A Shared and Absurd Human Compulsion

The above phrase comes from the introduction section to the C&N course notes where the collecting (sorry: gathering) activities of Joachim Schmid are discussed. The phrase is in reference to the seeming compulsion for people to record the same events in the same ways.

In the interview with Schmid on the werareoca site (see here), he notes that “we all take very similar photographs but we never learned how to do this. Our parents don’t tell us, we don’t learn it at school, and people all over the world do it nevertheless. I don’t know why”.

It struck me on reading this that on a superficial level, these photos do indeed look the same. The photo of one wedding couple in front of a church is more-or-less like the next. But surely that’s missing the point? The point is that a specific wedding photo contains a specific couple, not some sort of general mash-up. It is the specifics which are important to people. In this sense, the events are actually not at all the same.

We could just as easily say that all cars look the same (more-or-less): four wheels, a steering wheel, an engine. Certainly, that’s true, but so what? We could go one step further and say that all paintings look the same: the use of paint (perhaps oil, water colour, acrylic but more-or-less the same), on a medium such as canvas and perhaps framed. Again, so what? We’ve said precisely nothing of value – we have simply picked out the commonalities and ignored the important points.

In my opinion, it is the specifics which are everything, not the broad generalities. The specifics are what people care about: it’s a photo of my mum and dad on their wedding day, for example. I simply don’t care that it looks like millions of others – that’s irrelevant. By focusing on the similarities, we learn nothing but we imply a kind of criticism which is unfounded and completely irrelevant.

Why do so many photos look the same? I would imagine that if we give a camera or smartphone to a child for the first time and ask them to take a photo of a subject, they will most often place the subject in the centre of the frame. It’s the simplest way to show as much of the subject as possible. From the start of the democratisation of photography by companies such as Kodak, it has always been thus.

We should ask ourselves: is there a problem? If so, what is it precisely? Is it just another case of us versus them i.e. the “artists” versus everyday people taking snapshots? Isn’t this just another form of snobbery? I think by now we should be able to move beyond that and not think it at all absurd that so many photos look superficially the same.

References

Boothroyd, S. (2016) Context and Narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

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