Monday, August 22, 2011


After my grandmother passed away recently, the family gathered to divide some of her old photo albums. Granny was a great collector —an aggregator, to use an internet term— and these albums proved to be a treasure trove. Among the countless photos of relatives and friends I found several wonderfully bizarre snapshots. Perhaps for Granny they had sentimental value. For me they worked as pure stand alone photographs. Here's an example.

This is the TV in my grandparents' home where I used to watch cartoons during childhood visits. I'm not sure why someone photographed that piano or how it wound up later being saved in an album. I just know it's a beautiful and somewhat creepy image.

Here's another photo of the same room with a slightly newer TV.

Talk about timing. Some street photographers would give their left nut to capture that type of chance juxtaposition. But whoever took this photo, I doubt they paid much attention to the arrangement. It was just a snapshot of 2-year old Sarah buried in an old album.

This one looks like something out of Eggleston's Guide. It's wonderfully descriptive yet seems to describe nothing.

My grandmother's albums aren't unique. I think anyone wading through their own albums could find similar gems. These photos are out there. The twist is in the reinterpretation.

The digital equivalent to searching Granny's old albums (from a slightly more gotcha angle) might be Awkward Family Photos.

AFP, July 5, 2011

AFP is entertaining but that site is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet has turned archive mining into a cottage industry. One can find science fair projects, unhappy hipsters, stock photos, unusable stock photos, Mars images, dads on vacation, brokers with their hands on their faces, sad businessmen at bars, contract killers, disguises of the Soviet Bloc, or just awesome people hanging out together. Any type of photo you can think of has probably been collected and sorted by someone online. The common denominator is that they're being gathered and shown in a new or unintended context.

This Week in Stock Photography, 4/20/11

Of course this is nothing new. Reinterpretation in the art world has been going on since before my grandmother's childhood. Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, etc, all the way through postmodernism to the present, each new round greeted with fresh skepticism.

Photographers were somewhat late to the party. They have always tinkered around with collage and montage but it wasn't until the 70s that the mouth really began to eat the tail. Shore's All the Meat You Can Eat, Szarkowski's From the Picture Press, and Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip got the ball rolling but it wasn't until Evidence exploded on the scene that full-on reassessment became widely accepted as a creative act (followed shortly by Champion Pig).

from Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

That was 34 years ago. The pace seems to have lagged since. We've had Prince, Baldessari, a minor burst of found photo compilations, and a few outliers like Boring Postcards and the KesselsKramer books. But the majority of photo projects in recent decades have been created the old fashioned way, with a camera.

from Boring Postcards, by Martin Parr

With rise of the internet the balance may be shifting. If ever a tool was made to assist reinterpretation it's the web. Suddenly Granny's album has become modeling clay. Images are thrown online, copied, reshuffled, Tumblred, Twittered, sliced and diced. Such reinterpretations have become a cottage industry.

In fact I'd argue that reinterpretation threatens to overtake generation as the dominant creative act in photography. "In the digital age, anyone can make a picture," says Alec Soth, "but it does take some knowledge to edit a project." When we look back at our era in 50 years, we may not remember particular images at all. Instead we'll note how they were cleverly sorted and recontextualized.

image grab from a rough draft, reinterpreted

If the obstacle of copyright hasn't yet been solved, it's at least been comfortably subverted for now. Maybe steamrolled is a better word. Back in the 1970s Sultan and Mandel got around rights issues by using images from the public domain. For better or for worse, most online images are now treated as de facto public domain. The case of this image is typical.

I think there is still a difference between reproduction rights in the printed world —the traditional ticket to archived collections— and the internet. Some of the Tumblrs listed above would never survive copyright scrutiny if printed. Yet online they seem to get a hallpass. Look at the images in this post. I'm showing them with a photo credit but I have no copyright. Could I do this in a book? Probably not, although I might get away with publishing an old family photo.

from Granny's album

The elephant in the room is Google Street View. Five years ago it didn't exist. Now we're approaching the moment when every public passage on the planet will have been photographed. The natural question is what's left to shoot?

One way forward is to examine the path that got us here. In the last few years several Street View reinterpretations have been spawned, some of which have been analyzed here, here, and many times right here among other places. One can argue back and forth about the merits of such work but it seems clearly contemporary. Next month Street View screenshots will be exhibited at MOMA. I think the trend is set, and I expect to see a surge in reinterpretive projects in the next few years from all corners of the web.

Some might ask, isn't reinterpretation the same as curating? And if so, hasn't that been around forever? But I think reinterpreting is a different animal than straight curation. The Family of Man or Toward a Social Landscape or New Topographics were curations. They were organized around a theme, but they left the original meaning and authorship of the photos largely intact. In contrast, a Street View candid in ANAP is completely stripped of its original context. It no longer has value as a mapping aid. It's a pure stand alone photograph plucked from Google's family album. That's where we're headed.

from A New American Picture by Doug Rickard

What about photo blogs? I think there has always been a tension in the blog world between aggregator and generator, between offering new content vs. linking to it elsewhere. My favorite blogs do both, but most fall into one camp or the other. Maybe it's my imagination but the trend seems to be heading toward reinterpretation. The increased use of Tumblr, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter —platforms mostly comprised of links and relinks— are the most obvious examples but the tendency seems widespread.

Ward Sutton, from The New Yorker, 8/8/11

Admittedly I have a strong personal bias toward generators. I find it hard to take seriously anyone who writes about photography without making images themselves. It's a prejudice I know, but one I find hard to overcome. My secret fantasy is for every photoblogger out there to stop analyzing for one day and show ten recent photos of their own. Seeing ten photos would give me more insight into someone than reading ten years of their writing.

Unless of course they've been showing photos all along. In that case an alternative would be to choose ten snapshots from an old family album.


Alisha Stamper said...

Thank you for posting about this. Such succinct thoughts. I've been thinking about it all day and I agree there does seem to be a slant (pinterest, tumblr, etc) towards how well someone gathers images vs. how well they create their own. It is strange to me. Context should/shouldn't matter for an image? I don't believe there is a hard and fast rule about that completely. I will say, in current creatives, it seems like more and more use context to justify crappy technical, etc, which is my #1 issue with current "creators". Anyway, thanks a lot. I think I create more than I gather... since I don't really gather. :)

Anonymous said...

It's strange because what you say about reinterpretation was kind of what I confusedly felt about the "worst photo contest" post. Maybe it was intended (or not) but I felt there was something going on with this series of "bad" pics put together, like a non-sense story or whatever... (and I was happy that my pic has found good company here).

Sorry for your Grandma.

Jeremy K said...

How about a crappy youtube video?



Blake Andrews said...

Sergei, you've just blown your cover. Now they'll be on the lookout for you.

Jophilippe, I hadn't thought of the bad photos as a series but looking at them now you may be right. They seem to tell a story, but at this point there are too many loose ends. Needs tightening.

Anonymous said...


Joel Colberg recently wrote a post about GSV and authorship:

Frankly I did not find it mildly interesting, but what strikes me in the link provided to raw file (oh well, that is aggregating...) is that Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman used similar material in their respective GSV-based projects. Given the unlikeness that they stumbled on the same images directly using GSV they must have sourced their work from other places (websites) that already did a "re-interpretation" work for that matter. So finally these projects are re-re-interpretation, aren't they ?

Blake Andrews said...

I read Pete's posts and (later) Colberg's. Actually Pete's recent post was one of the things which got me thinking about all this. I left an early comment at Raw File exclaiming similar surprise at the similarities between Rafman and Wolf. Until seeing that post I hadn't noticed how close they were. For me it takes some of the punch out of the photos. The whole game there is to probe Street View for gems, and to put your own spin on it. To use Colberg's term, it's to create and assume authorship. But if they're all following the same tips there doesn't seem much point. But I'm sure this is just the beginning of Street View editing. Much more to come...

Ten points for anyone who can capture a Street View image of Sergei about to smash the Google camera.

jacques philippe said...

Just read your comment on raw file Blake. On a side-note I think Colberg missed a point about authorship on that peculiar Rafman/Wolf case because there is a mediation here. It is not a mix (his music analogy) but instead a mix of a mix. Likewise Rafman and Wolf should credit part of their project to the people who first do the screen grabs and collect them in a website. It is kind of like doing a family album project based on AFP. I personally don't care that much about the specific point of authorship and I am more interested in the process instead but I think in that specific case that both aspects are intricate in some way.

Blake Andrews said...

I don't think the music mix analogy works either, but for a slightly different reason. For me the visual equivalent of a music mix is a collage or assemblage. Rauschenberg's art is probably the prototypical example, pulling disparate strands together, stripping them of context, and re-appropriating them into a new whole. That's basically hip hop music in visual form.

I think Street View editing as practiced by Rafman or Wolf is closer to a pure reinterpretation, not a mix. If they took the White Album, recorded only the chorus of each song, compiled the recordings into a new album, and claimed the whole thing as an original work, it might be a rough equivalent. Better yet, maybe it should be done with elevator Muzak instead of the Beatles.

marc said...

Just wanted to say that I loved this post. Not to bad-mouth Soth, but anyone could take photos from about 1900 when Eastman starting marketing the Brownie camera ("you push the button we do the rest"). Your scrapbook pictures are proof of that, but it has taken a century for people to really start taking the democratization of photography seriously, and a lot of that has to do with institutional responses to the perpetual "Family of Man" exhibit that is Flickr. Those genius unintentional decisive moments of family albums only become relevant when they are plucked from their original context (like Warhol's Brillo box) and curated or reinterpreted (or whatever)by someone whose "job" it is (curator, photographer, etc.) to essentially point at something, frame it, and get others to look. And if Martin Parr (as opposed to, say, uncle Larry) points at a boring postcard, we are more inclined to pay attention. And in the spirit of recontextualizing, I would propose that Eastman's "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest" is the artistic credo of google street view art, flickr sunset art, etc.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm officially bored of GSV reinterpretations, books, exhibitions and blog entries. I'm putting my blinders on and enjoying the pre-GSV world that I grew up with and love. Hopefully in a few years everyone will get bored of sitting in front of their laptops pretending they are genius curators and move on.