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Book reviews: Project Lives; New York: A Photographic Album; Humans of New York

Criticism

Book reviews: Project Lives; New York: A Photographic Album; Humans of New York

A. D. Coleman

Serendipity had me mulling over "Can photographers restore their devastated business?" by "writer & strategist" Danielle Jackson while stopping by my neighborhood branch of the New York Public Library to pick up some books I had on hold.

Jackson, co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, published this analysis of the current state of professional photography at Creativz on May 6, 2016. As I wrote to Ms. Jackson in an email on May 9, "Pleased to see your confirmation of my ideas and rewrite of my 1978 and 1989 lectures ... Coincidentally, I'd begun posting those comments online at my blog, Photocritic International, on May 1 (May Day -- seemed fitting). ... Perhaps if people had listened to me back when you were just a wee tot we'd find ourselves in a different situation today. And while I'm charmed by your belated call for photographers to organize, I'm afraid -- for reasons spelled out in those lectures -- that's a pipe dream."

The serendipity mentioned above manifested itself in the fortuitous presence, as part of a prominent display arranged by my library's young staffers, of a cluster of photo books about life in New York today. These included Brandon Stanton's 2013 Humans of New York (St. Martin's Press, 2013); New York Non-Stop: A Photographic Album, "packaged" by Gabriela Kogan (Universe Publishing, 2015); and Project Lives: New York Public Housing Residents Photograph Their World, edited by George Carrano, Chelsea Davis, and Jonathan Fisher (powerHouse Books, 2015). Seeing in them a way of demonstrating, by example, the anachronistic naïveté of Jackson's proposals, I promptly checked them all out, took them home, and spent the next several weeks browsing them while considering their implications.

Among the buzzwords currently in circulation, you've certainly heard increasing use of disruption. Uber disrupts the traditional taxicab model. Airbnb disrupts the traditional hotel model. Amazon disrupts the traditional publishing and bookstore model. And so on. In place of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" we get "If it can be disrupted, it should be." All very exciting if you're one of the disrupters, with no investment in what you're transforming, but less enjoyable if you find yourself among the disrupted. The attitude of the former, who invariably use the term with approval, asserts forthrightly that disruption is inherently a good thing in every area, and that those who object automatically identify themselves as old and in the way -- Luddites, standing in the path of progress, which aims to roll right over them.

Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon deprofessionalized taxi driving, hotel management, and bookselling, respectively. The web, computers and word-processing programs, and digicams have deprofessionalized what nowadays gets called "content production," including the acts of writing, of photographing, and of publishing the results thereof. Consequently, those involved in these activities -- newcomers no less than older professionals -- cohabit a condition that has a new name: precarity. This identifies a precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat.

Welcome, then, to the precariat. And the books I mentioned above strike me as excellent examples of what photography made from within the precariat looks like.

Stanton's 2013 Humans of New York is, arguably, the single most successful current example of deprofessionalized photography. Stanton, a 32-year-old former bond trader in Chicago, had no professional experience in photography before he set out on his goal to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and post the results online -- a simple cataloguing project. With his digital SLR he makes the same picture over and over again: a close-up portrait done wherever he comes across his subject in the street or else in their own living space, with the subject most commonly front and center, the face always in sharp focus.

There's no style involved, no personal way of seeing, just this ever-growing, taxonomic accumulation of faces, which breaks down into small, easily digestible bites, one person and a few paragraphs of prose in their own words. Inexplicably, the project has gone mega-viral -- celebrated worldwide, used to raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, 45 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, some of that in the No. 1 slot.

New York Non-Stop: A Photographic Album contains 362 color images by 60 photographers, effectively crowd-sourced by graphic designer Gabriela Kogan. For it she drew on images -- many of them made with cellphones -- by friends and colleagues in the design field (plus a few of her own). Crowd-sourcing here thus means, more narrowly, images made by Kogan's own personal crowd; presumably, given the demographics of the graphic-design field, that's a white middle-class yuppie-bobo cohort of "creative professionals." She has augmented those with pictures obtained through Creative Commons. Safe to say that little money went into picture rights for this project. However, the images strike me as no worse than what I see in similar gatherings of work by professional photographers.

Project Lives: New York Public Housing Residents Photograph Their World gathers images made by residents of housing projects run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Almost by definition, these people know more about "precarity" than most Americans, certainly including Stanton and Kogan and her circle. Trained in a free 12-week program that eventually spanned 15 housing projects around the city, using disposable point-and-shoot cameras donated by Kodak, these volunteers show us what matters in their own lives that they want the world to see.

The cumulative result functions as an insider's document of project life, yet feels more like a family album, in part because the comparatively primitive cameras these picture-makers used limited the technical quality of their work. With that said, many of these pictures could slip into both Stanton's project and Kogan's. Which is to say that even a group of absolute beginners can generate images capable of standing alongside the work of other amateurs with better equipment and more grounding in visual communication, and that all of those can compete with trained, experienced professional photographers. These three handsomely designed and produced coffee-table books attest to that.

Add to this the facts that people are now asking their friends and families to create their wedding and confirmation and bat mitzvah photos, that companies use photos by their employees to illustrate their annual reports and images by their customers in their ads, that art directors and picture editors now crowdsource illustrations, that picture agencies either get gobbled up by Getty and Corbis or else fall by the wayside, and you have a working environment in which fewer and fewer photographers can make a living.

This will only get worse. My answer to Danielle Jackson's question -- can photographers restore their devastated business? -- is a regretful "No." As a writer who shares their fate, I bear sad tidings: Unless they, each and every one of them, can come up with a genius clickbait idea like Stanton's, they can consider themselves permanently disrupted.