Happy Little Photographs

For readers of a certain age, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross (currently available on Netflix, because somebody apparently thought this was a good idea) calls to mind a soft-spoken, perpetually smiling, and possibly chemically-altered white guy with an Afro that would have made the Black Panthers proud talking about “happy little trees.” This was strangely compelling television, perhaps because of the sheer lack of truly compelling television. And like most television of the era, every episode ended the same way: in this case, with a painting that looked like every other Bob Ross painting, an aesthetic popular with designers of dentist office waiting rooms and Holiday Inns. Painfully boring and relentlessly inoffensive, the Bob Ross look somehow managed to be both virtually invisible and instantly recognizable.

Fast forward to today. Bob Ross has been replaced in his role by the combination of digital photography, editing tools, and the internet. What Ross’s fevered brain singularly created has now been supplanted by a combination of the unlimited possibilities of technology and the stifling monotony of groupthink. The result, predictably, is photography that mimics almost perfectly the Bob Ross aesthetic: ubiquitous, comfortable, and utterly forgettable.

Look at the photo sharing website of your choice. Look at any publication that features photography. Look at a photography forum or two. What sort of photos are people sharing? Let me save you some time. Oversaturated wide angle landscapes. Hypersharp birds in flight. Flowers and bugs highlighted by razor thin depth-of-field. Frontal aspect portraits with too much contrast. Smooth water. Still awake? The simple fact is that any of these outlets provides you with the same soporific visual experience as standing in the middle of a Starving Artists’ Group tent sale in a mall parking lot. In spite of any technical virtuosity that might have been incidentally involved in the production, it’s all hopelessly, inescapably repetitive and dull.

The problem here is twofold. The photographers responsible are failing to question their own actions, confusing their ability to do something (a simple question) with whether or not they should (a question requiring far more introspection). Beyond that, many photographers showing their work in these ways are primarily looking for affirmation, and beyond a certain low technical threshold these sorts of photos appeal to the lowest common denominator demographic, and as such garner lots of “likes” and positive, if entirely meaningless, comments (“Nice work!” “I really like that!” “Wow!”). It’s nothing more than mutual masturbation.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin, the viewers. Most people looking at photography don’t want to question what they’re seeing, nor do they care to learn how to do so. The just want to look at what catches their eye in the moment, and that is exactly what this sort of photography does (“Great colors!” “So sharp!”). Beyond a general description of the subject, however, I doubt if any viewer could talk meaningfully about the photograph without having it in front of them. Contrast, sharpness, and saturation may catch the eye, but they make no impression, they leave no trace of their existence. Such photographs are seen and forgotten almost simultaneously. These pictures are the fast food of the photography world – it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s briefly satisfying as long as you remain ignorant of how it’s made and what’s in it. Once you know, however, the only way to stomach it is if you can temporarily suspend the knowledge that it’s killing you.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As you can imagine, Tolstoy did not choose to write about a happy family; if he had, I doubt anyone would know who he was. Whether we are talking about Bob Ross’s paintings or the mass produced photography of today, the fundamental point remains consistent: these are “happy” pictures, and they are all alike.

22 thoughts on “Happy Little Photographs

  1. Scathing but accurate. And well written.

    I admit to guilt: I skim Instagram mindlessly, double-tapping photos that catch my eye. It’s a way to pass the time when I’m waiting with nothing productive I can do.

    Another photo blogger I follow is known to comment on other blogs when a photo there captures his interest, just to describe the photo and its positive attributes as well as he can. It’s a wonderful exercise. I should copy it.

    1. It did sort of evolve into a bit more of a rant than I originally intended, but I stand by the statement.

      I am fortunate to participate in a monthly photography salon that focuses entirely on critique. It is a difficult yet very productive exercise that allows for a much greater understanding of one’s own work. I find it much less satisfying to try to do it through the medium of the internet, but I know that’s the primary form it will take for most these days; unfortunately, when communicating electronically it is very hard to differentiate between constructive negativity and simple dismissal, often leading to awkward moments or worse. Nonetheless, thoughtful critique of other work will almost certainly help to better understand one’s own photography.

  2. Well written as always as Jim says. You have a point for sure, and I know I am part of the problem, not the solution. As much as I love Flickr, I am really fed up with the overly sharp landscapes shot with UWA lenses. Critiqes drove me out of art school. I know I am not a very good photographer but I do enjoy it a lot. As a working stiff I feel lucky to take any pictures at all, and with the increase in film prices, I am using my phone and an old Canon digital more and more, and almost exclusively for work. Such is life. Thanks for a good read, and good laugh.

    1. There’s useful critique and then there’s less-than-useful critique – I’m suspecting you were a victim of the latter, given that it occurred in art school. Bad critique is just as bad as the uncritical “like” culture I rail against in the piece; it’s usually just a more specific version of high school cliques that gang up on anything different because it falls outside their narrow, yet arbitrary, definition of acceptable. Good critique always begins with a question: What are you trying to achieve with this work? If the person trying to critique the work doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do, how can they possibly offer anything useful? In lieu of external criticism, ask yourself the same question. If you don’t know, well, that’s the first step you need to take. Film, digital, whatever – the end product is what matters most, and the only person it really needs to matter to is you.

    1. So did I, and I still have a strange, inexplicable fondness for it – something about being reminded of the blissful ignorance of childhood, I suppose. I’m sure my familiarity with that show (for better or worse) contributed to the little epiphany that resulted in this post.

        1. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, in painting, photography, or any other art form. The problem occurs when people view crawling as the end-state rather than the first step in a long process of continual development.

  3. I think the real problem with ‘happy’ photos on the net…. no, in fact there’s two problems, and they are attention span and the absence of real critique (and refusing to accept critique. Goes both ways).

    People don’t look at photos, they just see them, fleetingly. No long poring over a great print any more. No analysing the compostion, the handling of lighting.

    It’s just a HDR desert on the social media out there.

    Second, when I still had a FB account I one day dared to write a critical comment, nice and gentle, about a photo where the guy had put virtually all the Lightroom sliders to full right.

    Man did I get shot down… incredible the negative reaction not only from the ‘artist’ but also from all whose ‘wow’ and ‘❤️‘ commenters.

    Was my first and last foray into internet critique. Let them make happy, meaningless photos if it pleases them. No one will really look at them anyways.

    1. We’re on the same page on this one – the term “HDR desert” is apt.

      By contrast, the critique group I attend locally has a strict print-only rule. Photos get laid out on the table, the photographer talks about what sort of critique they’re looking for, and then people move around, take everything in, and discuss. It’s a useful, deliberate process, and one that is impossible to replicate on the internet.

      I have zero belief that my or anyone else’s complaints will alter things one iota, but if anything is to change for anyone, it has to come from an internal acknowledgement by an individual that there is more to photography than doing the same thing everybody else is. Put another way, people have to start actually thinking about their work, but thinking is hard, and not many at all are willing to expend the effort.

        1. Exactly. And pretty is inevitably boring, because we all already know what pretty looks like, so who needs to see it again?

  4. I admit that I am still at the early stage of finding my eye for photography. I guess I would use “likes” on something like Instagram to get a gauge if a photo I think is good, is considered good. I do really like when I show pictures to friends and family and they like them. That’s the other affirmation that I seek. I think anyone who creates anything is looking for someone to say it’s good. I find I like making/taking photographs for myself and stuff I like. I also really enjoy seeing the reactions of people who have asked me to take pictures for/of them. I think the best art is that you create for someone else.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mike. With all respect, however, I couldn’t disagree more. Art created for other people is either commercial (in other words, you’re being paid to make what the client wants) or essentially meaningless. If the purpose of art, or at least perhaps a purpose of art, is to communicate in a very personal way, what does art created with others’ opinions foremost in mind say? Please like me?

      The problem with using positive affirmation as a guide to improving your work is that most people, as I noted in the piece, don’t know or care to know much of anything about the complexities and nuances, but rather are drawn to simple shiny things that are more the product of camera technology and mass repetition than any sort of creative process.

      If others see photos (or any other art) and appreciate it, that’s great. Affirmation is always nice to get. But if they don’t, then is it successful or a failure? It’s a success if you presented what you wanted to; it’s a failure if all you wanted was for it to be liked. Art is a personal thing in my view, not something to be mass produced according to popular tastes.

  5. Excellent post. I’ve virtually given up on social media now and only really use Flickr to archive my photos (and have a convenient place to display them on my blog without using up my storage there) and Pinterest for a bit of research into some of the past masters of photography and painting. Everything else, for me, was just saturated with the superficial “liking”, meaningless comments you spoke about. Oh and stupid emoji hearts and thumbs up and other things. Like in life generally, if you’ve got nothing meaningful or kind to share, don’t bother sharing at all.

    Though I hadn’t made the analogy before, you’re right, it is just like fast food. And that’s how people have become trained to consume it too, chucking it down their throats before moving on to something else.

    (On an unfortunate technical note, your blog really hurts my eyes – small white text on a dark background meant I struggled to read through the whole post, then when I looked away I couldn’t see properly for a few moments. I don’t have an issue with most other blogs. Sorry!)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Dan, and my apologies for the eye strain. I don’t find it problematic (unsurprisingly, perhaps) but then I have the brightness on my screens turned way down, which may be part of the equation. I’ll have a look at some other alternatives and take anything promising under consideration. It may change, it may not. We shall see.

      In any case, your experience is exactly the sort of thing that the lowest-common-denominator like-based popular photography world creates, and it’s pointless at best, and damaging at worst. There is no attempt at understanding, no attempt at creativity, just technologically-enabled mimicry. It’s infinitely disappointing, but fortunately it is easily avoided.

      1. Yes, in the last few months I’ve been avoiding it almost entirely and really only reading blogs, as well as a bit of Pinterest research as I mentioned.

        The other thing I can’t fathom with social media, Instagram especially, is how it’s optimised for mobile devices. I found it very frustrating that you can only post via a phone, which for me is fiddly, and takes ages if you want to write anything.

        Then even a decent sized mobile screen is still no way (in my eyes) to view photography. Why squint at something on a four or five inch screen when you can use a 10 inch tablet or 12, 13, 14, 15 inch laptop? The surface area is many magnitudes larger and you can start to appreciate the photo.

        It’s akin to the difference between being in the front few rows of a theatre rather than being right at the back with a pair of binoculars and the performers looking the size of Lego minifigures.

        Re the blog design, I’m just used to reading black or dark grey text on white or light grey backgrounds. I’ve found a workaround – I’ve started following your blog so I can read it in WP Reader. : )

        1. Social media is optimized for what people want; the problem is that people often want things that aren’t very good. I would argue that any electronic media is inferior to print by a wide margin. The convenience and reach of the internet means that the vast majority of photography we see these days is delivered electronically, but I certainly encourage any photographer who wants to better understand their own work to print it.

          1. This is something I’ve started exploring in the last few months – consuming other work via prints (in books) and printing my own photographs. They then become significantly different to “just” digital images on a screen.

            I think there’s an argument that a great deal of social media is optimised to train people in habits of rapid, instantaneous, repetitive consumption. Those behind it then hope the training leads the trained to continue these habits of consumption in the form of buying products for payment.

            Put another way, it trains people how to be addicted, then gives them a range of(paid) options to feed their addiction(s).

            1. Business is business; that’s in no way a criticism, but simply a clear-eyed acknowledgement that business exists for a purpose, and failing to recognize that purpose can lead to all manner of misapprehension. People rarely consider that, in the case of social media platforms, they are not the customers, but rather they are the commodity being sold by the company to advertisers.

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