caption: image illustrating an article @, entitled TIME’s 25 Best Photobooks of 2018. The first sentence of the article reads: “As an antidote to your unyielding Instagram feed, consider the photobook.” 

I’ve been thinking about photography’s relationship with digital design in the twenty-first century. After some considerations and discussions with colleagues and students I came to the conclusion that this contamination is real and should be investigated (not to be confused with what I’m doing here). More than that, I actually think that relationship (or its consolidation) marks a turning point in the way we experience photography, both as producers and consumers.

Without being fully aware of how seductive and manipulative photography has become, we tend to understand that something has changed. Digital photography brought it closer to a screen-based technique. And that is massive! Its sharpness, its lack of depth, it’s gigantic color gamut, etc., are part of a range of technical features that function as a high-definition screen. Some people are easily seduced by things that shine and reflect; some people are put off and get suspicious. I fall into the latter group. This screen-like quality seems to locate photography in a different dimension: that of the digital image. Digital doesn’t equal artificial (who would dare say analog photography is a genuine technique?). On the other hand, when digital meets a taste that has been shaped by the rule of digital design, then maybe we do face a depiction of human relationships that is too simulated and, then, “too” false. That falseness exists when the rule of digital design imposes itself on photography, period! Doesn’t really matter what techniques were involved when creating the images. That falseness produces super high expectations and what happens after that? Well, we’ve all been there…

What sparked this debate about photography and design can be separated into two major themes:
1) social networks;
2) photobooks.

1 – Social networks

So my knowledge of social networks is not enough to elaborate much on this topic. My cellphone has no camera nor internet and I only have a facebook account. I ignore the marvels of whatsApp. I do see what instagram has done to photography and I think it’s a turning point. It’s pretty clear when I talk to students how instagram has set the standard for them. For what I can understand, instagram is somehow a product of tumblr and pinterest. But, again, my lack of knowledge is limiting. I suspect there is some correlation between the filters made available in platforms such as instagram and that feeling I have that digital design has turned photography into a screen-based technique. However, I’ve never seen those filters in action, so I’m well out of my comfort zone.

I’ve written before about the relation between some stylistic resources and nostalgia as a source for displaced-like imagery: alienated beings living in a luminous world… isn’t this the effect of a drug-induced trip? What sort of chemical reaction is triggered by that sort of nostalgic imagery? I’d like to suggest that if you want to put together nostalgia and feeling like an alien, you’d better take traditional drugs. At least it engages you with reality and you learn something about yourself. But well, maybe that engagement is precisely what people are running from.

I’m not very found of design. Some designers I work with know that very well and we tend to make jokes about it. They understand where I’m coming from and I understand they think I’m nuts. We’ve discussed the issue (not of my stupidity but of photography’s battle with design). I tend to conclude that the problem with design techniques has to do with the designer’s advertising-like mentality; a sort of mentality that is very much contaminated by fashion and editorials, as well as advertising per se. Mature designers, who have found their style, tend to behave in a more ethical manner, not so much oriented towards sensory pleasure and material satisfaction. But, in the end, designers love their objects and they want to make them suitable to the dynamics of contemporary life. There’s no way around it, is there?

If photographers have a problem with ugly things (again, Sontag’s idea that a photographer cannot but embellish things), then what can be said about designers? Wannabe photographers (students, amateurs, emerging, etc.) dazzle at the idea of creating beautiful pictures. Some trends never fall out of fashion, so we keep seeing typical newcomer’s approach to nudity, typical fascination with abandoned places, etc. But then a new set of trends has arise and those (I think) are a by-product of social networks. To name a few: photographs of people walking their pets (giving the impression that people love the outdoors), backlit photographs of sport events (skating and surfing rule the category), minimal environments, pinhole-like photography, bleached colors, beach landscapes, vignetting portraits, double-exposures and color-negative (like) photographs.

Professional photographers, on the other hand, are producing something else. An editorial style, I’d say. I’ts instagramable, but it has its own platform: photobooks.

(printscreen) Thumbnails in the category Design + Fashion (source: Ignant)
(printscreen) Thumbnails in the category Photography + Portrait (source: Ignant)
(printscreen) Thumbnails in the category Photography + Editorial (source: Ignant).

2 – Photobooks

So to avoid naming names and turning this post into a war on specific publishers, what I find important is to try and articulate in what way has digital design contaminate the substance of photography, in particular this new editorial category that is a mixture of:

  1. fiction (in the way it is scripted or edited);
  2. fashion (for the importance it gives to people’s styles and poses);
  3. advertising (because it is fundamentally grounded on semiotics);
  4. documentary (given a straight approach to the technical and formal components of the camera and its optics)
  5. still life (highlighting things from our everyday life);
  6. surrealism (as for the dialogues created between animated and lifeless realities);
  7. snapshot (seen in a raw use of flash, a composition that looks made by chance, etc.).

Are the characteristics enunciated above a direct result of digital design? I don’t know. They are likely to be a result of social networks and urban environments (conditioned by technological rhythms). If we admit that our visual universe has been (re)shaped by digital imagery, then photobooks are likely to be influenced by that as well. But there’s obviously more to it than this. Traditional photobooks (meaning a codex-like structure) are prepared in a way that makes them hostage to digital design. Here are two or three major reasons:

  1. The overall set of images chosen to be included in the book need to fit a specific format. That format levels their potential. Yes, some can be bigger, other smaller and they fit different places inside the book, but their dynamic is conditioned by a major decision: that their live in a photobook. 
  2. Most layouts are made using standard software techniques and typographic resources. As we turn the pages, everything falls into place. We often get a feeling that there’s no substance, but it’s beautiful. Beautifully crafted, beautifully designed. Maybe the hype around photobooks is not really about photography, but about designing photobooks.
  3. Editorial and printing techniques are fascinating. Both authors and editors easily get trapped in a tautological process, fetishizing about the creation of a much desired object. In that process, everything assumes a delirious importance: the paper, the fibers, printing technologies, bookbinding techniques, etc. Again, these are all conditioned by the rule of digital design. After all, if you want to have multiple copies, you need to make sure the object is reproducible. 

Photobooks from the twenty-first century have managed to highlight one of photography’s major qualities: its capacity to illustrate desire. As I think the thumbnails reproduced in this post make clear, all digital imagery looks alike, whatever the category. They’re all advertising desire. We’re never seeing the full picture, but it’s not because truth lies in the place of the invisible, but because consumerism is all about desire and manipulating impulses. Maybe we want to see more, maybe we want to turn the page, maybe we want to buy these things, maybe we want to scroll down and see more, maybe we want to look alike, maybe we want to travel there, maybe we want to feel like that… it’s all about the desire. Photography and design at the service of a consumer society… how sad.

Finally, as I’m writing this and going through Ignant’s site, I realize than in the category Design-Print, there are two features, both of photobooks. One of them is precisely about desire. It really couldn’t illustrate my point any better. I ask myself what is really the substance of this photobook?

Beyond the Clouds, by HART+LËSHKINAMonika Mróz, writting for Ignant, says:

The book consists of still lifes and portraits. The first ones, constructed from ephemeral materials such as ice, snow, flowers, human hair, teeth and bodily fluids allude to the transience of time and human experience. The portraits show people in captured in various stages of being undressed. Photographed against plain white background, they have one thing in common – a series of anonymous garments found on the outskirts of Moscow. “They are caught in moments of quiet solitude all at different points of physical and psychological transitions, connected by the desire to transcend their physicality,” says the description of the book. The album itself was designed the acclaimed Japanese art director and graphic designer Hideki Nakajima, who has collaborated with artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Sofia Coppola or Vincent Gallo.

Beyond the Clouds, by HART+LËSHKINA

4 replies on “All photographs look alike and I blame digital design

  1. Um texto que requer ler várias vezes, não pela incompreensão do texto. Sim pela necessidade de relembrar o quão necessário e importante é a investigação e estudo sobre os vários temas possíveis a ser tratados.
    Não somente fazer projectos que definem o que pode ser ou é bonito para sociedade do momento, contendo um vazio e sem narrativa. Mas será esse o preposito o vazio?

    Continue o seu trabalho que tenho o prazer de ler e reler
    António Vilhena de Carvalho

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