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Systemic Photography

I had a couple of crystallising moments recently where something I read contextualised everything I’ve been thinking about over the last few years in an incredibly useful way. The first was Vilém Flusser’s book Towards a Philosophy of Photography which came up during a talk by James George at Resonate this year. He’d recommended it to his friend Alexander Porter who found it a revelation, completely changing his view of photography. I figured I needed to read it too.

It’s good, and made a lot of sense, but the crystals that emerged were still small. I knew there was something there but I couldn’t quite articulate it, or turn it into a working practice of my own. Then Alexander pointed to an article about Flusser by Kenneth Goldsmith (the keeper of UbuWeb and someone who’s been on my radar for a while) called It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content which is so much better than the cleverclever semantic title suggests. Here’s a key bit:

Flusser claimed that the content of any given photograph is actually the camera that produced it. He continued with a series of nested apparatuses: The content of the camera is the programming that makes it function; the content of the programming is the photographic industry that produces it; and the content of the photographic industry is the military-industrial complex in which it is situated, and so forth. He viewed photography from a completely technical standpoint. In Flusser’s view, the traditional content of the cultural artifact is completely subsumed by the apparatuses — technical, political, social, and industrial — surrounding, and thereby defining, it.

Suddenly the crystals were huge, so big it was a little bewildering. I told Jenny about this and she seemed surprised it was such a big deal as surely I’d been thinking about this for years, but that was sort of the point. I had been, but I hadn’t fully realised it. This is what really interested me about “social media” before it became impossible to work in that area thanks to marketeers and other eejits. And this is everything than interests me about photography in the 21st century, about how context, and the lack therefore, is essential to understanding the power of an image, and how that context is deeply embedded in the systems that enable it.

(I should also add that I don’t agree with all of Goldsmith’s statements, especially those where he appears to impose a value judgement, but that’s fine. It’s his perception that has value here, not his conclusions.)

So this is the flag in the ground for the first stage of working with these ideas in a more deliberate way. Here is my plan.

I want to keep things simple. Diving in an unpicking the myriad systems that inform a photo on Instagram is insane, though I hope to get there eventually. As Goldsmith says, the best way to interrogate these systems is “to break the system by doing something with the camera that was never intended by industry.” To hack it, in other words. So I’ll be looking for where that happens, particularly emergent community hacks rather than those make a political or artistic point. Alongside this is finding glitches in the systems themselves and examining those. The little moments where the ideology of a system bumps into the technical or commercial reality and causes us to raise an eyebrow.

Systems, of course, are all around us, so I’ll just be looking at those directly related to the creation, distribution and consumption of photographic images and writing a bit about them on this blog.

And, finally, I’ll be ignoring the value or otherwise of the visual content in the images themselves. I’ve been collecting vernacular photographs from Instagram for a while now and it’s become a dead-end. The images are not the thing – it’s the context, and I threw that away. Idiot.

Mission stated. Onwards.

Notes on Sitting In Stagram

Siting In Stagram was produced in early February 2015. I reposted the same image over and over to Instagram to see what happened. I then bundled it up into a video which I also posted to Instagram:

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A video posted by I Am Still Sitting In Stagram (@sitting_in_stagram2) on

I submitted it to the art blog Prosthetic Knowledge for consideration and he featured it. A few days later it went “viral”, appearing on news sites and content farms all over the world. I was able to track 950,000 views based on the video some of the sites embedded though this could only be a fraction of the total. I have had lots of feedback and questions and as such have spent the last couple of months thinking a lot about this silly little artwork I made when bored with a head cold one February night. This post attempts to gather those thoughts so they might be used for future enquiry.

Attrition

Attrition is something that fascinates me. I see this as distinct from simply entropy, where something degrades on its own, as it implies the slow, steady action of an external force. Rocks do not become pebbles on their own – the attrition of the sea causes that transformation over centuries, one wave at a time. A step in an old church is work into a curve over centuries, one step at a time. Each step brushes off a layer of atoms to no visible effect, but in aggregate a significant change occurs.

This is evidence of activity, and it’s most interesting when it’s human activity. A seat worn by bottoms, a library book worn by readers, street cobbles worn by vehicles, vinyl records worn by playing. This attrition is all around us and is a way of measuring popularity. The worn seat probably has the best view. The worn library book is the most useful. Your favourite record is the one that sounds the worst. And so on.

Lossy copying

Before the digital media era copying was inherently lossy, in that each copy threw away a small amount of data. Photocopiers were the best example of this. Every office would have a faded, almost illegible photocopy of some cartoon or joke, the original of which was lost in time. See also tape-to-tape, VHS, chemical photography, screen printing – each copy, while perfectly acceptable, was slightly inferior to the original. Something, however small, had been lost.

Digital copies are supposed to be lossless, and when done from person to person they mostly are. Files sent by email, shared over BitTorrent or copied on a USB stick are, byte for byte, identical.

But media that is socially shared over services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is not copied in a lossless way. A photo uploaded to one of these services is optimised for delivery across that platform, usually using the JPEG compression algorithm, to reduce its dimensions and file size. JPEG is a lossy format in that it throws away unnecessary information. Most of the time this is not a problem, and the JPEG format is ultimately a wonderful thing, but like the waves on the beach, each copy throws something away and over time the changes to the image move from invisible to subtle to blatant. The same applies to mp3/aac for music and mpeg for video – they are analogous to cassette tapes and VHS video.

This distinction between making a lossless copy and sharing a lossy copy over a service is important. The latter is mediated, and that mediation introduces imperfections. That is what I’m exploring here.

Alvin Lucier

When I decided to use Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room as my framework it wasn’t a serious choice, but on reflection I think I can massage it into making sense. Lucier wasn’t so much interested in the technical phenomena of media degradation. He was interested in how this mechanical process could tell us something about the room itself.

Social spaces on the internet are analogous to “rooms” as they are containers for human activity and artefacts. This work is on Instagram but it is also about Instagram in a similar way to how Lucier’s work in about that specific room, and hopefully can be used to understand some general things about our online social spaces.

Instagram

Instagram is a division of Facebook, one of the largest companies in the world. This is important and there are many things that can be said about Instagram as a company, but this work does not directly deal with them.

What is interesting about Instagram to me, as a photographer, is how the platform is based entirely around photographs (and short videos, but those are effectively moving photographs). What text there is on Instagram is in service to the image, and as such the language of Instagram is visual. People are using it to communicate using images and developing dialects and slangs in that medium. This is massively interesting for a photographer.

But Instagram is also a mediating force. There are restrictions on what can be posted and how it is seen. Your photo has to be cropped to a square and will be rendered at the relatively low resolution of 640 pixels wide. Your stream of photos, by those you follow, can also only be seen on a smartphone or tablet, meaning the image is usually seen in the palm of someone’s hand, not on a large monitor. These restrictions are not bad, per se, but they do motivate creativity in how people use that service. If you want to communicate something specific you have to understand and work with Instagram’s limitations. This is what I mean by mediated.

Regramming

Most online social platforms have a method for sharing media within them. Twitter has the retweet, Facebook the share, Tumblr the reblog. These function to take someone else’s content and insert it into your personal stream. Instagram does not have this functionality, which makes sense as Instagram is about showing your own photos, not other people’s. But the usage of Instagram’s platform has spread outside this narrow limitation and there is a subculture of “regramming” on the service where people post copies of images found on other people’s streams. These images are usually image macro memes with captions which quickly communicate a message or idea and are a common way of group-bonding online. They also serve as a call to action, soliciting comments and faves from followers.

I became interested in regramming through my rabbits’ Instagram account which follows a hundreds of other rabbit accounts, many of which are run by teenage girls. This gives me a rare glimpse into how teenagers use images to communicate, something not usually afforded to a 40-something childless man. One meme in particular caught my attention – the “Which One Am I?” macro, where girls ask their followers to put them in a category. I’ve been collecting them for a few months and have them online here.

whichami-screenshot

These memes are spread through taking a screen capture (on the iPhone this is done by holding the Home and Power buttons down together til the screen flashes) and posting this screen capture as a new image. The process of doing so introduces compression artefacts which, along with inaccurate cropping, mean that each regram is of a lower quality than its original.

Brian Feldman named these low quality images in his now-seminal article The Triumphant Rise of the Shitpic. Some quotes:

“Shitpics happen when an image is put through some diabolical combination of uploading, screencapping, filtering, cropping, and reuploading. They are particularly popular on Instagram.”

“Perhaps most importantly, the Shitpic aesthetic could very well be the first non-numeric indicator of viral dissemination.”

“If you look at a Shitpic, you can instantly tell the level of virality by how worn it looks, how legible its text is, how many watermarks adorn it. You can count them much like you would rings on a tree. A pristine-looking meme engenders skepticism – “This can’t be that funny, it hasn’t been imperfectly replicated enough.” But when you see that blurry text, partially cut off by the top of the frame, and a heavily compressed picture… that’s when you know: This is gonna be a good-ass meme.”

The shitpic is fascinating not just on a technical level. It is a surprisingly fertile window into how digital images exist online to spread ideas and develop cultural norms.

Cameras as Permission Objects

I’ve aways liked to think my photography teaching and my art practice are nicely interweaved. When I teaching photography I’m showing people how to use a tool to create pieces of visual art. What they then do with that tool is entirely up to them, but the fundamentals of the tool are universal. I also show them what I call “compositional tricks”, simple things like the rule of thirds which can radically improve their photos. This all leads, within the confines of a beginners course, to thinking about photographs not as reflecting reality but as evoking an idea or a feeling through the arrangement of shapes and colours in a rectangle. In other words I take them to the edge of thinking about art but don’t push them if all they want to do is take nice holiday photos. But sometimes they take the bait, and that makes me happy.

On Saturday I ran a beginners workshop at a horse riding school where some members had clubbed together to hire me for the day. It was a very different environment but I effectively did my usual course, adapted to a five hour afternoon. Feedback was good and I left happy. And then today this appeared in my stream.

I’ll excerpt the key bit.

Permission Objects & Photo School Birmingham

I can’t even remember the context of the rest of the conversation, but Pete explained that a friend of his (Nikki Pugh) uses ‘Permission Objects’ in order to help people ‘get into character’ within a theatre/performance setting. A ‘permission object’ could be anything – when you are wearing this hat you have ‘permission’ to be as grumpy as you like, when you are holding the umbrella you have permission to dance like a ballerina.

Having or wearing the object allows us to bypass our inbuilt human instinct to avoid feeling uncomfortable. It appeases that feeling of ‘being other than ourselves’ or feeling self conscious when stepping outside societal norms, thus promoting a ‘safety’ and freedom to wholly commit to the experience. With a clearly defined ‘start and end’ point, (while you have the permission object) our brain has an ‘acceptable reason’ for being or doing ‘other’.

The camera acts as a form of permission object. It encourages us to see the world differently, to walk slower or sit still, crouch down, look up, crawl through mud, stand on chairs; whatever we need to do to ‘get the shot’. The very nature of photography is to adjust our viewpoint, change our perception, to find order or observe chaos to better tell a story.

It encourages us to ‘see’ other people as objects of beauty, of interest, shape and form instead of feeling frustrated or intimidated by them. It challenges us to tell the story of how we perceive the world, to have the confidence to decide and highlight what’s important, by our own unique choice of focus. We can concentrate on the capture and the share of how a something moved us, how it made us feel, in that moment; trap it in amber.

Somewhat amusingly I’ve been struggling to articulate Nikki’s permission object concept in relation to cameras for a while now and just drop it in to classes occasionally to try it for size, so to see it emerge in this form was delightful. It’s exactly the sort of thing I encourage on the photo walks and want to explore with cameraphones and other ubiquitous image-making devices.

Significantly, taking my camera out with me forces me back ‘into the moment’. For me, the camera as my permission object leads me back into the state of being I want to be in – The Now. It funnels me into seeing what is, instead of worrying about what might be. It affords me ‘permission’ to enjoy the complex experience of life as a human, to truly see and appreciate colour and texture from an almost macro perspective, when life feels too huge.

Perfect.

AK Dolven photography masterclass for Ikon

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On March 21st I ran a photography masterclass for Ikon in Birmingham. This was the third such workshop I’d done with Simon Taylor, head of Learning, where we ask participants to respond to a current exhibition with their cameras.

The format is simple. After a brief introduction, Simon leads us on a tour of the gallery where he talks about how the artist approaches their work, both technically and intellectually, and picks out themes and issues to consider. We then return to the classroom and discuss what we’ve seen, developing it into a framework for photographing Birmingham. Something this is a simple case of aesthetics, sometimes it’s a little more conceptual.

With out framework in place, and after a break for lunch, we spend two hours walking around Birmingham with our cameras taking photos. Finally we meet up again at Ikon, load the photos onto a computer and talk through them as a group.

The aim is for the group to have gained a better understanding and appreciation of the Ikon exhibition alongside developing their technical and aesthetic skills in photography. By working within a narrow constraint they are forced to stretch themselves and try things they wouldn’t have considered. The hope is when they return to “normal” photography they bring this with them and are pleased with the results.

This particular masterclass was using AK Dolven‘s exhibition, Please Return, a wide ranging retrospective of her work. These shows can be quite daunting to get a hook into so we started with the obvious – how she practically makes her photographic work – and let that lead us to more nuanced things.

A lot of AK Dolven’s work involved using her cameras wrongly, deliberately defocussing or “badly” composing the shots. This is a very interesting approach to apply to photography in the modern age where an off the shelf camera is engineered to take a “perfect” photo with by default. Switching off this perfection and getting things wrong is the challenge of our age.

To illustrate this I called back to my Through The Viewfinder days from 2006-10 where I found myself bored with “perfect” photography and started sticking random stuff in front of the camera to distort and enhance the image.

ttv

I then emptied a bag of old camera bits and, to be honest, translucent rubbish, onto the table. From broken lenses to flash-bulbs to dirty mirrors to plastic bags and the packaging of the snacks we’d been provided with – anything that could go in front of the lens and distort the image was fair game. We tried out a few of these and then went out on the walk.

Interestingly the snack packaging was the most fruitful. The bases were crinkled and refracted the light in nice patterns, whilst being opaque enough to smudge the details. The image at the top of this page was taken with one.

The walk was amusing to watch as a group of grownups wandered around holding rubbish in front of their relatively expensive cameras. We got some looks and comments which just encouraged people to go further. It was nice to see this playful approach to photography, a discipline that is usually serious and exacting, embraced by adults.

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Feedback at the end of the workshop was great. People enjoyed themselves but also learned a lot about their cameras and how to develop their photography. And from my perspective it was a lovely chance to mix my teaching with my artistic practice within the context of an art gallery.

My photos taken during the walk are here. Workshops with Ikon tend to come around every 6 months and I will announce them in the Photo School newsletter.

Some more photos:

Inspired by AK Dolven 04

Inspired by AK Dolven 06

Inspired by AK Dolven 17

Inspired by AK Dolven 22