Another Covid Monday. Far too strange. Far too much the same. This post is on the early work of German Photographer Thomas Struth. Yet, not.
I have been a Struth fan for a long time. I even managed to hang on to a coffee table book or two of his work in spite of constantly purging such items to keep my apartment from getting too cluttered.
The truth is, like most people I know, most of my coffee table books are rarely looked at. In fact, years can go by before I glance at them again.
Which is where this post took a different turn. I was looking at a particular series of Struth’s early work. Photos he did of New York back in 1977. I used to love these photos. But, as I was looking at them, I wasn’t sure if I still liked them. In fact, they were kind of…boring.
But then I kept looking at them, and once again, I felt something. There was something in the flat, almost clinical approach to photographing a long-gone version of New York which still connected with me. The more I looked at them, the more I remembered why I had liked them in the first place.
However, the experience also raised a more disturbing issue. It made me question if the barrage of images we see everyday has numbed us to anything more subtle.
Everyone is a photographer now. Cell phones have made it possible for people to take so many pictures, so easily, that basic skills of composition and lighting are almost a natural skill to anyone under 50. Now, combine that with the ease of using flashy, attention-getting filters to make sure people don’t just scroll past your post.
Photography has become about grabbing people’s attention. A difficult task in a world of frenetic activity, thousands of social media posts, and an audience with a highly-limited attention span.
Photographs now are about drama, intensity, the quick smash to the senses. Eye candy. Not eye brussels sprouts. If you don’t smack them in the face with your brilliance you will be scrolled over and forgotten. It’s not just smartphones which did this, the entire world has changed.
More. There’s just more. Everywhere. More images. More information. More choices. And according to some scientists, our brains have even been slightly rewired to adapt to all of it. It’s the quick hit or go away.
Don’t get me wrong, photography would have evolved on its own. There was already a trend toward huge, wall-sized prints that was due as much to evolving printing technologies as to the state of the world. But the pace of change away from the subtle and toward the big, grand and attention-getting has been truly staggering.
Not to get too carried away here, but you could argue this isn’t just photography but across all media and arts. Movies in theaters are about big moments and things blowing up. Everything is exaggerated. Heroes are no longer good enough. It’s got to be SUPER heroes or nothing at all. Always bigger, better. More.
The same is true with music. Music has always had to be likable or it would not get any radio play. However, with streaming it’s about the fast, quick hit. Songs that are popular and do well are slightly different but strangely familiar. A formula that did not come about purely by accident. Our brains work a certain way and there are people out there that cater to that, whether it be song writers or the programmers behind Facebook and other social media.
You could even argue that the way people pick their potential partners has gone the same way. Tinder-style dating has seeped into the greater consciousness. Impress me now with your beauty and your charm or I’m swiping left.
Which, brings us back to Struth. Don’t swipe left. Look at the photos for a few minutes. Give them a chance. You might find yourself really connecting with them in spite of their initial impression of banality.
Keep in mind, these photos were taken between December 1977 and September 1978. Yet, to me, they capture an eerie emptiness and loneliness which is painfully appropriate for the Age of Covid. Painfully appropriate to my life, now.
But sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe they really are just dull. Maybe I just need to put them away and then look at them again to see if I still like them.