Andrew L Walker and Rosalind Kimball Moulton.
Blog Post Summary
“I was back there with them, riding the wave, holding the table, my eyes on theirs, my eyes in theirs, breathing till it passed and the next one came. Wave after wave: recapitulation, conjunction, revelation. Again and again… They told me the Truth (Lesy, 1980, xiv)."
Amateur photography is a popular pastime in today’s society. The practice and presentation of photography impacts the way that individuals see themselves, the way that society views that individual, and the way that that individual engages with their social circles. Photo albums have been studied frequently by scholars as sources of social and historical data. In 2013, the way that ordinary people use photography has transformed our lives even further through social media outlets and smart phones. The introduction of these mediums for capturing and distributing photography has obscured the previously existing distinction between professional and amateur photography.
Photographs are used by researchers as sources of historical and social data. Some of the methods that are used by these researchers include the identification of repeated visual themes. Questions that they might pose to identify these themes include:
Is some common feature of all the locales repeatedly portrayed?
Are places primarily portrayed as assemblages of physical objects or as locations for activities?
What kind of people are portrayed?
What general types of attractions are repeatedly portrayed?
Do the photographs tend to be close-ups which focus on details or wide-angle shots which convey the general layout of the location?
Do the photographs put the locations in the “best light” or are imperfections and less-than ideal situations included?
Do the photographs concentrate on sights seen, or do they also visualize the life of the traveler?
The goal of social scientists or researchers is to be able to eventually see the images through the eyes of the photographer. Through such research, they have determined that photo albums are constructed by people who make organized and coherent statements about very complex, subjective realities. They aim to come up with a hypotheses about the interests and intentions of the photographer and to provide an interpretive context for each image. In order to truly understand the work of the amateur photographer, the analyst needs to think about the album as being a unitary structure, a meaning-conveying whole.
Historically, there have been technical and ideological gaps between professional and amateur photographers. Professional photographers needed to have access to expensive equipment, highly specialized skill sets, and social connections through which to distribute their media. During a time when photography was expensive and time consuming, these photographers gave a great deal of thought to the composition of their photographs. The goal of their practice was to produce a singular, self-sufficient, and self contained image. This image would be used to communicate a message consistent with the cultural conventions during that time period. Although their work was often displayed in galleries, or in multiplicity, emphasis was always placed on the singular image. Each image was meant to convey a statement to the audience and the world. Collections of images from professional photographers are contradictory or dualistic in nature.
Amateur photographers, however, are driven by much more innate sentiment. The motivations that drive their photography originates from the desire to capture moments of their lives based only on the context or personal meaning present in those moments. Instead of trying to appeal to popular culture, amateur photographers work from their personal continuum of memories, anticipations, and desires for particular moments to endure beyond the boundaries of time. Each image does not need to be artistically composed, rather it is composed based on the psychological realities of the photographer and the emotional immediacy of a given moment. In this context, collections of photographs become more important than the singular image. The value in this work comes from its latent meaning. Meaning is drawn from a combination of unconscious associations, cultural norms, art historical cliches, and transcendental motifs. In this way, the amateur photographer exceeds the professional photographers’ limitations. The amateur photographer has freedoms that the professional might not. The freedom to display historical and social information about institutionally or politically oppressed communities, without expectations of appealing to the popular culture or appease a particular audience. This photographer is free to communicate the truth of their emotions, relationships, and social struggles.
Amateur photographers, however, do not need highly refined skill sets for their images to be self-sufficient. The presentation of amateur photographs takes a more personal approach than that of professional photographs. Professional collections are often displayed in public spaces such as art galleries or in magazines. Amateur photography, however, is displayed in private spaces such as photo albums. This type of presentation gives the photographer control over the audience that the album is shown to and the context accompanying these photographs. Amateur photographers take an active role in the presentation of their work. They will often narrate or facilitate discussions regarding the experiences and context of the images they choose to share. The audience is often restricted to individuals who are intimately known. Whereas, professional photographers are rarely present when their work is shown to the public and have little control over the audience who will view their work. The amateur photographer only needs a coherent story for their images to become self-sufficient.
When displaying artistic photography, professional photographers still have the edge up. The challenge that arises when displaying amateur photographs is that the images that comprise a photo album usually fail to convey a flawless story line without narration. The collection is created in a more spontaneous and dynamic manner. The narrator, or photographer, needs to find a way of organizing details and compositional conventions into a meaningful whole. Narration can provide an interpretive framework for the audience, but it can be subjective, egocentric, or even self-serving. These narratives might deliberately cover up as much as they disclose, and distort as much as they display. When particular attention is given to the narrator, one can overcome these distortions and dive deeper then the captions often provided by professionals. Amateur narratives are dynamic and can be altered to suit a particular audience, time constraints, or the mood of the presenter and audience. These aspects of photo album narration make them particularly complex and as a result able to express or reveal more than the professional photographer might through conventional means. However, often this is only true when speaking to an actual person, and not viewing these photographs through a social media site.
In the case of social media, amateur photographers have still maintained a certain level of control over their work. When images are posted on social media websites the narration accompanying their work is replaced by captions, and the audience that the images will be exposed to is controlled by privacy options. In recent years, it has become much easier for amateur photographers to share their work with the public if they choose to. This phenomenon has contributed to the degradation of the value of professional photography. Most individuals have access to a high quality, digital camera right on their phones. The public can take snapshots of newsworthy events, stunning landscapes, product promotions, or sentimental family portraits without a professional camera. In addition, the companies that would have previously employed a skilled photographer, can now refer to their social networks to meet their demands.