The Rise of the Visual – Again and Again

We live in a time when communication, expression, and rhetoric have come off the page. The technologies of ink and paper have given way to a screen-based world in which the messages we send and receive became more hybridized – pages of pure text gave way to web ‘pages’ that mixed text with images – and then increasingly images came to dominate those screens and text receded to a secondary element. Pages of paper gave way to web pages which gave way to Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, Pinterest collections, and Instagram feeds.

Contemporary screen culture undeniably signals the rise of the visual.

As with earlier emergent technologies, two of the first groups to capture this new communication ecology have been pornographers and marketers. It is commonly believed that somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of internet traffic is pornography (BBC). And there is a recent slew of journal articles detailing the marketing trends and opportunities offered by an increasingly visual global network (Fast Company, MIT, Business Insider).

It bears remembering that the invention of photography in the 19th century was not driven by interest in art, aesthetics, or image making as a cultural enterprise. Instead, it was much more related to the search for ways to industrialize the mass production of images in the name of commerce. An example would be the development of high-speed printing presses that gave rise to modern newspapers, and a belief that machine-mediated images would make those newspapers more marketable. Likewise, the realism of the photographic image was what gave pornography of that era its ‘graphic’ quality. It was simply a superior product, and its rapid and unlimited reproducability was a manufacturing and marketing dream.

Early practitioners of photography were thought of as technicians – they were called operators – not artists. Even the term photographer came later in the development of the medium.

But artists did eventually begin to experiment with what we might, in hindsight, think of as an information technology, and with time bring it over to the side of culture and expression. Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred Stieglitz are two pioneers that come to mind, but there were many more who could be named and even more yet whose names will remain unknown simply because their work has been lost to us (and I’m thinking here of the fascinating recent example of Vivian Meier).

But my point is that the much bally-hooed recent ‘rise of the visual’, particularly as it relates to technological advancement, has been going on at least since the 19th century, if not for the entire history of art making. The fact of the matter is this: artists, from the time of the first cave painters, have always been technologists.

In the 20th century, the immense popularity of comics, the rise of ‘picture’ magazines like Life, and the eventual dominance of television as a cultural medium all signal the increasing role that images played in the ways in which the world was inscribed, experienced, and understood.

So instead of trumpeting the emerging dominance of images in contemporary social media as a new phenomenon, its would seem more sensible to understand this as merely the latest node on an evolutionary ladder in which the visual and the technological continue to be central players in the progression of our sense of not just commerce, but also culture and community.

Interestingly, social network sites like Fotoblur and Bēhance appear to signal, as in the 19th century, the arrival of artists who are once again appropriating the lastest technologies in service to what is most human about humanity: the desire for a poetics that resonates with meaning.

The technology may be new, but the impulse is ancient: to sit beside the glowing light of a fire (or screen) and be told a story.

The purpose of Light Source in this context is, I suppose, somewhat curatorial. I am culling through the sheer quantity of voices in search of those who are working to articulate an authentic personal vocabulary, while simultaneously creating gestures (stories) that speak to the entire tribe.

Its sometimes hard to write about this – to actually put it into words – but I enjoy the challenge of it. Nevertheless, sometimes I may find myself beyond the boundary of words and will only be able to point in the direction of something I see, hoping that my reader can see it too.

Photo credit: Negative Space