Photography, I Hardly Knew You…

Photography, I Hardly Knew You…

“…you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you…”

Well, yeah.

You see the problem with that grand lyric was that obviously the song WAS about ‘him’. That mysterious beguiling playboy that Carly Simon sang about. I must admit I would always say, ‘well, yeah its about him… duhhhh’ when I heard it. Insipid pop music was the bane of my existence back then.

Simon may play the coy approach, but in the end we all knew it was her that was hurt, and trying to be passive aggressive in the take down of the cad who dumped her. Yeah, I read Oprah… I got that psychobabble shit down, don’t I?

(NOTE: This is a long post… and it rambles on a bit. Just warning you. If reading things over 200 words is a challenge, this is probably not the post for you. No problem, all’s good. Just a heads up.)

Why was she surprised by the protagonist in her little melodramatic ditty? He was as he always was… she couldn’t change him. Why bother trying.

I guess I feel a bit that way toward photography. A couple of instances these last few weeks have set me thinking about what I am doing, how I got here, and the most challenging question… where will I go from here.

No, not giving up photography or the teaching of it. I still love making photographs.

Although somethings have changed. And it is causing me to think and re-think what I call photography.

Rodney Smith, a photographer I so much admire, had a post at his blog that should have gotten a ton more interest than it did. Here is a quote:

On occasion if the subject being photographed is special, wonderful things can happen, but for the most part the use of artificial light and the seamless help the photographer hide behind a veneer of professionalism. But in this process nothing has been risked, nothing has been revealed and your mask is in tact, exposed only to those who care to look deeper.

 

And lastly, now comes Photoshop, which is changing photography from an interchange with life into a studio experience in one form or another. If you don’t like the background, change it. If you don’t like the expression, change it. Change everything. Change the colors, the light, the clothes, etc., until photography is on its merry mechanical way of being a form of illustration.

 

So photographers have slowly lost control under the guise of getting more. They have slowly given up the great gift of a meaningful and spiritual interchange with this glorious world, for consistency, ease, control, and most importantly a fear of failure.

 

All those appurtenances you have added to your toolbox so you would not fail have in fact failed you in the end. What has been lost is a way to succeed naturally. I am fearful some photographers have lost their way.

 

If you risk a great deal and you expose your hidden self by your experiences and your reaction to the world you encounter, you will be telling all those who care to look and listen the small truths that are hidden inside you.

You should indeed read the whole thing. It will make you think.

And I could care less if you agree with him – or me- or not. It is an exercise in thinking beyond the edges.

There was a time, when I entered photography, that the challenge of making an image was foremost a matter of skill and bravery and choices and difficulties to be met at every turn. The amount of time spent working with chemistry to perfect that incredible negative was profound. It wasn’t automatic, it wasn’t foolproof. It was fucking hard work.

I have on my shelves countless books in photographic technique: The Ansel Adams “Camera/Negative/Print” series, books on darkroom and film developing, books on alchemy and the magic of selenium toner when combined with hot Dektol… I could go on.

But what would be the point.

That entire shelf of books is worth entirely nothing now.

The information contained within is no longer viable, no longer of interest to anyone but a few.

Something indeed was lost.

And other things were found… you see with any closing of one door, another door gets bashed open by a wrecking ball and throws shards of glass all over the walls and floors, endangering all who linger in the mourning of the closed door.

“Photography” is about 140 years old. In the grand scheme of things it is a pretty young art form. There are no known photographs of Bach, or Michaelangelo, or Genghis Khan. The camera didn’t exist. The likenesses were created with pen and brush.

By highly skilled pen and brush image creating folks.

When the camera came about, you should have heard them scream. In fact, you can still hear luddite statists discussing whether photography is art or not. It is, so STFU.

Now we have entered the digital photography dimension or era or time… whatever. I have a prediction… it won’t last another 140 years. You can bet your Mayan calendar on that.

Change is growing exponentially… and what we are seeing now is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Photography, as I learned it, is practically no more.

Digital changed everything.

Hey, I’m not whining, I am pointing out that when the bar of entry changes, the output changes with it.

If every young girl in the world had her own thoroughbred horse, what would the world look like? Would ‘horse racing’ or ‘dressage’ still exist? If everything was as good as everything else, what would be the point?

In my own work I have come to quite a different place than I was even a few years ago. I now question the ‘legitimacy’ of every image I shoot. Does it need to be made? What will the making of that image mean to me? If I do not take the image what will be lost?

In the commercial part of my business the answers are self evident. I need to make this shot and do a great job at it because that is what I am hired to do, and what makes me a professional. Obviously there is a need for the photograph, and thank heaven they called me to fill that need.

But I am referring here to the personal work. The stuff that I seek out. The ‘real’ images that have always helped me see my place in the world.

I have been asked why I photograph and the answer has always been ‘because I must’. Not just because I want to. There has always been a deep need to fulfill the request from my mind for a singular image, a point in time that will never be again captured and saved. I still love it so.

However, the excitement that I felt when meeting challenges of ISO, light, negative development, printing and presenting my work is now different. Oh, it isn’t gone… but it is different.

Digital has removed so many choices that once were so important – wiped them clear off the table. I mean, they are simply gone.

When I would think of a photograph, I would first consider the format. This shot felt right for an 8×10, that one was gonna be on 35, and the one tomorrow was 6×7, no doubt in my mind about that. I had a wide variety of cameras and formats that all felt different in my hands. I didn’t photograph with my 4×5 as I did with my 35. Even the way the camera was interfaced with me was such a complete and radical difference.

Then the task of narrowing down the film choices… and processing choices… and print choices.

Each choice impacting all the other choices… ahhh… heady times.

Now photography is for the most part shot on the 35MM type of camera. No waist viewfinders, no gridded screens and built in tilt-shift. No bigass 8×10 chromes that jump off the light table and make you catch your breath for a split second.

I miss that.

But I do not despair in the here and now either.

Digital has made the love of the still image something everyone can be involved in. I think that is grand.

But it is different.

The “Photograph” capitol P, is now the rarity. Photographs have become ubiquitous and so widely disseminated that the taking of an image is in many cases an afterthought.

Jorge Colberg recently wrote on Conscientious:

Photographing an event one is looking at might just be a natural consequence of that compulsive looking. Of course, one is likely to share the images with friends or whoever else will look at them (as I did). Photographing results from a desire to communicate, and modern technology has made it possible for people to achieve that very effect usually instantaneously (this is one of the reasons why articles such as Jones’ are so misguided).

 

But I believe there is more. Often enough, the photographs we produce are not very good photographs. Mind you, I’m not talking about the idea of beauty here. I’m talking about simple image quality. Cell phone and digital point-and-shoot cameras are pretty good, but most photographs by bystanders are pretty bad. They might be blurry, or the camera might have trouble getting the exposure right, or the fact that digital cameras almost always have very wide-angle lenses results in the event being quite small in the photograph. Interestingly enough, reduced image quality usually means increased believability – if it looks too good, it might be fake (as if it were impossible to fake blurry images).

 

So there’s that then: We photograph almost as compulsively as we look when something is happening (even if it’s just the breakfast appearing under our noses), and since the photographs don’t look too perfect, that only means they’re more real. And we share, because that’s what photographs are made for (only very, very few photographs are made for the walls of galleries or rich collectors, or to give pleasure to art critics).

Pretty compelling reading, and I do hope you read the whole article. It will make you think. And thinking is our friend.

I look at the ways photography is being discussed on forums and around photographers of all levels and am struck by how little the images are involved in the dialog. There is a fascination with the tools and the presentation and the ‘cool’ factor that has little to nothing to do with why that image exists, why it was made, and to what end it will be left.

In the world of Instagram, those are not things we discuss.

My daughter (15) has a point and shoot camera with ‘all of her pictures on it’. I mentioned that I would take her card out and transfer the photographs to her computer so she could make more photographs. “You can print up the ones you like,” I told her.

She heard: “Imvo platigroassy imo uitvllvy…”

“Why would I make a print,” she asked?

“And why would I want the pictures on my computer? I want them on the camera so I can show them to my friends. And most of them are on Facebook already…”

Well, OK then.

I replaced the 4GB card with a 16GB card, moved her pictures over to the new card and got a great big hug… “thanks daddy”.

Photography has become an event, a sport, a past time much as the way of golf… wait, nothing is as boring as golf. (Yeah, now I will get hate mail from golfers who think this is about them…)

There are some photographers who think that Instagram is the devil, Flickr the ruination of all that is artistic and G+ as a place where photographers shout “look what I did, look what I did.”

Well, they may have a point about G+, but seriously… nothing could be further from the truth.

Photography, capital P Photography, is still here. It exists in digital, and it exists in those still using analog.

It has little to nothing to do with Instagram or 500PX or Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter or whatever. That is something new… a shared visual experience, a connecting device with little regard for exposure or ‘the rule of thirds bullshit’ or any of the things we bigP shooters are thinking about.

But maybe we should think about it a bit more.

Maybe we should think about where this is all going, cause I think in another ten years we may not recognize much of what we think Photography should be. (Yeah, there’s that ‘should’ word again… scary.)

How about this… maybe we damn well better start thinking about it. Digital changed a lot of things about our art, our business, our personal relationship to the image and more.

Much, much more.

We could go running around worrying and fretting and getting all angst ridden like this insufferable whimpering elitist

When did my photophobia begin? When I realised that I was buying into the same delusion of grandeur as everyone else. I have a decent camera and it can take lovely pictures. It has a close-up focus that can capture perfectly crisp images of a flower petal or a bee up close. So I think the moment it all went wrong was on a visit to Kew Gardens. There I was, having fun snapping water lilies, when I realised that about a hundred people were doing the same thing. Grannies, kids, babies, all with cameras and a sense of being artists. I am waiting for dogs and cats to get their own photo-sharing site for their genuinely beautiful snaps.

 

How can you fool yourself about this? For every wacky picture you take and upload, a million just as wacky are being taken. Dogs, flowers, fairy lights … each one as gorgeous as the next. On Instagram every passing moment has a pseudo-Baudelarian beauty. Random shots of ordinary things are touched up for instant allure. It is so easy with these technologies to believe you are Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life”, the ironic flâneur capturing the passing life of the modern world, or a latter-day Atget, but really you are the servant of a computerised eye. Instagram’s apparent claim of ownership of every image on its site would actually be a logical next step, for the reality is that no individuality exists in the creation of digital images.

Well, I hope not. There is so much bullshit in those two paragraphs that I could devote an entire week taking this apart. Dude… if you can’t find anything to make a photograph of, just STFU and go write poetry.

Instagram is not the enemy… complacency and ignorance are.

Photography is alive and well, and the fact that so many people love it is cause for celebration. Understanding that the world of our art is changing takes personal education and engagement.

It means we will have to find our way through uncharted territory… a place where cameras mounted on hats, full range cameras with no need to focus until after the image is taken, 3-dimensional captures to 3-dimensional prints, images that ‘speak’, blurred images that are recovered to perfect sharpness, and so much more.

So many new and exciting things coming soon… I wish I was 30 again to witness all these amazing things.

And adopting the new doesn’t mean tossing the old. I am shooting some tintype now on my beloved Deardorff 8×10.

And I look forward to shooting on my new Nikon V1 to be delivered today.

So photography, an art form of less than a century and a half is being changed and altered and manipulated and morphed right in front of our very eyes.

Are you on board? And if you are, where do you think we will be in a couple of years?

I cannot wait to find out.