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The Internet is Overwhelming, so Photograph It

"On good days, I assume that reality exists."

541,795 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 1/26/06, 2006, detail of 2000 machine c-prints, each 4inch x 6inch by Penelope Umbrico (courtesy of the artist)

On good days, I assume that reality exists.

That is, I assume that every perspective in every moment in every location happens whether or not it is experienced, recorded, or photographed—that the tree fell in the forest, made a sound, etc.

I think this is partially why I’ve always thought of photography as a medium of curation more than creation, of editing more than writing. Actually, legendary MOMA curator John Szarkowski put it way better: “One might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing.”

Pointing is a reaction to something that’s already there. It’s the photographer choosing which moments in a finite world are worth keeping, and then choosing which handful of those extractions deserve our attention: the rare second, the third or fourth glance. It’s all an artful distillation process—the ability to take the overwhelming mass of visual data that is this world and mine it for some digestible quantity of highly potent imagery.

So, as the visual complexity and depth of digital worlds begins to rival that of the “real” one, it only makes sense that some pointing happens there. The visual internet, all its nooks and crannies, sits as a relatively untapped reservoir of imagery ripe for curation, like some sort of duplicate world that has yet to be blanketed by tourists with smartphones. 

#27.144277, Okeechobee, FL (2008), 2011, from the series A New American Picture (© Doug Rickard, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

Doug Rickard's New American Picture, a project culled from a year of Google Street View screen grabs, is a great exploration into that Wild, Wild West. I’ve seen interviews in which Rickard talks about making the work, and he sounds like a kid who’s discovered a new playground. He turned the reality of Street View into a raw collection of 100,000 images, then turned that collection into 10,000 35mm photographs, ultimately selecting 20 of those photographs for an exhibition.

When I first saw the project, I tried to sniff out some hint of emotional vapidity, as if I could use a sixth sense of sorts to detect that these images were mined from a reality composed of data, of 0s and 1s instead of flesh and bones. But it turned out that all I felt was the raw power of the photographs, each one freighted with an ineffable emotion that’s endemic to lots of great photography captured in the real America—ya know, the one you can actually touch with your fingertips.

Recently, Magnum Photos’ Thomas Dworzak has been curating photos he finds on Instagram. A guy who has covered war for most of his life, Dworzak explores this digital reality using hashtags and search terms where he used to use planes, his legs, and street smarts. The result is a handful of raw chapbooks composed of mostly screenshots that do a great job of visually capturing the zeitgeist surrounding, say, the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Maybe my favorite thing about Dworzak’s Instagram collections, which he made with no intention to sell, is that they do more than just illustrate how our culture digests current events: They reveal how inextricably bound image making and sharing have become with that very digestion.

This all might sound like more fatiguing art-meets-internet talk, the kind that lots of folks are tired reading about in commentary, tired of seeing at galleries. But I think this fatigue is borne out of some strange new school iconoclastic anxiety that goes against the very nature of the medium. 

Rickard and Dworzak’s projects, and even those from artists like Penelope Umbrico and Mishka Henner, remind me that photography is one of the great coping mechanisms in the face of the world’s visual "too­muchness." It’s the presentation of clear frequencies amid a sometimes indiscernible and overwhelming cacophony of noise. As the volume knob gets cranked up—55 million new images uploaded every day on Instagram, a complete visual mapping of the inhabited earth—I grow only more thankful for good pointers.

Shit, I think, without them, all that “too­muchness” would feel like nothing at all. 

Gideon Jacobs is the creative director of Magnum Photos, New York. He was an actor and now is a writer, publishing a book called Letters to My Imaginary Friends in summer 2014.