"Never before in the history of photography have so many bad photographs been taken so well"
That was written in the NY Times in the mid-nineties (don't remember the author)- that's right, long before digital became the official coin of the realm. And this is more comment than rebuttal to what Joerg Colberg wrote, my two cents to his well thought out four or five. First, the easy part- I do take exception to what he said about Vivian Maier, and I think that is, at least, in part because of his overall dismissal of so called street photography. Vivian had her style down and in motion by the time Arbus and Winogrand et al started to gather the wind at their sails. And could deservedly be included in the pantheon with contemporaries: Frank, Callahan, Klein and uh... a coupla French guys. FWIW- I think her work to be both substantial and significant; her story is great because of the depth and breadth of her work- no substance, no story.
There is also no doubt we are flooded with photographic images, more than ever, even without Facebook or Instagram (sorry Mr. Campbell). I don't use either, but the torrent is real and deep, as well as fast and furious. It's a never ending flood, one that is renewed and engorged each and every day. No, not all these photographs are meant to seriously compete with the best and the finest, or even each other, but they take their sensory toll nonetheless. It was hyperinflation in The Weimar Republic no matter what you were trying to buy, and everyone suffered as a result. In the predigital days, there were fewer photographers, fewer photographs, fewer outlets. One had the luxury of time to: discover, analyze, critique and savor; hell, we even had to wait for our images to... develop! We are no longer afforded that most crucial of judicial elements, and it makes any discussion of artistic value or merit all the harder- if not impossible.
As to how to evaluate merit, well, good luck with that. It's like trying to standardize fender heights on cars- it aint gonna happen. Nor should it. It's what separates ART from science, there are no hard and fast rules. There are always those who have some semblance of what they're talking about amongst the babbling minions, except now there's more of both (or at least the latter)- no great surprise there, or that the better ones get drowned out. More choices, more voices, more outlets, right and wrong. One thing's for sure, the curators and gallerists continue to pick and choose and make the big bucks and careers. Their big monied role has remained essentially unscathed and undiminished throughout. I don't hear them complaining much- or is that because my world is so far removed from theirs?
That's not to say that I don't want to be enlightened, or at least occasionally surprised, we should all be so lucky. But to quote that great (and oh so entirely useless!) twenty first century, philosophical axiom... "It is what it is." We should be talking about this, we need to talk about this- it is both a pragmatic and worthy endeavor, particularly for the yung-uns. To the disappointment of no one, I'd rather refrain from chasing the ever elusive Unified Field Theory of Photographic Merit, and use the precious time remaining to take a picture or two, whether anyone looks or not...