The Problem of Context, Photography & the Internet?

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Context has always been paramount in the last 100 years or so of art; perhaps longer but I’ve forgotten more than I care to remember about art history. Smart players have always used their knowledge of their medium’s history to take it forward. However other players are just reinventing the wheel and appealing to younger, tech savvy consumers who think this is all new and don’t realise there is some context required with every image made.

So it goes; that some some people in the blogosphere have been getting all fired up over issues of context, photography and the internet.

Excuse me for stating what surely is the blindingly obvious. But, context has played a part in all art at least since Duchamp shoved a urinal in an exhibition in Paris in 1914. Folks seem to be getting it mixed up. The Internet can and often is of itself the context of the work, or not at all, it depends on the makers intentions. Some people call this style, I call it ideas and intentions.

Owning an image capture device making pictures that become popular, in the social sense of the word, does not guarantee the maker has any intentions or ideas. This is made worse by people copying what ever seems to the latest trend in the ever accelerating world that is the internet.

What is missing I feel is that there are few folk who are capitalising on the strengths of the internet and applying them to photography. For me the driving force behind the uniqueness of the internet is the idea of hyperlinking, mainly, as well as the ability to self publish or curate, frequently or infrequently. A secondary strength I see is the ability to scroll. Either infinitely or finitely.

Historically, photography was produced as either, a print either photographically or as an offset, and published as an individual piece, say in an exhibition, or in a print run such as a magazine or book. The internet has added an extra dimension to this. Scrolling though a series of images is not unlike a slide show but subtly different. The user controls more of the experience than in a projector type of slide show, although the creator can at least control the start and end of the experience with the user flitting backwards and forwards, this adds a new level of experience to the idea of a sequence of images as a narrative.

Narrative is something that photographers have been hammering away at since and experimenting with since at least the 1950s when Robert Frank published his influential tome, Les Americanes, numerous others have taken the long form narrative of books and the abstract nature of photography under their wings and exploited them as well, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, Alex Soth, to name but a few. [I’m sure there are more]

People like Michael Wolf are experimenting with the notions of curation and authorship and posting online, but I still feel that these artists are not exploiting the web’s strengths.

One of the web’s weaknesses however is the sense of newness and time, that many users seek out daily or hourly for another fix of ‘new’. This encourages prolific output, a task at best, difficult at worst, and nigh impossible for an extended period of time. Ansel Adams is often quoted as saying that any artist that produces 12 good images a year is doing well. Even with the speed of digital, I can’t imagine anyone producing rock solid work year in year out. Garry Winogrand maybe being the exception to the rule here.

Have we seen any new work created for this ‘context’ that is the web? Perhaps. I’ve yet to see it and given the web’s speed of growth, may never see it. Do many people see and explore or exploit the context of the web, again, not as far as I can tell. But I am but one person clicking away madly peering in corners and poking around looking for some unique vision suited to the web.*

This article was written in 2012 for I am archiving it here as well.

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