We all use Google to find stuff, but we need to know stuff to find stuff. What we find is dependent on the quality of our search terms and they are only as good as our prior knowledge. For photography this is an issue.
How did we find out about photographers and photographers in a pre-Google age? Word of mouth, through books, newspapers, magazines, maybe on the radio or television? Whichever way that information came to you, it was selected, edited and curated, presented ready for your engagement. If you studied the medium you will have been introduced to those your lecturer or teacher deemed worthy and appropriate. Decisions that may have been subjective conforming to a personal agenda. Whatever these were, they came to you.
Today, things have changed. All of the old ways are valid, but they are no longer the primary source by which we research, discover and explore photography. Google is!
But if you don’t know who or what to look for your future is in the hands of an algorithm, and it will give you what it wants to, not necessarily what you need to see. The belief that you will find what you need without making an effort is naive at best.
Basic knowledge is required to start the journey. A few names, some rudimentary historical knowledge and some contemporary awareness is needed whatever area of photography you are engaged with. To find the good stuff you need to know some stuff and this is where the problem lies.
For those that lack the basics Instagram fills a void. If you don’t know the names, what could be easier than endless scrolling through images until you find the ones you like? The problem with this is that it takes considerable time and provides little context for the images that are found. The obvious next step would be to take the names of the photographers you find, put them into Google and further your research. However, the reality of this is that many of them do not exist outside of Instagram and the opportunities to find out more about them are non-existent.
You may say that the images are enough, but without context we are restricted to the aesthetic nature of the image with no possibility of exploring the why, where and how the work is made and those questions are important.
I have always used Twitter as a library. A library that is constantly updated thanks to the people I follow and interact with. News of talks, events, exhibitions, work, books, opinions and films all add to my constantly evolving knowledge of where the medium is and where it is going. I remember the names of those that interest me and follow up by searching for them to gain the knowledge I need to further appreciate their work.
Without that online engagement I would be reliant on generic search terms that provide nothing more than generic results.
However, there is no ‘one-fix-fits-all’ when it comes to gaining information. Open ears and eyes are required to learn, listening is useful too. You can’t explore photography without knowing of its past, being aware of it’s present and looking to its future. Immersion is important, knowledge is essential but neither live in a search panel alone.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022
I think that might be a good reason why the printed form (far beyond its application here to photography) can stay very relevant and provide an important “baseline” to begin and/or be a part of the search process. Another aspect to all this is that research worth examining takes time, and even with engines like Google, must include the gathering of little bits of all forms, and then being able to put those little bits into cogent form.