“PHOTOGRAPH”: let’s move on.

Facebook receives more than 3 million uploaded photos every day, or well over 3,000 each second. But Instagram blows Facebook out of the water like it’s a little floating bug: Instagram sees 40 million photos posted daily.

My friend sent this from Paris last fall...

My friend sent this from Paris last fall…via Instagram.

Buses are covered with photographs, my e-mails are full of them, and I continue to be frustrated with my older sister who writes a couple of quick notes a day, but never once has included a photo because she can’t figure out how to do it on her PC. Send me a picture, I say! I expect to SEE what you are talking about!

So, it’s fun that our photographs have become integral to how we communicate. We have become used to daily uploads, to changing images that keep us “current”, and to capturing any special scene or fleeting moment anywhere, at any time, with our camera phones and handy small digital cameras. My just-completed Snapfish 2012 photobook is a tubby 55 pages as I chronicled more and more of the year’s events photographically, and made stunning pictures, with almost no talent or effort, of the two beautiful Maine cities we live in. Because I live in Portland half the week, my Belfast-based husband and I often send cellphone pics throughout the day to keep connected about the small things. Photographs are woven into our daily lives and I like it a lot.

Back Cove, 09/12 morning walk, iPhone

Back Cove, 09/12 morning walk, iPhone

Except for the fact that I am a photographs dealer.

I believe the time has come for those of us who are in the fine art photographs business – either creating, exhibiting or selling them – to stop using the word “photograph” and here’s why:

1) If we’re all taking and sharing an endless stream of photographs, the value of a single photograph is understandably diluted, and 2) It becomes more and more challenging to convince collectors that investing in a single photograph for their workspace or home is valid.

Using the word “photographs” to sell a fine art piece is becoming a little like bringing coals to Newcastle. For younger collectors especially, committing to works of art they will view day after day for years most likely, is somewhat weird. It’s all about change, the newest new. And then, spending money on an object (“photograph”) that they themselves make easily, is well…even weirder.

At a time when photographs are commanding serious chunks of change at the top of the art market (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryntully/2012/12/09/the-steady-rise-of-fine-art-photography/) photographs in the lower echelons of fine art are a tough sell because photographs have become ubiquitous and really, really easy for the rest of us to make, and make well.

Break©David Brooks Stess. Dave waited 5 years to photograph this group of blueberry rakers in northern Maine. His exhibit of over 50 silver gelatin photographs, taken over a 22 year period of raking alongside the workers, opens at the Portland Museum of Art April 6, 2013.

Break©David Brooks Stess. Dave waited 5 years to photograph this group of blueberry rakers in northern Maine. His exhibit of over 50 silver gelatin photographs, taken over a 22 year period of raking alongside the workers, opens at the Portland Museum of Art April 6, 2013.

That said, what has blown open the fine art photographs market for me, at least, is the fact that photographs no longer look like, well, “photographs” only. Clients come to the gallery and look around in wonder, saying “I thought you just sold photographs!” It gets clearer to me every day that it’s time to get the word out that today’s “photographs” are not your father’s photographs. Today’s photograph creators cross every line, mix every process (both digital and historic), approach picture-making from every angle and method and with a no-holds-barred attitude. The results are photo-based art and “photograph” no longer fits.

In fact, creating photo-based art has never been more exhilarating, satisfying, and yes, more challenging. And what I’m finding is that the fine art photographers I know and admire are up for those challenges, and in fact are energized by the infinite possibilities as photography becomes re-defined. By employing digital darkroom techniques, and often combining digital darkroom with historic processes, artists understand their work just gets more and more unique, and they’re right. I can see it on my clients’ faces as they move from one piece to another, one artist’s work to another – every new work is a fresh visual experience because the creative options and combinations are infinite for the creator.

After the Wedding Dresses/Sinking©Sharon Arnold.

After the Wedding Dresses/Sinking©Sharon Arnold.

I’ve run into an interesting scenario a couple of times over the last few months: when I or a designer client of the gallery has presented works from gallery artists for consideration to a corporate client, the comment is made that this employee, or that employee’s wife, takes great photographs and maybe they should just frame and hang those for little or no investment. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a semantics problem: photographs, as traditionally defined, are too easily come by today and therefore a free route to take to dress up the corporate walls. Using terms like “two-dimensional wall art”, “photo-based art”, “pictures”, or “images”, sets the tone that the works they are about to see are the result of a creative journey known only to their creators – making the point there is mystery here, artistic vision realized, and hard work.

Like making a photograph used to be.

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2 Responses to ““PHOTOGRAPH”: let’s move on.”

  1. Quite a conundrum, one that professional photographers, those who have to make a living shooting pictures, have to deal with regularly. A decade of technological advancements have allowed inexpensive cameras and photo capture devices incorporated into mobile phones to expose and focus automatically, and to generate “almost perfect” looking pictures just at the push of a button. That has lowered the entry cost for anyone who wants to shoot photos, and devalued the need for professional knowhow. In addition, the replacement of expensive one shot acetate based film stock that required chemical processing, with current digital photo capture that produces nearly instant images on compact cards that are eraseable and reusable over and over, has made photo taking cheap, almost cost free, and made images easy to reproduce and distribute rapidly over digital social networks. The end result, there have been more photo images generated in the last 5 years alone than the total number of pictures taken in the century and a half of photography that preceded it. With this type of effortless photography, just about anyone can now call themselves a photographer, and do. Sadly, the sheer ubiquity of photographs has become overwhelming, that with so much out there, the newness of the image has begun to now trump quality. We live in a quantitative universe, where the unique is devalued, the expert displaced by the merely good, where the latest is the greatest, and visual literacy is becoming obsolete. It’s shoot first, and ask questions later.

    For the serious photographer and the curator working in this era of visual overkill, it is going to require a different strategy io stand out from the mountains of visual mediocrity generated daily. Perhaps the market will so saturate itself that it will burst, and there will be a renewal of interest in photography as an Art. One indication that a reaction is underway is the rekindled interest in old fashioned, one up, “alternative” processes such as daguerrotypes and collodions and salts and bromide prints, all which are far less reproducible. Or it may be time to switch our terminology used, as you have suggested, in order to differentiate Fine Art photography from the mass produced…. I will find it hard to stop using the word “photograph” to describe the image captured by light, but I know the term photography roughly translate as “drawing with light” and maybe it”s time to return to … “Light Drawings”. Photos slice things out of and frees things from their linear temporal context, or the time/space continuum. It freezes frames…. and so creates a Transfixed (and timeless) image. One thing that is consistent, regardless of all the technical changes, is that cameras still require lenses. One alternative to replace the worn “photography” term then might be something along the lines of Creative Lens Imaging.

  2. I look at a lot of photography, and I mean a lot. And the fact that technology has evolved to the point that almost anyone can create a technically sound image is true. But my observation has been that by far and away the vast majority of those images are easily forgettable. Images that are aesthetically pleasing, just don’t resonate for long with me. If I were to equate this to painting, it would be like lumping Thomas Kinkade in with Wassily Kandinsky. Technically, they both created paintings, and if success were measured by volume sold, Kinkade would be the more successful painter. But each appeals to a very different audience. So if the board members wish to commission a wife to create images for the office, well then I guess that they get what they get. But photographers like Hiroshi Watanabe, Roger Ballen and Loretta Lux, have all done very well for themselves by creating art that resonates. And if this is what appeals to you as it does to many, you are simply going to have to pay more for it.

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