It’s an iWorld After All

It’s official – technological innovations like the iPhone have revolutionized visual communications, spurred uprisings, and sustained occupations in a new world inundated with instruments of invention, intrusion, and instant gratification. Digital media have changed the ways in which we interact with our environment, our governments, and ourselves. Photographers and bystanders alike record events that sustain, fascinate, inspire, and intimidate us. iWorld invites you to respond to the “i-zation” of our culture by sharing your best interpretation, inspiration, innovation, or illustration of the world that you see.

So reads the original call for entries for a juried exhibition of photographic art responding to the “i-zation” of our culture. The resultant exhibit is now showing at two venues; the Colorado Photographic Art Center (CPAC) from January 10 to February 11, and the Denver Central Library (DCL) from January 10 to March 25. The CPAC show features works from across the nation, and includes a solo show awarded to New York-based photographer Charles Ludeke. The Denver Public Library show features Colorado-based photographers only. Additional information about the exhibit, as well as some of the imagery, is available at .

I had the opportunity to take in the DCL portion of the exhibit this weekend.

The ‘i-zation’ of our world is indeed a fascinating topic, but one that we can explore only tentatively since we are in the midst of this cultural change and hence not in the position to see with the clarity of hindsight. Still, an exploration, even a unfinished one, holds the promise of an interesting afternoon. What might iWorld explore–photographically—about ‘i-zation’?

The ‘call’ for iWorld makes reference to the iPhone and notes that nowadays everyone is recording the events that ‘sustain, fascinate, inspire, and intimidate us.’ For photographic artists this is not new territory. Photographers have been doing just this since the invention of the camera.  Indeed, noted photography historian and theorist Geoffrey Batchen espouses the creationist theory of photography—that photography was invented to satisfy the desire of early 19th century artists to respond in an immediate, intuitive and passionate way to the world around them.  Clearly what is new in this age is the mass recording of life events by non-artists. So, would ‘iWorld’ explore the phenomenon of vernacular recording of world events? Would it draw attention to the images that news agencies now encourage the general public to capture, images that indeed the agencies now depend on? Would iWorld try to understand why some images, but not others, spread around the world at the speed of the Internet, no longer bound by the control of news editors, government censors, or gallery curators? Or perhaps ‘i-zation’ refers to the curious effect of social networking technology on our social fabric. Perhaps the images of iWorld would comment on the curiously isolating and addictive impact of a technology that leads many to prefer to send ‘tweets’ to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unseen and unknown ‘friends’ than actually talk to the ‘friends’ that are seated around them.

Alas, iWorld, at least the DCL version, seems to explore neither of these aspects of ‘i-zation’—nor any other aspect as near as I can tell—with any coherence. And that is a disappointment. That is not to say that the images on exhibit are not in themselves interesting. Most of them are. But the exhibit’s lack of a focused, even if tentatively so, exploration of some aspect—any aspect—of ‘i-zation’ is unsatisfying, especially for a juried exhibition.

To be sure, there are occasional glimpses of what might have been. Arlene McGlade’s Bike View series at the DCL are intriguing, as is Sara Armijo’s Chicago Hipsta series, and the images of Josseline Van Nuffel. Their photographs, with their sense of spontaneous response to life, might well be what the iWorld exhibit was supposed to be about. But even here, this would be more so if it turns out that Ms’. McGlade, Armijo, and Van Nuffel are just regular folks who have taken advantage of the ubiquity of cell phone cameras to respond to the moment.  On the other hand, if they are photographic artists, then their work is just street photography with an iPhone replacing the street photographer’s traditional Leica. That wouldn’t make their work less worthy or less worth viewing, just less about the ‘i-zation’ of our culture.

In any case, most of what is on exhibit at the DCL seems off key. For example, when you enter the DCL ‘i-World’ exhibit area you are faced with Kim Allen’s three image study of reconstruction in the Denver area. Each photograph was taken in the mid 80’s and is a large—maybe 14 x 24—black and white inkjet print. The topic, the format, and a timeframe are seemingly at odds with the exhibit’s theme.  For sure there is a lot of ‘cell phone’ imagery on display; Denver University Associate Professor Roddy MacInnes’ Cell Phone Landscape #6 for example. Cell Phone Landscape #6 is a large inkjet print of forty nine cell phone photographs arranged in a 7 x7 matrix. But MacInnes’ images of dolls, posters, and other odds-and-ends are more exploration by an established photographic artist of the cell phone as image recorder rather than an exploration of the ‘i-zation’ of our culture.

I do not intend to discourage anyone from taking in the iWorld exhibit. On the contrary, I encourage everyone to do so, especially at the DCL venue since it features Colorado artists. The photographs on exhibit capture an interesting mix of subjects. The iWorld artists employ an array of photographic styles and technologies, from traditional cameras and B&W imagery to cell phones and the garish colors of the Hipstamatic iPhone app, from inkjet prints to Daguerreotype-channeling ‘Lazertran on metal’.

Undoubtedly the theme of this exhibit presented a difficult challenge for the curators, given that at this time the phenomenon of ‘i-zation’ cannot be explored from the perspective of looking back at it with an objective, encompassing eye. The curators could not draw on large finished bodies of work focused on the subject. So a fully coherent exploration of this topic remains for the future. Still, what is on exhibit at the DCL seems—at best—an overly tentative and unfocused study of the subject.  And that, not the photographs on display, is the disappointment.

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