Photography in the Age of the Internet

by evanbaden

How has the Internet, particularly the photocentric sites that are mentioned in the articles by Manovich, Evans, and Murray, changed our notions of photography – specifically art photography? Or has it even changed?

The shift from Web 1.0 to 2.0 is something that I have long thought about. The explosion of user generated content that all the articles are very much focused on is something that is new to the world in the last 20 years. Never has there been a medium where anyone with access to the most rudimentary computer technology and a phone line been able to post their own content with the possibility (although a small possibility) of the world seeing it. Before this time there was always someone curating what the public saw. If it was a gardening magazine, then images of flowers or gardens would be shown, if it was Art Forum, then only ‘serious art’ would grace it’s pages. With the Internet, there is either very limited, or no censorship at all. The Internet is the most democratic of forums.

Lev Manovich asks the question: “Do professional artists benefit from the explosion of media content online and the easily available media publishing platforms?” I’m not sure why this question is being asked. Of course professional artists benefit. There is absolutely no downside to having the availability of the Internet if you are a professional artist. And I don’t even mean that in the sense of using the Internet to distribute your own work (which is an amazing tool for doing just that) but as source material, as a way of learning about other artists working in similar veins, as a way of learning about and drawing cultural connections between events that are occuring in real time, as a way of placing yourself in context as an artist. All of these ways (and many more) are ways in which professional artists are benefitting from the Internet.

Where is the downside of the Internet for a professional artist? I don’t see one, but I am going to play devil’s advocate for a little bit and say that, for the most established artists working in a very specific way, the Internet may misrepresent the art you as an artist are creating. Maybe your images (we’re talking about photography only here) are really large. Maybe the color is very important. In these ways, viewing the work on a screen the size of the average computer may be a drawback. Misrepresenting your work in both the way it physically looks and it’s size. But really, anyone who is serious about art and is looking at your images on the Internet should understand that a screen is not the finished work. They are just looking to get an idea of what the work looks like. And really, the onus is on the artist to put that work into context. If you as an artist working large are worried about someone viewing images online and not understanding that they are large images, then it is your responsibility to include all the information needed for the viewer to understand what that piece looks like in the real world. This could come in the form of text – stating the images size, material, and whether it is framed and so on – and images of the work installed in a space. Installation images are maybe the best way for an internet viewer to understand what your images look like in the real world. But again, it is up to the artist to provide this material. If you as an artist want to put your work out onto the Internet as a mode of dispensation, then you had better include all of the relevant context that goes with it.

And maybe you are one of those very paranoid artists who worries that someone will take that very small JPEG that you have put out into the world of the Internet and use it without crediting you? So your soloution is to not have anything available online? The museum I used to work for (or at least the director of the museum I used to work for) was very concerned about this when we were making our digital database available to the public. Worried about viewers taking images and using them for who knows what. But most of the time, the reason that people are taking those images are for educational purposes. Perhaps there is an educator putting together a slide show for a lecture and they need images. Our database was somewhere they could find those images, and many times they would credit the museum for the image.

For me, I love it when people take my images because most of the time they are taking them with the intention of spreading them, either by posting them somewhere else, using them in a lecture about a specific topic, or using them as idea generation or planning for an exhibition.

I want to tell a small story about my career to this point and how the Internet has been a large part of the small amount of success I have had. In my undergrad it was stressed to me the importance of having a website. My instructor, who currently heads up (a website to promote artists in Minnesota currently managed by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) was always stressing web presence. He said that we should have every account available to us and be posting regular content to it. Our own website, our own blog, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Linkdn, mnartist, saatchi, and so on. The more of a web presence you have, the more chance that your work will be seen. And coincidentally, if you understand how Google works, the more links back to your own website, the higher your website will appear when someone Googles you. And, if you develop enough of a web presence, you can crowd out everyone else that may come up when your name is Googled.

I began by having my website and went out into the internet world and looked for blogs. This was in 2007 when the blogosphere was really starting to pick up. I looked for art blogs that had high traffic and where I though my images would be a good fit. I started to contact bloggers and see if they found what I was working on of interest. If they did, maybe they would write a bit about them. Then other bloggers would pick up the images and writing and repost them. I carefully tracked these things. I watched my images take on a life of their own and hop from blog to blog. The web traffic to my own site increased as the images spread. I knew that many of the people that came to my website may not stay long, but you never know who is looking. Within a year I was approached with a proposal for my first international group show. About a year later the publications started to roll in. By this time I had a second body of work up (though not completed) and the traffic drawn by the original images that were still circulating allowed viewers to see the new work, which then also left my website and entered the world on their own. Publication of the images led to blog posting about those images, which created more of a presence for them. Publications across Europe started to publish images which led to shows that have been happening in major venues over the past two years. Many times, when I am contacted for a show, the curator has only seen the images they are requesting online. Sometimes they have seen them in print. Sometimes they saw one body of work in print, but upon seeing the other online, they decided to change which work they wanted for the show.

My point in all of this is that as a very young artist I was able spread my work throughout the US, Europe, and South America in several years without any gallery representation (and really without a single gallery show). These are the positives of the Internet. If an artist (or gallery representing an artist) can understand how to work the correct venues of the Internet, the work can take on a life of it’s own and can lead to a variety of opportunities.

As far as the Internet, or these social networking sites changing photography, I don’t see it happening. What sites like Flickr allow for is a broadening of who is getting their photos looked at. There is a wider audience and a space for those who were not able to participate due to certain ‘gates to the photography world’ a place to show their work. But does it change photography fundamentally? No. As far as community sites like Flickr go, I don’t think they are anything more than aggregators. They are just collections to me, they don’t get to the level that I think Evans wants them to.

I agree with Penelope Umbrico’s view at the end of Evans’ essay. She says, “The idea of exchange and engagement with the platform itself (creating work on, with, and for this platform) is where the interesting space on the Internet is for me.” I believe I have brought this notion up in class before. As far as photography goes, the Internet is mostly a form of distribution. The art that should be happening should only be able to happen on the Internet, artwork that involves the medium of the Internet itself. Right now photography is relatable to leaves floating on a river. Some bystanders on the banks may pluck individual leaves from the river, look at them and throw them back. But artists have yet to deal with the river itself. They have yet to create work that cannot be plucked from the river, work that cannot survive outside the river. That space is where some truly revolutionary stuff could happen. The trick becomes how to leverage the economics of creating something that cannot be owned, cannot be saved as an object? How do we interpret something so transitory? With the happenings and performances that happened in the 60s artists recorded them with photography. But how do we record Internet Art? Do you sell or exhibit images or screen captures of an Internet performance? Or when making Internet Art, do you make it a piece that will continue to change and evolve, so that it is always there yet always changing. The Daily Nice doesn’t do it for me. Yes, it changes everyday, purporting to never be available again, but really? Does Evans delete the file from his drive? Is it gone from the server he placed it on? To me, The Daily Nice is not Internet Art, it is photography that uses the Internet, but only at it’s most basic level. It is still just a floating leaf.

As far as what I consider true Internet Art, I think Rafael Rozendaal is a pretty good example. He has a number of websites that are for sale. These websites are usually interactive pieces. Much of the time you have to click around and explore the piece before you figure out just what it is. When he sells a piece, he sells the domain name. There is also a contract that the buyer must sign stating that the site will remain available to the public. It is an interesting concept. What exactly the art says, I don’t know, but they are fun things to play with. It’s a start. Some of the good ones are: From the Dark Past, Please Touch Me, Into Time, Le Duchamp, Big Long Now, and Paper Toilet.

The other person I think of is Constant Dullaart. I particularly like his YouTube As A Subject pieces (although some more than others). I have provided one below.

I love the fact that he has made a YouTube video that references the fact that it is a YouTube video and nothing more. In that little flash, it comments on the medium and the problems with that medium (the fact it doesn’t really communicate anything other than frustration).