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The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media. 

By Nathan Jurgenson, Verso


Nathan Jurgenson covers a lot of territory in just over 100 pages, as he presents page after page of insightful and thought-provoking observations on photography and social media.

Jurgenson dissects current opinions and attitudes about social media and nicely places them in an historical and social context that might be characterized as “meet the new medium. Just like the old medium.”

Because nearly every page is packed with insights, it is hard to condense his observations more than he has already done himself. But a few of those observations provide a taste of the many gems within this book.

Jurgenson writes, “The history of photography has much to teach us about understanding social media and thus much of our contemporary social reality. The current claim that the deluge of web content, comments and social streams is all banal noise without much signal, that the Internet is making us stupid, echoes what poet Charles Baudelaire said in 1859 of photography: ‘If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.’”

With that, Jurgenson lays the foundation to take on those who see in social media a threat to society in general. The book is divided into two parts plus a “coda” that discusses the social video. The first section, Documentary Vision, examines how social media and social photos have altered the way in which we now view and treat photographs.

The second half of the book, Real Life, looks at social media as a sort of “decoder ring” that helps us understand the larger society in which social media functions.

Photography has been redefined – or perhaps more accurately, upended – by the social photo. For much of its history, photography has been defined by professional practice. While the personal photo has always – at least since the days of George Eastman – been the numerically dominant practice, it was the artists, journalists, and technicians who established the criteria by which photography was judged.

“So much of the popular, everyday, journalistic, and academic discussion about ‘photography’ focuses on professional image making, to which the question, ‘is the image good?’ is relevant… ,”Jurgenson writes.

“This is a perspective rooted in art history, one that deals with galleries, museums, and professional work and is tangential to all but a tiny fraction of images made today.”

In his pivotal book, The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski outlined the essence of photographs as “The Thing Itself” (subject), “The Detail,” “The Frame,” “Time,” and “Vantage Point.” Each of these comes together in a final image that illustrates the photographer’s particular vision. Szarkowski would have never questioned the importance of the image being “good.” The Photographer’s Eye and his other major work, Looking at Photographs were appreciations of “good” photographs and an attempt to define and illustrate what it was that made photographs good.

Whether in the art world or elsewhere, what constitutes a “good” photo was largely determined by the standards of professionals. Those professionals might be artists, photojournalists, commercial photographers or portraitists and the standards might vary, but there was universal agreement that a photograph should be “good.”  Even when artists began to play against those standards by replicating and reproducing “amateur” photographs as art, the standards they played against were those set by the professional world.  

But for social photos, these essential qualities of photographs and the act of seeing take a back seat to the experience. Social Photos are less about sharing how one saw something, and more about how one experienced something. It is the experience that is “good” in the social photo. And, that applies even if the actual experience itself might be bad.

Because experiences occur continuously throughout life, the sharing of these experiences has an ephemeral quality. There will always be another experience and the social feed is a particularly apt medium for sharing life experiences.

The tsunami of social media and social photos has now overwhelmed the professional class, which were already under assault from the twin threats of a declining market and a digital revolution that handed everyone the ability (if not the talent) to produce technically flawless photographs.

I have been spending a lot of time over the last several years trying to puzzle out the current state of photography in contemporary art.

I cannot shake the feeling that much of what is happening in art today feels like a desperate attempt to cling to relevancy at a time when the world has moved on.

This is not meant to denigrate contemporary photography. There is much to like in the work of many of today’s artist photographers, but, there is also too much that feels strained. And, one gets the feeling that the real innovation and creativity may not be on the walls of galleries, but in the feeds of social media.

Jurgenson concludes his section on documentary vision with a suggestion, perhaps wishful thinking, that the flood of images which have a lifespan roughly equal to the time it takes to scroll through one’s Facebook or Twitter feed, may ultimately make the handful of images that outlast the relentless culling of social feeds more permanent and more valuable.

In his Real Life section, Jurgenson explores the nature of self and how one defines “self” has been altered by social photography.

The social photo, Jurgenson argues, is a tool to help individuals define themselves. Thus, the selfie is not simply a narcissistic obsession, but is also a way for the individual to chronicle how they see themselves and who they are. And, like the multiple selfies that people take to document their experiences, one’s self-image and self-definition is not locked into any one definition, but is fluid and develops and refines itself over time.

In one of his more insightful observations, he questions the panic that has infected adults over teen sexting and oversharing of selfies. He suggests that in a world in which everyone will have terabytes of images and posts covering every aspect of their development from birth through death, the stigmatizing impact of past discretions are likely to be more ephemeral and less devastating than worried adults, pundits and ambitious politicians would have us believe.

Rather than blame the devices, he suggests an honest acceptance of the youthful desire to explore sexuality and to experiment with their own sexual identity. Such acceptance might foster a healthier attitude than reconstituting Victorian taboos by lecturing teens that an image or text shared at 17 can lead to lifelong ruin.

“For young people today, photos of their past that are inconsistent with their eventual present will exist and circulate together…Perhaps the popularity of social photography will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent,” Jurgenson writes.

In his Coda, Jurgenson takes a brief look at the social video. As video becomes more accessible and ubiquitous, Jurgenson writes that the social video may actually become “the standard unit of image speak.”

Jurgenson’s book, published in 2019, illustrates the difficulty for an author to write anything about social media that won’t be obsolete before it is published.

From the vantage point of the end of 2020, it appears that Tic-Toc may have already be on its way to defining that “standard unit of image speak” that Jorgenson predicted.

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