Are you Drowning Yet?

I have written about parts of this topic a couple of times since the start of the MA and I think it is definitely important to really consider the context of how my work is displayed, and the audience of that work:

Photo Books, for example. I absolutely adore them and spend many hours looking at my own small collection. However, I was interested to listen to Simon Norfolk in a recent Small Voice Podcast (Norfolk, 2019), who said that he himself is done with them. His reasoning for this is down to the audience of photobooks, which is almost entirely that of other photographers, and a middle-class demographic of photographers, which can be problematic for a number of reasons. When you consider that many of these books have small print runs of around 150, and can be exceptionally expensive, this can be limiting in the dissemination of the work; for the socially concerned photographer, what you are actually doing is creating esoteric works for other people like yourself which does not bring issues to a wide and diverse audience.

Norfolk’s critique continued, and he also discussed the way that some of the major awards operate to only reward those that are part of the same cliques within the traditional photography world and this kind of self-congratulatory feedback loop will ultimately harm the practice of photography and its relevance.

Figure 1. Simon Norfolk’s Instagram Profile. (Norfolk & Instagram, 2020).

Interestingly, Norfolk cited Instagram as the space where the most current photography is happening and has worked to increase his own audience to around 150,000 followers (Fig. 1). Norfolk also discussed photographers such as Joey L as potentially moving the medium forward in this sphere, yet wouldn’t be considered by the traditional gallery system. Added to this, I also read recently of the TikTok photographer Derek Harris with a 3.6 million fan base (Harris & TikTok, 2020). These two examples are not who you might consider as legitimate photographic artists and social media creates a homogenised view of photography (Fig. 2), yet they draw audiences that clearly cannot be ignored, and to a great extent show that photography still has a large audience, albeit a younger demographic than those who might follow the Photographers Gallery; this could be considered a gateway into other parts of the photographic world. The rise of these photographers is surely a reaction by a generation that only consumes media via an online platform and technologies potentially considering the way we consume imagery archaic and obsolete.

Figure 2. Image from @Insta_Repeat (Anon & Instagram, 2020).

Norfolk’s comments on Joel L were an interesting one however, he stated that he did not really like his work, a statement of which I tend to agree with owing to L’s highly exoticised gaze which is similar to the discussion around the National Geographic gaze we are looking at this week. However, Norfolk did have a great deal of respect for his ability to create an audience, and L’s aesthetics and technical ability can’t be discounted wholly. When I looked up Joey L’s Instagram however, he was actually using his most recent posts to promote his own first photobook, ‘We Came from Fire’ (L, 2019). So, even with L’s large online audience it seems he still places value on the tangible medium, albeit with a much larger print run no doubt.

Continuing this point, Last week’s reading of Bright’s ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, I was struck by her discussion regarding Lisa Lewenz’s ‘Three Mile Island Calendar’ (Bright, 1985) which consciously presented the work using a highly mass produced format playing with the notion of how these images would normally be viewed – primarily in a corporate report setting. This kind of presentation has impact over how you might expect to see a landscape image within its black borders and hung on white walls. To do something similar in a contemporary form of mass production, which ultimately would be using an online platform such as Instagram, the context could quickly drain away (Sontag, 1979, p. 106) as the image gets swallowed up by the countless others uploaded every second.

Where the photo book may hold more resonance with audiences outside of the photography world might be through publishers such as Hoxton Mini Press who will look for secondary markets for the books that they produce. For example, the book ‘One Day Young’ by Jenny Lewis (Lewis, 2015) is a beautiful series of portraits of mothers and their brand new babies, which was bought for me and my wife when my daughter was just born, and I have also seen it for sale in stores such as Oliver Bonas, creating an opportunity for those unaware of photography in the esoteric sense to access it. However, and I consider my editorial print background here, market forces shape the creation of photography for the masses and ultimately leads to its homogenisation, as broad appeal and aesthetics take the place of challenging work, which was certainly the kind of images that I shot for airline and travel magazines. There are advertisers and increasing market share to think about.

Bibliography

Anonymous & Instagram, 2020. Insta_Repeat Instagram Profile. [Online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/ [Accessed 2 March 2020].

Bright, D., 1985. Of Mother Nature and Marlborough Men. Exposure, 23(1), p. Online.

Harris, D. & TikTok, 2020. derrekharris TikTok Profiles. [Online] Available at: https://www.tiktok.com/@derrek.harris [Accessed 2 March 2020].

Lewis, J., 2015. One Day Young. 1 ed. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

L, J., 2019. We Came From Fire. 1 ed. New York: Powerhouse Books.

Norfolk, S., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers [Interview] (12 June 2019).

Norfolk, S. & Instagram, 2020. SimonNorfolkStudio Instagram Profile. [Online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/simonnorfolkstudio/ [Accessed 2 March 2020].

Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.

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