“I don’t see a lot of photography that deals with complexity, nuance and inter relationships. It’s part of the Instagram mentality of depicting one dimensional, separate thing: a plate of food in a restaurant, or some nice-looking necklace. This photographic flatness has become part of the aesthetic now. To me, that’s so fucking boring.”
American street photographer
We live in the times of image saturation and from hoardings to our laptop screens; we are bombarded with images on a daily basis. Images have always been an essential aspect of advertisements but today they seem to have become the primary source of information. The purpose of an image today is that it should be able to make the prospective customer pause while scrolling. A consumer looks at thousands of images in a day and a good advertisement is one that ideally contains definitive information with a catchy one-line that evoke keywords like “TRAVEL”, “SALE”, “SEDUCTION” to the mind. This definitive information is likely to lure the prospective buyer to pause and read about the offer or product. The image, in such a scenario, is the bait thrown into the waters to catch the fish.
The use of photographic images, first employed by the pioneers of Mass Advertising at the Manhattan Ad firms in the 1960s, have so completely pervaded our imagination that every time one picks up a camera phone or camera, the need to define an image always takes precedence. The text in our heads takes precedence over the fact that a photograph is essentially a visual medium. To lament the flatness of an ad-image is quite akin to naivety whereas the real thing to look at is the way in which the political economy of the world has come to define how art is perceived and practiced, and in this article’s case, Photography.
Our daily lives are so overrun and intertwined with the market and its trends that our conduct is governed by what the popular trends in the market are. Photography can’t hold forth in such a situation. Like everything it has become typified and likely so considering people who want to or are practicing photography dwell in the world simplification and reductions.
Both of the above are in direct opposition to the idea of beauty in any visual medium, be it cinema, photography or painting. Raghu Rai, the photographer, one of the few known photographers from the India, echoed Bresson while talking about photography: “Either you capture the mystery of things or you reveal it”. But to look at the infinite mysteries that abound our daily lives, it would perhaps be beneficial to first look at the real world. The smart phone screens and laptop screens consume most of our times and we don’t look. Every moment we are surrounded by countless possibilities of potentially interesting photographic images but the need of the hour, especially in the socio-political cultural landscape of India, is to really spend time time looking and curating meaningful images that capture the essence of the temporal space we inhabit. For this to happen, a photographer has to be open-minded and willing to let the world around him consume him, almost become a part of the time and space that he wants to photograph. But the stories we end up seeing the most are Instagram stories. Stories said in multiple photographs captured using a smart phone in most cases, which has trained our instincts to click a photograph that can be reduced to a line. The effect that the advertisement has had on us on our subconscious forces us to make each photograph as cerebral and as definitive as possible.
Many political and social commentators from the west in the 70s and 80s commented upon the authority photography holds over Modern Society and how it would transform from an aesthetic form to an advertisement mechanism. Susan Sontag in her book ‘On Photography’ talks about how “our modern culture is engaged in producing and consuming images to such a degree that photography has been made essential for the health of the economy and stability of social structures.” It’s just that the West had all the markers of a “Modern Society” in the 1960s itself and here in India we paved the way for it only in 1990s.
Other commentators like Ludwig Wiggenstein went on to become anti-pictorial representation and said: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat to us inexorably.” This statement irked many people by its narrow consideration where photography as an aesthetic form has been left out. However, keeping in mind what the mass media images have done to our society it seems like a valid grouse. The flat single-meaning images have so far manipulated the viewer that he/she has lost sense of reality. Any picture delves into the exploration of real through making apparent the mysteries or ambiguities seems to come under the category of ‘intellectual art’ not to be touched by a common man.
The success that market players have had in dumbing down humanity has made all explorations in art inaccessible or seemingly inaccessible to the common masses. Although one should not lament the coming of digital photography, it has further helped precipitate the photographic flatness. Since it has helped in inundating the masses with a certain kind of imagery which Meyrowitz has called lacking in nuances, complexity and inter- relationships. The answer is not to discard digital photography or to leave the market economy world to live as a hermit in order to get back at an aesthetic sense of photography. It’s such a complex problem that we are dealing with here that to provide a solution in this article would be presumptuous. A discussion about the nature of language and the visual medium needs to be rekindled in addition to the current debate on digital and celluloid formats of photography. It’s imperative that we find ways to free photography and image making from the flatness that Meyrowitz says- it has been gripped by.