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Above: An example of an Instagram user's recent posts displayed on a smartphone screen. Photo: Uncredited screenshot.

Three Billion People

Today 3.2 billion people or about 50% of the global population have a connection to the World Wide Web. Half of all living persons use websites. In 1995 about 40 million people browsed to websites, so it's a big change through the last 23 years, which is why some theorists refer to this epoch of change as the Digital Revolution.

Almost all websites have at least some visual elements, and many of those sites that do, use compressed JPEG photos. (The jpeg is the most popular and successful photo-format in photo-history.) Digital photos are proliferating on the Web at the rate of a few billion a day.

What is the consequence of the above as regards serious creative photography? The consequences are many and drastic, but here are two. First, it is getting harder to motivate people to go to an exhibition of photographs when they a) see so many all the time anyway, and b) when most of the time the same images can be--and often are--easily viewed online for free as high-res digital. (Of course, the art space wants you to go along a buy a ticket to see their show for £12, or more, so it won't intentionally upload the pictures for fear of loss of revenue.) These days the exhibition of master photography is more of a social event than anything--an excursion to an art gallery becomes a cultural-leisure activity, a chance to meet friends in a venue which can appositely underline and highlight one's liberal-aesthetic values.

A second big consequence of several billion new photos being made each day: it is getting hard to convince an audience that there really are just a very few master photographers in each decade--which was the trusted format of photo-historians and curators in the 20th century. In the 2010s, there are at least a billion photographers around, most are just ordinary persons taking photos, sure, but nevertheless, many of the images produced are compelling.

In such a scenario, reducing all this rampant photo-activity down to just a half-dozen lionized names is preposterous. In the 21st century the super-democratization of the act of taking and sharing (i.e., presenting, showing, exhibiting) photos means that the entrenched format of picking out a few master-super-photographers who come to represent each decade, as reigned supreme in the 20th century, is now really over.

The pressing question for photo-historians right now is not picking out the next exemplary photographer, but working out how to discuss, critique, or even actually review, the few billion photos getting shared each day.

(1 August 2018)