ESSAYS Mousse 64
by Nick Currie
All images – Photo: Nick Currie
This is an essay about the picturesque. It’s about what we consider worthy of making into a picture, and why. It concentrates mostly on photography—the most instantaneous way of making something picturesque into the picture it seems to demand to be. And we can’t avoid a discussion of Instagram, the social media platform currently receiving more than fifty million images per day. At the end of 2017, the media in Japan declared the word of the year to have been “Instabae,” which translates as “Instagrammable” or “Instagenic.”
“Instagenic” is clearly based on the word “photogenic,” a word that is a bit of a double-edged sword. If you tell someone they’re photogenic, it means they look better in photographs than in real life, which is tantamount to calling them ugly. But it also has an implication of uncanny glamour: a photogenic person or thing has the potential to shine in a future context, as a mediated and transmuted object. In other words, some people and some things may just look fine standing in front of you, but others are destined to an interesting series of transformations, and only reveal their charm thanks to technology, thanks to culture. This is surely, ultimately, a more interesting destiny. If I try to define the picturesque, I formulate it like this: the picturesque is a quality inherent in the visible world that I associate with either an image that has been taken in the past, or an image that will be taken in the future. And, thinking about that a little more carefully, it’s the fact that others have taken similar images in the past that compels me to think that this is a scene I should turn into my own future image. Tripping the shutter is therefore not just a way of preserving a view, it’s a way to link myself to others, to agree with a particular framing they have already made.
This is where the negative implications of the word “picturesque” begin to intrude. There’s something stereotypical and conformist about this need to ratify a consensus about what is visually valuable. My father had a quirky way of pronouncing the word: he said “picture-skew” (which is how this partly French word might be pronounced if it were entirely English). Perhaps I learned my mistrust of the idea from his refusal to pronounce it seriously. It conjured, for me, overfamiliar images of Notre Dame or The Hay Wain. There is a nineteenth-century sentimentality built into it. The picturesque is for the visually timid, the irremediably twee.
I asked some friends—an Australian and a Scot—to define the picturesque, and their definitions were much more positive. They spoke of overwhelming beauty, something ennobling. Only when I expressed my surprise and said I’d always mistrusted the idea of the picturesque did they admit that there might be something corny and conformist lurking there: a gimcrack, dime-store sublime. I cited something I remember Marshall McLuhan saying: that artists are the only people, in any given age, to be living in the present. Normal people (it’s tempting to use the 1960s lingo and call them “normals, plastics, squares”) are basically viewing the present using templates established by the artists of the past. When it looks at the world with the freshness and originality of contemporary artists, this public is often alienated, uncomprehending, hostile. Open-minded views of the world as it is now can look like science fiction to an eye trained by the art of the past.
When we say that something is “picturesque,” it’s a bit like saying that someone is “creative”: it’s a way of identifying the potential to become an image, the potential to become an artist. But would a creative person who chose a visual medium actually be interested in “the picturesque”? Actually, we might be able to expand the category by saying that an artist can develop a personal language that becomes a series of triggers. For instance, my Tumblr photo feed keeps returning to the visual tropes that are my fetishes: hazard stripes, ceramics, games with framing, trompe l’oeil and mise en abyme, secondhand paperbacks, secondhand clothes, quirky details in Japanese street scenes, and so on. While not in themselves “picturesque,” these things have become almost reflexive. They aren’t clichés in terms of what most photography is about, but in terms of my own photography they do approach the status of cliché. “Cliché,” by the way, is an interesting word. In French it can mean a photographic shot, a plate, a layout, a block, an engraving, or a format. In English it means something commonplace and hackneyed; one of its synonyms is the word “bromide,” which can mean “a trite statement intended to soothe or placate,” but is also one of the basic chemicals used in photography. So it’s becoming clear that the contempt, abjection, or derogation built into the idea of the picturesque isn’t just a facet of my snobbism. There’s an association in the language between glibness and a certain kind of rote image making—specifically that which produces or reproduces “the picturesque”—and it seems to be connected, linguistically, to all sorts of nineteenth-century image-making and image-reproducing technology. It isn’t a huge leap to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and his concerns about how these technologies were impacting the “aura” of an image: the concern that reproduction reduces presence.
Clearly Benjamin’s essay, and the Paul Valéry essay it draws on, date from a certain transition happening in the early years of modernity, and a certain anxiety about authenticity and presence that we no longer share. Since postmodernism’s Warholian revolution we’ve reveled in reproduction and in layers of quotation, framings of framings. We’ve tended to like images that play with newsprint halftone, or hand-painted corporate logos. Benjamin’s concern with a possible new proletarian art has been superseded by our lamentable love for capitalism.
In the early twenty-first century the concerns have shifted again. We all carry digital image-making tools, and communicate visually via social media. I have a Fujifilm X-Pro1 (a twenty-first-century digital camera that tries its best to look like a twentieth-century analog film camera), but I prefer the portability and unobtrusiveness of my iPhone. As a teenager I was an avid analog photographer, developing and printing in the old chemical manner. Then I stopped taking photos for a while, occasionally using a Polaroid to document my sex life. I went through a succession of video cameras, but found the jumpy, bumpy footage a bore to look back through. When digital photography arrived in the 1990s I embraced it enthusiastically: still images were concise, elegant, and somehow much more powerful than video. You could drop them into a web page without running into bandwidth issues. They were—awful word—“iconic.”
I suppose we have to look at that word “iconic.” It just means famous, an image of fame, something familiar. Famous things and people are the family you never had, and, famously, you can’t choose your family. So “iconic” images are an offshoot of a conformist society obsessed with a compulsory roster of celebrity—with celebrating the already-celebrated. There’s obviously a relationship between “the iconic” and “the picturesque.” If the picturesque is someone in the twentieth century looking back at the nineteenth, then the iconic is someone in the twenty-first century looking back at the twentieth. I think of the postmodern celebration of 1950s stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe: in the 1980s I’d seen very few of their films, and barely knew who they were, but I knew they were “iconic,” which is the visual dimension of being famous for being famous. A multiplier, in other words, without explanation or justification. A recognition despite oneself. An established hierarchy of visual values. I knew that mainstream visual culture—Warhol, for instance, or advertising—rode the currents of these famous-for-being-famous images, and that marginal, original visual culture mostly resisted and rejected them. Of course you could argue that Warhol was a trenchant, ironic visual critic of fame and money and brand and glamour, but he really wasn’t. He loved it, just as most of his public did. Recognition trumped cognition: recognizing things was somehow more pleasurable than thinking about or questioning them, acceptance was more satisfying than resistance. Given the chance to be a dangerous pack of wolves, we opted to be Pavlov’s dog.
But of course it’s not as simple as that. There’s a time in every artist’s career when they’re establishing a personal language, breaking someone else’s consensus. Even Warhol seemed threatening and dark at one point, with his electric chairs and his outrages to Abstract Expressionism. One definite pleasure I get from unfamiliar art is glomming onto an artist’s themes. “Glomming” is just looking until one begins to notice repetitions, preoccupations, collections. For instance, in today’s Guardian there’s a photo story featuring Emily Shur’s pictures of Japan. She’s a young art photographer, and Kehrer Verlag is about to publish her first monograph, Super Extra Natural!. I don’t know her work, and enjoy drawing some conclusions about her eye from the twelve images The Guardian extracts from the book. Shur likes sharp sunlight, diagonal composition, a certain emptiness, a formalism that emphasizes Japan’s oblique strangeness. Some of the things she photographs are things I’ve also photographed, for instance a twisty playground climbing frame that looks like an abstract sculpture.
And that brings me to a reproach I sometimes level against myself: that what I’m often doing in my street photography is finding things out in the real world that look a bit like things I’ve seen in the art biennials I visit. Oh look, this old box with a bollard on it looks like an installation at the Skulptur Projekte Münster! This might be my version of “the picturesque” in the specific sense of recognizing something that was already made into an image. It might also be a series of dog whistles or smoke signals by which I communicate with (possibly imaginary) people at my own cultural level, people who have also visited the Skulptur Projekte Münster, or documenta, or the Venice Biennale.
I say “possibly imaginary” because it’s unlikely that there’s anyone but me in that part of the Venn diagram where all the hoops of my interests—French paperbacks, Japanese plants, ceramics, and so on—fall overlappingly together. But it’s also worth thinking about how the creation of this imaginary audience may be one of the functions of making and sharing photographs. How comforting it is for me to imagine that there’s anyone out there who likes to look at the same things I do! It’s like making an imaginary friend. Every photograph creates its own ideal viewer. Of course, there’s some snobbism here. I crave the companionship of people high on Pierre Bourdieu’s scale of “distinction,” and I use “cultural capital” to communicate to them my refinement. Conversely, I shudder when I see a lexical set of images that accumulate toward a set of alien values (selfies featuring Lycra, tattoos, piercings, colored contact lenses, blonde ambition), especially when I see how much more popular this stream is than mine—how it has real viewers, real followers, rather than imaginary friends. My only consolation, in this case, is snobbism. You’re more popular, but I’m better.
Let’s talk again about Instagram, and about how the past and future image potential of a real-world location can alter and augment it. I was in Kuala Lumpur recently and (as happens pretty much every day in that city) a thunderstorm began in the middle of the afternoon. My friend Liyana led me to a café where we could shelter from the torrential rain. Upstairs, this café had a basket chair suspended from the ceiling. Liyana and I took a table next to it, and something immediately prompted me to ask my friend to photograph me sitting in the dangling, swinging chair. She obliged, and I immediately uploaded the image to Facebook. It soon emerged that the chair was a focal—an Instagenic—point in the room: a succession of Malay Chinese girls came to pose in it, bare legs dangling from short skirts. Liyana showed me how Instagram’s geotagging allows you to see all the images uploaded in the last hour at a specific location, and sure enough, one by one the girls’ images began to appear. There were variations in the faces, bodies, and framings, the coloring and lighting, but the scene was essentially the same one each time. Nobody forced this uniformity, it just emerged organically from the unwritten dictates of an unseen but strongly felt presence: social media, with its currency of views, likes, and shares. I explained to Liyana that this kind of thing has assumed the dimensions of a severe orthopraxy—a traffic regulation system, even—in Japan, where a shopping center might lay out street furniture to guide photographers to a single point from which its most Instagenic feature can be snapped. A series of barriers, ropes, and arrows guide you to a marked spot from which the “correct” view of the feature (in Namba Parks shopping center, for instance, it’s a waterfall of blue lights cascading from the roof gardens into the mall’s artificial gully) can be had, taken, and shared. This obviously goes against the grain of any Romantic conception of the photographer as an artist with an original eye, but hits close to the heart of our current ideals of universality, redundancy, efficiency, and sharing—the values that underpin photography in the age of social media.
There are instances in which those opposed worlds meet, uneasily. A friend of mine recently mentioned that his sister is engaged in a futile battle with the artist Richard Prince. Alyssa Barbara has had three of her Instagram selfies appropriated by Prince, who adds snide captions of his own. “It didn’t bother me at first,” Alyssa explained in an email, “as this is probably my only chance of ever making my way into a museum, and I thought it was very tongue in cheek. I first noticed about two years ago; a photo I posted on Instagram is currently up in the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo. And then I saw the second stolen photo appear in a gallery in Miami, being sold for thousands of dollars. Every time he steals my photos he makes comments about my weight or being fat, leaving three comments so you can only see his in the main screenshot of Instagram. I contacted him about two years ago asking if I could at least have a copy of the ‘art.’ No response from his team. It’s not funny anymore, one photo was OK but three… I can’t help but to start taking it personally. What I don’t understand is not even telling the original artist that this is happening.” In Alyssa’s mind there are two artists involved in this story, but I suspect that for Prince there is only one. Instagram for him is raw material, its image array a fungible commodity; without his intervention its material has little financial value. His deliberate plagiarism is an extension of the “re-photography” and appropriation he began in the 1970s, with other artists working in New York’s East Village. What might mark a difference is that appropriation began as a sort of cheeky deconstruction of mainstream material—pornography, film posters, newspaper photographs, all from what Peter Fuller used to call “the megavisual tradition.” It was therefore a kind of visual subversion of spectacular power. In the case of Prince versus Barbara, though, the tables are turned: Prince, a rich and successful visual professional, has much more power than a single Instagram user. Even applying Nicolas Bourriaud’s term “postproduction” (the idea that most art these days is a reframing or editing of already-existing visual materials), this is stretching artistic license to its limits—a reckless brinksmanship which is itself part of Prince’s project.
Originality and conformity have always needed each other. In Nietzschean terms, every Übermensch needs his herd, his Untermensch. That makes artistic originality sound quite fascistic, but there’s also a fascism of the hivemind, especially when the visual bromide is appropriated by monolithic corporations and urban administrations. The new picturesque—in the form of the Instagenic—is as corrosive and deadening as anything that lots of people do at the same time. I would say that it’s our duty to resist it staunchly, but I do admit that it might be fun to give in from time to time. Sharing, after all, is a pleasure.
Nick Currie is a musician, writer, and artist who divides his time between Berlin and Tokyo. His latest LP (under the name Momus) is Pillycock (2017) and his most recent novel is Popppappp (2016).
Originally published on Mousse 64