The Ikea Effect, or why digital is dangerous for photography

Is this shot any good ?
Is this shot any good ?

I’ve been going through another brilliant psychology course on Coursera recently: “A beginners Guide to Irrational Behaviour” by Professor Dan Ariely. He is the man who has first investigated a cognitive bias that we display when assessing the output of our work.

Ariely has bought once a chest for toys from Ikea. He has struggled so much to assemble the thing, that once he put it together, that particular object, while not special by any objective standard, has become one of his favourite pieces of furniture. Intrigued by his own feelings, Ariely has set out to test scientifically, if we indeed ascribe higher value to objects we have produced ourselves, than what would  be determined by an independent observer.  His experiments have confirmed the suspicion: people were rating their own work higher than warranted, moreover, the more laborious and protracted the effort, the higher the rating.

Perhaps this one is better?
Perhaps this one is better?

This has rung a bell with me immediately. I’ve recalled, how almost any great photographer would stress the necessity to put a more or less lengthy period of time between the taking of a photograph, and its subsequent evaluation, printing and editing. The famous “marinating” of photos by Koudelka, or hoarding for years of thousands of undeveloped negatives by Winogrand, in attempt to distantiate themselves from the emotional “paternity” of that particular click, were certainly a way in which they tried to get rid of the Ikea effect bias, even before it has been discovered. Mike Johnston, editor of “The Online Photographer” has repeatedly advocated the need to look at one’s pictures for a lengthy period, in order to create an effect of visual tiredness. If you still like a particular shot after months of seeing it on your room wall, perhaps it indicates the photo has some real merit.

On the flip side, Ariely’s findings have also shed dramatic light on the digital photography revolution of the recent years. In the film era, you had a considerable amount of time between taking the shot, developing the film and printing. A technically competent image: well exposed, sharp and without motion blur, has been a high hurdle for most of the casual snappers for decades. I remember a friendly salesman at my local photo store in Milan, who was saying, that before the advent of auto everything digital, a sharp   photograph was a rarity more than a rule among the prints they were cranking out for customers.

I think, I Iike this one more...
I think, I Iike this one more…

Suddenly, digital not only has allowed for this, but has also rendered photography exponentially cheaper. The results are under our eyes: The passage between making a photograph and showcasing it has become instantaneous. Everybody has mistaken technically acceptable pictures for good ones. The world is drowning in sharp but utterly banal snaps, and the status of professional photographers has imploded. This is consistent with the feeling, that if anyone can make a decent shot with their smartphone, making pictures is being perceived like making a cake from a powder mix, without even needing to add the eggs. Why on earth would you pay somebody money for doing a job even a child can do ?

As digital photographers steadily degrade the aesthetic quality of their pictures by underappreciating the difficulty of making interesting images, and unlearning how to edit them due to excessively short feedback, on the effort scale some interesting trends emerge: landscape, stitched panorama  and HDR crowd is acquiring an elite status among snappers. After all, it takes some hiking or climbing, or at least some tripod lugging and  fiddling with software in order to produce these images, so they “feel” better than other kinds of shots.

Among the die hard film traditionalists, those still labouring in the darkroom are at the top, and the very peak is steadily presided by large format and wet plate fanatics. Are there any lessons to take home from that? In my opinion, certainly yes.

Yes ! That's the one !
Yes ! That’s the one !

First – learn to appreciate, that making good pictures is difficult. Train your eye on books of great photographers to understand what the art is about. Second –  use a tool that is best suited for an output you desire to get, and avoid falling for the mythology about this or that camera or lens brand, format or process. Third – slow down. Once the shot is made, develop it or save on some safe support, and forget about it for at least a few  months. Fourth – once you edit and make first proof prints, put them on a wall or board, and live with them for some time. In due course, you will eliminate the dudes. Fifth – find yourself a friend or two, and give them the photos for rating in no particular order. The proof prints should be all the same size, and no mention of the circumstances in which the photos originated, or gear and technique used should be made.

Finally – avoid the error made by Vivian Maier – if you are a photographic genius, don’t die before ever presenting your work to us. Help make it a wonderful world.

“They Say it’s Wonderful” – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman