Can the web deal with complex photography?


General Photography

There’s something interesting going on right now. Maybe it’s just me being too analytical with the world (always possible), but still: On the one hand, photography on the internet currently is being dominated by sites that either promote simple, single ideas (Twitter) or that showcase mostly single images (Tumblr). On the other hand, the photobook is not only more popular than ever, it is also becoming ever more complex, with some of the most widely acclaimed ones being those where a complex narrative is created out of dozens of photographs. How do you reconcile those two facts? Of course, you could just ignore them, knowing that in five years, say, the internet will yet again look very different (anyone remember Flickr?). But for some time, the development online seems to have focused more and more on isolated photographs, isolated photographs that increasingly are ill- or not attributed at all (a development that makes me shudder, both as a photographer and as an editor), isolated photographs that are being “liked” (I know, who cares, but let’s mention it for the sake of completeness) and reblogged. (more; updated below)

Thus, even if you were to present a photography project on a Tumblr, say, it’s incredibly likely that people will take whatever photo they like out of that context and share just that one part - thus potentially if not destroying then at least undermining the sequence you might have had in mind. Of course, if you work with isolated images then you don’t have a problem. If you’re happy to produce unrelated one liners there’s no problem. But for any type of photography where there needs to be a connection between images, sites like Twitter and Tumblr pose a problem - unless you simply want to publish everything in one big chunk (which, given the net, will result in a vastly smaller audience, because attention spans have been shortened so drastically).

A simple solution might turn out to be that photography will develop a split-personality disorder of sorts: Online, it might look as if photography were this incredibly simplistic thing, obsessed with single images (even something like Robert Frank’s The Americans would be lost online). Offline, there would be all these additional ways photographers work with images, making often very complex books (or even installations in galleries), that simply can’t be represented online. Now, in principle there would be nothing wrong with that.

But, and I do think that’s a pretty big but, such a development would create a pretty big disconnect between, for example, photobooks and the web, something we can already witness. If you think ebooks will solve that problem, I don’t buy that for all kinds of reasons - an ebook is just not the same thing at all (for what it’s worth, I yet have to see a single ebook that works well). As a consequence, the web would essentially be a tool to show individual images or to do PR, but anything more complex is not going to happen. Right now, I do think we’re moving rapidly in that direction. It might be time to stop a little, to think about whether there might be another way.

Update (23 Sep 2012): Blake Andrews has some thoughts on Tumblr, which you definitely want to read. Also, I wrote a related, follow-up post to this one, which can be found here.