drop me a line should you ever find yourself shooting in/around the SF Bay Area. :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Glad to hear that my post resonated with you. And glad to hear that you found new music through my recommendations. I’ll sure let you know when I’m in the Bay Area! :)

  5. Good post!

    At a job I had about 7 years back I asked the people in the office why they always listened to the station that played the same 16 (HFCS Pop) songs all day long for weeks on end. I was told this was the “best” music because it was the popular music and if you aren’t on this station you obviously aren’t very good. One answer that if they were not listening to the top 20/popular music “how would I know what to like?” still makes my brain hurt.

    I wonder if that is where we are with a lot of social media photography followers as well. Those that are afraid to think about what they like and find to be “good” photography will gravitate towards accounts with high numbers. They’ll follow the photographers that they perceive to be the most popular (SUL ahem) and form an opinion that the photography they find is the “good” photography, at the exclusion of all else. If they make photographs themselves, they might emulate (or outright copy) that style of photography and processing… and we get more of the same. Thankfully there are many photographers out there on social media that post what they post regardless of the numbers.

    • I am absolutely convinced that, when it comes to landscape photography, we are already at the point that you describe. There are too many repetitions of “trophy” photos out there, too many low & wide oversatured landscapes at the blue hour, too many black & white super long exposures, too many super high contrast black & whites with darkened skies. And I was wondering how that can make people happy in the long run far too often. I guess it’s just a phase. Most will give up photography again, few will stick with it, fewer will evolve.

      • Hehe, I’m submitting a super long exposure, super high contrast B&W to the fair this year. Perhaps the saving grace may be that it has only a slightly darkened sky. :-)

  6. I am also convinced of that Alex. We see herds of people travelling to certain spots to get the right crowd pleasing shot and dramatic changes in style to receive the most likes / plusses. I see a lot of competitiveness and backhanded remarks. I have met some neat people, but am not sure what if any benefit there is to this, so I spend less time on G+ and on Facebook, and more time having fun with my camera and enjoying life. I find I have more time to do the things that matter, like use my camera and work on more ambitious creative projects. I want to make some short films for example.

  7. Well said and thought provoking post. I was just talking to my dad the other day about how our entire society is a giant hologram of high school (would that be the right way to say it?)…nothing but a popularity contest. From social media all the way up to our government. It’s not about quality, it’s about who can get the most people to like them. And those are the “winners.” It’s aggravating that virtues such as honesty, integrity, authenticity are lost on most people. That cabin sounds kinda good…. Le sigh.

    • Indeed Christin. I just recently read an article that described this shift in what we value in our society: we used to have a respect for thinkers and philosophers, but nowadays it has shifted more to the qualities of salesmen.

  8. S.U.P.E.R.B.

    I love seeing a good trophy shot… until I’ve seen too many of the exact same. Every once in awhile, there’s an exceptionally great rendition that deserves the clamour of recognition. But there’s so much that slides by unnoticed as the crowds constantly applaud at the same songs over and over. Your strangled tree is an exceptional example of that, and a hugely fitting image for this post.

    I once obssessed over numbers, and it did bad things to me. At one point I simply stopped sharing images all together, but then I realize I just like having my work seen. I know folks who shoot just for themselves, and never show their work elsewhere. That’s fine, but there is also a joy to be found in the sharing of your photos just because it’s *your* vision of the world. If you make it a competition or something that is about the numbers game, it strips the joy completely away.

    We can’t escape the human reaction to numbers as validation, or the feeling of invalidation if we look and care for numbers that aren’t there.

    All that matters is the number you give yourself, and that the only like button that really counts is the one you carry inside yourself everyday when you look in the mirror, through a viewfinder, or while you lay in bed drifting off to sleep.


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