Friday, May 2, 2014

The Future of Photography

What, if any, is the future of photography in the digital era?

Photographs haven't been with us all that long, but they may already have become virtually worthless. When they were new, cameras were used to document many things that had never been recorded previously, and photographs were, in and of themselves, works or art.  Over time, with the help of folks like George Eastman, photography became the province of the masses, and photographs were reduced to 'snapshots'.

Still, some of these snapshots were still in an of themselves works of art, even if they lacked some of the original rarity of the first photographs.  Admittedly, many were nothing more than pictures of people in poses and places that seemed scene-worthy.  And while many of the pictures of people and even more shots of scenery ended up being important documents about the time and place they were taken, most of the photographs through the end of the 20th Century were destined to be lost forever, trapped and simultaneously falling out of old leather bound books with crumbling black paper pages and fading gold ink.

These albums are in hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of bookshelves, in closets, attics and basements in virtually every corner of the earth.  It is amazing to think about how many photographs have been taken since the first daguerrotype, and even more amazing to realize that most of these are simply gone, victims of of nostalgia, neglect and finally just basic chemistry.  What hasn't been thrown away or put away has likely simply faded away.

Too many pictures

But if we think there were a lot of photographs taken in the 20th Century, no matter what that number is, it will be dwarfed by the number of digital photographs that will be taken in the 21st century.  In fact, I'd venture to guess that even today, just a few short years after digital photography became so widely available and used, there have been more photographs taken since 2000 than in the approximately 150 years before that.  And we are just getting started.  By the end of the century, the number will be several orders of magnitude larger with no signs of slowing down.

Of course this excludes end-of-the-world scenarios, including those that expect the world's electrical grid to fail--and thus result in the irreversible loss all of digital files, including photographs--not because I don't think this will happen, but because for this particular thought experiment, we need to suppose that the taking of pictures goes on uninterrupted for decades and even millennia.

That's because I want to think about not just the number of photographs, but I want to contemplate what will happen to subject matter itself in such an extreme situation.  In other words, if we keep on taking pictures at the rate we are today (assuming no increase in the rate of increase) will there be anything to take a picture of in 3001?  Will we have taken every picture of every flower and bee and mountain and sunset?

Why bother?

It's natural to say, no, of course not.  There will be a new sunset every day in 3001, and plenty of bees and flowers and cats and oh yes, each other.  There will be no way we can have taken every picture.  I can agree with this on one level--purely numeric--but on another--symbolic--I have to wonder what the point of taking pictures of those bees and flowers and sunsets will be as we go deeper and deeper into the new millennium.  Can we imagine a time when you don't need to take your own picture--just pick out one that you like and use it, make it your own.  When you need a picture of a sunflower, you don't need to take it, just take it from the net.

Of course, this is already happening, and the meaning of many photographs has been reduced to virtually nothing because of the ubiquity of the subject matter.  Even the now-famous 'selfie' has been diminished and demeaned by overuse, and it isn't going to get better in the next few years, that's for sure.  It's one thing to use photographs as documentary evidence, but quite another--and some would argue, rather useless--to use photographs as unique art objects.

Or is it? Will the value of art prevail in a world where reproduction is so common that originality is lost?  Can that even happen?

Three ways up the mountain

I think so.  In fact, I think we already have the evidence of what photography will become--as an art form--in the coming decades.  I have three examples to work with, all from friends who are photographers.  These are individuals whose work points the way for photography in the future.

Tom ~ Mosaics

Tom is a photographer who is also a painter.

Or perhaps he is a painter who is photographer.  We've had many discussions about this, because this chicken-and-egg conundrum is relevant to his work in particular.  He started off as a painter and turned to photography because it was easier to take pictures than it was to paint canvases.  So he began to take pictures.  And with a digital camera in hand, he began to take a lot of pictures.  But his instinct, his desire, was to make something more than just a photograph, another snapshot.  Meanwhile, the pictures began to add up.

At some point--and you can read about his whole discovery and process in a series of essays that he wrote as a result of our conversations--Tom found a way to bring these two processes--painting and photography--into a kind of synthesis: mosaics.

Again, I will defer to his description of the creative process to explain how this works and why he settled on this particular form at this particular point in his career as an artist, but I want to observe that his method points toward a way that photography can be used in a meaningful way in the digital era.  I can summarize his technique, I think, by saying that he uses individual photographs as brushstrokes in a larger whole that can be described as a painting.  Of course, it's still a digital image, but it has been transformed from a snapshot--or even a series of such shots--into something that is no longer 'photographic' but is more basically 'graphic', in the same way that a pencil mark or a brushstroke is a graphic.

You have likely already seen something like this.  The photograph of Lincoln, for example, that is made up of thousands of images of soldiers from the Civil War.  From a distance, say ten or twelve feet, the image looks like the portrait of Lincoln we are all familiar with, but get up close, within a foot or so, and you can see that it's really a mosaic.  What looked like pixels from a distance are actually photographs in and of themselves.  It's a clever trick, and it is an impressive display of the power of digital photography.  It allows for a layered experience, one where the viewer first sees one level and finds themselves drawn into a far deeper, more intimate place on closer inspection.

In many ways this is a long standing goal of art, specifically painting.  To show or hide the brushstrokes has been a debate among painters since first two people held a brush side-by-side.  One argues that showing the strokes invites the viewer into the world of the work's creation, after they have experienced the illusion of the image; hiding these strokes falsely denies the true nature of the work by pretending that the painter somehow didn't exist. The other argues that hiding the brushstrokes enhances the illusion, which is the point of the painting in the first place; showing how it was made would destroy the illusion and render the work useless.

This debate will go on, of course, but the essential issue, is that photographs can be pixels in an of themselves, and as such, can be part of a larger whole.  Right now, the practitioners of this art form are primarily focused on the naturalistic representations (like the Lincoln portrait) but the trend, in an artistic sense, is toward the abstract, or at least to the re-interpretation of naturalistic subjects.  When the pixels are photographs, is the resulting work a meta-photograph?  I prefer to think of it as Tom does, as a complex object, with nuances and suggestions that go far beyond a photograph or a painting, but combining elements of both forms.  This is how new forms are created.  This is how art evolves.

Chris ~ People

Chris is a professional photographer and a teacher of the same in a small private school.

He has been working as a professional since he was in college, shooting just about anything and everything for pay.  That means weddings, bar (and bat) mitzvahs, family portraits and even commercial properties and products.  Since he is now in his fifties, this means that he has managed to sustain himself as a professional for decades, which is no small accomplishment, considering how many things, small and large, go into a professional photo shoot.

In other words, he must be good.  And he is.  He is a careful and meticulous photographer, paying attention to the various elements like lighting, exposure and composition, but he is also a creative photographer, which means he sees and pays attention to many details that we--the viewers--might not notice, but which certainly affect our perception of the finished work.

These details have to do with people--specifically how people act and react when a camera is pointing at them.  Many people think that the camera is doing the work, after all it's right there, in between the photographer and them, but in fact it's the photographer who has the most do do with the outcome, especially when taking pictures of people.

Pictures of people are what Chris does best.  Somehow, he manages to capture something unique and compelling in his portraits.  You might say that he captures their 'essence' or their 'spirit'.  However you define it, the intangible quality is noticeable.  These are not snapshots, nor are they carefully composed still lives.  They are somewhere in between, and therein lies the magic of his art.

Lest you think it is easy enough to point a camera at someone and get a good photograph of them--that is, one that represents them in a way that you, as someone who knows them, will recognize, and if you don't know them, it will resonate with you anyway, because you know someone was there, in front of that camera, and that you can really see them, not just how they are standing or what they are wearing.  In fact, you might not notice any of that, as you are focussed instead on the person who's image is literally filling your field of view.

In this way, Chris' photographs of people point to one of the ways that digital photography can remain relevant in the face of an overwhelming crush of images. For no matter how many times we point the camera at a person, there always exists the possibility that we will see them in the photograph in a way that is more than simple recording.  We feel them as real people, living just beyond the frame, on the paper but in our head.

And what makes this difference?  The photographer.  No one but the artist can find this space.  Selfies will never replace portraits, and no matter how much someone loves you, if they don't understand photography, just pointing a camera will not result in a portrait.  It isn't just a mechanical process--it's an emotional one.  What we feel as an observer of a good portrait is the relationship between the photographer and his subject.  This can be timeless and eternal, which are the very qualities that we seek from good and lasting art.

Valery ~ Detail

Valery is a photographer who never thought she would be a photographer.

She was never all that interested in photography, in spite of the fact that her brother is a professional photographer and her husband has been an amateur shutterbug for many years.  He brought digital photography to the house and gave Valery her first camera, a hand-me-down that he had set aside for a newer, better model.  His interest was in the device, so despite the fact that he had taken many hundreds and thousands of photographs, very few of them held any interest for Valery (or anyone else, for that matter).  They were more snapshots, dinners, nights out and stuff around the house.

But when Valery picked up that same camera, a couple of transformations took place.  The first was for the camera, which had been used in a sort of straight-up point-and-shoot way that it was designed.  But in Valery's hands, the camera became a recorder of a world not often seen and seldom photographed: the world of detail.

Most of us look at the world around us as a pretty familiar place.  We seen things we recognize and take them for granted.  But how often do we really look at the things around us?  How much detail are we missing on a day-to-day basis?

The answer is, a lot.  In fact, we see so little in our everyday lives that it's fair to wonder if we really 'see' at all.  Mostly we just sail, swim or dig (pick your metaphor) through our lives, seeing enough to keep us from running into things and preventing other things from running into us.  It's almost like an obstacle course, and we don't really look at the obstacles as we climb over and under them every day.

These details can be natural, and most often these are the sources of Valery's inspiration.  Looking closely at a vine, for example, or a flower or a piece of wood or rock, Valery sees what we are missing when we step over them, or see them as a vague green, brown or grey blur that must be avoided.  But Valery doesn't avoid them.  She steps up closer and looks at them as if they've never been seen before.  This isn't hard.  Many things we think we've seen have really never been seen by us before.  I am talking about detail, the stuff that we see when we stop and look closely.

This is what Valery does in her art, and again, I think this points to a future for photography in the coming millennia.  The world is full of details, and our lives are made richer and more interesting as we see and understand this world.

The reach and depth of this particular approach to photography is both broad and deep.  There is so much about this very planet that we do not see, so much that we do not know, as intriguing as a photograph of the deep space field might be, the images of microbes and the world that they inhabit is much more fascinating and visually rich.  Images of our world necessarily resonate with us, and photographs of the detail can be a way to extend, enhance perhaps the experience of being in it.


So, what do these three examples have in common?  What is it that forms the basis of photography as an art form in the 21st century?  The answer is not simple, but it may be paraphrased for the sake of remembering why we pick up a camera in the first place.

Photography is art, which is essentially about enhancing the experience of life.  It allows us to do much more than simply remember what we can no longer see with our eyes.  It allows us to see what we might never have seen at all with those same eyes.  We resonate with it and are changed as a result.  

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