Britain’s Photographic Revolution?

On a day when The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan writes about what is, in his opinion, a revolution in photography in Britain’s galleries, we’re also treated to an article by Source Magazine called The Invisible Gallery, lamenting the chronic inability of photography galleries to develop an online presence of any standing.

Source rightly note that very little of Britain’s large photographic archive (newsletters, periodicals, exhibition outlines, etc.) has been digitized, nor do most of the galleries even have something as basic as a Wikipedia entry to their digital name.

That’s before we even consider matters like understanding social media well enough to be able to use it in a constructive way. Most galleries are little more than broadcasters here. But it isn’t just the galleries who still don’t seem to ‘get’ social media – agencies are equally poor, with tweets at the height of the Libyan Uprising from photojournalism agencies celebrating their ability to take fun photographs of Americana, being just one #epicfail I’ve seen lately. It’s a bit like sitting in a pub where your mate is proudly talking about his new baby, and responding with “I watched the football last night”.

Digital media is being hailed as the new frontier of photography, but I’ve seen little from the photography institutions (not just the galleries) to demonstrate an understanding of any of it beyond the ability to use Mail Chimp combined with the Tweetdeck auto-tweet function to spam provide photography fans with exactly the same content by email and by social media.

So, we have a few new job positions specialising in photography (with an emphasis on collecting prints for their archives) at the big London institutions (no mention of any organisation outside of Zone 1 in O’Hagan’s piece…sorry Open Eye, sorry Side, sorry Stills, sorry Impressions, sorry Third Floor, etc), and no talk at all of any of the numerous photography festivals, let alone talk of grassroots developments and what they’re up to.

Still less any talk about how to navigate the digital world. This has been a popular topic at recent conferences, seminars, lectures, and festivals. But again, it mostly boils down to key organisation representatives sipping water and saying, “we don’t know how this will develop, and we don’t know how to make sense of it yet…but it’s really exciting!” Advice to photographers? Get involved in this new fangled way of doing things as much as you can! Just don’t expect us to have any clue what you’re doing, how to evaluate it, or even how to find it. We’re still wondering why Steve Jobs hasn’t put an “off” switch on our computers!

If there has indeed been a revolution in British photography at all, I rather suspect it is known more colloquially as “the spinning beachball of death” on a Mac computer.

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  1. #1 by simonfive on October 30, 2011 - 8:48 pm

    The galleries are certainly in a bind. They are aimed at showing pictures on walls and selling prints and the internet is ephemera with no product that anybody can sell. Perhaps the galleries consider that they must retain their profile as the serious side of photography to survive. They might think they need to make the right noises but consider it essential that they distance themselves from the overwhelming world of flickr et al.
    How would they choose photographers to promote from the obvious thousands out there who might be worth supporting? How would they transfer the available pictures into a saleable product? Where would they show and in what form? All seemingly intractable problems as things stand so they need to be as elitist as possible to continue.

  2. #2 by st84photo on November 1, 2011 - 1:46 am

    I think the galleries and other organisations are more than capable of venturing as far as flickr, but they needn’t even do that. It’s more that, when they do have profiles on online platforms, they don’t engage in any debate other than, at best, occasional proxy self-promoting by sharing the positive comments of others about them. That’s a totally okay thing to do, but when it’s the only thing you do aside from broadcasting news of your own events, it does look pretty lame.

    The few organisations who bother conversing at all generally keep those conversations brief and exclusive to other organisations of similar stature. There’s no attempt at all to engage with anything happening online. At worst, and too regularly, they show a complete disregard for current events – it doesn’t take a PR or marketing genius to induce that an organisation founded on conflict reportage tweeting at the height of the Libyan Uprising with self-promotional material and totally ignoring the Uprising probably isn’t a smart idea. Not only do they not know how to engage, they also don’t know when to shut up.

    And that’s before we even get to talking about digital media specific art work that has been created. The understanding there is even more lacking, on the whole.

    They’re terrified of making mistakes, they’re terrified of admitting they don’t know everything, and they’re terrified ceding their positions as authorities in the medium. But they’re ceding their position as authorities in the medium by ignoring both general debate and the new developments in the medium.

    The funny thing is, the whole of both digital media and social media basically boils down to the same oft-spoken truism about cameras generally – they’re only as interesting* as the people using them.

    *ST84Photo Blog hereby reserves the right to fetishize the Rollei as an object, however. James Dean was cute.

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