OpEd: The Photography Surplus

©Alison Scarpulla

I’ve been meaning to pick up Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus but since I’d rather eat this week, I’ll have to wait awhile longer.  Instead of inaccurately describing the book, I’ll just use Shirky’s own words, taken from his recent TED Talk.

Cognitive surplus is made up of two things. The first, obviously, is the world’s free time and talents.The world has over a trillion hours a year of free time to commit to shared projects. Now, that free time existed in the 20th century, but we didn’t get Ushahidi in the 20th century.

That’s the second half of cognitive surplus. The media landscape in the 20th century was very good at helping people consume. And we got, as a result, very good at consuming.

But now that we’ve been given media tools — the Internet, mobile phones — that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be.  We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share. And it’s those two things together — ancient human motivation and the modern tools to allow that motivation to be joined up in large-scale efforts –that are the new design resource. And using cognitive surplus we’re starting to see truly incredible experiments in scientific, literary, artistic, political efforts. Designing.

There is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work. And as anybody who’s worked as an artist or a creator knows, it’s a spectrum you’re constantly struggling to get on top of. The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing. And someone who makes a LOLcat has already crossed over that gap.

One of the frequent refrains you here about photography is that we’re drowning in a sea of mediocre and worthless images (It’s all crap on Flickr! It’s ruining photography!).  This isn’t off base. There’s a lot of crap . But the other day, I asked myself, ‘what if there’s actually an abundance of good photography? What if there’s even a surplus of good photography? ‘

When everyone has a camera, you’re bound to have a percentage of people who are going to want to take their photography to the next level and learn to become better photographers.  With the internet, it’s easy to find and look at the great work from the past, and learn from your peers.

And increasingly, those peers are going to include people with a formal education in photography, who are out there sharing their work and knowledge, A Photo Student is a good example.

So, perhaps people are becoming more visually sophisticated both in their production of photographs and in their consumption. And if this is true, then maybe we’re seeing an abundance of interesting imagery.

Photojournalism and editorial photography are as competitive as ever, with more photographers competing for fewer jobs.  Fine art photography is thriving but there are only so many galleries and opportunities. There will be a fortunate few who break through, and deservedly so, but what about those that don’t? Is their work valueless? And I don’t mean personal value, but value as photography?

I know there will be lots of people that will disagree, and say, the cream rises to the top, and the rest is just crap. But I disagree. I think there’s value on periphery.

©Shawn C. Smith

What photography and which photographers rise to the top is a complex issue.  Certainly, the photography has to be accomplished, but to make it, photographers also need to know how to market their work and be savvy networkers within the industry.

Photography is a tough occupation and the art world is competitive.  It’s understandable that many people choose to make their work a labor of love and not pursue a career, or success in the art world.  You can call it a hobby, or call them amateurs, but I think this is often an easy way to simply dismiss the work.

I think this work has value, and I think there’s an abundance of interesting work being produced by amateurs.  This is where we find the surplus.

The biggest hurtle to having a broader understanding of the photography surplus is organization.  Currently, the landscape is far too fragmented for anyone to really understand all the work that’s being produced and presented on the internet.  Blogs do a reasonably decent job at filtering through the work, but even so, there’s far too much work for anyone to consider and consume.

Every so often I’ll follow a link and find myself looking in from the outside on a photography community I didn’t know about. It’s always interesting to see what they’re discussing, and more often than not, it’s the same issues with the amount of mediocre work on the internet.

It makes me think, how many of these communities are completely ignorant of each other?  Probably many. Then I wonder if any of them ever think like I do, and wonder what else is out there?  I’m not sure, but I do know that we all know that there’s lots of “noise” and the internet is filled with ‘mediocre crap.”  Perhaps thinking about everything out there is just too overwhelming which is why we often just give up and say things like “it’s all mediocre.”

©Anabel Navarro

As I sit here thinking about all the photography and all the mediocrity, I suddenly find myself thinking of Errol Morris, the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the unknown unknowns.

A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up.  I can do some research.  It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to.  With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.

But there is the deeper question.  And I believe that Dunning and Kruger’s work speaks to this.  Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine?  Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?”  Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know?  Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?

How does this relate to the surplus?  Perhaps the photography overload has blinded us and we don’t even know what questions to ask in order to figure it out.  It’s much easier to just say “it’s all mediocre crap” and go on looking to established blogs, mags, galleries and experts to help us make sense of it all.

There are those that will live by the philosophy that amazing work will be discovered, and they’ll go on writing about and anointing photographers into the cannon. As much as I enjoy lots of that work, I’m more fascinated by the periphery and what’s developing in the margins.  I’m not afraid of the photography wilderness the internet has created, in fact, it excites me because there are so many unknowns and unknown unknowns.

Now every time I have the knee jerk reaction to say, “there so much crap photography,” I catch myself and think, what if “there’s too much great photography and I’m just not intelligent enough to understand it all?”

That’s when I get excited again, click on a link, and peer into the work of a photographer I’ve never seen before.

  • Jiobrien

    Well, the image was to be included with the comment below.  Obviously, I’m not qualified!

  • Jiobrien

    I believe that you’re right Anne - the surplus of photographs in public spaces is due in part to people (and photographers) ‘just recording events.’  And a ‘collection’ of such photographs is worth archiving for those in the future who would know more about the texture of our times.  But, who is qualified to curate such collection(s)?  john

  • http://www.facebook.com/eannebeaumont Anne Beaumont

    Perhaps there is so much photography not because people have any desire to become professional – or even good – photographers, but because many are simply using photography the way previous generations used text – to record events in their lives.  Their photography may apparently clutter social networks and sharing sites but I would argue that if some of them are preserved and available in the future they may serve the same purpose that letters & diaries in our libraries and archives do now, as a view of the lives of ‘common people’ and a record of popular culture today.

  • Jiobrien

    My photography falls in the category of ‘unknown.’  If mine is good, then it might emerge into the realm of ‘known.’  Perhaps by ‘networking,’ competing in gallery shows, or web faclitated contests, the value of my photography will become apparent to a large enough realm, that I will become recgonized and known.  Critics may critique my work. Buyers will offer to pay the price.  My work will appear on coffee tables and walls, in public spaces.  But, for now I shall remain unknown and practice in obscurity.  No one is asking the question that propels me into prominance.

  • http://nataliearriolaphotography.com/ Natalie Arriola

    I totally agree. There is a surplus of good photography every bit as much as bad. I feel like the thing that makes us want to dismiss that surplus as crap is our fear that we will never be able to distinguish ourselves among so many others or even that it has become too easy to produce good photography.

  • http://maxsiphotos.tumblr.com Max Berkowitz

    Fascinating article! Perhaps you are closer to the unknown than you think…

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  • Jonathan Allen

    “Perfection should be the enemy. Most photographers treat is as their best friend. This is the charm of found/anonymous photos, which are often better than anything a pro would shoot.”

    totally agree. ‘charm’ doesn’t seem to rate highly on the list of attributes most ‘expert photographers’ want their work to have, and it’s not the emotional reaction the want to engender in the viewer either. Shame.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Plus, if you have real ambition in the art/documentary photography world you need to work building projects that are relatively clear conceptually. This requires even further refining of your approach and mastery.

    Like I said, I enjoy lots of this type of work, but I’m more curious/interested in what’s happening on the periphery with photographers who are passionate, educated, yet are forgoing the art game….

  • Blake

    I’m starting to wonder if the problem isn’t too much mediocrity, but too many expert photographers. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. Not to say that mastery should lead to mediocrity, but the similarity of many expert photographers is troubling. Perfection should be the enemy. Most photographers treat is as their best friend. This is the charm of found/anonymous photos, which are often better than anything a pro would shoot.

  • http://timwhite.is/ Tim White

    Peter Galassi makes a point that his predecessor’s ‘discovery’ of Eggleston, Winogrand and Arbus etc. was less a matter of an institution like MoMA anointing them, as that those photographers had nowhere else to go to seek being seen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN6Vba7IGV0

    Today, if anything there’s an overabundance of venues, websites, etc. which makes the task of finding, and elevating the “unknown unknowns” an even more time consuming process of gleaning. The man behind the curtain has fragmented into myriad smaller versions, which is more democratic, but daunting. Your perspective is a novel reversal of connoisseurship, asking “what if there’s too much great photography and I’m just not intelligent enough to understand it all?”

  • http://bremser.tumblr.com Wayne

    Yes- the “unknown unknown” is not just now and moving forward, but it’s also revising the past at a pace that might be difficult to keep up with. Just today Blake Andrews had a post about Fred Herzog…


  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Excellent point about digging into archives. To add, you also have all those photographers that were making work but never really actively networked or showed their work, like Vivian Maier.

    Some of the most interesting photographers I come across on Flickr are the older guys with vast archives they’re now sharing…

  • http://bremser.tumblr.com Wayne

    In the Previous Era, there were maybe 100-200 world-renowned photographers that every curator, editor, etc was aware of. With the ability to look at so many bodies of work, you can multiply the old number by 5 or 10. The resistance is probably that people are uncomfortable accepting the “unknown unknown” as … standard operating procedure.

    On Flickr, there might not be a higher percentage of great photographers than before flickr – but there are at least 1,000 photographers that have 5 or 10 excellent to great photos in their stream.

    Even if you limited yourself to the 100-200 famous photographers of the Previous Era, with access to the archives of museums and libraries, you can find photographs that were not published or widely seen. The stuff that curators and editors (or even the photographers themselves) from that era thought was the “mediocre” outtakes now may be more interesting.