History lesson

Something struck me yesterday as we were strolling through the Columbus Museum of Art. We had gone specifically to see the American Impressionsists exhibit, but as we wandered around the rest of the musuem I was struck by one wall that had a “Photos of the City” display. These Photo League works ranged back to the Great Depression, and their goal was to use photography as a tool to reflect the concerns of urban America and effect social changes based on those images. The text you read at the actual Museum includes the description of photography, as it came of age during this time, being the “democratization of art”.

Obviously, this is the sort of term you hear quite often in blogging/podcasting/new media circles now days. In the 30’s the idea was that rather than having art, including photography, be a playing field left to the social elite, the advances in technology allowed almost anyone with a bit of know-how to take and display photographs. That meant a whole new generation of photographers taking pictures of what they saw around them and in urban areas of the time, that meant showing the world suffering and poor conditions in such starkness and quantity that they could no longer be ignored.

It also meant that art, in terms of creating a thing of beauty, was now available to many more people. Speaking for myself, the attraction of photography is that someone like me, with no real artisitic talent for painting or other art forms, can still manage to take my camera out and capture a beautiful place, or moment in time, and keep it with me in a real tangible form. I can then take that form and share it with others. The Internet, in turn, allows me to take the digital image and share it with even more people than the old forms of photography could so we are, in essence, seeing this concept from the 1930’s being taken to an even further degree with the advances in technology on both the photographic and communicative levels.

Now when we take this idea and extend it to things like blogging or podcasting what we’re seeing is the same sort of advance. No longer does it take a large network-sized budget to get your ideas out to the world. I can communicate my ideas about technology with the world for the cost of a web hosting plan and a free account at Blogger. (You could even do it with a free Blogspot hosting account, thereby taking the financial costs to nothing aside from an Internet connection.) What we are witnessing in the early part of the 21st century is a democratization of sorts when it comes to media. Again, we’ve already seen advances in recording technologies that have been allowing us to make text, sound and/or video recordings easily and inexpensively. (I’ve been writing on a PC and using a tape recorder since I was a kid, most people younger than I have grown up with a multitude of home movies.) The Internet is allowing us to take our writings/sounds/videos and distribute them to a world-wide audience. What we are doing isn’t tangibly different from those photographers, or the pamphleteers in Revolutionary America, it’s all grassroots communication. The tools we have at our disposal to enable that communication, on the other hand, are vastly superior.

These tools allow us to share what we know, what we see and what we hear with each other, directly, without anyone else deciding for us what we are to hear. Much like those Photo League members in the 30’s and 40’s, we can take where we live, and show it to the rest of the world easily, and with so many of us doing it, we cannot be ignored.

Of course, there is a flip side to this. Many of us are not used to sharing our ideas with the world. Much like the artist who paints alone in his house nervously anticipating the reactions of those he first shows his work to, many of us have been sheltered and have not had to face other ideas, or opinions, of our work. Sharing our creations, be they text, audio, images, or video, with a wide audience brings with it the inherent risk of being met with disagreement and criticism. Unfortunately, I fear that the technology is so new that many, if not most, of us have failed to recognize and properly prepare for this downside. When we go out into the big bad world and share our ideas, we’re often shocked to discover those who disagree, and our only response is to sink into name calling or worse. Learning how to react to that criticism will be key to deciding whether the experience is a growing one, or a self-destructive one, whether we can take constructive criticism and make improvements in ourselves or shrink from it. The next advance we need to make then, is not technological, but personal.

Tags: Photo League, New Media, podcasts, blogging

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