Wed, Oct 17, 2018 - Page 9 News List

What next for photography in the age of Instagram?

In our image-propelled social media era, some photographers fear for the future of the art, while others are galvanized by it. As technology increasingly shapes how we see and share the world, how is photography changing in response?

By Sean O’Hagan  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

In 2012, I wrote an essay about the shifting nature of photography in an era of unprecedented image overload. Back then, Facebook users alone were uploading 300 million photographs a day, while the number of images posted on Flickr and Instagram had exceeded the 11-billion mark.

I quoted the US artist and writer Chris Wiley, whose 2011 article “Depth of Focus” in Frieze magazine had expressed the anxiety of many practitioners about “a world thoroughly mediatized by and glutted with the photographic image and its digital doppelganger.”

Wiley’s conclusion was pessimistic: “As a result, the possibility of making a photograph that can stake a claim to originality or affect has been radically called into question. Ironically, the moment of greatest photographic plentitude has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion.”

Since then, the numbers have become even more mind-boggling: 350 million photographs a day uploaded on Facebook; 95 million photographs and videos shared on Instagram daily. The combined number of images shared uploaded on both platforms now exceeds 290 billion, while there are 188 million daily active users of Snapchat.

Leaving aside for a moment anxieties about photography’s meaning in the social media age, one could argue from this evidence that it is the medium of our time, not just defining our globally connected digital image culture, but propelling it.

Even a decade ago, no one could have predicted the seismic shift that has occurred in our relationship with — and use of — the photographic image.

Back in 2012, the anxieties of many photographers tended to converge around the notion of authenticity: Would digital technology undermine the craft of analogue photography and, more worryingly, its veracity? Would the invisible hand of Photoshop render not just the process, but the so-called “truth” of photography, obsolete?

The arrival of the smartphone camera made all those concerns seem antiquated. It precipitated a new image culture in which photographs have assumed a fresh importance in our digitally mediated world, particularly the sharing of photographs on platforms like Instagram, where they are measured in likes, comments and repostings, all monitored by algorithms.

Photography reflects, records and advertises our lives online. Is it, though, exhausting itself through its very ubiquity, losing its meaning in an age of almost unimaginable image overload?

The superficial evidence would suggest otherwise. Over the past decade or so, there has been an attendant rise in interest in what you might call traditional photography culture.

Although British art institutions were embarrassingly late in acknowledging the importance of photography curation — Tate appointed its first photography curator in 2009, almost 70 years after the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York did so — galleries are now finally according the medium the space it deserves as an art form.

The new photography wing of the Victoria and Albert museum has just opened and, next spring, the Swedish organization Fotografiska is to open an 8,300m2 space in Whitechapel and another vast gallery in New York, both dedicated to contemporary photography.

In the past few years, photography festivals and fairs have sprung up across the globe, challenging the commercial grandstanding of big established events such as Paris Photo and the annual Rencontres d’Arles.

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