The End of Photography As We Know It

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“Nothing Regresses Like Progress” – e.e. cummings

Milan Kundara, in his novel Slowness, notes the bond between slowness and memory, speed and forgetting.  Making the same point in a different way, Woody Allen tells about his experience of enrolling in a speed reading course. He read War and Peace in 20 minutes. The book, he says, “is about Russia.” For some reason, this makes me think of current photographic culture.

Digital technology has transformed photography, both in its practice and its cultural role. 1.8 billion images will be put online in 2014, and the increase is exponential: this is a 50% increase over 2013. The average person consumes around 5,000 images daily. In 1900, the total number of photographs in the entire world was around 2 million; in 2000 it was 85 billion and in 2015 it will be 3.8 trillion. In 2013, 25% of all of these images made were taken with smartphones, presumably by folks who don’t think of themselves as “photographers.”  As a result of this image explosion and the technological advances making it possible, photography is no longer a specialist language. it is now a universal language, spoken via social media, most of it inconsequential chatter. We have entered the fast food era of photography. Photography has become one more experience of people whose lives are full of frenetic activity, the means for a speedy delivery of cheap sensations — individuals as nerve endings in an endless social network.

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But there has also been a change in the pace of photography as a practice – the photograph instantly produced and transmitted,  and then just as quickly forgotten.

Digital partisans often think that nothing useful can be learned from the indigenous craft of traditional silver based photography. Most claim that it has been superceded by the ease, speed and potential of digital. Analogue photography is widely seen as a dead technology. But Film affords a return to the ruminative, something that has gotten lost with the ease and speed of digital. Slowing down via the processes of traditional photography can be a potent cure for the motion sickness of modern digital technology. Film photography is gourmet cooking in a fast food culture.

In today’s age of instant results, the protracted processes of film – taking, developing, proofing, reviewing, printing –  seem an obvious drawback, but in reality it is one of film photography’s strengths.  With traditional photography we are subject to the time between the shutter press and the final result. It allowed time to pass so you could clear your mind of the moment and have a more objective view of what you’d produced. It allowed a space for reflection divorced from the immediacy of the moment, gave a value, a weight to the significance of what you’d produced by virtue of the enlarged contextual frame time afforded. A printed silver halide photography became its own thing, a few steps removed from the immediacy of the moment. I’m convinced that the instantaneous nature of current technology has made us worse as photographers, more impoverished as visual artists. We’ve gained speed at the expense of reflection.

Creative products summoned at speed are not likely to be the best but simply the first, the automatic or habitual response as opposed to the reflective or idiomatic. Subtlety and nuance are lost at speed. Its the difference between traveling at 80 mph on the Interstate, where everything basically looks the same, and traveling a back road by bicycle. You simply see more when you slow down, and photography is dependent on refined seeing.

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There is always the danger, in these kinds of discussions, of indulgence in nostalgia, that to question the momentum of new technologies is to declare yourself willfully ignorant, a present day Ned Ludd. I think us who cut our teeth photographically in the analogue age should remain unapologetic, speaking for what might be thought of as a proper understanding of the proportions and values of photography as a practice. Yes, digital imaging offers us new forms of stimulus and engagement and can be captured without fuss and instantly disseminated worldwide at a touch. While I’m not competent to weigh the competing claims, one thing is absolutely clear to me:  today’s immediate images are fundamentally different from a traditional printed photograph, a function of their instantaneous nature but also of the lack of the tangible and a more questionable indexical relationship of the digital image to reality. Whatever, it is indisputable that digital imaging will bring with it new forms of seeing, memory and even consciousness. But what is also clear is something important embedded in our traditional notion of photography as a practice is susceptible to being lost unless we acknowledge its value and take active steps to preserve it.

A little Luddism might go a long way; but so, too, would a photographic culture obsessed less with innovation and more with deceleration and the time needed for contemplation. Traditionally, Photography as a craft was above all a vehicle of contemplation and meditation, a way to achieve deep levels of absorption in a creative activity. The flexibility and autonomy of digital photography is now ours — but ironically, for many of us the constraints inherent in traditional processes now seem like freedom. Digital technologies outsource our creative tasks to automated technology, essentially stripping the process of its primary purpose. Today, the primary value of slow photography is as a means for deceleration, for therapeutic rather than the mundane  purposes of daily life.

Formerly we lived moving back and forth between two poles, the solitude of making and the connectedness of communion, privacy and public interaction. The new imaging reality puts us somewhere in between, removing the requirement of technical competence  while constricting the role of photography to mundane communication.

I suspect, when everything shakes out, that the photography/imaging divide will walk the line of communication versus creative expression, the immediacy of digital communication versus the handicraft of individual expression embodied by traditional analogue photographic processes. The dedicated “photographer” will have to tolerate being irredeemably at odds with a world of ever “smarter” photographic instruments operated by ever less capable “Imagists.”

So, film photography is dead to the extent that it might compete with digital imaging on equal footing, deigning to do what digital does but just differently. Rather, film photography is becoming an emergent countering medium, valuing slowness and re-engagement with material process. It signals a desire to return photography to a handcrafted and artisinal skill. Hopefully, a new generation will learn the same lessons film users were taught by photography. I hate to think of what the consequences will be if we continue on our track of relentless digital mediation. Will we see our hard won skills eroded, our intelligence debased, and our work devalued, if we sacrifice human responsibility to black boxes full of microchips and organic sensors?

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I see the re-emergence of film photography as the tip of a cultural iceberg, a gathering opposition to the flourishing digital ethos in a visual culture gone rudderless on a sea of digitized Ones and Zeroes. It is the renewed recognition of a value placed upon the sense of connection to one’s creative tools, at least in the visual realm. It will be made difficult by the unrelenting corporate greed constantly pushing newer imaging technology upon us.  What we need is faith in the essential simplicity of photography, its possibilities. This will not be easily offered. It will have to be fought for, and fighting will require us to find one another in common cause. Photography depends for its existence on photographers, and in the future we will be in very short supply.