Thursday, 18 March 2010

Alec Soth interview

I enjoyed reading this article by Ben Sloat which is a really thought-provoking interview with Alec Soth. And there are a few comments he makes that I found myself saying 'yes, I think that too'.

But Alec Soth is, in my mind, a highly accomplished contemporary photographer. If he is concerned about these things, where does that leave us fledglings amidst the 2 billion flickr images - how can we take flight from within a field so congested that even the most talented photographers are struggling to have their 'voice' heard. 

I hope I am not breaking any rules by referring to certain parts of this interview on the Big, Red and Shiny website, that I personally found useful to reflect on my own thoughts.

Virtually everyone has a camera, a phone with a camera or has access to one. We are all being photographed and taking photographs all the time by cctv, speed cameras, images on the web, tv and papers, google, the list is endless. Soth suggests in the interview that we are all photo-journalists in some way and as such, attempting to make an impression in this field is tough.
...There were amateur photographers, but it's to a whole different level now. This has huge implications on photojournalism. The majority of great photojournalist images are amateur images now, because they are at the right place at the right time with a camera, how do you compete with that?
Soth goes on to say:
But more and more now, everyone has a camera at every situation, what's the point of documenting? Why should I go to Iran now and try to document something where there are people already there documenting all the time? And that's my feeling of documenting as whole. Doing every building on Sunset Strip, we can go to Google Earth and see that right now.
This I think is absolutely true.  You can pretty much bet that there will be a member of the public with a mobile phone wherever the next big news story will happen.  From a personal perspective, I experienced this when Cockermouth was affected by the floods of November 2009.  Part of me was itching to photograph the floods and aftermath.  For a variety of justifiable reasons I didn't. However, as the story unfolded, I was staggered how much coverage from professionals, amateurs to phone-owners there was of the floods - the word 'overkill' came to mind. I am sure it was possible to have more coverage, more personal accounts, more of the same, but I can say categorically that nobody was left wonting for more visual coverage of our own local mini-catastrophe. 

Photo-journalistically, the story was 'done' - period. Apart from for my own personal record there really was little more I could have contributed photographically. If I had been in the right (or wrong depending on how you look at it) place at the right time i.e. in Cockermouth that wet afternoon, I may think differently. Or I was the only person in Cockermouth with a camera that afternoon - my value would have been justifiable.

But am I wrong to think that perhaps photojournalism is more a matter of either being in the right place, or putting yourself in a place that has a higher probability of being the right place at a said time?  And as such the creativity involved in making the image is not a priority? I'm not so sure this particular use of photography is my 'bag'.  I really enjoy the creativity the 'picture-painting' aspect of photography.

So where should I/we be concentrating our efforts? The figures at the fore of the arts from the likes of Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin to Anthony Gormley have been notorious for creating something altogether unique and different? We have learnt to expect it. But as viewers of art can we be shocked any further? Is there anything left shockable to photograph? And perhaps as the viewer, are we becoming 'numbed' by it - is that in itself now dated??

In other words hasn't everything been done before?  Yes, probably.  So we need to regurgitate, recycle and reinvent what already has been done with our own stamp.  We need to take the road less travelled.  Yep, easy for me to come to this conclusion, far harder to accomplish. This line of thought leads me to a question put to Soth about how as photographers we are guilty of taking pictures that look like photographs from one of the greats.
That's a real problem. We all do that, we photograph things because that looks like photographs. I do that all the time... I think that keeps changing with time, from Walker Evans to Eggleston, there's a new idea of what the cliché beautiful thing is, even if it's an empty parking lot...What I do have a problem is, is the nature of the medium itself. In a world where the 2 billionth photograph has been uploaded to Flickr, which looks like an Eggleston picture! How do you deal with making photographs with the tens of thousands of photographs being uploaded to Facebook every second, how do you manage that? How do you contribute to that? What's the point? It's a real struggle.
What springs to my mind and what I have seen written over and over again is - a way of seeing. You have to have a unique view of the world. And by all accounts, you're either born with it or you're not!! I have been rereading Image Makers, Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger (London 2008) which is a collection of interviews with established photographers and a question that was put to several of them was 'Do you think you can learn a way of seeing? The majority replied in words to the effect that it isn't a skill you can necessarily learn, you either have it or you don't, although 'it' can be honed or improved upon.

Martin Parr for example says:
...when I used to teach, I would try to draw people out do the best for themselves.  You see what they're interested in and you try and guide them so that they can be more themselves.  You can learn that to a certain extent, but some people have either got it in them, that obsessional gene that helps make it happen, or they don't.
Thomas Demand, also referred to in the same book has a fairly oblique, but probably realistic view for the budding photographer and his advice would be:
...the chances of making it as an artist are so small, I'd advise anyone to do something they are really passionate about, rather than speculating about what other people might be interested in.  That way, if you don't make it, which is quite likely, you at least know you were working on something that meant something to you.
This reminds me of a post a fellow OCA student writes on her blog.  The point Demand and Elkins are making is indeed a reality. However, I do find it depressing.  I guess in the broadest sense, the bar has been raised considerably in the quality (as well as quantity) of photography in the past decade. And as such a good photograph is still good. In some ways the achievement of reaching the top of this profession must be even greater because of this. 

I don't necessarily want to make any conclusions from this. I am not under any illusions or expectations at all. It just reminds me to reflect on why I take photographs, why I want to improve and what I am hoping to achieve - which I don't know yet.  Still enjoying the learning journey, I don't really mind where its heading at the moment.

If anyone is still with me by this point, I'll buy you a stiff drink!!! I'm making a habit of going on and on and on...  

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