Imagine you are an alien, and your daily profession is to search the universe for intelligent life. There are a couple of options in the universe, you – an expert on pictorial intelligence – look at each day in your office. One day Earth is on top of your check list. A drone has just come back, which had collected the pictorial symbols and pictures that the humans have produced. Your device now automatically sorts them in a timeline. You look at the outcome.
It clearly indicates a strong self-interest: for centuries the humans have mostly made pictures of each other, apart from some animals. Their self-interest has been consistent, extends over quite a long period of time and the use of different devices – using earthy brown colours in caves, paint on canvases, and colour film in cameras. Then you frown. You notice that suddenly a fundamental change occurs. Your data visualisation shows a meteoric increase of pictures, after which the humans don’t seem to focus on each other anymore. Instead, the pictures show a world without humans but full of things, buildings and objects.
Have you noticed this, too? If not, look here: in order to verify this little story, luckily we don’t need a drone. You can simply scan the general picture stream on Instagram, Flickr, or Tumbr. And in case you want to check some of the more outstanding examples, look at the lovely picture blog of Soundcloud’s Katharina Birkenbach (who has now like many others moved on to Instagram). Or the Flickr account of both Matt’s from BergLondon’s (Webb & Jones). Or the brilliant stream of Plugimi, in itself a piece of art. Or this lovely one over here from Switzerland. Or … and so on, and so on. It seems as if we have left the portrait of the human to professionals like Hedi Slimane et. al. Everywhere else you find lot’s of pictures with nearly no humans in them. I am sure you can add yourself some examples. And you know what? This makes the once upon a time trained art historian in me quite excited.
For in the history of pictures, this is quite a new development. Up till now, in the hierarchy of genres pictures with humans were valued most. The more humans, even the better: the history painting was top-notch, followed by portrait painting, and third came genre painting which showed scenes of everyday life (still with humans), while animals and finally still life were last in the ranking. Such being the case, the rise of the human-less picture (or massive return of the still life, however you want to name this) is astonishing.
Recently I turned to Norman Bryson’s famous essays on still life painting, “Looking at the Overlooked”. Now surley, abundance and prosperity as reward of living a virtuous life isn’t the topic here. However, the new still lives also negate the human form: there is no narrative, and in most pictures nothing happens. There is no event, apart from the physical exclusion of the human which in this massive appearance becomes an event in itself. So what does this tell us about us? Well. Um. All right.
I decided to explore the explanation for this further. Starting with a list: Like: humans are harder to catch. Compared with architecture and food they never sit still. Or: we don’t want to make our friends upset by exposing them to the digital public. Or: our camera’s are not yet made for history painting pictures. Or: we only publish what is public anyway. Or: why worry, objects are human, too. Or: we are afraid to be sued for the right to privacy. Or: we all feel a bit disconnected.
Please, feel welcome to add. I am going to take this subject with me in my bag for a while to follow it up later.