Monday, October 03, 2011

Where Photography is Going

Today I read something called "Is the Art of Photography Dying Due to Digitalization?"  It's not a particularly new idea, but it's part of a conversation that needs to be ongoing, as conditions are changing faster than discourse can keep up with them. And the concern being voiced in this essay is still urgent.

Man Ray
As much as I'd like to simply shrug, wave it off, laugh, dismiss it, and tell this author that (s)he obviously knows nothing about photography if (s)he can't appreciate its eternal artistic value, I can't.  Why?  Because the author is right in pointing out that photography is changing.  As the technology improves, it provides easier access, and it changes the value placed on images.  This, in turn, changes the expectations, the methods, the purview of the discipline as a whole.

Because, like this essayist, I've heard people play with my DSLR (the cheapest Pentax DSLR I could find) and say, "It's so easy to take great pictures with this!"  And as much as I hate hate HATE to admit it, their untrained golden-hour snapshots often look pretty high-level, as long as they're using a camera capable of capturing the light robustly. So part of me entertains, and fears, this idea: that maybe, for all photographers' self-importance about framing, and the rule of thirds, and being experts in "writing with light," blah blah blah, it turns out that there's nothing between a serious (potentially professional) photographer and a random person on the street, except for maybe a $600 camera.

The article seems to suggest that, in becoming automatic, fully democratic, and highly accessible, the process of taking a photograph is losing its artistic value. As thousands of people are able to buy high-quality cameras, and these cameras become very smart about automatically calibrating and manipulating photos, there is no barrier to creation, so millions of people are suddenly taking, and sharing, billions of photos.  Brilliant amateur work starts to appear, and people stop seeing great photography as the domain of specialists and professionals.

Diane Arbus
So maybe the democritization of photography is leading to the breakdown of the photographer meritocracy.

I think there's something else, though: photography is changing because it's becoming an art of selection, rather than composition. Good photographers in the digital age know: the key to getting a great photograph is getting thousands of bad ones. This wasn't possible when you had to pay for film, and it was clumsy and took time to load, and had to be selected for the light and the speed of the subject; at that time, a photograph was created like a story or a painting is created. The situation and the intended outcome were considered, creative decisions were weighed, and commitments were made before the shutter ever clicked.

Now, the shutter clicks a hundred times -- we try every exposure setting, every film speed, every focal length -- for every shot or scene that looks even remotely intriguing.  Composition isn't so much a concern any more.  Instead, the creative process takes place in the office, operating LightRoom or Adobe Bridge.  Instead of composing a single great shot, we're selecting the incidental great shot from the SD card full of random crap.  We're doing a lot of deleting, both on location and upon later review.

This is a significant change, because it makes the art of photography more like the general process of idetifying images you like.  And like it or not, picking out a great picture has never been seen as a specialist activity -- pretty much every person has the prerogative to say, "This shot is awesome!" and/or "I don't really like that one much." They don't have the training to recognize good from bad?  Who cares? Everybody has a right to an opinion. And this is now synonymous with the discipline of photography -- it's just selection from a gallery of snapshots.

I do think this is happening.  I think it looks like a bad thing, initially, especially to people who are invested in the meritocracy: photography professors, magazine editors, purveyors of extremely expensive professional photography systems.  But ultimately, it's not a bad thing, because the new democratic landscape will be built upon that meritocracy.  There will be specialization: portrait and product photographers, event photographers, artists who focus intensely on one technology, technique, or subject. The standards and the economic value of photographers' skills will change -- it may even take a big hit, as barriers to entry come crashing down. But we'll eventually find new ways to determine merit, and new ways to manage the flood of new talent at the lowest levels of the talent pool.

Sebastiao Salgado
One thing for sure: photography is on the leading edge of two cultural battles being fought right now.

The first is the wrestling match with Content, which has ballooned in volume over the last few years; photography, along with art and writing, has suddenly burst the dam of cultural access, and we're all desperately trying to manage it using little content delivery buckets, like blogs, and social networks, and self-publishing tools. It's the battle of finding SOME way of auditing and distributing all this content, however subjective, low-brow, or crowd-sourcey it is.

The second battle is the economic one, where we're trying to figure out how to deal with this excess of cultural production: who gets paid for this stuff? Has art, in its excess, dropped out of the need- and value-based economy altogether?  Is it going to be the test-case for a post-scarcity economic model?

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