Collage is nothing new, and neither is repurposing found images, but the great river of photographic images coursing through the Internet every day really is something novel. In Teju Cole’s “On Photography” column in the New York Times Magazine he recently wrote about artists who are mining that universe of JPEGs for material, and doing some interesting things with it (A Visual Remix).
“Nearly one trillion photographs are taken each year,” Cole writes, “of everything at which a camera might be pointed: families, meals, landscapes, cars, toes, cats, toothpaste tubes, skies, traffic lights, atrocities, doorknobs, waterfalls, an unrestrained gallimaufry that not only indexes the world of visible things but adds to its plenty.”
We’re truly in an age of unprecedented volume when it comes to photography. Everyone is taking photos and posting them to Instagram or Facebook. But beyond that, we’re often taking photos for very practical purposes - selling stuff on eBay or Craigslist, listing a room for rent, filling out yet another web service with your visual identity.
I’ve noticed myself how in the process of surfing the web, you can suddenly come across a striking visual composition. The photo below is from Craigslist, which I stowed away because the arrangement of the car photos struck me, and then forgot about until I read Cole’s piece.
I only very briefly started trolling Craiglist for unintentionally beautiful used car photos, but there are some artists who have followed a similar siren song and really done the footwork to make it worthwhile. Penelope Umbrico collects thousands of photos of suns, making dazzling compositions from them. Eric Oglander cruises Craigslist for photos of mirrors and reposts and collects them. Joachim Schmid collects other people’s photos into books. Some artists are commenting on the plenitude of imagery itself - Erik Kessel collected and printed around 350,000 photos from Flickr, then piled them in a gallery for a show called “24 Hrs of Photos.”
Cole, a photographer himself as well as the author of Open City and the photography column in which these reflections appear, asks “What are the rights of the original photographers, the “nonartists” whose works have been so unceremoniously reconfigured? And how can what is found be ordered, or put into a new disorder, and presented again to give it new resonance? And how long will that resonance itself last?”
You can tell he’s a little uncomfortable with the mass appropriation of other people’s material done by these artists, as a creative person who himself labors over the right moment, the right frame, the right string of words arranged in a sentence. And with good reason. But ultimately Cole seems to find the work of these curator-collage-artists of found digital material to be invigorating and lively, and engaged in a productive way with the torrent of photography coursing through the Internet.