In every art glancing is an enemy of vision, but in none so much as in photography. Mass journalism has trained us to glance, and the big-money photographers have made themselves masters of the craft of the quick impression: visual elements so whimsically juxtaposed that the effect is to jolt or tickle the viewer, a portrait that makes a famous face look like a dry mud flat but does not penetrate to the person inside this mask which was imposed upon him by the photographer’s cleverness. -- George P. Elliot (via John Holliger), intoduction to Dorothea Lange, Museum of Modern Art, 1966

Images have been key drivers of the consumer economy for the better part of a century now, tantalizing us, seducing us and delivering pure jolts of stimulation to our visual cortex. Humans crave novelty, and images feed this hunger, and make us hungry for more. Marketers constantly make use of this hunger, using images to put us in a kind of visual trance and provoke the all-important, reflexive "I want!" The process also satiates us with images, and individual images tend to lose their impact. What's important is the stream, the next image, the next jolt of visual energy.

Photographs are used in this process, but this is not what photography as an art is all about. As Elliot noted, it's about vision and seeing, not glancing. Dorothea Lange was a lifelong photographer who photographed many things for many reasons, but her personal quest was for those few images she considered "second-lookers." Many powerful photographs communicate everything they have to say in a single glance. In advertising and marketing, they're designed that way; they're designed to make you buy, not make you think. Lange was after something different -- the image with many layers of meaning and evocation, the image that does not give up all its secrets at a quick glance. An image that is conducive to meditation, not shopping. This is what the art of photography is all about, and indeed all art.

But this not the way we usually see images in the modern world. To do so, you have to set yourself apart, get in an open, meditative frame of mind and really look at a work of art as a print, in a book, or in a gallery or museum. You need to be able to concentrate. Flickr used to be one of those rare places that provided such a space.

In contrast, the new Flickr is all business. It's designed, not to entrance visitors, but to put them in a trance. It's about delivering dazed, passive consumers to advertisers, using the consumers' own images as a draw. It's a way for advertisers to crowdsource their creative.

For this to have happened to such a vital, creative community is tragic. We can only hope that it's not irreversible, but I'm not hopeful.

Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum