Andrea Blanch: Your project is 'Brave New Camera.' Why did you choose to do this project?
Avery McCarthy: It started as a personal exploration. Basically, my friend, Kara Hayden, who co-created this with me, and I were talking one day over coffee about three-and-a-half years ago. We both received our bachelor's degree in photography from the School of Visual Arts, where we both were trained in an older form of the medium. Once we got out, it became necessary to engage with the current form. When you fall in love with photography as a black-and-white darkroom process, to move to digital is jarring: to sit in front of your computer and hit "print," and then watch a printer print for 45 minutes is very different.
Instagram had just begun to take off and become a phenomenon, and there was this vibe in the air. What is happening to this medium that we loved and studied and practiced? We started the process of interviewing people in our community who we thought would have interesting ideas on the subject, thinking it might be a web series or something low-key. The day before we did our first interview, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars, with zero revenue. That was the beginning of it, when it starting shifting from this confusion of "What just happened?" to "Oh, I think something rather large and significant is happening here." The Instagram moment was a moment of inflection for me.
AB: I saw this interview with Klaus Biesenbach and Simon de Pury. Simon was going on about how Instagram makes everyone an artist. Then Klaus said, " I disagree. I don't think Instagram has made everyone an artist. Instagram has helped everybody communicate in a different way." He thinks of it as a communication tool.
AM: I see both sides of that debate. It's hard to look at Instagram, which right now has three hundred million users, and say, "this is a communication tool" or "everybody on here is an artist". The impulse to say that people are only using it as a communication tool separates people who are using it creatively. It's more than a communication tool; it's a means of identity communication. The joke or the cliché about Instagram is everybody is photographing their food all the time. But in photographing your food, it says something about who you are: "I'm the type of person who eats at this restaurant. I like this food."
It's more about looking at why are people making those images. They're being social. To look at this phenomenon through the context of good pictures or bad pictures is a luxury at this point. It's a tendency that I have sometimes. I went to art school, I was educated in critique classes where you talk about whether pictures are good or bad. But the way we're trying to talk about this phenomenon is to remove that and say, “These numbers are totally crazy. This is a huge phenomenon.” The photography industry has not been talking about it in this way. They're saying, "Are these pictures good or bad? How do we curate the best ones and show them in a heightened setting the way we would with images ten years ago?" I think that framework is infeasible.
AB: What are you trying to do with this information? Are you trying to find a solution to this?
AM: No, I don't think it's a problem. I think it's a phenomenon that hasn't been thoroughly dissected. The real concept of the documentary is to collect all of the voices that are insightful and are exploring different elements of the subject. There are so many different corners to talk about: there's this communication corner, there's identity, there's surveillance, there's art, there's self expression, and then there's all sorts of niche stuff.
My hope is that it helps collect the conversation into one location and gives people a common starting point. We want to have a cross-industry dialogue, where we're having the art folks and the tech folks, neuroscientists and linguists, and also expanding it globally. There's more than we will ever be able to cover in this project, but I am interested in beginning to approach the conversation as comprehensively as I can.
AB: When do you think this is going to come out?
AM: I would like to be done filming over the next two months, and I would like the project to be done in the next 18-24 months. I've never had a project where we've talked about the project in the middle of production. I think with a project like this there's value to that because we've been getting a lot of feedback. And because this is so complex, and because we have so many voices in it and so many voices that need to be added, there's a value to talking about it right now. Every interview we have changes the project, because people say things and then a question gets crossed off my list and another question gets added.
AB: Why do you think it's important to have this conversation?
AM: It's a huge change in how we as a society communicate. Everybody, to some degree, is engaging with this. Either as a producer or consumer of these images, or both, mostly both. It's evolving quite quickly, in ways that are really fascinating. My interest is really in the scope, the broad strokes of it, and some of the more unexamined parts.
AB: How did you determine what your approach was going to be and who you were going to interview?
AM: It happened organically. We just started with people who we already had relationships with. It expanded naturally through that. Through the course of it, the kind of people we wanted to talk to changed. Once we met Nathan Jurgenson, this sociology angle opened up to us. Now we're looking at more image-analytics, image-recognition, and artificial intelligence, as well as linguists and neuroscientists, and trying to look at how this is affecting our brains. How we are beginning to understand the interaction of this phenomenon with our physiology? Also, the idea of language is one of the things that keep coming up. Are images a language? Are they multiple languages?
AB: When we interviewed Fred Ritchin, he claims that digital photography is a radically different medium from analog photography, and that we don't quite understand it yet. What are your opinions on that?
AM: I think the word "photography" is hard to use now; it has a lot of connotations. We've talked to people who don't consider digital photographs to be photographs, and don't consider people who use digital cameras photographers. To a certain extent, I agree with the philosophy behind what Fred is saying, which is that the way cameras are used today has evolved to the point where the conversation that used to revolve around photography when it was an analog medium is not the conversation anymore. I don't know that the change is so cleanly defined, as “analog was this and digital was that”. That distinction is something that people spend a little too much time on. You have to look at how people use the images. There's a history of people using both analog and digital in both an art and social context. But during the period when analog was dominant, the social context was very private, whereas the art context and the news context were very public: a lot of loud media voices surrounding them, a lot of public discourse surrounding them. People didn't really talk about the way images were used socially. Nowadays, the social context of images is so public and drives our news cycle and drives our public identity and drives the valuation of companies.
AB: With a proliferation of images, is there a greater need for curation? Who is deciding what images are important or culturally valuable? Or does it not matter whether or not it's culturally valuable?
AM: Are you talking about curating physical exhibitions in museums and galleries?
AB: Not even that. For example, Instagram took down that image by the artist Rupi Kaur, of a woman lying down on a bed with her menstrual blood visible. Many users reported it, and the image was removed. I don't think that image should've been taken down. Who's deciding that?
AM: Whenever you have a product or a company that is so tied to people's identity, the way Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Google are, you are inevitably going to run into some situations that provoke emotions directly from people, because of what that content that they're putting out there says about them. Those situations are really fascinating. That's part of the conversation. Those situations are really relevant to who we are today. If that controversy hadn't happened, would you have lumped that picture into the narcissistic group of images that you weren't crazy about? What defines a narcissistic image for you?
AB: I think that image has a message. I don't think a narcissist has a message.
AM: But when you have such a broad user base it's extremely complicated. Facebook has like 1.3 billion active users every month. You're never going to have a consistent social agreement over those people as to what's appropriate or inappropriate. Plus it's the Internet. People love to complain on the Internet. That's like what half of what the Internet is for, to give people this outlet to respond to things .
AB: Do you think this whole thing is bringing us closer to a global community?
AM: It depends on how you define community. If you define community as people who share a similar social network, definitely. But what is a community? Is a community a group of people who say things out loud and then react to one another? Then yeah, it definitely is.
AB: Well, an image community. This community of images and you have different sites that you can be apart of to express that.
AM: I think looking at images narrows it a bit. Right now the quintessential image community would be Instagram. There's also Flickr and Tumblr. Facebook is an extended image community, although it's much more about personal identity than Instagram, which is more about elevated moments in someone's life, versus Snapchat, which I see as kind of the inverse of that because a lot of times the moments are so off the cuff, so not serious, so not thought about that they don't deserve to be memorialized on a feed or a profile.
AB: Oh really? Is that how you think of Snapchat?
AM: I've spoken with a lot of people about Snapchat because It's an interesting evolution of the medium. The ephemeral nature of it deemphasizes the weight that is put on this permanent artifact. All other forms of photography or video are centered on creating a permanent artifact even if it is just sitting on a server somewhere and never looked at again, it's still there. The idea that the image will be deleted makes you use it for things that are not meant to be set in stone as much, not the Kodak moment. For a long time you had artists who were driving the conversation about photography and cameras. Now, it's teenagers who really pushing the limits of the medium, because they are pushing it socially. The limits of the medium artistically haven't been pushed very much from what I've seen. I think the mobile Internet-connected camera is really the root of this more recent change in how we think of photography. This is what we kind of narrowed in on in the documentary: the Internet-connected cell phone camera that is in your pocket all the time, and how has that changed things.
AB: Where do you see it going in terms of art?
AM: In terms of art? I don't know. To be honest, it doesn't really interest me in where art is going in relation to this. I think that art is very focused on creating a physical object and I think that is a little dated at this point.
AB: I know people still want to purchase print copies.
AM: It's not as satisfying to buy a digital copy as it is to buy a physical version of it. Museums and galleries are set up to display, sell, and promote physical artwork. There's this institutional bias toward physical objects. However, we live in a moment where the vast majority of our cultural content is digital and ephemeral.
AB: I mean, for instance, Richard Prince is in our current issue, Vanity. He gave us the pictures he took off Instagram and sold for $60,000 apiece at Gagosian. One could argue, that in a sense, that wasn't a physical object until he made it one.
AM: If he hadn't, I don't think he could've sold it for $60,000 each. I mean at the end of the day, when you're making work as an artist, if you want to sell it and make a living off it, you need to make physical work that can be held on to and increased in value, in a museum or a private collection. Could Richard Prince have a private Instagram and sell subscriptions to it for $60,000 a piece? Maybe! But that would be really hard. It’s not as good of an investment to pay to subscribe to Richard Prince’s Instagram as it is to buy one of his prints. That’s the reality of the way that the market end of it works.
AB: What kind of influence would you like this to have?
AM: I see everything as sort of a series of inflection points and I’d like it to be an inflection point. I’d like it to be a place where we draw a box around this conversation and say, “Here is this conversation we saw happening a bunch of different places; for a minute, let’s have it right here and with these people.” I’m hoping that once people see it that it will gel that kind of conversation and then it can continue: whether we do keep doing a web series, or keep doing interviews for fun, or someone else takes it over. Mark Lubell was very excited to make ICP a home for this conversation. At SVA, a lot of my old teachers and the heads of the departments are very excited from an art school perspective to get involved in the conversation. Doing the panels and seeing the response it’s getting, there is real hunger to try and comprehend this.
AB: When did you talk to Mark Lubell?
AM: Two months ago. He was on the panel as well. He also has worked with Charlie Traub, who was a big influence on the project. And I mean, he is the head of the International Center of Photography and this is what photography is. It’s a conversation that he was very clear he wanted to use the Center to address.
AB: When I interviewed Mark for my last issue, he kept talking about how there was still room for the “Concerned Photographer”.
AM: I think there is room for the Concerned Photographer, even if it’s not a Concerned Photographer, even if it’s a Concerned Viewer. Look at ISIS: they are not Concerned Photographers, but we are Concerned Viewers, viewing that media through the lens of the Concerned Photographer. It’s just as relevant as ever, except the dynamics have shifted. It’s less about a professional photojournalist going out and finding the story. It is people everywhere documenting everything all the time and the stories emerging through a combination of social media savvy, luck, communities, self-curation, and professional news organizations and photo-curators sifting through the images that are produced and selecting the important ones.