Recently I became aware of a travelling exhibition whose subject matter, 21st century ”vernacular photography” intrigued me: Erik Kessels is a Dutch “vernacular photography” collector, curator and photography magazine editor who has been watching photographic trends with some trepidation so, in 2010, he decided to curate an unusual show which would invite the general public and cultural critics to think about emerging trends in electronic art practices.
Kessels printed close to one million random photos, all of which were published in one 24 hour period on Flickr. He then dumped those photos, weighing about two metric tonnes, into venues as varied as art galleries and churches, from the Netherlands to North America between 2011 and 2015. Inviting the public to walk on them, lie on them, pick them up and look at them, he asked people to essentially confront and make sense of the explosion of amateur photography that has resulted from the availability of good, cheap digital cameras and the concomitant unlimited number of photos that are now taken and shared electronically, daily, around the world.
Kessels’ installations, while dramatic, are hardly a celebration of the easy taking and casual sharing of photos on social media networks. In fact, he explains that this installation was meant to “present (the photos) as a sea of images that you can drown in”. He’s reminding us of “how public your private photos have become” and he says he wants to leave visitors feeling unsettled as we’re “walking over personal memories”. Kessels’ installations and various comments seem to be suggesting that contemporary vernacular photography, by its dubious quality and sheer quantity, trivializes experience. Too many photos are taken; they are not curated, organized, made into manageable, related tranches (he himself is a collector of family photo albums purchased from flea markets and displayed lovingly in art galleries), and they are released without context into the ether, their anonymity ultimately depriving them of meaning. The venues into which he dumps the photos also make statements. When the hills of photos cover museum floors, he asks us to decide if these giant mounds are works of art or installation art. Are they anti-art, post-art statements? What are we to make of photos he shoots of a priest standing on the museum floor reading a bible, or two monks standing against a wall facing the camera? He dumps two tonnes of photos in a church in France, covering the pews and he photographs a family sitting looking at the hills of photos. Is Kessels suggesting that the spiritual is being co-opted by the material?
I understand the impulse that compelled Kessels to execute this exhibition: he is concerned about quality of representation and communication being overtaken by sheer quantity of visual material available but his vision is only one side of a complex and not altogether negative trend.