success of selection in photography

Robert Frank’s The Americans is a monument to natural selection in photography.  For nine months in 1955-56, Frank traveled across the U.S. and photographed natural (not posed, not arranged for photographing) subjects.  He made about 27,000 photographs in this part of his project.  Then he spent a year selecting, editing, and sequencing photographs from this collection to produce The Americans.  That book contains 83 photographs.  The U.S. National Gallery of Art, which owns the original photographs included in The Americans, has declared it “the single most important book of photographs published since World War II.”

Suppose the Internet and Flickr had existed in 1956.  Suppose Frank had uploaded all 27,000 of his photographs to Flickr and shared them under a permissive Creative Commons license.  A large number of Internet users could have reviewed, discussed, rated, and shared Frank’s photographs. What would have happened?  I doubt that any of the 83 photographs in The Americans would have attracted a large number of viewers.

A basic idea of biological evolution is a trade-off between the number of offspring and parental investment in individual offspring.  Modeling the population effects of this trade-off,  r/K selection theory differentiates between r-selected species, which produce many offspring each with a relatively low chance of survival, and K-selected species, which produce few offspring each with a relatively high chance of survival.  The Americans achieved reproductive success as a K-selected species of photographic work.

Frank’s environment helps to explain The Americans‘ success as K-selected photography.  Elite, artistic photography post-World War II was a stable, highly competitive field.  That type of environment favors K-selected species. A more interesting environmental factor is more specific.  The National Gallery’s exhibition press release states that The Americans “revealed a country that many knew existed but few had acknowledged.”  Getting persons to acknowledge particular aspects of reality requires directing attention and concentrating discussion.   A small set of photographs does that better than a large set.

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