Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds

Think of this as Part Two of my last post, Further Proof That the Apocalypse is Upon Us.

That’s me, to the right, said “Old Man’ of the title to this piece. No question, I’m old. According to at least one of my readers, (I presume) a millennial, I’m also clueless, at least to the extent I’m resistant to newer manifestations of ‘photography.’ In response to my last post, he submitted a reader’s comment dismissing me as “an old man yelling at clouds,” the proverbial addled old guy standing in his bathrobe yelling at the kids playing ball in the street, the smug implication being that the world has long ago passed me and my kind by, and I should wake up, take note of the fact and move the hell out of the way while a new generation advances our notions of creative possibilities.

Specifically, my previous post concerned my off-hand dismissal of the “photographs” of a guy who authored a piece wherein he extolled the virtues of current digital photography tech and used examples of his work to bolster his claim that current digital technologies make it difficult to not take a great photo. I metaphorically face-palmed at his claim and the “photos” illustrating it. While I didn’t come out and say it, you could infer that I found the illustrating photos to be bad, bad in a way that only someone profoundly unaware of their aesthetic incompetence could produce. And then, after taking a deeper dive into his website, it turns out he’s a relatively well-known “photographer,” having shot stuff for all sorts of ‘hip’ publications. Holy shit, I thought to myself, has it come to this, that these hyper-processed, computer-generated in-your-face graphic simulacra are now what the millennial generation consider to be ‘photography?’ Is this what we now hold out as excellence, what current ‘photographers’ are aspiring to? No thanks. If you know the history of the medium and the necessary role photography plays in the visual arts and the larger culture, if you knew the etymology of the definition ‘photography,’ if you’d read Barthes or Sontag, if you’ve ever developed a negative and wet printed it, you wouldn’t tell me that what this guy is doing is ‘photography,’ because it’s not.

So I wrote about it; there was something unsettling about the fact that the mass understanding of ‘photography’ could have arrived here, at this point; that we’d gotten here, at a place so far removed from a traditional understanding of the medium…and nobody really notices, probably because they’ve come of age in the digital era – an era wherein graphic novels, video games, photo apps and augmented realities are “the real”; because they’re so profoundly ignorant about photography and its history as a visual art, and have no real understanding of the radical shift in consciousness this all entails.

*************

“C’mon in. Buy What We’re Selling. What Have You Got to Lose?”

Already in the 1930’s, Martin Heidegger warned of mechanized technologies transforming modern man’s internal life. For Heidegger the mechanical typewriter was a harbinger of a larger problem: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without him experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of his Being to his essence,” [italics mine] which is a convoluted Heideggerian way of saying that new technologies rob us of our creative powers without our even realizing it.

Obviously, we’re now infinitely advanced from the humble technological advances of the typewriter. Were he alive today Heidegger would go further, saying not only that we aren’t aware of our impoverishment by our technologies, but we’ve been duped into thinking that the very technologies that rob us of our creative autonomy are in fact enhancing it. We’re so mesmerized by the marketing hype produced around these technologies as a means to their replication that we’ve intellectually and emotionally refashioned our loss of autonomy as creative enhancement. It’s a textbook example of what the Existentialists called “Bad Faith,” “Stockholm Syndrome” with respect to technology.

*************

Above is a ‘creation’ of mine. I did it completely myself, if by ‘completely’ one means pushing a button or two and initiating an algorithm created and controlled by someone else to create the end result. Likewise with the self-portrait that leads off above. Twenty years ago I could have offered these ‘creations’ to you as evidence of my artistic skills, and you’d probably be impressed, although you certainly wouldn’t accept them as ‘photographs.’ But they are ‘photographs’ in the currently accepted sense of the term – they were generated by a camera and have some link, however tenuous, to the capture of light. (That’s me, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, the car a 71 Camaro I cycled past parked on a back road.) Now? Created with the push of a button, the rest done for me by a computer algorithm and AI, whatever link they once possessed to the real now completely severed. Anyone can do it. Welcome to ‘photography.’

*************

Why the old-man angst about inevitable technological advances? What’s at stake? it’s certainly not as simple as what I suspect digital millennials think is going on, that of resentment and inflexibility of those of us supposedly psychologically and emotionally wedded to outdated technologies and the concepts on which those traditional methods rest. It’s way more existential than that, something that’s been in the air since the inception of digital, something that forward thinkers have been warning was coming and is now upon us full-bore. It involves a fight for the real and photography as a means to document the real, recognition of the pernicious consequence of severing indexicality from photography, transforming the medium into a means of subjective expression with no link, however tenuous, to brute factuality. It’s about the ‘transformation” Heidegger sees occurring to us – to “Being’ -in this process, a transformation that’s two-fold: first, an increasing retreat of photographic consciousness from the objectively real into subjective virtual worlds, and second, the creation of those virtual worlds not by our own imaginations but imposed on us via the push of a button, the result of it all being a false consciousness confusing imaginative subjection for creative flourishing.

So, next time you smug technological sophisticates begin to feel all superior to us film era Luddites, take a step back and consider that some of us may have articulable philosophical and creative reasons for rejecting the more outre aspects of digital technologies, and those reasons may be grounded in legitimate concerns based on deep historical sympathies. In other words, we may know things, important things, you’ve never even thought about, and you may be wise to listen.

23 thoughts on “Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds

  1. Tam

    She’s not a Millennial, and shot her first roll of B&W in the early ’70s, but she does appreciate the flattering age-related compliment.

  2. Rob Campbell

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Advanced age has little to do with it beyond the back catalogue of experience that it can bring. There is a difference though, between, on the one hand, an old guy with that old experience and using the new technologies as an extension, a continuity of what that person has been doing all along, and on the other hand, the young Turk without that earlier understanding. The old person already has a sense of what works, whereas the younger will have a harder time finding boundaries when the tools are so flexible. Temptation can simply be too powerful to resist. With limited tools there may be a natural, earlier switch-off point that leads to simplicity which is often a stronger concept. When you can keep on playing all day long and it costs you nothing but time… However, an old guy who is also a novice will see things in a different light, not even the same one (light) as the young new guy.

    Of course, opinions will be different, perhaps, between the two age groups on more than just aesthetic calls: expectations cause different degrees of satisfaction too, which muddy all the waters further. When is enough enough, and with one step more the person slips over the edge into the crass?

    We have probably ended up with two quite different disciplines using one traditional name. Maybe a lot of discontent and misunderstanding would be avoided if a new term were coined for what digital photography really is: an advanced type of painting by numbers, where you just keep adding paint until something looks kinda okay. And then beyond that. Digital photography is a wonderful boon for commercial photography but I think that, here, we are speaking of photography as an art form. That has differnt boundaries, history and, usually, intent.

    I guess that today it’s just too damned easy to be too damned clever.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I think you’re right Rob, that we’re getting to a point where straight photography – film or digital – needs to be distinguished from millennial ideas of photography as a graphic art.

  3. Keith Laban

    I’m not at all sure I need yet another box to make that distinction. Once we have that box it would only be a matter of time before we needed further little boxes within that box. And so it goes on…

    1. Rob Campbell

      Indeed, but only when the need arose out of the confusion brought about by growth. I think we have been there for quite some time.

      I can’t see anything intrinsically wrong with classification; even beta blockers are sub-divided into types that do pretty much the same overall thing. Sunglasses too. Cameras? Of course. Why not images? It’s wilfully if not wistfully contrary to demand or contest that photographs have some divine otherness that absolves them of the need for sensible classification, even when of the same genus; in the current context of digital or analogue imagery we have not only source but also the path of subsequent developments to consider. The art of the film photographer and darkroom worker is of a different order and type to that of the computer specialist. It’s not a fight over superiority – in my view – but of comparing apples with apples instead of with porcelein pears.

      If you label your little boxes clearly (and don’t expect to find an identification description for them on Weebly) you make life all the more straightforward for yourself. When I was allowed to drink, I always expected to find gin instead of vodka when the waiter brought his tray… it wasn’t enough to ask for the clear stuff and tonic.

      Now I am depressing myself.

      🙂

  4. Dogman

    I agree with your points. Totally.

    But I recognized some time ago that this is not “my world” any longer. And considering what it’s coming to, let ’em have it! I’ll shoot my pictures with a digital camera in B&W and print them on paper and watch the parade with amusement.

  5. Lee Rust

    To me, there is a distinction to be made between chemical photography and digital imaging… one is a physical procedure and the other a series of data computations. Apples and oranges, but the end result is always just a picture, and most viewers don’t really care how it gets there.

    Of course, some of us do care. Here are a few of my own internal mantras that get silently recited whenever I encounter a non-threatening externality that is not exactly to my taste … “To each their own” … “It takes all kinds” … or the all-purpose “Whatever”.

    Technology marches on, and something is usually sacrificed in the advance. In former ages, the manual traditions of creativity were honored because they were so mechanically obvious and deliberate. Now the digital processes are taken for granted because they are so electronically invisible and instantaneous.

    For most of us, the digital realm might as well be magic because we have so little grasp of how it actually works. In spite of this ignorance, we willingly submit to the seductive cybernetic spell because of the immediate gratification and pleasurable entertainments that we enjoy.

    Unfortunately, as we offload more and more of our knowledge and consciousness into the ‘cloud’, we can observe a general decline in personal skills and interpersonal civility. Perhaps that’s the swelling and threatening cumulus that we really should be yelling at.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Yes, Lee, that final paragraph is the really scary part.

      It has cut into all sorts of interpersonal situations, especially online, where there is time between responses. You question something, then a while later the reply can come from someone who has just consulted Dr Google and has absolutely no idea or native knowledge about the topic to which he responds. In other words, you don’t have to own any personal information about anything much these days – you can just look it up. Where the incentive not to grow lazy and uneducated?

      So many instant art and photography historians I bump into every day. Sometimes, I happen to know something as fact, only to see several different writers repeat the same piece of misinformation one has picked up somewhere: they all copy one another and try to pass as original thinkers.

      And I’m hardly immune to the dumbing down: where once I’d add and subtract in my head and on paper, I now do so still, but always check the answer with a calculator. So much for confidence. How easily it evaporates away.

      🙂

  6. Pingback: Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds | Leicaphilia – Coping Mechanism

  7. David Estler

    The car is not a 71 Camaro. It is a 1967 Firebird. BTW, I love your website. I read it daily.

  8. Nick Davis

    One of the reasons I visit your website is that you set me thinking. You are quite literally the grit to my oyster. I do wonder if your problem with these pictures is their apparent lack of taste rather than their enhanced reality. After all photography has been lying ever since it began in the 1840s. Photography is also a broad church, presumably the client liked them and they served the purpose that was required. I’m slightly agnostic about enhanced reality, there is a British fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge, who uses it to rather good effect in some of his work. The other side of this is that photography has traditionally been stuck to an extent with actual reality compared with the other visual arts, the only thing you could really change was point of view and presentation of the image. Now digital has freed photography from that, which may not be a bad thing. I’m far more concerned about the sheer volume of mediocre images that people who label themselves as photographers put up on social media. If you ask them politely why they posted so many indifferent pictures in a batch they respond by saying that each image is the equal of every other which always strikes me as an evasion of their responsibility as an artist.

    Tam, I think you were a little harsh in your original comment, particularly since the author of this blog clearly cares about the medium. It is easy to be glib at someones expense.

  9. Pieter

    Photography killed drawing. People would carry notebooks/sketchbooks during their travels, recording what they saw. When was the last time anyone did that just to document an experience?

    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s why stock libraries were invented and postcards became big business. For a while. Travel; holiday brochures selling foreign “local” atmosphere in an effort to present somewhere in its most attractive (to the market) mode. Spend with us! We know the secrets!

      Today, I see little groups of “guided” artists stand or sit in front of their portable easles as they sketch and/or paint a few choice local antiquities, one such, the local Roman Bridge that has been reconstructed several times during its career. It provides real pleasure for those artists, doing something using their own human faculties. Would they trade for a selfie and a snap of said bridge on their cellphone? I very much doubt that; it defeats the intent and experience.

    2. Daniel Castelli

      Um, my daughter…artist, major in Illustration, university professor. Weapon of choice: moleskin landscape pad, W&N watercolor kit, finepoint black marker.

  10. david mantripp

    Well I’ve never commented here before, but I’ve read pretty much everything… so here goes:

    I’ve been thinking about this for 2 weeks, and I pretty much agree with you but personally I think you chose the wrong target. And I also think that the examples you “created” to make your point in this post are rather insulting to Blair Bunting. Yours are indeed total crap, as you intended them to be – although I imagine they were ok until the AI got its hands on them. His on the other hand are quite patently the result of a thought through process, and as commercial illustration are rather evocative and work just fine. Since he is an Advertising Photographer, that seems quite in line with expectations, don’t you think? Would you say that Julian Calverly’s works is also rubbish (another example of a commercial / advertising photographer) ? Now, I do question why Bunting chose those photos to illustrate his article – that seems a complete non-sequitur.

    There’s plenty of room for different photographic styles, and for people to chose – or not – to use the tools at their disposal. You’ve illustrated just how badly that can turn out. I do wonder how well you’d fare if you actually tried to replicate Bunting’s processes. I know I’d fail miserably.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      The point is, I wouldn’t want to “replicate his process.” Not if that’s what it produces. I’m sure he’s technically proficient – much more than I’d ever be – but that’s not the point. The point is what he produces via his technological skills isn’t very good; it seems to rely on viewers being impressed with his tech wizardy as opposed to its content. In my mind, it’s bad in the way only someone who thinks they’re really fantastically clever can be bad. It’s stuff like this which becomes hopelessly dated within years, stuff we look back on and think, “man, what were we thinking?’ Meanwhile, good strong straight photography always stays relevant, because its never about technique but about content.

      Of course, this is my opinion. I’m sure he’d look at my photography and say its simplistic, technologically naive crap. At least I hope he would, given his aesthetic. We share nothing in common except our claims that we’re “photographers.”

      1. david mantripp

        Well, I’ve long suspected I wouldn’t know a good photograph if if hit me over the head with a mallet…. so I guess I wouldn’t know a bad one either!

        1. Rob Campbell

          A good one is one you like; a bad one is one you don’t. If you are the client.

          If you are making snaps for fun, a good one is one you like and a bad one is one you delete. Sometimes, you can make the wrong call. Therein the fun of amateur photography.

          Alternatively, one could pick petals from a daisy, one by one, and by incantation, arrive at the correct answer.

          😉

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Not really. It’s much more than a power struggle for a certain aesthetic. It about the medium itself and what premises are inherent in its very definition. Although you are onto something when you link aesthetics with ethics. Plato was all over that as a valid linkage. Maybe I’ll write a piece about that….

  11. Andrew Molitor

    Interestingly, Blair Bunting can actually shoot. Yeah, he does product stuff not Fine Art, but he does know what he’s doing. He’s actively choosing to make horrible digital art, it’s not incompetence.

    Watch this video for a minute or two and then skip ahead to about 7:20

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w638djAPyA

Comments are closed.