The Danger of Trends

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It’s probably fair to say that the emergence and dominance of social media has had a profound effect on the world of photography. The idea that every artist ought to have a presence online has translated into the idea that every artist also ought to be active on social media. While I do believe in the former — a properly maintained website simply is today’s equivalent of a portfolio plus business card, I’m not at all convinced of the latter. In particular, having spoken with countless artists I have come to realize that social media are more of a drag, if not outright burden, than a blessing. Countless artists have confided how seeing everybody else getting awards and recognition while they’re struggling has had a negative impact on their overall well being. Of course, you cannot really blame anyone for posting on, let’s say, Facebook, how their book is shortlisted someplace while not mentioning all the other competitions that only resulted in a “thank you for submitting your book” email.

While there thus is a psychological cost to the use of social media that can be pretty heavy (I’ve heard some grim stories), there is another consequence of rampant social-media use. From what I can tell, trends or fads have become even more amplified than they already were before Facebook or Twitter. Especially runaway success stories — think Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood — have come to acquire an enormous level of influence. The Peckerwood Effect (yup, I’m coining that term right here) has been twofold. First, there has been an explosion of books that include reproductions of found materials (or of materials created to look that way), often in the form of facsimile inserts. Second, a large part of photoland has become obsessed with the idea of narrative — without really understanding what that means.

Obviously, fads come and go. Around ten years ago, it was enormous prints in plastic-sandwich form (Diasec — courtesy the excesses of the Düsseldorf School). Now, we have the narrative-photobook craze plus New Formalism. If we all just wait a little bit longer, those are likely to disappears, to be replaced by something else (thankfully, that New Formalism stuff is already on its way out). It’s relatively easy for a critic to wait out trends. But it’s a lot harder to do that if you’re teaching photography as I also do. And even the critic in me has a hard time with trends that are being mindlessly followed, because the outcome is a lot of subpar work.

Just to give an example, in my own teaching and in photobooks I’ve witnessed artists adding archival materials hoping they would make a project work. Of course, if, for example, you’re working on some family project, then adding those pictures from albums seems like a very good idea. If Larry Sultan was able to do it… And it might work, but there is no guarantee that it will. In all likelihood, adding archival materials that always come with their own patina might only amplify the problems with the other photographs. It’s a little bit like adding a really good musician to a band that can’t hold a tune. That added musician isn’t going to solve the problems.

Instagram can provide a related challenge for photographers. It’s a great way to work with photographs. But there are the infamous “likes.” And the number of likes isn’t necessarily correlated with considerations that otherwise govern photoland. There appear to be some overall and very basic trends according to which, let’s say, “mostly-blue images receive 24 percent more likes than photos with high concentrations of reds and oranges.” Obviously, one could now start one of those populist discussions that (as a consequence of the explosion of social-media use) have become so prevalent: “Well, who is to say that what people like on Instagram is worse than what’s hanging on the walls of galleries?” Ignoring such populism, there clearly is a vast difference in engagement in these two settings. Most artists I know would rather have viewers spend a little bit of time with their pictures instead of having them as something on a small screen that scrolls by very quickly, possibly with inane advertizing right after.

Consequently, that’s something you need to keep in mind if you share work on Instagram: the level of engagement by viewers is very different than for a print on a wall or a printed picture in a book. And regardless how you feel about Instagram, this is what it all comes down to in the end: what do you want your work to do, and what’s the right form for that? How do you get to that form? Does a narrative-driven photobook provide that form? Do you need to use archival materials? Should the pictures be part of your Instagram feed? Those are all important questions. If you realize that, no, Instagram is not the right platform for your pictures because of the relatively shallow and superficial engagement it offers, then stay away! The opposite is also true: if you realize that your photos work best on Instagram, then maybe you don’t need to make a book. Maybe your pictures don’t hold up so well if someone can spend a lot of time with them (I can think of plenty of examples).

The worst aspect of all of those trends and fads is not what they’re about. There is no problem per se with plastic sandwiches, with New Formalism, with narrative driven photobooks, with archival materials, or with anything else that gets to dominate what people are discussing in photoland. The real problem is artists not fully considering whether their work can operate along any of those lines. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, if your work consists of, say, portraiture without any narrative attached to it, that doesn’t mean you’re currently out of luck. It means that when you make a book, your task involves making it work. Obviously, your book will not follow a currently hot trend. But yesterday’s hot trends often are today’s embarrassments (plastic sandwich anyone?).

With social media amplifying hot trends and quick, short-term success, it has become a lot harder to play the long game that artists really need to play. Even if you stay off social media, chances are your friends and colleagues will be on them. I know people who are not on Facebook, but who magically know everything discussed there. I don’t think such an approach works in your favour if you want to be an artist. After all, the one trend you really want to follow with as much dedication as possible is this one: what drives you, what provides your mental energy to pursue whatever it is you feel strongly you need to go after?

Everything else is just a pointless diversion.