Folk Art of the Future

Ever since the advent of photography the captured image has played a significant role in both our cultural and social spheres.  As the process of image making evolves, so does our relationship to images.  We are now at a point in the technological advancement of cameras that it’s almost difficult to make “bad images”.  With half the planet walking around with high quality image making devices in their pockets we are now literally flooded with images.  This deluge has changed the way we interact with the world and with images themselves.  I take a lot of photographs and I think a lot about photography.  Recently, I have been trying to make sense of what this flood of images means.

Yesterday I read an interview that was done with a friend of mine, the excellent photographer, Sarah Palmer.  In this piece she mentions talking to a curator for MOMA who said to her that her images were strong, but in a sense, strong images are taken for granted now.  She wanted to know where Sarah was in the images, that the images didn’t have a personal enough stamp to resonate.  It was an perceptive comment related to this flood of images, and it helped Sarah to take a hard look at her work and move forward with gusto.  But as an artist,  if a curator is saying that the trend is X, my instinct would be to do Y.  Still this question, and moment,  also points to a fundamental question that affects all recorded mediums.  When the tools become so powerful that anybody can make music, film, or photos of “high technical quality” how does the cream find a way to rise to the top?  What does the “fat girl from Ohio” have to do to get attention for her work?

As a musician, filmmaker, and photographer I have been firmly in the slipstream of this evolution over the last 20 years.  My band, Sleepyhead, put out our first single just as the independent 7-inch single revolution was starting to take off.  In 1991 when we made this record, college radio stations probably got about 500 singles sent to them by independent bands.  Within a couple of years that number quadrupled.  Our single got played quite a bit, and it helped us to get shows and build a name for ourselves.  However, within a couple of years there was such a flood of singles that it was almost impossible to keep up with them.   A lot of the music being made was good.  By the time that computers were able to record at high quality, the process accelerated even more.  We were flooded with “good sounding” music, but the cultural context of that music shifted dramatically.  At a certain point it seemed that everyone was in a band, and what had felt somewhat “counter-cultural” had become mainstream.

While I was still in a band my partner Suki and I made our first film.  We shot it on film and edited on film.  It was a very difficult and cumbersome process.  The goal in making the film was to both tell a good story, and to capture the music scene that we were apart of.  We knew that it would change and disappear and we wanted to grab that moment in time before it was gone.  At that point Sundance would probably get several hundred entries and not all of them were of high technical quality.  Then came the digital revolution and everyone with a video camera could make a movie.  The first attempts to use video produced a wide array of results.  Mostly digital video was used for documentaries.  Soon though the technology ramped up and video began to look more like film.  Then everyone was a filmmaker.  There were a lot of really bad  digital films at first.  Then the technical and aesthetic quality really ramped up quickly.  Soon it was rare to see a film that wasn’t at least technically adept.  Last year thousands of films were submitted to Sundance and while clearly not all of them were “good films” the technical qualities of the films were high.  When so many films are of high quality on some level the curation and distribution of films becomes extremely problematic.  As with independent music, the communities that grew up around the culture became fractures and overwhelmed by the deluge of information.

Throughout this period I was also a photographer, mostly documenting the underground music world.  There were a few people taking pictures on film for fanzines and magazines, but there certainly weren’t people taking pictures at every show.  When I started I didn’t have an email address and only a few people knew what the internet was.  Now you can see dozens of photos of most bands before they’ve even finished their first song at a show.  In addition to the instagram armies that even document shows for basically unknown bands, there are many people shooting with cameras that create unbelievable images.  They make light out of dark and find focus even when the eye can’t.  The images that my friends and I took were few and far between.  We were shooting grainy black and white film in dark bars, and we were lucky to get even a few sharp images.  The look of these images directly correlates with the era that they were made.  We read their aesthetic qualities unconsciously and they help us create a much more complex emotional sense of the image.

I wonder if this flood will dry up some, or what the filtered look of so many of the images will make us feel.  Will people tire of taking pictures with their phones? Where will these images end up and what will they mean to us in the future?   My friend Ed Halter quoted Jonas Mekas to me the other day, referring to home movies as the folk art of the future.  We were talking about the first organized art project I ever completed.  In high school I became extremely involved with photography.  I took pictures for the school paper and the yearbook and basically lived in the darkroom during lunch and my free period.  In college, during my first photo class I make color images in a mall on Long Island.  They worked.  It was the first project that I took on that seemed to make sense, and the work was very influenced by the philosophy, sociology, and religion classes I was taking.  The images were of people, and families interacting in the public spaces of the mall.

I was influenced by Robert Frank’s images in the Americans, Garry Winnogrand’s street photography, and William Eggleston’s ability to capture the essence of the seemingly mundane through his color photos.  I was not a technical photographer.  I was more concerned with what a photo felt like than how sharp it was.  I drove across the country that summer and took photos in malls everywhere.  I wanted to capture the past for the future.  No one seemed to care about them at the time.  We took malls for granted.  I had a sense they would resonate later.  They did.

A few years ago I put them online and they went viral.  When a designer was interested in making a book out of them he expressed worry that the work had possibly been devalued in some way by being seen so much.  I felt that the opposite was true.  The viral nature of the images had confirmed their value and in fact the more they got seen, the more important they became culturally.  I pointed out that if they had not gone viral he would have never seen them.

As I mentioned, the photos were not profoundly professional looking.  They in fact exist in aesthetic space somewhere between professional and amateur.  I had the cheapest Nikon (an FG-20 that I had gotten 5 years earlier at Brendle’s discount) with a not so fast $60 wide-angle 35mm lens).  I knew how to use the camera but the images were a little soft.  I struggled with a balance of following my ideas and finding away to get my work seen.  I both consciously and unconsciously rejected the idea of “professionalism”.  I made a portfolio of my photos to try to get photo work, but in true punk rock style I masking taped my photos into the book.  I hand wrote my name on the front and I put in hand written notes.  It didn’t get me any work.  However, looking back I realize that the kind of work I would have gotten had I put together a portfolio in the “right way” wasn’t the work I would have wanted to do.  Instead I did a ton of photos from fanzines and small magazine mostly for free or almost no money, shooting the way that I wanted to.

Yesterday I was talking about the images with a friend of mine, and explained to him that if you google “malls 1989” the only thing that comes up is my images.  The day before he had discovered a web site called  This is a blog that puts together long threads of curated found snapshots from the 70’s-90’s.  He mentioned that there were some mall photos in some of the threads.  The most recent post was from March 26th and it was called Tape World.  Sure enough it included a few of my pictures including one of two girls marching past a store called Tape World.  I was so excited to see that my images fit right in with the streams of images of people laughing, loving, fornicating, drinking, and existing in all of their “folk art of the future” glory.  They definitely fit right in.  These images have become so viral they now feel like a part of the DNA of the internet.  There is something about them that connect with people.  I doubt I will ever again make images that connect so strongly.

1 Comment
  • will
    Posted at 20:24h, 07 January Reply

    Hey Mike,

    Where can I get your book about malls? It’s going for a thousand dollars all over and that is something I cannot do.

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