The Golden Paradox

Mishiko, 2012, from the series "Hikari" © David Favrod

Editor's note: I am a slow writer and, like every one of you that runs a site or does any other side project for the love of it, have to balance the time invested in this project with income and personal work. As an experiment with the goal of increasing essay posts, I am trying to write short essays with imposed two hours and 1000 word limits. This is the third attempt – the first was The Fiction of Content and the second was Trends and Movements.

I have looked at great photography this week by contemporary photographers. I looked through Shawne Brown. I spent more time with David Favrod's work. I found what I could online by Juan Fernando Herrán.

The thing is, I did this last week too. In fact, almost not a week goes by that I don't come across a photographer whose work was previously unknown that impresses me. There's so much quality work produced today that my bookmark folder on my browser pretty much stays filled with unreasonable quantities of links copied from online sites and magazines to individual photographer sites that I want to explore, no matter how many I take a look at. There are vast loads of shit of course, much more bad than good, but even giving it a half-hearted attempt you can find strong work before you finish your first beer.

Contemporary photographers are producing strong work, collectively, probably stronger than ever, for a myriad of reasons, here I'll just mention a few: shear numbers and by producing much more work than ever before; the avant-garde and movements have ceded defeat and we work with a plurality of modes and contents simultaneously; ever-evolving sophistication of visual intelligence; and a longer history of precedents to work in relation to and learn from. We've created an era of photobooks, we've been the "it" art form for the last few years highlighting museum schedules and filling auction slots (although that moment may have passed according to some), we've incorporated Instagram and Tumblr and other printless formats into our practice as new forms.

There's a consequence to this vast enterprise, however: we are being forgotten and we are forgetting photography projects faster the more we produce. This is the Golden Paradox of contemporary photography. The more we work and create and the more of us there are making great work, the less memorable the work we make is, the less time it circulates, the less relevant we are individually.

From the series "Solomon Valley" © Shawne Brown

What's your favorite work from 2012? Who was that photographer you didn't know before you saw their work last month? What was last week's discovery?

This hyper-rate of production and volume of photographers is abetted by Internet speed. Projects chewed over for four years are digested in an Internet minute. The acceleration of consumption has created a click through culture in photography, the infinite wealth of potential material and proliferation of sites drowning depth of engagement.

Scroll through the Flak Photo Network on Facebook and you'll find a common thread premise: help me remember. I'm looking for this photographer, help me remember who it was, she made this work on China or Alabama, those portraits or that landscape, she had this incredible project that I was so moved by, but I can't remember who she was, or even where I saw it to search her out again.

These trends of more, faster, and click through reflect consumption trends everywhere, of course, the changes within the specific field a refraction on the larger zeitgeist. The ultimate question of our new disposability is whether this is an issue in photography and, if it is, what can be done about it.

Confronting our disposability is troubling for us as makers. We want to believe we will last, our work will be engaged with as deeply as we invest ourselves in it. We want our work to be preserved, our name to stand. Ultimately, however, questions around disposability and self come back to a base in ego and can be dismissed; questions around disposability and content, however, deserve our consideration.

From the series "Transit" © Juan Fernando Herrán

The quickness of dismissal by the average contemporary observer cheapens our efforts, degrades the interaction, eliminates profundity of experience. It is, definitively, an issue. Despite photography's mass cultural explosion and art world hot streak, we don't work in the movies, pop music, or video games. We're a province in modern art formats, a smaller pool in which a conversation could be mounted between distribution venues about dealing with disposability. If the top 50 photography sites, both Big Media sites and independents, agreed to slow their posts, to embrace "less, but quality" rather than more, to eschew click throughs and simply posting a portfolio or a link and an image, to curate with a razor, we'd get somewhere.

But that's not going to happen.

The reality is disposability needs to be engaged with because it's our new reality. Do we go with it and design work that will be flicked through? Do we fight it and create the photographic equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu's seemingly never-ending landscape shots, stoically soldiering on?

I think the most likely result of all of this – and probably the most healthy one given the inevitability of disposability – is that more and more the individual practitioner will be replaced by clouds of photography. Perhaps, in this way, the Golden Paradox will lead us to some healthy reprioritizations. With our numbers, the amount we produce and the speed of contemporary dissemination, the current (unhealthy) academic and historical emphasis on originality and "being the first" over both quality and the pleasure given to viewers by a project will have a harder and harder time operating as we loose the capacity to identify origin points and develop multiple origins, that is, similar work springing up in many points at once.

What we will lose in experience with one particular project due to click through disposability will be replaced by substantive conversation about clouds of work. Instead of obsessing over names, we'll recognize the amassing of dozens of similar projects that coagulate around, for example, the rebirth of still lifes, the black and white large format observational photography revival, and the photography created at the crux of Soth and Ethridge. This is a shift of balance, not a revolution. We've always considered trends and genres and, previously, movements. I think it is possible, however, we'll be doing even more at the expense of our increasing individual disposability. And that's not a bad thing.