Monday, November 17, 2014

thinking some thoughts, crabbily, and without much of a conclusion

So last Wednesday night I went to this thing, an event, in the city. It was one in a series of talks titled "Raising the Bar" - the general premise being, let's get some experts/academics to give talks about interesting/timely subjects, and instead of a stuffy hall or classroom or library let's hold it in bars. Which, frankly, I'm totally down for. Listening to smart people say smart things while sitting comfortably enjoying a little pinot grigio or what-have-you is all kinds of okay by me.

The talk I attended seemed promising in the teaser promo email:

Shake It Like An Instagram Picture
"As technology has necessitated picture perfection, instagram has given its users a platform to provide aesthetically pleasing insights into their lives. While it has exposed its users to photographic and cinematic appreciation, it has had a detrimental impact on the industry it revolutionized; photography. Amateur instagrammers can become famous overnight without any knowledge of fundamental photography. As a result, Instagram’s growth poses important questions for major photographers and their patrons. Amidst photography’s technological innovations, who will come [out] on top?"

and the speakers seemed promising, too:

Jose Silva, Instagram Photographer
Tamara Peterson, Instagram Photographer
Anne Nelson, Associate Professor Lecturer of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
Michele Romero, Photo Editor, Entertainment Weekly

When I arrived, instead of the pleasantly divey bar I had anticipated - you know, dimly lit with well worn booths - it was a disco. Yeah, it was in a CLUB, not a bar. With a bouncer at the red-roped door, mirror ball, DJ and 1980's Madonna playing at ear-drum splitting volumes. And drinks priced to match. After paying $14 for my plastic dixie cup of mediocre white wine I parked myself in a chair against the wall and waited for the talk to start. And waited. And...waited. Fully 30 minutes after the "start" of the lecture, the panelists finally took their seats. 
Get into the groove / Boy you've got to prove / Your love to me, yeah
I was annoyed at this point. So I began a conversation with myself (not out loud) about why I was feeling so irked. Was it because the crowd was mostly 20-somethings and the music they were  playing came out when I was in high school? Was it because I had just been charged a ridiculous mark-up for my plastic thimble of wine even by Manhattan standards? Usually I can squash those sorts of feelings and carry on and have a good time, but I was having trouble reigning in my over-all annoyance at the scene-iness of the whole situation. But having committed to the evening, I stayed seated.

The moderator, of sorts, was the photo editor from Entertainment Weekly, who began by reading aloud a version of the promo teaser as if she had only just been apprised of the lecture's direction and had little intention of actually shaping the discussion with it. Not good, thought I. I began to fear the whole evening was going to be a colossal waste of my time.

Those fears were swiftly confirmed when the following non-introductions of the other panelists proved to be a bigger schmooze-fest than the usual in these sort of things. Romero opened by relaying the number of followers each of the two Instagram photographers had (over 100,000 for one and close to that for the other) and then joking not joking, asked them if they'd follow her, her numbers could use a boost. The questions she then posed to the Instagram stars and the answers that followed were so inane that I can scarcely recall them in detail.

There was one flickering moment where Anne Nelson (who has an amazing resume - you should google her) ventured forth a more critical assessment of the impact iphone photography was likely having on previous standards of craftsmanship and what it might mean. You know, a thought with some substance and in line with the premise of the purported discussion, but that was met with general indifference, and the circle jerk of mutual admiration continued apace.

And in my head I'm thinking, Yeah, not so good. Should've stayed home and watched that last episode of The Bletchley Circle. I had expected a lively sort of discussion, with people thoughtfully considering the implications of social media and digital imagery on photo "standards" and "professional" practice and some debate and back and forth about what it all might mean. Kinda like how it was in grad school. But without the crippling depression and poverty. But I digress.

In the past year I've been contacted a couple times through my flickr account about photo usage. Once by Travel + Leisure magazine and more recently by BuzzFeed. Travel + Leisure wanted to know if they could use a pic I'd snapped at the Des Moines airport a couple years ago. They were doing an article about the 10 worst airports in the U.S. and needed an illustration. Doubtless they had neither the desire or budget to send someone to Des Moines just to take a snapshot of their airport, so instead some (doubtless underpaid) photo editor did a search on flickr or google and my image showed up. There would be no money for the use of it, of course, just a credit. I turned them down. 

For the Buzzfeed request I said yes, though I really shouldn't have. They asked me for use of a photo I'd taken of a Brooklyn bar and my thinking was, well, at least it's exposure for a local business. Also they asked really nicely. It was a moment of weakness. Again, no money, but they offered to link to my blog in the credit, so I said, whatever, okay.

Lots of people have articulated why it is bad for artists to work for free.* Even if you are one of those rare and fortunate souls who doesn't need to generate income from their labor, doing so has an impact on those artists (99%) who do. In short, it undermines the value of the labor we perform in the marketplace. It solidifies the misperception that the work we do isn't a real job, like plumbing or lawyering or accounting. 

Although detailing these two flickr interactions might feel like a bit of a detour from my original complaint about the event I attended, they feel of a piece to me. I think it likely has a generational component, as well. There was a pretty wide age gap between the members of the lecture panel - and I had mostly wanted to hear more of what Anne Nelson (someone with a long and varied history, easily 20+ years older than the two Instagram photogs) might have shared. I had anticipated that she might have some real insights about the current status of photographic cultural production. But instead it was just...really superficial talk about how to become popular on Instagram.

*the following links are to artists/organizations exploring the link between design/labor/money
Jessica Hische,


  1. What a bizarrely interesting evening. The organizers should have realized that fake thoughtfulness might have gone down better with some cheaper booze.
    Lately, I've been wondering what some of favorite street photographers would have thought of, done with phone photography. Are always available cameras & filtering apps making artists of us all or are they cheapening the art of photography? I certainly don't know. But I will be thinking about this more.
    p.s. I am heartened that permission was sought for your out-there-on-the-internets photos. So often, they are just used with the intent of asking forgiveness if the occasion arises.

    1. It WAS a sort of bizarrely interesting evening, you nailed it. And your insight about the cheap booze and fake thoughtfulness made me laugh.

      And, yes, your question is the very one I had anticipated the evening's talk to address. Would that you had been on the panel.

      Just out of curiosity, who are your favorite street photographers?