Posted by: 6x6pix | August 15, 2009

Putting Little Fragments Out in the World

Alec Soth was interviewed a few weeks ago by Too Much Chocolate, and I’ve been thinking ever since about something he said there.

DS: Right, I’ve read that you’ve said photography really isn’t a great medium for story telling, and so is that where your frustrations stem from?

AS: Well, that photography is just not good for storytelling, yes. I also just think photography was much more interesting 50 plus years ago, and now there is just this overabundance of photography. It’s like saying “What type of art do you do?” “Oh, I do Twitter.” (laughter). I just put these little fragments out in the world, but I would rather call myself a novelist than a Twitterist. And I sometimes feel photography is that.

This caused quite a bit of a stir in photography circles when the interview was published, for both the “photography is not good for storytelling”[*] and the “photography was much more interesting 50 years ago” soundbites.

But I found the Twitter bit the most interesting of all, and I’m disappointed that the interviewer didn’t pursue that a little further with Soth. It seems to me his point basically is that people increasingly want to shortcut the process, or maybe rather, to reframe everything to suit themselves. They want to consider their Twitter status updates, in the aggregate, as some kind of work of art, or at least a body of work.

Expanding this to photography, with the popularity of sites like Flickr, etc, millions of people are now taking photos and displaying them to strangers, and not only is everyone “a photographer,” but a lot of people are putting out all these unconnected one-off photos (as opposed to cohesive bodies of work), and calling themselves artists. While I don’t think Soth has said so outright, my own feeling is that people who do this are not only cheating things (the process, established convention, ‘the system,’ what have you), they’re cheating photography in general as an art form and a discipline. And most importantly, they’re cheating themselves.

What do you think? Is everyone who takes and shows photos a photographer? Is any single photo that gets views and comments “art”? Is that all there is to it? Or does photography require discipline, craft, vision…? And does one have to explore a concept deeply or broadly, to work it over and through multiple images, in order to call their work “art”?

[*] For those who are interested, Soth elaborated more on the ‘storytelling’ quote in an earlier interview with Seesaw Magazine.



  1. Surely one who works faithfully on playing and mastering his or her guitar is a musician but not everyone is an artist of note, pardon the pun.

    Surely I am a “photographer” if I willingly spend my free hours toiling at the craft in an attempt to master it. Please do NOT attempt to minimize the love and effort required to master the tools of the trade, to dig deeper into the craft, to develop the necessary skills to create through the medium.

    I will admit it sometimes is deceptively easy to create “successful” photo with the wonderful tools we have today. But that “success” is merely the tip of the iceberg…as anyone engaged in photography quickly finds out.

    Not everyone is destined to be a great musician or photographer, even though it does sometimes seem that nearly “everyone” these days enjoys the visual exploration and immediacy of photography. However, should this necessarily “cheapen” the desire, the drive, the obsession to capture the moment? I really do not think so.

    The fact that there are paintbrushes and paint pots in kindergarteners’ homes, or there are volumes of painting “dabblers” in adult education classes will never diminished the “art” of painting or that category of art. Why should accessibility of tools diminish the “art” of photography?

    The more the tools of the craft are mastered, the more the work should embody refined aesthetics and communication. In the end, the audience decides if a work or a body of work is something that moves and communicates?

    If you practice a craft, you deserve to call yourself a writer or a musician or a photographer. It is the world, through the passage of time, and the accumulation of a body of credible and affecting work which should decide whether you are an “artist” of note.

    There are many kinds of writers, painters, musicians. Bloggers are a new form of written communication, a product of the tools of the time. To my way of thinking, they write and are writers. But they will never replace the joy being sustained by the complexity of a really wonderful novel. These bloggers are different, not less, just different from the writer who creates a novel. Surely we can discern the nuances without minimizing the many permutations of mankind’s never-ending drive to communicate? Just strikes me as silly and petty. Or perhaps I have missed the point?

  2. Interestingly enough, I was having the craft vs. art discussion with another BPC member the other day — but that’s not what this particular post is getting at.

    The question here isn’t about technique, but about content, and whether it’s important and/or necessary to explore an idea over a series of connected images. The fine-art photography world certainly holds that it’s essential, but millions of Flickr users might beg to differ. I’m curious to know where BPC folks fall on the issue.

  3. The “fine-art photography world” is guided by the dictates of the museum and the collector, which both benefit from the notion that a series of photographs exploring a single subject are more worthy of exhibition and of greater value. But such institutional and economic dictates seem at most only tangentially related to aesthetics.

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