Fred Ritchin’s talk from the Chautauqua Institution is a must watch. It is over an hour, but if you don’t make it through you might just prove his point!

He lays out how digital universe allows us to reorder content as and when we please (a contact sheet has an order; digital files can be swapped about, deleted). He posits that along with the demise of analogue technologies, analogue thinking has disappeared. Today, to read is not to follow a book front to back, to listen to music is not to listen to an album. We take in bits, bytes, single tracks and isolated comments.

Ritchin isn’t moaning, he just wants us to see our current universe for what it is and respond accordingly. Ritchin wants us to use digital [photo] technologies not make models thinner, the pyramids closer or to run algorithms removing unwanted objects from caches of images; he wants us to use digital tools for positive ends. Instead of changing the past and present, why not the future envisioned? Ritchin wants us to present, to image and imagine futures so striking they might alter our behaviours – Earth without animals … or people. If we see the horrifying aftermath of climate change or war maybe we won’t go down that path? Think activist/photo-manipulation hybridism.

Ritchin questions Flickr. Rightly so. The mere upload of imagery is inadequate. After a trip to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Ritchin searched Flickr for imagery of “New Orleans”. The first 400 images were of young people partying on their stoops.

Our obsessive production and distribution of images (usually through socially networking) devalues meaning in, and of, photography. In photography we can increasingly find ourselves, but can we find each other? See each other? In a meaningful way?

Photography, as in life, is becoming less about them and us and more about me and I. This is a point Ritchin makes in his recent blog post too:

“I have written elsewhere about the assertion by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary), about the progression of values in the United States as seen through the popularity of certain magazines. During a 1980s concert he recounted how once the popular magazine in the United States was called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us), and now – to add on to what he had said – it becomes the Daily Me of Nicholas Negroponte, where one’s dentist appointment or Facebook status supersedes the report of the declaration of a new war or healthcare initiative on the “front page” of one’s nearly ubiquitous screen.”

Of course, there is no obligation to use photography always in a means to connect with others.

There is however, an obligation to be honest. As it stands, the predominantly shallow use of image is far less of an insult as that of people obsessed with the past, with the idea of “the power of photography” and with the continued lip service to a dead idea and a false reality.

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