Photography: Matthew Field
At this moment, thousands of people in Brooklyn and beyond are curating a photography exhibition. They’re not pulling on white gloves and checking prints for blemishes. Nor are they placing photos at the foot of walls and trying to figure out where they should go. They’re logging in to the Brooklyn Museum’s website and judging entries submitted in response to an open call for photos that show “the changing faces of Brooklyn.”
The idea of the exhibition is to explore not just the way one part of New York has changed but whether the art choices made by groups are better than those made by art professionals. According to the website, the exhibition was inspired by James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” which argues that a diverse crowd tends to make smarter choices than individuals, even when those individuals are experts.
Crowdsourcing in photography isn’t new, of course. We discussed it a little here and pointed out some of the benefits that multiple pairs of eyes can have over just one opinion.
A Crowd of Teachers
Advice offered by the large numbers of people who look at images on Flickr, for example, has been known to help photographers improve their picture-taking. Taylor Christian Jones, a commercial photographer in Birmingham, Alabama, told us that he has never taken a photography lesson in his life, learning all the skills he needed to turn his passion into a job by listening to the suggestions made by other photographers on the photo-sharing site.
Flickr members though, aren’t comparing images to decide which is the best in the same way that the Brooklyn Museum wants its crowds to do. They’re simply looking at one picture and explaining how it can be improved. Group judging is something more familiar to the readers of JPG Magazine, a printed photography publication that invites its readers to vote online for the photos that they think deserve to be included in the next issue.
But even if Flickr crowds can raise photographers’ knowledge, are they the best way to select art for magazines and exhibitions?
Perhaps not. It’s noticeable that even JPG Magazine, while promoting itself as a “magazine made by you” stacks the cards. Images submitted to the site are not given equal treatment but are presented to users according to a formula that the publication refuses to reveal. And the votes themselves are only suggestions. It is still left to the editors to make the final decision about which images make the magazine.
That might not be very democratic, but it’s easy to see that it is good business sense.
Crowds are Conservative
That’s because while crowds might be wise, they aren’t necessarily adventurous. Or knowledgeable. It’s quite possible that public curators of the Brooklyn exhibition will skip images that are the most challenging or the most interesting photographically and choose instead those photos that reflect their feelings about Brooklyn. Or which were shot in styles with which they’re most familiar.
Similarly, only a few of the comments on Flickr are actually valuable. Most say little more than “good capture” and are intended to bring other members back to their own images as much as help other photographers improve their skills.
Crowds can have an interest, after all, whether that’s loyalty to a location or a desire for exposure.
For photographers hoping to make use of the knowledge of crowds then, it pays to know who your crowds are and how they’re partial. It also pays to decide which parts of the crowd you listen to. Ask a thousand people for an opinion and you’ll get a thousand points of view. Try to incorporate all of them and you’ll end up with a photography style designed by a committee. Developing your own style — and knowing what it is — is likely to take you a great deal further.
There is one crowd however that every serious-minded photographer does need to listen to. It’s a group that goes some way towards defining whether a photographer gets to call him- or herself a success. It’s one with a clear agenda and one whose opinion really does influence the development of art and photography.
When photography-lovers become buyers — when they’re willing to back their opinions with money rather than with a click on a website — you can be sure you’re getting an honest opinion from one important crowd… and a reward for getting it right.
Crowdsourcing then can improve your photography. It can help you to shoot better pictures, broaden your skills and give you an objective opinion. But nothing tells you a picture has failed more than no one willing to buy it — and nothing screams success louder than a crowd of people waving fistfuls of cash.