Ansel Adams once remarked that “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”. As magnificent as his work was, I suspect that he would have been an unlikely candidate to become an ‘Instagram influencer’.
This member-only article has been prepared for you by Howard Grill, one of FRAMES regular contributors.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in social media that in order to garner an audience one needs to post frequently and on a regular schedule, continuing to ‘feed the beast’. Even somewhat ‘restrictive’ feeds, such as the FRAMES Facebook Group which only allows for the posting of one image a day, still ultimately allows 365 images a year per photographer. Of course nobody forces anyone to post on a daily basis, but, again, there seems to be that unwritten rule that to have people follow your work you need to post quite frequently.
It may be heresy to say, but, in this day and age, Ansel might well have faded into obscurity with only 12 posts a year. On the other hand, perhaps he would have changed his philosophy. There just seem to be different rules in the digital age, as compared to the analogue era.
I often wonder what’s happening (and why) with fine art photography as it relates to social media. I don’t have the answers, but I do have some thoughts revolving around the posting of work and the amount of time that we spend looking at photographs.
Let’s first talk about our ‘consumption’ of photographs on-line. It’s important to recognize that there are massive numbers of photos posted every day. For example, there are 95 million images posted daily on Instagram. If you think that’s quite a number, well, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’. Facebook has 350 million new image posts each and every day. Now, obviously these are not all fine art images. The majority may be Uncle Bill and Aunt Sue posting photos of their grandchildren. But even if only 5% of these images are meant to be considered as fine art – well, you can do the math – that’s still well over 22 MILLION fine art images posted every single day. Even if we viewed only 0.01% of those, that would still be 2200 photographs to look at.
Is it any wonder that most people (myself included) tend to rapidly scroll through Instagram and Facebook images, spending mere seconds on the vast majority of them? Why do I/we do that? Why don’t we take more time to concentrate on and enjoy the beauty of some of these photographs instead of rushing to see more? Is there an internal drive to try to see everything, even though that clearly is an impossibility?
Commenting is another aspect of social media that I don’t believe has lived up to its potential. It’s well known that the more you like and comment on other people’s images the more likely it is for you to get followers. And we all want more followers, right? Of course we do… we are on social media! But, most often, the comments leave something to be desired.
Finally, there is the perverse and pervasive idea that to develop a following you need to keep posting more and more content, independent of whether it’s your best work.
What are the reasons for all this? Is it all human nature, or are the social media companies using human psychology to keep viewers engaged for longer periods of time in order to feed them more and more ads? Are we following our own innate behavior or is social media directing and teaching us how it wants us to act?
I need to say that I certainly don’t want to appear as ‘holier than thou’, because I am as guilty as the next person of doing all these things. The way in which we interact with social media may simply be human nature, but I suspect that if photographers were redesigning social media today we might well design it a bit differently than it currently stands.
Here are three things that I would consider changing:
- Encourage people to post only their best work. Perhaps that could be ‘forced’ by having marked limitations on the number of images that could be added to one’s feed. Even an image a week is still 52 posts a year. Of course, the problem of policing this could become an issue. However, I have no doubt that software could easily be developed that would allow photographers to post only a specific number of times a month.
- Design software to ensure that comments were of a certain length or contained a certain type of content (i.e. there could be both open free style comments as well as a form that asks what you think about a photo and why, what draws you to the image etc.) so that pleasant (but ultimately unhelpful) comments like ‘great capture’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘nice’ (or even worse, just a smiley) are no longer standard fare.
- My third change refers to viewers, as opposed to platforms. Perhaps we should attempt to relearn digital viewing habits so that we spend more time with images that intrigue us. Minor White is quoted as having said that “if you haven’t looked at a photograph for thirty minutes you haven’t really seen it”. Perhaps we don’t need that long, but there is probably a useful compromise between thirty minutes and the rapid scrolling through images that I (and I suspect many others) am currently doing.
What are your thoughts? Is the ‘cat out of the bag’ already, or can there be any redesign of social media? Is it likely that we can retrain ourselves in how we interact with fine art on social media? Do you agree with my three suggestions, and what others might you offer if you were designing a social media platform for fine art photographers today?