Ideation and the Beautiful Nothing



In a couple of weeks I am going to be in Wales delivering a workshop at the Snap Photography Festival which will share the same title as this blog. Sitting here planning the delivery of it I see the roots to my topics expanding. In mapping the themes of ideas, creativity and creation into one congruent lecture with an articulated take-away it dawned on me that the process ahead may just be a bit… messy.

And ugly.

And tough.

All things necessary to get behind the goop of habit we accept over time as our ways of seeing and presenting.

In this Instagrammatisation of our contemporary society many of us have found a point where we settle on the vote of the masses. I’m speaking visually here. In the past this was not the case. One worked in the isolation of the darkroom, trusting instincts and making subtle but important decisions in which direction an image or series of images needed to be printed. And displayed. If one worked in a co-op or shared facility the closest you got to likes and votes was hanging your image up on the wall for examination and hearing a colleague pass by and say – “Cool”. Today, for most aspiring and seasoned photographers, there exists the impact of the immediate audience. Flickr, Facebook, Eyeem, and the behemoth Instagram all provide nation sized audiences to offer up “cool” or not. One uses this sounding board indirectly or directly to construct a vision. But I am concerned that through the currency of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ we may be on the path for creating a pattern for aesthetic rather than a vision for aesthetic.

I have looked at many portfolios in twenty years and have focused on Instagram in the the last two. If one takes the time it is possible to see patterns form through the archive of any successful individual’s portfolio. Instagram can be transparent this way. I like to view portfolios with followers of over 20,000. Non-celebrity of course. 50,000-plus is even better. Look at a picture presented today and one can see the likes rolling over by the minute. 900. 1200. 2000. But start scrolling back in time and what you can see is a point before such numbers existed. In this space one may witness the moment where the votes increase and the photographer locks onto that.  From this point forward a correlation forms between the increase in fans, the amount of likes and the photographer’s commitment to a particular aesthetic. What is interesting is how it (let’s say accidental formula) creates a rigidity to the work. Before this critical mass the photographer experiments, shoots a variety, explores widely. The votes are low. The audience tiny. Then a picture, THE picture, and the votes dramatically increase.

I’ll reference one Instagrammer. I’ll keep her name out of it for now. Scrolling back from her present day imagery one can see she arrives on Instagram showing shots of the family and the dog, the kitchen and garden, her French surroundings in healthy morning light. Then one day she shoots a selfie. She’s gorgeous. And she’s applauded for this. More shots follow documenting her domestic life until she is heading off on a holiday. As she’s prepares she takes a quick snap of herself in a bikini in a bedroom standing before a mirror. It’s full-length and she is shapely. The votes skyrocket. Photos which reward this transaction begin to trickle in. She’s in a walk-in closet with a picture of only her legs in ruby dress shoes. She’s on a bed with the sun beaming on her bare torso. Her expressions change. She pouts more. Bites her lip. All the semi-nude clichés one can think of are there and they are met with more applause through likes and comments. Gradually the imagery shifts. The formula- in this case her ‘sensuels autoportraits’ – is the currency to afford demand. In the period of just over a year she moves from family, dogs, kitchens and kids to something risqué, exposed – her clothes fall piece by piece, her body becomes open to the camera, her expressions are provocative and her fans arrive in droves. Her formula is a selfie shot in the style of David Hamilton -from light and ambiance to props and modelling. She has almost 50,000 followers and her likes per image average 1000.

This made me think – once in this flow how does one release their grip on what is working? How does one speak visually with a new accent when the audience built, even in the short period of a year, expects to hear more of the same? The fascination in the tale I strike above is how calcified we may become in the delivery of our photos. In the example the trappings of her life, her plural voice is no longer visible as she settles into this singular brand.

Preparing for my presentation I need to think about this hardening of an expected aesthetic that may now come about through unexpected means. That while each creative searches for something in terms of the right blend of content, aesthetic and response, it is when the audience appears that most stay at that point where it was/is most highly rewarded. To tamper with that, to move in a different direction, may cause turbulence and anxiety. This is where the tough and ugly work may lie – in facing parts of our work where without really knowing it we began to serve a pattern for aesthetic leaving behind a vision for aesthetic. The exciting part is what exists on the other side of exploring that.

Words and Image by Karl Grupe © 2015

He graduated from Goldsmiths with Distinction with a Masters of Research in Design where he researched the shifting landscape of professional practice in photography with the advent of smartphone photography and social media streams.

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