media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.


  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).

15 replies on “Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?”

I think both the quality of available imagery and general visual literacy is more of a problem than the quantity of images. Both of these points were raised by Annelies and Peter in the comments respectively. When I teach basic photography classes to hobbyists, amateurs and aspiring professionals I spend at least as much time talking about context, intent, approach, respect, ethics and the like as I do about composition, F-stops and focal lengths. I want people to get to grips with the whys and wherefores of photographing over and above being able to make a beautifully composed well exposed picture. I’m happy to see more people communicating using the visual language that photography allows but there is enough misrepresentation and misunderstanding in this world as it is, we should be trying to clarify things rather than confuse them further.

I also think there is a difference in the type of photography out there, many levels of it in fact. The picture I take of my friends posing in a line all looking and smiling at the camera serves a different purpose, has a different context than the photograph I take to illustrate a news story, or the ones I take to document an activity or a way of life, or the ones I take that make a statement about what I think or feel. Some of the photographs I take strive to exist on many of these levels, some only on a few, or one. The point is that I should be able to understand where these photographs exist in the grand scheme of things. How I intend them to be read, and what possible meanings they could have. Like all methods of communication, it is important to make an effort to understand what is being communicated as well as how and why.

“the rights-protected images are often extremely expensive”

For an inside quarter page on print runs up to 100,000, along with web rights in the context of the page/book, I’ve charged as much as $500.00. The publisher’s list price for the text book was $80.00. Guessing the publisher netted half that amount after distribution, and that he sold only a third of the run on a three-hundred page text, the publisher I licensed only grossed $1.3 million dollars before all his editing and production and licensing costs.

The prime thought that came to me through reading your article as that as much as things change they also stay the same. And a general amazement at the progression of our species. As technology replaces and changes the way things have been done, new issues constantly arise and we constantly grapple with them and their ramifications. Looking at the issues raised in the comment section alone, and that we can collaboratively discuss and deliberate on these issues in almost real time is so powerful.

In regards to the flood of images? Powerful images will still pause the eye. Images that connect will stand out. And the nodes/sources who act as trusted hosts for sharing those images will increase in significance for sorting through all the dross.

I think we’ll probably have a better idea of what’s happening right now.. in 5, 10, 30, 100 years 😉

Excellent point Peter. The filters through which visual experiences are organised and interpreted are central. The idea that this might have to be (re)learnt by subsequent generations is worth exploring, not least because the cultural practices and tools that enable those filters are constantly changing.

In the context of social media, existence and availability are often one and the same thing – images are posted and publicly available, especially through sites like Flickr. The other issues you raise are interesting, but not directly related to the central point of the post, which is the cultural anxiety produced by claims about possible inundation. Your comment actually calls into question the idea there is a general flood of images, by calling attention to the shortage of certain public domain images from particular areas.

You don’t distinguish between existence and availability.

I am more concerned about the lack of public domain images for public figures and important events from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Try getting a decent picture of Jomo Kenyatta for example, and I’ll bet most of them are owned by Corbis. The portrait on his Wikipedia page is a crop from the *German* federal archives.

Most Facebook photos are going to languish in cyberspace (just like those antique photo albums) unless someone deliberately goes to the trouble of renewing them every time the platform/technology changes. But what happens to photos of people and events from areas that are not included in this data deluge? Will they be literally erased from history – there’s no photographic record of them, so they don’t count?

This is a real problem: I work for a textbook publisher, and we use public domain images whenever possible, as the rights-protected images are often extremely expensive. We have sometimes chosen to do without an image rather than pay through the nose.

I think, not the great number of images is the problem, but rather the missing knowledge to read them properly. Imagine you are in a city standing at a street, a lot of people passing by, there is a plane in the air, neon lights are shining bright. There are maybe thousands of visual impressions.

You can be overwhelmed in a positiv or negative way. You might say, that is the problem, too much impressions than years ago.

So let’s transfer it to nature: watching a sunset at the seaside, clouds moving fast, the waves are breaking constantly, seagulls flying in the air head. Again there are a lot of impressions. It is not the number of impressions what makes it difficult. It is the way we are able to „read“ them, the ability to filter but not to lose the phenomenon of what is around us.

In my point of view it’s likely that every generation has to learn (again) the perception of the new.

That’s an important point Klem. I’ve written extensively here over the last couple of years on how to address the challenges of working in the current environment – perhaps you’ve seen either the ‘Revolutions in the Media Economy’ series (2009) or ‘The new media landscape series’ just last month? They are all searchable to read again. But the concern of this post is about the wider cultural issue of whether we, as citizens, are subject to a ceaseless torrent of images, and what the implications of that ‘flood’ (assuming its real) might be. I don’t think we are ‘image bulemics’, so I’m calling into question something different from what you are commenting on.

I think this post moves to the opposite extreme of the “the sky is falling” anxiety: it is denying there is a problem. The is an incredible number of talented and driven young photographers, certainly a lot more than 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, or last year, and they can’t find employment. Should we tell them they should just be more creative? Shouldn’t we tell them there is a problem?

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