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.”
Illustration: Mountain people
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.
Last month alone, Unseen Amsterdam and BredaPhoto were held in the Netherlands, Images Vevey in Switzerland, Organ Vida in Croatia and the Guernsey photography festival and the Brighton photo biennial in the UK. That is more photography festivals in a month than there used to be in a year.
The past few decades, too, have seen the photobook emerge as perhaps the most vibrant arbiter of photography culture. Small, independent photobook publishers proliferate; pop-up events around indie photobooks and zines draw a young and informed audience.
Offprint, the photography publishing fair attracts large, mainly younger crowds annually to its book markets in Paris and London.
Flying in the face of the unstoppable flow of digital images online, traditional photography culture endures and proliferates, with both the photobook and the photo archive — material things that can be handled, browsed over, collected, exchanged — assuming a heightened importance.
What, though, of the photography itself? Faced with the unprecedented flow of digital images, one has to ask if the traditional status of photography as a way of documenting the world has been altered irrevocably. Whither documentary in the post-truth era? Or portraiture at a time when the selfie has reduced the traditional idea of the self-portrait to a casual narcissistic reflex (282 million selfies were posted on Instagram in 2016)? And what role does reportage now play in an age when the smartphone has made us all potential citizen (photo)journalists?
The last question is particularly resonant when you consider the following incident and its immediate aftermath: On 20 June 2009, 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot by a pro-government sniper near the scene of a protest against the Iranian government. The Iranian state had declared the protest illegal and barred foreign media from covering it. However the image of Agha-Soltan’s blood-streaked face as she lay dying was captured on the mobile phones of those around her and, within minutes, went viral. Within hours, footage of her death posted anonymously on YouTube was viewed by the US president.
In a world where we are all able to fulfil the role of bearing witness that once fell to photojournalists how can traditional reportage compete?
The anxieties that Wiley identified converge around not just the status, but the meaning, of photography in a digital world drowning in images.
As I said in 2012, though: “No amount of camera technology will turn a mediocre photographer into a great one, nor, in conceptual terms, will it transform a bad idea into a good one. For that, you would still need to possess a rare set of creative gifts that are to do with seeing, with deep looking.”
I wonder now if that is still the case. Perhaps our relationship with the photographic print — for so long the standard of excellence and artistry — is changing in a world where so many images float unmoored from their context.
As if to illustrate this, one of the most arresting pieces of work I saw last year was an installation by the Indian photographer Sohrab Hura, The Lost Head and the Bird, shown on a sped-up projection in a darkened, semi-derelict space in Peckham.
It was a dramatic merging of the real and the possibly fictional, a stream of visceral images of life on the margins in India that had an almost hallucinatory intensity.
Here, all the tired tropes of street photography were upended into a visual stream of almost subliminal images that jolted the viewer — the traditional, reformatted and revitalized.
In contrast, another noteworthy series I first saw last year was Ex-Voto by English photographer Alys Tomlinson, which comprises black-and-white portraits and landscapes of contemporary pilgrims and holy sites in France, Poland and Ireland. It has since won Tomlinson this year’s Sony world photography award.
Using film, her work draws on the austere portraiture of August Sander and the human otherness captured by Diane Arbus. In its still, spartan style, it is the perfect merging of form and subject, reaffirming a tradition of craft and attentiveness.
Increasingly, though, contemporary photography is all about, to borrow a term beloved by academics and curators, “interrogating the medium,” which often means shifting it away from documentary toward other, more conceptually driven art forms — abstract painting, sculpture, performance, video installation.
To this end, younger photographers, such as Daisuke Yokota and Maya Rochat, both included in Tate Modern’s recent exhibition, “Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art,” make work that is, on one level, a dynamic reflection of the dilemma of the contemporary photographer in an age of image overload.
Yokota, for instance, has treated images with heat and iron powder, and subjected others to constant rephotographing, rescanning and reprinting.
The results are closer to abstraction and make the idea of photography as a medium that simply records the world around us seem positively quaint.
A glance at the range of processes that underpin contemporary photography practice attests to the fact that the medium is now performance, sculpture, abstraction, deconstruction and diary as much as it is documentary. None of this is entirely new.
It is worth remembering, too, that although our contemporary image culture is without precedent in terms of its scale and its endless flow, there was another moment when technology sparked a surge in vernacular image-making.
Back in the early 1960s, advances in analogue photographic technology brought the almost-instant photograph into the hands of millions of amateur American snappers through the Polaroid camera.
In 1960, sales had reached 100 million a year. By 1964, 5 million Polaroid Land cameras had been produced. The proliferation of Polaroid snapshots marked the first wave of democratic photography, but it did not, as far as I know, induce collective anxiety in a transformative generation of photographers — including Arbus and Garry Winogrand — who were coming of age back then.
What the Polaroid did do, though, was inform the image-making of an ensuing generation, underpinning the snapshot aesthetic of both Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, whereby the apparently mundane and casual was actually formally rigorous and deeply observed.
Andy Warhol, too, instinctively understood the democratic power of the Polaroid, as his photographic portraits attest.
For him, the medium — Polaroids of his celebrity friends or himself — was very much the message, not just elevating and celebrating the wondrous banality of everyday America in all its superficial glamor, but encapsulating it.
Perhaps it is worth looking at the smartphone camera — and social media — in this way: How will they influence a generation of image-makers to come?
Although certain influential photographers, such as Eggleston and Shore, had always insisted on the essentially democratic nature of their approach, the smartphone camera has already made photography democratic in a way that no one could have predicted.
It placed compact, ultra-hi-tech, relatively cheap image-making machinery in the hands of the many, not the few. What they did with it has already revolutionized not just the way we use photography, but the way we see — and share — the world around us.
Shore is now an advocate and avid user of Instagram, which he has described as “a new means of distribution and a new means of communication [which] opens possibilities that didn’t exist before.”
His Instagram images were included in a retrospective he had at MoMA last year. Like many photographers and artists, he relishes what he calls the “playful” nature of Instagram posts — “the kind of playfulness that I liked in the [photobook form], that I could try an idea for a day and explore it.”
For him, he told the Tate in 2015, Instagram is also a platform that “celebrates images that are diaristic, that are brief glances, that are visual jottings, that are one-liners. It accepts complexity, but doesn’t demand it.” Instagram suits Shore’s approach, the observation and documenting of an everyday America, while the “community” he finds there seems in tune with his vision: “I find it very satisfying that they’re a group of people who look at each other’s work every day, and they’re all over the world.”
The diaristic nature of Instagram seems crucial here, allowing photographers to try out ideas, document work in progress or simply alert people to what they are up to in terms of book publishing, exhibitions or talks.
Interestingly, though, the younger US documentary photographer Alec Soth is less enthusiastic about using Instagram as a platform for his work.
“When Instagram started, I was opposed to using it,” he said. “I was a fan of Tumblr — I found it more flexible and open and less prone to the ‘like’ neediness of Instagram. I also disliked the filters which, in the beginning, were the big draw to the platform.”
It was only after one of his assistants suggested Instagram might be useful to promote his indie book publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom, that Soth decided to give it a go.
“The moment I started using Instagram, I was hooked,” he said.
He had fallen prey to that “’like’ neediness.”
“Eventually, I just succumbed to the flow like everyone else [and] I’ve lost so much interest in the platform lately,” he said.
Soth admits that Instagram can be a creative tool — “a place for me to experiment with an audience” — but fears that “a lot of the time it’s not much more than a branding tool.”
He is suspicious, too, of its effect on our understanding or appreciation of photography.
“I don’t think I have ever been moved the way I have with a great artwork, film or novel. Instead, the platform gives me little pellets of pleasure. I guess that’s what I dislike about it too — the addictive quality of those pellets rarely satisfies,” he said.
For all that, I have found Instagram to be a fertile ground for discovery. Among my favorite feeds are Simone White (@simonewhitemusic) who creates beautiful still lifes in natural light, the vernacular photography collection of Billy Parrott (@billyparrott), the extraordinary Japanese photobook collection @solitudeofravens and @spacearchives, a feed about public art environments.
Among more established artists, Cindy Sherman is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a trailblazer, using Instagram brilliantly as an extension of her practice.
Joan Didion once said: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Instagram is also, of course, a way of telling stories — or creating narrative — about ourselves.
Of late, contemporary photography has become a nexus for visual storytelling of an often stylized, metaphorical or semi-fictional nature.
In 2014, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman created an Instagram feed as a work of art in itself, creating a fictional persona as a Los Angeles “it girl,” and living it out for three months by posing for selfies in trendy restaurants, designer shops, international airports and luxury hotel lobbies.
Having identified three social media archetypes of privileged femininity — “cute girl,” “sugar babe” and “life goddess” — she photographed herself in lingerie, at pole-dancing classes and dining out with a tiny, cute designer dog on her lap.
Ulman’s project inevitably precipitated a wave of online anger and outrage when she revealed that she was an artist. Her work was not just a critique of social media archetypes of glamor and success, but an exploration of how easily “followers” can be mesmerized and manipulated by the same.
At its heart, too, was a complex dynamic: how photography can lie to expose a deeper truth.
The following year, life inevitably imitated art, when the media reported that Instagram star Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager with half a million followers, had deleted her account.
She described it as “a contrived perfection made to get attention.”
She pointed to posed selfies that helped her make an income from marketing products to her followers and spoke of the all-consuming nature of a life lived on — and in thrall — to social media.
Her posed selfies — so staged as to seem obviously performative — nevertheless mesmerized her followers to the point where even the most blatant product placement seemed invisible, or simply acceptable.
Again, she, like Ulman, was castigated by those she had seemingly betrayed.
The power of photography as a tool of fantasy and/or mass delusion is not new — the advertising industry was built on it — but now seems so powerful and so prevalent as to be disturbing.
Next month, the Photographers’ Gallery in London hosts an exhibition, titled “All I Know Is What’s on the Internet.”
It is to feature the “contemporary artists seeking to map, visualize and question the cultural dynamics of 21st-century photography” in a social media age.
To this end, it is to “interrogate” not just the role and agency of the photographer in this new context, but “photography’s cultural value at a time when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question.”
It is to include work by the intriguingly named Constant Dullaart, whose 2014 project, High Retention, Slow Delivery, targeted what he called “the contemporary attention economy” of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the “sharing mechanisms” of which — likes, retweets, followers, friends — stimulate “an appreciation system based on popularity over quality, and social skills over talent.”
Dullaart’s work centers on what he calls “the capitalization of community.”
In all of this, Wiley’s anxiety about the creation of a new photograph “that can stake a claim to originality or affect” remains resonant.
However, it also sparks an attendant question, which is not so much what social media is doing to photography, but what an image-propelled social media culture is doing to us? Where is our agency in a world so dominated and driven by digital technology, so controlled by global corporations and invisible algorithms?
One answer is that it is simply preparing us for the next seismic shift in technology: artificial intelligence (AI). Though you might not have noticed it, AI is already ubiquitous, no more so than in photography technology.
As Wired magazine reported recently, the latest Apple smartphones “come with new chip technology [that] allows the new devices to offer slicker camera effects and augmented-reality experiences.”
It is the latter phase, in all its sci-fi techno-speak, that heralds the future of smartphone camera technology.
In February, researchers from Alphabet Inc’s DeepMind division released thumbnail images of a range of everyday subjects: a dog, a butterfly, a hamburger and an ocean view. All were AI-generated images produced from scratch by an algorithm called BiGAN. All look disturbingly like real photographs.
Sooner than we think, it will be impossible for the human eye to tell the difference between an AI-generated image and a real photograph.
The future is already here and photography is the medium shaping it — and us — in ways that make all these anxieties about the meaning of photography seem almost irrelevant. And, in another way — against a backdrop of fake news, alternative facts, and artificial intelligence — more relevant than ever.
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