THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF PHOTO 2.0
When software companies offer an upgrade to a program, users inevitably have to weigh a number of factors in deciding whether to buy the upgrade. Among those factors are desired new features, whether their needs are served by the upgrade, cost, and ease of use. The software companies use various tactics to persuade us to upgrade: it's faster, it's got many new features, old versions are no longer supported, you're in danger of falling seriously behind if you don't upgrade. These tactics typically play on our vanity/anxieties and create this atmosphere of fear of being left behind. And they generally work well, unless the upgrade is deemed to be so bloated and so much time has passed before its release that it is already out of date.
I had never heard of the "Photo 2.0 Upgrade" until I rejoined Facebook back in the summer. I had been completely unsatisfied with my experience with Facebook before, and had gone to the extreme of having my account absolutely deleted a few years ago. But during the summer I met a number of people while taking workshops that I wanted to keep in touch with, and Facebook was the best way to do that. And in general using Facebook to keep in touch with fellow artists and new friends I've met in person has been great.
What does this have to do with "Photo 2.0"? Well, during the course of my explorations on Facebook, I joined several photography-related groups. Through these I encountered a small "band of brothers" who have been advocating the new dawn of photography based on the perception that the hindrances to artists getting their work distributed and recognized through the "old" gallery system were being completely swept away by access to the internet. Yet with this democratization had come a problem, according to the advocates - now that everyone had started promoting their work this way, it was making it difficult to find the truly excellent work amongst all the average work that was flooding onto the net. And so this band of brothers set themselves up to be the arbiters of outstanding art on our behalf by assuring us that rather than wade through the murky waters ourselves, they will decide who is producing the best images, the best photo books, etc. In other words, they have set themselves up as the new gatekeepers/tastemakers while disparaging the gatekeeper system of yore. Physical gallery shows are viewed as being tolerable by the new advocates, but inferior to on-line presentations. Physical photo books - tolerable but only until whiz-bang interactive ebooks are out - we're assured that's what everyone will demand.
WHY I'M SKIPPING THE PHOTO 2.0 UPGRADE
In a nutshell, I'm skipping this upgrade because I know that Photo 3.0 (see below) is already taking shape. The Photo 2.0 upgrade is outdated, redundant, bloated beyond belief and has few features useful to photographers. The leading advocate of Photo 2.0 has been getting free dinners and invitations to speak at conferences and meetings about his brave new world of photography for five years. Going back to the software analogy (it's really their analogy, not mine), the successful software companies push out major upgrades of their products on a roughly 12-18 month schedule. Two years is pushing it, beyond that the software is basically considered dead or abandoned. I think it is safe to say that Photo 2.0 is dead.
And it should be dead because it is redundant, bloated and almost useless to photographers looking to effectively promoter their work. Photo 2.0 is redundant because it relies on gatekeepers/tastemakers, a shockingly small group of them who seem to spend more time self-referencing and cross-referencing each other on their web sites, Facebook, Twitter etc. than they do actually promoting the best photographic work. Their target audience is primarily photographers (those are the people who are going to validate their efforts by providing content for their web site) so they are doing nothing to get the best work in front of collectors, or to expand the market for photography by bringing in new people who have never collected photography. You are far better off working with a local gallerist, who will definitely bring your work to the attention of collectors, who works to introduce new people to collecting art, thus expanding your market, and who in this day and age has a web site which puts your work in front of the global market.
I consider Photo 2.0 bloated because even through the filter of this band of brothers, far too much work is getting exposure, and done with an implied stamp of approval. While looking at the work of others is part of a vibrant art practice, it is only instructive if it's done in a very limited and thoughtful way. Most of the Photo 2.0 related sites put up "featured" images on their home page for 1 day, then replace then all the next day. They also often have large "collections" of images by featured artists which quickly end up in the "archives" which is probably visited very infrequently. And they promote themselves by playing to the anxiety/fear factor by implying that if you aren't willing to provide content to them on their terms, or aren't constantly checking their sites for important work by others, you are going to be missing out on high impact exposure and knowledge. It's all a load of bs, and it encourages behaviour that is detrimental to an artist's development. Furthermore, anyone whose work is featured on a site this way is getting little to no benefit because it's presented in the most superficial manner for the briefest of time.
PHOTO 3.0: THE FUTURE IS HERE
So if Photo 2.0 is stillborn, where are we at? For those who have kept an open mind, open eyes and been observant, the future of photography has already arrived. Smart photographers are using social media to keep in touch with each other, and to make occasional, considered announcements about new work. Some also document projects in progress to give a bit of a "behind the scenes" look which allows prospective collectors to form a more personal connection to the artist and the work in progress. Many have a web site for formal presentation of recent work, and others keep a blog to talk about the motivations behind their work which helps build relationships with potential collectors. And most are either remaining committed to producing physical objects in the form of prints and books or are returning to those modes of production in combination with digital approaches after a foray into the completely digital realm. Rather than rigidly adopting a completely on-line or completely analogue approach to making, marketing and selling work, they are finding the right blend of tools that is most effective for them.
The signs are everywhere. I was at a talk in the fall given by Dan Milnor about book publishing. There was some discussion of ebooks, and a high school teacher in the audience shared that he had asked his students whether they preferred physical photo books or ebooks and was surprised (pleasantly) that they all said that they far preferred physical books. Another contributed that students are bored with the digital methods they grew up with and are so familiar to them and are excited about learning analogue methods for producing work. While people continue to declare film is dead (or is not dead) and analogue methods of making photographic images are fading away, there's ample evidence of photographers reinstating darkrooms, learning other fine art methods of producing photographs such as wet plate collodion, cyanotype/kallitype/platinum printing, photopolymer gravure printing. And none of this is surprising because people who buy and collect art are looking for physical objects. They appreciate the choices that go into the process that was used, which paper is used, what materials with different textures and smells are used, the size and shape of books, the type of printing. People are turning their backs on sites like Flickr and Facebook where they find the discussions about photography to be superficial, and are meeting in person with others to engage in a more thoughtful discussion. In two instances last year, workshop groups that I was a part of have gone on to have informal critique sessions; one group has organized a group show at a local gallery.
The key here is the decision by more and more artists/photographers to maintain control of their art practice and the eventual outcome of that practice. They use the on-line and analogue methods in ways that fit their needs, not someone else's. They are respectful of their potential collectors, and of other artists by not flooding sites with constant promotional materials, or constantly showing the same images from a body of work (both of these activities lead to visual exhaustion and are counterproductive). They build relationships with other artists and gallerists in their local communities to work together to build a better appreciation for art in general and to expand the size of the local market for art. Some are selflessly bringing the work of other artists to the attention of many people through on-line blogs. These people represent the tribe that I want to belong to.