The photography arena has never been as overcrowded as today, with images being the most widespread language modality through which people, including non-professional photographers, communicate on a daily basis. What does it mean to be a professional photographer in the Instagram era?
How has professional photography changed? What has it lost and what has it gained? What characteristics does an image need to have in order to raise above the incessant buzz of our days, where everyone competes to grab and hold a fragment of our attention, the rarest and most in demand goods of our times?
The exhibition WOW – Photography in the Age of Attention Economy – during the next edition of Photo Vogue Festival, seeks to explore the new dynamics and aesthetics that have emerged in our contemporary society in order to understand what the photography of the future looks like.
The artists featured in the exhibition will be announced in September.
It is a feel, an instinct: all professionals working with images know, even before posting it, whether a certain picture will work on Instagram or not. When it comes to explaining it in words, however, it all becomes more difficult. It is a complex mechanism that pertains to visual literacy, cultural background and the familiarity with the internet language.
But perhaps, not everything can or needs to be put into words. After all, it’s like having to find the words to describe a poem, transforming it into prose: the original meaning could get completely lost in that transfer.
With the widening of our visual culture, imagery is becoming increasingly emancipated from the written and spoken language, hence it’s more and more difficult to decode and explain that feel that I mentioned above.
Of course, the single factors that ensure that a certain image stands out against another have corresponding names, such as composition, colors, subject, pose, perspective, technique, theme, knowledge of new languages; however, when it comes to deconstruct a photograph in its various elements, such considerations are often made in retrospect and are too subjective and undoubtedly limiting.
In a vogue.it interview, Joel Meyerowitz defined the transformation ‘coefficient’ concept as the “variance between reality and the vision of reality that artistry brings with it. Without transformation photography would be a mere paper sheet “.
Perhaps the transformation ‘coefficient’ concept can help us explain the above feel, that instinct about what a certain image must possess in order to elicit the WOW! exclamation – that element of surprise, the mastery of the photographic medium and its digital evolution that ensures that a certain image emerges from the constant flood in which we are immersed.
The flooding of digital photographic material brought about by the internet and social media was unstoppable. According to data collected by the PH Museum, currently an average of 95 million images are being uploaded every day and the average millennial will take around 25,700 selfies over the course of his / her life. This digital revolution has transformed our life as individuals, changed social customs, altered the cognitive and aesthetic framework and, last but not least, the inner logic of communication and market.
Just think of the sharp decrease in the attention span that such process entails: submerged by information, how much time and attention can we truly pay to the images passing in front of our eyes? Enunciated for the first time in 1971 by Nobel Prize winner, Herbert Simon, ‘information overload’ describes the phenomenon in which, being bombarded by an increasing number of sources of information, attention becomes a rare good that is difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to intercept.
According to a Microsoft study, the human attention span is 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Moreover, it takes about 50 milliseconds (that is 0.05 seconds) for people to form an opinion about the appeal of a certain image. It’s impossible not to think about how such landscape is putting pressure on photography, changing its function, significance, aesthetic and, needless to say, also its use.
For instance, if until recently, the main raison d’être of photography was to act as collective memory and to pass down information, as of today communication ought to be added, where the recording of ‘reality’ is no longer the ultimate goal but rather a way to express and convey an experience.
The goal of this new type of photographic practice, which we could call ‘conversational’, is no longer the image as an object in itself but rather the transmission of a fragment of life. These are ephemeral photographs that follow one another creating a discourse. Posted one after the other on our social media feed, they set up a conversation in which they make sense as part of a stream and not as autonomous aesthetic objects.
It is not about capturing carefully selected moments because they are more worthy than others of being represented, nor are we in front of the complex choices of a sophisticated Hollywood photographic production. Overall, conversational photography has no artistic ambitions: it is not shot looking for the best angle, composition and light and it rarely has any real significance if extracted from the stream in charge of communicating our performative identity and in which the associating flow that supports the ‘discourse’ produces an effect of content dramatic equivalence.
Just like in writing there can be an essay, a poem, our shopping list or anything else, the same can be true of today’s photography. Except that, because of the peculiar way in which we access images – the endless digital stream they all flow into – my shopping list is very likely to find itself next to a song by Dante without any special interruption or separation.
The process is clearly an irreversible one and the complexity of such phenomenon demands an open and secular reflection, especially from industry professionals.
By way of example, it is impossible not to wonder how this incessant background noise impacts on professional, documentary, artistic, fashion photography or the likes. Or how it influences the editing process of a paper publication, where the limited space available entails a tight selection that is in stark contrast with the online principle of ‘piling up’.
Moreover, it is impossible not to wonder to what extent the workings that once ruled the language of advertising are being imposed on anyone that produces images given the underlying context where, thanks to our social profiles, we are all transformed into our own editors.
After all, with the digital stream, we become all part of an endless virtual newsstand.
As in a newsstand, every publication sits there screaming, through its cover, ‘Take me, take me’; in the augmented reality of the virtual world, every image is akin to a cover, each one aiming to be what in printing jargon is known as a ‘page stopper’, tasked with the job of grabbing the readers’ attention. Simply speaking, nowadays buying a paper or a magazine is equivalent to clicking on the profile of somebody who has posted a picture we liked and visiting this person’s site.
On the other end of the communication stream, the side of those who explore the covers of the digital kiosks – those scrolling the images from their smartphone, which is the key enabler of the digital culture and its exponential flow of images, there are many restrictions to the viewing experience.
Starting with the dimensions: regardless of how big a smartphone can be, it will always be smaller than a magazine, a book, a computer screen or a photographic print. The second restriction is time: the eyes remain on an image no longer than 0.05 seconds before resuming the scrolling. These assumptions could lead us to believe that, for instance, in the case of an image portraying an individual, we could be more easily drawn by a face or a three-quarter portrait rather than a full figure, and this is another similarity with magazine covers.
And, if what we expect from a cover, which is the photograph par excellence, the most important and most immediate of a magazine, is to be WOW !, how should the small-sized images flowing through our smartphone screens be like in order to grab our attention?
WOW! is indeed the most recurring comment on social media used to express amazement and surprise; a simple, effective and self-explanatory word, which is visually appealing in itself and is easily understood in most languages.
Thus, WOW! is the deliberately ambiguous and pop title of one of the exhibition at Base for the new edition of Photo Vogue Festival.
The WOW! can be evoked by an image belonging to any photographic genre, from portraiture to landscape, fashion photography to photojournalism; it is universal and democratic. A selfie can be as WOW! as an auteur photograph. With the 2020 edition of PVF, we would like to start a conversation on the state of photography, questioning if and how the changes discussed above are influencing the aesthetic and content of the images.
Undoubtedly we are more and more stimulated to find new languages, to experiment and transform visual communication and, most likely, many photographers feel under pressure, more or less consciously so, to pursue the WOW! photography in terms of composition, subject, pose, perspective, light, colors, technique and so on.
However, the astonishment associated with any new aesthetic landscape is wearing out more and more rapidly – just think how quickly we got used to drone-led photography and video – so, how long can we still push the creation of a photograph on a factor whose half-life is increasingly shortening? Are we becoming inured to the pursuit of the astonishing at all costs? Does it have a conforming, leveling effect? What is the saturation point? And what will come after the WOW?
These are neither the only ones nor the thorniest questions. There are others and very delicate ones. What are, for instance, the future scenarios and the ethical and political implications of this increasingly all-encompassing production of images? Confronted with masses and masses of images, how will we be able to identify the most significant, powerful, original and non-conformist works? How to recognize them amidst the piles of them and what to preserve?
An archive is a space dedicated to the preservation of something that has been previously selected and filed. There is no archive without a prior selection and editing process. However, currently, clouds’ data bases contain a non-archival (unorganized) preservation, whose extension is hardly imaginable in the physical world, so much so that “If you do nothing else than looking at images, you would need 587 days to see all the photos produced on Earth in a single day “. How to move about in this infinite space of data is not only non-obvious but also the exciting challenge of the coming years.
WOW! – Photography in the age of the attention economy – seeks to be an open reflection on the current state of photography in the time of shortened attention span and image flooding. A reflection that takes into account the ethic and aesthetic evolution of photography as well as the richness and the dangers it brings about.
The photography arena has never been as overcrowded as today – images have become the common language with which everyone, even non-professionals, communicate daily. So what does it mean to be a professional photographer in instagram times?
How does pro photography change? What do you lose and what do you buy? What characteristics must an image have to make its voice heard over the incessant buzz of our days, in which everyone competes to obtain and retain a fragment of our attention, the rarest and most sought-after commodity of our time?
The exhibition WOW – Photography in the Age of Attention Economy – in the next edition of Photo Vogue Festival aims to explore the new dynamics and new aesthetics that have emerged in the contemporary world to identify what the photography of tomorrow is.
The artists on display will be announced in September.
It’s a feeling, an instinct: all professionals who work with images know, even before posting it, when a photo will work or not on instagram. When it comes to explaining it in words, however, everything becomes much more difficult. It is a complex mechanism that has to do with visual literacy, cultural background, familiarity with the language of the internet.
But perhaps not everything can or must be verbalized. After all, it is as if you had to find the words to explain a poem, to put it in prose: in that passage you risk losing completely the original meaning.
With the expansion of our visual culture, the image is increasingly emancipated from writing and speech, and it is for this reason that it becomes even more difficult to decode and explain the sentiment we are talking about at the beginning.
Certainly the individual factors that contribute to bringing out one image over another have corresponding words such as composition, colors, subject, pose, perspective, light, technique, theme treated, knowledge of new languages - but when it comes to deconstructing a photograph in this sense the considerations are often a posteriori, too subjective and decidedly reductive.
In the interview with Vogue.it, Joel Meyerowitz defines the concept of a transformative “coefficient”: that is, the difference from reality to your vision of it, which brings with it artistic flair. Without transformation, photography would be a simple sheet of paper.
And perhaps it is precisely the concept of “transformative coefficient” that can help us explain that feeling, that instinct about what an image must have today to make us exclaim “WOW!”: That element of surprise, that mastery of the photographic medium and its digital evolution that causes the image to emerge from the continuous flow in which we are immersed.
The flood of digital photographic material that the era of the internet and social media has brought with it is unstoppable. According to a series of data collected by the PH Museum, an average of 95 million images are uploaded every day and every millennial will take an average of 25,700 selfies during their lifetime.
This digital revolution has transformed individual life, modified social customs, changed cognitive and aesthetic frames and, last but not least, the very logic of communication and the market.
Just think of the dizzying decrease in concentration, the attention span that this process entails: drowned in a sea of information, how long, how much attention can we devote to the images we have under our eyes? Spotted for the first time in 1971 by Herbert Simon, Nobel prize for economics, this phenomenon, called overloaded, simply means that, under the bombardment of ever-growing sources of information, attention becomes a rare asset, difficult to find and even more difficult to intercept. According to a Microsoft study, the attention span dropped to an average of 8 seconds, from 12 seconds in 2000. People then take only 50 milliseconds to understand if they find an attractive image – it means 0.05 seconds.
It is impossible not to think that this scenario is not exerting its pressure on photographic practice and research, changing its function, meaning, aesthetics and of course fruition.
For example, if until recently, the primary reasons for photography were those of memory and transmission of information, today to these is added that of communication, where the recording of “reality” is no longer the ultimate goal, but rather a means of communicating an experience.
The purpose of this new photographic practice, let’s call it “conversational” is no longer the image as an object, but the transmission of a moment of life. These are ephemeral photographs that, just like the words in a conversation, follow one after the other forming a speech, “posted” one after the other on our social media, they stage a conversation, in which they make sense in as part of a stream, of a flow, and not as autonomous aesthetic objects.
Here it is not a matter of stopping carefully chosen moments, because they are more worthy than others to be represented, let alone we are faced with the complex choices of a Hollywood photographic production. Mostly conversational photography has no artistic ambitions, it is not taken looking for the best angle, composition and light and rarely has a meaning if extrapolated from the stream aimed at communicating our performative identity, and in which the associative flow that holds the ” speech ”, produces an effect of dramatic equivalence of contents.
As in writing we can write an essay, a poem or a shopping note or anything else, so we can do today in photography. Except that the peculiar way in which we come into contact with the images, the infinite digital stream in which they all come together, means that my shopping list can in all probability be adjacent to a song by Dante, seamlessly and without particular caesuras.
The process is obviously irreversible, and the complexity of this phenomenon requires an open and secular reflection, above all by professional operators.
It is impossible not to ask, for example, what effect this continuous background noise has on professional, documentary, artistic and fashion photography, be it. Or how it affects the editing of a printed newspaper, in which limited space implies a tight selection that is opposed to the principle of online accumulation. Impossible then not to wonder to what extent the mechanisms, once reserved for the advertising language, are imposed on anyone who produces images, in a situation, among other things, that somehow transforms everyone into publishers of themselves, through our social profiles.
After all, with the digital stream, we are all immersed in an infinite virtual newsstand.
As in a newsstand, every publication is there that shouts, with its cover, “take me, take me”, in the augmented reality of the virtual world, each image is a cover, each would like to be, at least ideally, the one that in jargon Press journalism is called a “page stopper”, which is entrusted with the task of capturing the attention of the possible reader. Simply buying the newspaper today is equivalent to clicking on the profile of someone who has published a photograph we like and going to visit its site.
On the other side of the communication flow, on the side of those who explore the covers of digital newsstands, that is, those who scroll through the images from their smart phone – which is the main support of digital culture and its exponential flow of images – many are the “vision” constraints.
First of all, the dimensions: however large a smart phone may be, it will always be smaller than a magazine, a book, a computer or a photographic print. Then time: the gaze remains on an image no more than 0.05 seconds before resuming the scroll.
These premises could make us think that, for example, in an image with a person, we could more easily be attracted to a face or a 3⁄4 figure rather than a whole figure, here is another analogy with magazine covers .
And if from the cover that is par excellence “La Fotografia”, the first visible of a newspaper, the most important, we expect – in a word – that it is WOW! How will the small images that flow on our smart phones be to attract our attention?
And in fact WOW is the most frequent comment on social media, to express amazement, wonder, a simple, immediate and explanatory word, quite visually beautiful in itself and which works in practically all languages.
For this WOW! is the intentionally ambiguous and pop title of one of the Base exhibitions of the next edition of PVF.
The WOW! it can be aroused by an image of any photographic genre, from portrait to landscape, from fashion to photojournalism, it is ecumenical and democratic: a selfie can be WOW! like a photograph of an author.
With the 2020 edition of PVF we would therefore like to open a dialogue on the state of photography, to ask ourselves if and how the changes we have spoken about are influencing the aesthetics and content of the images.
Undoubtedly we are in the presence of ever greater stimuli to seek new languages, to experiment and transform visual communication, and most likely many photographers feel, more or less consciously driven to seek WOW photography! by composition, subject, pose, perspective, lights, colors, technique, etc. .
But it is also true that the amazement for each new aesthetic scenario is getting faster and faster – just think of how quickly we got used to photos and videos taken with drones -; however much we can push the photographic construction on a factor whose half-life is always shorter? Is this search for the surprising at all costs addicting us? is it itself homologating? Where is the saturation point? And what will be after the Wow?
But these are not the only and not the most uncomfortable of questions. There are others, and very delicate. What will be the future scenarios and the ethical and even political implications of this increasingly driven production of images? How can we, in this sea of images, identify the most significant, powerful and original, non-conformist works? How to discern them in the mass of images and how and what to keep?
As we know, each archive is a place of conservation, but of something that has been selected and organized. There is no archive without sorting and choice. But now, in the cloud databases, we take note of a non-archival (unorganized) conservation, the extent of which is difficult to imagine in the physical world, to the point that, “If you do nothing else than looking at images, you would need 587 days to see all the photos produced on Earth in a single day “. How to move in this infinite space of data is not only not obvious, but is at the same time the exciting challenge of the coming decades.
WOW! – Photography in the age of the attention economy – therefore wants to be an open reflection on the current state of photography, at the time of attention span and image flood. A reflection capable of accounting for its ethical and aesthetic evolution, and the wealth and dangers that run through the field.