Navigating the Stream, Part I

From the wonderfully titled site dumpaday.com

Ah, the stream. That fast flow of fragments of information that makes up the contemporary Internet - Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds of links, images and quotes reblogged, liked and reposted.

Is it a great way to help generate audience for your work, try ideas and discover new work? Is it an almost endless and mindless posting of images and texts that works against depth, coherence and quality of conversation? Is the stream a service or a problem? Should we jump in or is it a waste of time?

These two - or maybe three - posts will attempt to look at some of the defining qualities of the stream as it relates to photography, to argue its inherent problems and strengths for photographers and to add a few ideas for navigating it.

This theme was discussed last year by a number of commentators including Bryan Formhals, Joerg Colberg and Harvey Benge.

Let's start with some defining qualities of the stream. It is aspatial, with images from anywhere almost always followed by images from almost anywhere else but the first place. The stream itself can be seen as an aspatial entity: it takes form on your screen, but exists nowhere else in the same exact composition, never takes the same form twice and never exists for more than a brief moment, constantly shape shifting as the flow of fragments continues.

The stream is also atemporal. Although posting is sequential and recedes into the past, and while its focus often is the present –"I'm sitting next to LEE FRIEDLANDER RIGHT NOW and he's EATING A CHEEZBUGGER!!!" – the stream is far from strictly and simply trafficking in the moment. It brings images and text from the relatively far past into the flow - family photographs recently rediscovered, quotes from Walker Evans or scans of pages from Doubletake.

These older elements in the stream emphasize that if we look beyond defining the stream simply through posting order and instead look at the totality of information it generates, the stream moves both forward and backward in time. The addition to the digital flow of older content at the same time as we document our contemporary lives minute-by-minute leads me to suggest a replacement term for the stream: The Great Thaw (patent pending), or the unfreezing of the flow of existing information from both the present and the past so that it moves ever more quickly at an ever increasing volume in more than just one temporal and spatial direction.

Looking at other qualities, the stream is also a sequence of illogical juxtapositions and disconnections and frequently non-coherent in and of itself. Last three current threads in my Facebook feed together read: Happy 90th Birthday Grandmother! You never cease to amaze and inspire! Love you! Tomorrow at Friends and Lovers, these pups are gonna have the run of the place... Christmas Everyday. These juxtapositions can be amusing, horrific, or absurd. Whatever the response generated, it's important to note that context does influence the perception of content including the photographs that you both post and see. You cannot control that context - witness the lead image.

Lastly, the stream is comprised of the reduced element - the single image, the quote, the quip, the link, the suite of five images. It frequently breaks down photographic language and conversation by separating the images that once formed part of cohesive photographic sentences in another context – that is, parts of series of photographs in an intended sequence – into the frequently meaningless presentation of single "words" by themselves.

Let's see if we can build some arguments around taking in aspatial, atemporal, disconnected and reduced information from the stream and bring this conversation a little more towards practical issues with the stream as they relate to photography. I’ll start with negatives today and work towards positives in the second post and ask where the balance rests between the two in the conclusion.

The emphasis on the reduced element - the detail and the everyday instead of overarching ideas - means we're more likely than ever before to see the disconnected single paragraph, quote or photographic image apart from its creator's intended context than we are to engage complete content or connective content that traces threads through parts and presents a cohesive argument or idea. In this sense, the stream works against posts in series or extended formats and the full presentation of the photographic project; complete content frequently becomes an effort to reassemble in order to be able to read or look at the intended sequence, a problem augmented by frequently shoddy attributions, broken links and orthography hijinks.

The volume of both images and photography sites creates a sense of exhaustion both about specific work that's repeatedly passed around – overexposure? – as well as photography images online more generally. The reduced element format and collective exhaustion at the overwhelming amount of material makes your work subject to judgments hastily made based on limited data. The details - a handful of your images, a link, or a quote - are, and will increasing be, the criteria through which your work and ideas are judged.

These judgments in respects to photographer's work are a problem. What if the project takes a left turn midway and viewers attracted to and expectant of a certain project by a few initial images get delivered another? What if an image attached to an interview that seemed great a week after taking it is embarrassingly stuck on the Internet forever when one inevitably realizes it’s not so great (this I have done more than once)? What if, in fact, you are sending out half-baked goods off an incomplete menu and asking people to take a bite and write the restaurant review?

Exhaustion around and quickly formed judgments about photography in the stream may be mitigating one of the Internet's best elements in regards to photography: its populist ability to elevate quality photography to the notice of editors, curators and gallerists who will respond to the viability of work proven by the volume of response to the work online. I want to make sure I don’t overstate the importance I think the public has in influencing editorial and curatorial decision-making through Internet popularity. It's not a lot. However, as images increasingly become about the single post in a feed, single photographs take over a higher and higher percentage of consumption and the volume of images posted continues to increase exponentially, the images become a sort of white noise in which individual names and bodies of work become lost, no matter how high the quality is and I think the quality is often very high. There are some reasons that I think this is exciting (see this post), but it also is possible to argue that this takes away from the role of the public as a litmus test for projects and for online momentum – The Sochi Project, Touching Strangers – to be a determinant in photography distribution and production decisions. The end result is a centralizing of control back in the hands of curators and gallerists and a small group of traditional deciders.

This is compounded by my hypothesis that the stream affects memory, which I would argue empirically. Just as cell phones destroyed my superhuman ability to remember phone numbers, the idea that images and works are constantly present, available and being reproduced again and again online actually makes them less memorable. We feel that we can always access them. And, I'll parenthetically add here, we tend to study images less in the stream. The sheer volume and constant additions make each image more of a glance than a prolonged experience; looking at an image for fifteen minutes to study and appreciate it just doesn't happen in the stream.

One last point: the immediacy of contemporary posting prevents the inherent digestive period of slow media. Instead, we post raw data of events as they have half-happened, including our own photographic projects. Speaking to the general idea first, slow media continues to synthesize and create sense and order from parts, but it's increasingly a secondary source for our news input, a change similar to newspapers being replaced by television and its immediacy as the primary news vehicle in the United States with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Attempting to organize this load of instant information and present conclusive narratives in this context can in fact be dangerous – fact and rumor blend in the flow. Fact checking takes time and stories often need some distance to be commented on with intelligence and our own work does as well.

You might see where I’m going. The stream encourages birthing one's own work way too early. In addition to preventing proper digestion of your work, facilitating hasty judgements of you and your work and the other issues just outlined above, putting too much energy in distribution too early, not only tending to the stream, but also searching for shows, making submissions, and applying to contests, pulls time and energy away from where it should be for a very long time - learning to make good art. The longer you can make art away from the lights, the better.

These issues all pale compared with the biggest problem of the stream: the way that it allows some photographers to avoid containers and definitions, to not have to stand for something or behind anything, to not have to organize and present coherently their photography as a completed idea.

When a photographer posts everything to see what sticks, when a photographer creates work only for constant feed-posting, the stream becomes the runs. It's a failure to accept responsibility as an artist for creating art. I’m not talking about posting some images from your upcoming book. I'm not talking about posting cool outtakes or a series of old scans. I'm talking about the encroaching idea of posting image after unconnected image on Tumblr or wherever as an "artist" and never moving to make something with the images beyond that....ever. That's fine if you like to photograph cute puppies; not fine if you are an artist and you aren't doing a conceptual project using the stream...or a conceptual project on endless photographs of cute puppies.

I defer to Lewis Baltz:
Anyone can take pictures. What's difficult is thinking about them, organizing them, and trying to use them in some way so that some meaning can be constructed out of them. That's really where the work of the artist begins. (Fittingly, I can't find the original source online. It's a cut-and-paste from a Word Document of my favorite photography quotes.)
Selecting, editing and curating your work creates meaning and moves photography beyond the superficial, beyond just the aesthetic, beyond form and beyond beauty which is, I'm not the first to say, often the simplest way to see things.

To move beyond the increasingly shallow mindless production and consumption of photography on the Internet requires an acceptance of responsibility. It requires effort. It obligates a stance and an argument. More on that in my conclusion, but first let's talk about some of the positives and strengths of the stream.

Part II here