A Remarkable Absence

Once again, I have been jolted back to reality. Not by something, but rather by the lack of things.

One of the pleasures of my life used to be browsing in a good book store. Not only have bookstores become nearly extinct, but when you find them, there’s not much there. Well, fiction seems to still be doing fairly well, but non-fiction just isn’t what it used to be. I suppose because most of the content we used to get from books is now available, for free, on the internet in one form or another. 

So, recently my wife and I stopped by our local chain bookstore to browse, mostly because our favorite used bookstore was closed (they are a charity attached to the local library and only open limited hours). This particular chain happens to be one of the survivors, they have survived the onslaught from Amazon and the internet in general, but you can quickly see by the inventory that their survival has been dependent on change. Years ago the extensive magazine racks began shrinking and are now shadows of their former selves. The various non-fiction sections still have inventory, but the titles are usually sophomoric works aimed at the masses, not at the person with actual knowledge in a specific area. I found this to be especially true in the photography section, which, depressingly, is now part of the “Technology” section. Among the titles was a volume on famous photographers which from the title seemed interesting but on perusal was nothing more than a series of photographs by different photographers (some fairly notable and some well.. not so much) with a paragraph on the opposite page describing who they were and what the subject of the photograph was. Very basic stuff. I suppose it has some value for the curious, but not for anyone looking for anything in depth. Likewise a volume on vintage film cameras that was really a “Coffee Table” book and treated the matter very lightly with few actual examples and little actual information – for $44.95 USD.  Sadly I know more about vintage cameras and famous photographers than did the respective authors of either one of these books.

Where does that leave those of us who value the tactility of books, and the information they can provide? The pleasure and privilege of being able to pick up a volume of knowledge that you can hold in your hands and refer to at will, no batteries required? Are we slowly relegated to the dustbin of obsolescence? Has the internet won? Rhetorical questions for sure, but ones that need to be answered. These are the questions being asked by academics who understand the transience of the internet and have referred to the decades that comprise the 2000’s as being the lost century, information wise.

I don’t know how to change the current norm, but, I suppose, due to middle aged nostalgia, I pine for the days of books. The internet has its place to be sure. Google is likely the greatest repository of knowledge and information ever created in human history. It’s also responsible for the general “dumbing down” of society, because the information in many case is presented in short,  easily understandable bites, which over time, alters our attention spans so we are incapable of digesting more complex information. This is exemplified by the standard advice for bloggers to keep posts to less than 1,000 words or your readers won’t stay to the end. 

By the way, the irony of posting on the internet about this particular topic has not escaped me.

So where does this fit into photography, other than a lack of photography related books? Well, that’s exactly the point. Right now you have innumerable, talented photographers and educators working daily, producing great work and, doing nothing with it except posting it on the internet, mostly on social media looking for likes. Nothing is as impermanent as digital content. Literally it can be here today and gone tomorrow.  Despite what you might do to “future proof” your work, it is at the mercy of the ether. As is all of the information on the internet.

As photographers we are standing on the shoulders of giants in the sense that great photographers and curators have come before us, but as we lose touch with their work, we lose the history of the medium. 

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I know that there are many photographers out there that are self publishing and some of them are really good. That’s a good thing. But we need to reach a wider audience. As time passes, I’m afraid that books – real, tangible books, not just photography related, are appealing to a narrower and narrower audience. How long will it be before the written word in any form has become obsolete? Am I some sort of a Luddite for feeling this way? Is this my own personal “ok Boomer” moment? Possibly. That, however does nothing to change the situation, and change it we should before we are all relegated to pondering quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, and nothing more.

As always, stay safe and see the world you own way.

Thanks for reading.

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