How is the internet and instantaneous character of media changing the particular photography industry? Gem Fletcher investigates.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

With insight from Omar Kholeif, Charlotte now Cotton and Charlie Engman, the implications of the changing nature and speed of image-making and sharing are considered.

The great potential of photography is the ability to shape-shift. To reveal, mirror and disrupt our expectations. In the last two decades, the collision of photography and technology – specifically the internet and social media – provides accelerated the medium’s multiplicity. Every facet of it has been reworked, reimagined and reconfigured. Earlier concerns about the integrity of digital photography, the porous boundary between amateur and expert, and the appropriation of commercial image-making, now feel relatively insignificant as we grapple with just how technologies have affected the humanity. Indeed, a set of social practices has emerged within this fragile space between humans and technology which has changed how we see, think plus understand ourselves, and consequently the practice of image-making itself.  

We exist within the unregulated internet economy. We are all product mechanisms that fuel a global machine and technology is constantly on the advance quicker than we can assimilate it. Amid all of this, several questions are rising: what constitutes a photograph? How s the participatory nature of instantaneous media informing creative production? And most importantly, how has the internet altered our own consciousness?

Steel Face Concrete Bend (Bryce Canyon Hoodoos), 2018 © Letha Wilson.

“There are no easy solutions here, ” says Dr Omar Kholeif, writer, cultural historian and senior curator at Sharjah Art Base in the United Arab Emirates, who has spent their profession interrogating the intersection associated with emerging technologies and how this shapes and impacts mankind. “The way that we ‘see’ is continually shifting, ” says Kholeif. “The larger shift is not in the picture itself; it is in the expansion and volume of images, the velocity in which they accelerate, as well as the manner in which humans consume all of them. This metabolic process creates a way of looking that can simultaneously become more voyeuristic as it is distanced, leaving different kinds of meaning and presentation subject to exploration. ”

“Our gaze is codified by means of algorithmic culture; through narratives that are not necessarily our own, yet which may have been constructed or fabricated to feel like our own”

Omar Kholeif

Kholeif is one of the leading curators examining the internet’s effect on our cultural and creative landscape. Through a variety of frameworks, including exhibitions and books, they bring context to complex shifts – issues so enmeshed in the material of our lives we often struggle to comprehend their full outcomes. Kholeif is persistent in creating a nuanced understanding of the particular post-digital condition. Their composing blends memoir and crucial analysis to strike in sensate human experiences. Available Goodbye, World! Looking at Artwork in the Digital Age (2018), they will trace the birth of the culture propagated and taken by a digitised network. They collate the work of musicians like Jill Magid plus Hito Steyerl, who provide survival strategies as we deal with how the internet has altered our field of understanding and decision-making.

Mom © Charlie Engman.

In Kholeif’s latest exhibit at the Foundation, Art within the Age of Anxiety, over 30 artists, including Douglas Coupland, Cao Fei, Joshua Nathanson and Katja Novitskova, discover how commonplace devices, systems and digital networks have got altered our collective awareness. They illuminate the ‘post-internet condition’ (a term used by Marisa Olson in 08 to describe the influence of the internet on everyday life and art practice), animating the debate about image tradition and mediation as well as aesthetics and distribution. “Our look is codified through algorithmic culture; through narratives that are not necessarily our own, but which might have been constructed or created to feel like our own, ” Kholeif explains. “So looking at a picture and being able to respond to it from a guttural plus affective perspective becomes more difficult. A deeper searching or interrogation must occur. ”

The friend publication, created during lockdown and published by DURCH Press, took these suggestions a step further by layering the additional anxiety and effect of the Covid-19 pandemic upon Kholeif’s initial inquiry. The result resembles a real-time user guide that offers insight plus comfort by acknowledging the chaos we find ourselves in. “I think there is an impression sometimes that the digital sphere sutures us, when it are unable to. I see this space like a tool, an aid, an alterscape that layers onto reality, ” Kholeif says. “Yet, in 2020, many individuals in the developed world amid a global pandemic, believed that their own isolation could be resolved through staying constantly connected. Yet as research reveals, this act simply manifests as a form of [Guy Debord’s] Society of the Spectacle, whereby individuals become ‘performing phantasms’ manifesting their lives by means of endless screen-based conversations; looking in a perpetual mirror; hyper-scheduling their life and refusing to give in to it.

Kholeif is keen to reject a solely dystopian way of thinking about these types of ideas. They consider them selves a “digital centrist” and believe the pivotal query that lies ahead is certainly: “How will we reintegrate into society? I think, for the moment, we should accept our interdependence with technology while becoming wary of how we use it. ”

Visual language

Technology has immersed us in a world of images. Beyond interrogating how these have affected our consciousness, informing how we discern everything from beauty to value, tech has also moved the meaning of what a photograph is. The constituent parts of analogue photography are based on a specific process, situated in regards to singular format and writer.

Even though many photographers continue to hold surface on this type of practice, the particular photographic now represents something much messier and extensive. It encompasses a range of methods for thinking about imagery while hooking up the dots between all of the people who come together to make an image. Photography is a shared, general public and potent language, plus arguably what constitutes an image in the current environment is so fluid that attempting to tether it feels reductive.

Film_Electric © Brea Souders.

“Asha Schechter defines what makes a photograph in the 21st century as ‘everything between capture and rendering’, ” curator Charlotte Cotton tells me. “And that’s it. In terms of what pictures are for us emotionally, culturally, economically and behaviourally, my starting point would not be to separate the visuals or the purported or traditional function of a photograph. It’s what you do with it between catch – whether it’s your capture or a found catch – and the final suggestion. ”

Cotton has invested the last decade creating an ecosystem that pragmatically examines how photography is shifting in the context of a wider matrix of online behavior and social codes. In Public, Private, Secret – On Photography and the Configuration of Self (2018), she pulls together a spectrum associated with ideas, addressing the complex intersection between visual culture and personal privacy. Photography can be Magic (2015) explores the task of artists, including Letha Wilson, Brea Souders plus Rachel de Joode, that are thinking about digital tools, the particular materiality of photography, the particular ways we read images and disrupting the software of those processes. The work of those artists marks an important time in photography’s ongoing evolution. They are embracing a route that isn’t mapped out there, responding to endless possibilities in a manner that is both freeing and highly considered.

Heightened by social media, this particular culture of visibility has additionally affected what it means to be a professional photographer, with both empowering and difficult realities. “I get the feeling of the positivity of this particular moment, ” Cotton shares. “The most astounding thing to think about is this idea that you are not alone. The platforms give us the right to see and be seen. The algorithmic challenges and consequences of that are usually other things entirely. The rapidity with which those things are commodified and manipulated obviously has to be in the back of our minds. But on a real baseline degree, the idea of being able to find your own audience and create your structures excites me because that is a new paradigm. ”

Delaware (2016) © Douglas Coupland

Online personality

By now, it’s clear that where and how we locate ourselves in regard to these networks is an inherently messy experience. It’s not surprising that celeb culture and the notion associated with reality TV have infiltrated the particular photo industry. What is amazing is how it has taken hold – both on photographers and the industry in particular. Cotton’s essay Process, Content material and Dissemination: Photography and Music from Words with no Pictures (2008) was prophetic in its argument that digital photography was on a similar trajectory to the music industry in order to came to its reformation. Perhaps the photographer and their own persona are often considered a lot more valuable than their actual photographs. Social media presence right now plays a deciding aspect in commissioning, both editorially and commercially, often leading to photographers investing more time in perfecting the PR cycle than their work itself. Of course , artists throughout history have sought notoriety, but social media marketing has accelerated this. Let us be clear: photographers are largely beholden to this ” new world ” order and, right or even wrong, this is how the industry features in the present. However , we are currently witnessing the repercussions of this as the industry grows more homogenous.  

“Social media has turned up the volume on this by making it quantifiable, ” the photographer Charlie Engman tells me. “It was continually a competition in a way, great there is a scorecard. It energies people to move in ways that are not natural – people are biochemically addicted to the score page. It’s induced some more repugnant aspects of self-branding or self-mythologising –that everyone does. That is where the internet’s difficulty really lies – people are therefore orientated towards attention, profit and productivity, it makes almost everything feel pressurised in a way that is certainly unnecessary and unhelpful. ” 

Collina Strada © Steve Engman.

The New York-based artist is known for their art and fashion work that pushes at the limitations of what an image is and can be. Engman feels his career exists “because of the internet” and has navigated everything the platform brings with an attuned sensitivity. “Everyone is simply trying to figure it away and react to the context in which you find yourself. I’m constantly thinking about online engagement and how it works. It affects me personally aesthetically and emotionally. ” He adds, “It’s furthermore my main source of reference point. I settle for it simply by thinking less about the value in an abstract sense and more about who is choosing value in it. ”

In Art in the Age of Anxiety, the designer and writer Douglas Coupland opens with a provocation: “The future used to be in the future, however for years we’ve been getting closer and closer to it, and now the present and the long term have become the same thing. ” Fumbling with the ways in which the systems alter our consciousness is certainly something we have to reckon with for the foreseeable future as individuals making and experiencing work. To some degree, the ideas, messages and values we want to discuss are in our hands. While images remain a valuable resource in these spaces, photographers are uniquely positioned to imagine new worlds, new ways of getting and to unite us within collective struggle.

Picture 049 (Cardboard Box, Autumn Leaf Red, Funky Monkeys) © Asha Schechter.

It is difficult to divorce yourself from this pressure to take part. It’s perpetuated by the market but masterminded by the tech giants who want to keep all of us online. Among the chaos, the particular proximity of the audience frequently now informs the innovative process from context in order to concept. “There are a lots of conciliatory fractures in this concept of a shared reality, ” Engman explains. “On the main one hand, people assume that later the same opinions and that there is this kind of amorphous correctness that will everyone is aware of and said to be striving towards. At the same time, everybody is hyper individuated and doesn’t trust anyone else. There is no space in the middle for some kind of tönung or idea that might be contradictory – and that contradiction might be the whole point. ”

Like a lot of photographers, Engman’s projects have sparked debate, giving your pet pause to reflect on their intentions and positioning with his work. “It can feel as if some people have the world look at that art is meaningful, ” he says. “And not only that it is moral, but that there is a correct type of moral. I think that is the death of art. The world we live in can be proof that we stand on uncommon ground. It becomes complex when a lot of people visualize photography or art because the battleground for that conversation. ”

Within Art in the Age of Anxiety, the artist and author Douglas Coupland opens having a provocation: “The future was once in the future, but for years we’ve been getting closer plus closer to it, and now the current and the future have become exactly the same thing. ” Wrestling with the ways in which the networks alter our own consciousness is something we need to reckon with for the foreseeable future as individuals making and experiencing work. To some degree, the ideas, messages and beliefs we want to share are in our own hands. While images stay a valuable asset in these areas, photographers are uniquely situated to imagine new worlds, new ways of being and to unite us in collective battle.

Untitled, from the collection Flatness © Annie MacDonell. Courtesy Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art, New York and Toronto.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging skill in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Journal, and hosts a picture taking podcast, The Messy Reality.

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