Too many images?

How much art is too much? Or more to the point, how many images can you take in before you get jaded, like a gourmet who has put away one serving too many of some exotic vegetable?

We live in an insanely visual age, and humans are visual creatures. Back in the old days, before the turn of the millenium, you got your new image fix in one of several ways: you bought books and magazines, you visited galleries or you popped into your local branch of Athena (and probably at some time bought a copy of Tennis Girl). However you did it, your choice was limited to a few dozen things at any one time, and if you left your local Athena with something it was going to have to fight for the limited space on your wall with other images you liked and sometimes you had to swap pictures in and out if you had too many. If you took your own photos you pretty much were limited to 36 at a time (especially if you shot Kodachrome and weren’t hugely wealthy). Making or choosing images was something you thought about.

But now we, as a society, produce images in hithertoo unimaginable quantities. While we used to shoot of 36 frames on a roll of film now we shoot off five, six, maybe more times as many as that on the most mundane subject. Why shouldn’t we, unlike a roll of Kodachrome it doesn’t cost us anything, storage is cheap. I’m sure I remember paying about £8 a roll for Kodachrome in the 80s, using an inflation calculator that works out at £23 now. You can pretty much get a decent 16GB SDHC card for that and put several hundred images on it, and then reuse it again and again. There’s no cost insentive to thinking before shooting any more.

So after we take our photos, what do we do with them? Well we want to show them to people of course, which in the old days involved getting out the projector and running through the roll, or putting them in albums, or if you had shot slide and were feeling really flush and it was a really good image, you got it printed off (I could never afford real Cibachrome). With the digital image we can get a digital photo frame which will cycle through 100s of images without you having to do anything. Or even more popular we can upload them to online image sharing sites. The figures for these are astounding, and slightly alarming. These are Sagan Numbers people..

Flickr – about 6 billion images increasing at the rate of about 2 million every day
Instagram – around 40 billion
Facebook – 250 billion plus
even new boy 500px is claiming around 50 million

That’s a lot of photos, it’s an amazing number of photos, I think it’s an unworkable number of photos, it’s more than you could look at in a lifetime (it takes over a year and a half to look at a million images if you give them a minute each, and don’t take any breaks, or sleep).

Based on their website, I reckon the Rjiksmuseum has under a thousand images on show. The total collection size of the Louvre is only in the region of twenty five thousand pieces and according to Wikipedia the entire collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg is three million; that’s equivalent to less than 2 days image uploading to Flickr.

Which rather raises the question: when we’ve got so many, how do we find images worth looking at?

When we go to a gallery, or for that matter went into our local branch of Athena) we had a limited range of images through which to browse. In even big galleries the art isn’t all in one huge space, they divide it up into rooms with a smaller number in each and we can wander round and allow our eye to be taken by something. Suppose they were like one of the big image hosting sites, imagine that all thousand paintings and drawings in the Rijksmuseum were arranged along one wall of a huge corridor streatching into the distance: how would we react to that experience? Would we get to the end? At what point would we get image fatigue?

We don’t go to the Tate and expect to find somebody showing us hundreds of photos of their holiday in Benidorm, because we understand that holiday photos are mementos of the trip and are of interest to our circle of friends and family. Self portraits of people getting hammered while at a stag party I would suggest are of interest to even fewer. Ideally, in the manner of the galleries, we need somebody to curate our experience. Somebody to sift out what is visually exciting from the mass of images of cats (not that they can’t be visually exiting), and family holidays. However that’s just not workable; those of us who use online image sharing need to curate the experience of our lives for our viewers. We need to be brutally critical of our own work and ask not only who is going to be interested in the image (and thus where is the right place to post it), but also is it a good image? If we take 50 photos of somebody, something or somewhere, we need to learn that what we must post is the best of them.

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