December 13, 2007

Would photography please “die” already??

Ah, the indestructable "Is Photography Dead" meme…

Oh, who gives a crap?  Sorry, let me explain.  I thought about noting this not-so-little trend some time ago, but I’ve never been able to invest much passion in it.  People have been manipulating photography in every which way–through their choice of what to capture & what to omit; through changes to the scene/subject (adding lights, building sets, moving bodies on a battlefield); and through tweaks to the captured results–since the dawn of the technology.  So what?  I think Bridge engineering manager Arno Gourdol hit the nail on the head:

Being aware of composition, balance, symmetry and "owning the frame" is the creative act. The creative act matters, and the moment at which it occurs seems secondary–whether it is when pressing the shutter release on your camera, when making a print in the darkroom or when sitting in front of a computer.  This echoes the early days when photography was viewed as an unfair and unworthy competitor to painting…

I dunno; much of this "is photography dead" discussion strikes me as sterile and pointless–and maybe a strawman that’s not worth beating up.  Yet I wonder whether it’s driven by veteran photogs feeling threatened–comercially and aesthetically–by so many affordable tools that make competent image-making so much more attainable. 

Sure, yeah, we can debate this camera or lens vs. that one all day long–but all this stuff absolutely rocks compared to what pros were using just a few years back (to say nothing of what Arbus, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and co. had).  You can say that digital makes us lazy, and there’s some truth there; and yet it also fosters free experimentation & instant review of the results.  That quicker learning cycle, plus autofocus, good software, etc. helps get people "good enough" (technically, anyway) without years of slow and costly apprenticeship.  And when anyone can take a technically decent shot, then "good" becomes "trite," and people seek to define themselves by bucking the trend–making portfolios blurry or murky.

Therefore–and maybe I’ll live to regret writing this–we end up with a bunch of freaked-out oldsters (or just curmudgeons at heart) twisting up a Dick Cheney grimace and saying, "Bah, I don’t like this digital tomfoolery–not one bit!  In my day we had to huff developer until we saw Ernest Borgnine floating in the liquid–and we liked it fine!!  You kids are ruining everything."

Um, yeah.  Life, art, and expression move on.  If "photography" is something so brittle & exclusionary that it can’t bear evolution, then goodbye and good riddance.  (Don’t let the film door hit your ass on the way out…) It isn’t, of course, so maybe we can just bury the is-photography-dead schtick.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Posted by John Nack at 12:27 AM on December 13, 2007


  • Miguel Marcos — 1:45 AM on December 13, 2007

    The only cause I can see behind all this is that the quantity of photographs has exploded, in magnitudes. High volume is associated with noise and noise makes it difficult to see the good stuff.
    [Yes, I think that’s exactly right. And whereas displaying one’s work to others used to present quite a challenge (making prints, getting into a gallery, etc.), now you can literally share as you shoot. It’s not unlike the displacement felt by journalists seeing pitchfork-wielding bloggers at the gate. –J.]
    I imagine, like all such memes, it’ll die down and we’ll all get back to business as usual. The art world has gone through such upheavals before.

  • Petra — 3:23 AM on December 13, 2007

    The debate about what real photography is has gone on since Niepce looked out his window at Le Gras. The arguments on all sides have always been pointless blather. Doesn’t matter how the image comes to be, if it doesn’t communicate to the viewer, it’s no good. I’ve never understood why technical proficiency with film and chemicals is supposed to be righteous. A robot could do that, and we would have

  • Arwen — 4:04 AM on December 13, 2007

    Ha! Thank you for posting this. I’ve been saying similar things for some time now, but people still seem to want to run in shrill hysterical circles.
    The ‘photography is dead’ argument always strikes me as being much the same attitude as people who stop liking a band as soon as it becomes ‘popular’, or the ones who think something is only art once it’s hung in a gallery and removed from human interaction. Irritating!
    [Speaking of the musical elitism thing, how great is this t-shirt? :-) –J.]

  • theturninggate — 4:10 AM on December 13, 2007

    I’m with you, John. I daresay, photography has never been more alive.

  • Mike Early — 4:34 AM on December 13, 2007

    John, how can you say that us veteran photogs (I am 63) are feeling threatened by affordable tools that make things so much more attainable — that just can’t be true. I love ’em. Whoa, guess that puts me on the wrong side of the “is photography dead?” discussion. Guess what I am saying is that I agree with you 100% on this issue.
    [I think it’s all about being young at heart, Mike. (By contrast, a Web designer friend and I used to characterize ourselves as the cantankerous old men from the Muppet Show. We were 23. ;-) –J.]
    Now, if you want to talk about how today’s programers don’t really appreciate their craft since they don’t have to punch up their code into cards and then load them into the machine to test their program (or better yet enter it on dials) then we could have a really meaningful discussion. I mean coding on-line with syntax and logic checkers, what kind of challenge is that?? We had to huff card dust and suffer the paper cuts until we saw John Wayne riding over the hill – and we liked it fine!! The kids today have it way too easy. (Above words derived from someone, can’t seem to remember exactly who … but it was someone I read recently ….)
    (I spent a number of years in my early life programming some of IBM’s card fed System 360’s and wiring based systems input devices and am darn glad I don’t have to do that any more — photography , err… excuse me digital photography is much more to my liking at this point in my life.)

  • John Larson — 5:34 AM on December 13, 2007

    If people get upset about normal post-processing editing, they should look at Ansel Adam’s darkroom notes. His prints are a long way from what’s on the negative.
    [Yeah, I’ve tried pointing that out, but people say, “Oh, but he was using black and white!” Oh. Apparently B&W gets a pass because it’s inherently less faithful to the real world as seen through human eyes. (Canine photographers wouldn’t get that pass, I suppose…) –J.]
    Furthermore, I think that most of the great photographers of the past would take advantage of all of the latest technology (at least to accomplish their personal objectives).

  • Mike — 6:05 AM on December 13, 2007

    “Being aware of composition, balance, symmetry and “owning the frame” is the creative act.”…..It isn’t of course…the creative act that is. And perhaps identifying craftmanship as the creative part of photography is at the very heart of this disagreement. If you think of photography as just another visual art form then of course the conversation is moot. On the other hand, if you believe, as do I, that photography has it’s own unique voice, which is journalistic in nature, then the debate is significant…not to diminish the significance of the evolving media of digital art but rather in redefining photography itself for those who seem to have forgotten, or never knew the mezmerizing quality of it’s unique expression.

  • Jim Cavanaugh — 7:12 AM on December 13, 2007

    Being an “oldster” with 35 years experience and coming up from the darkroom and way too many hours with D-76 and Tri-X as well as E-3, E-4 and E-6 and C-41 and EP-3, I am ecstatic where photography is today and where it is going.
    While the business of commercial photography has been turned upside down and poses frustrating challenges, the creative possibilites of the new medium provide an almost unlimited range of creative possibilities. I can’t imagine a more vibrant and exciting time for photography. And I only see it getting better.
    [Cool. :-) Me too. –J.]

  • Greg Barnett — 7:40 AM on December 13, 2007

    Hey John-
    What a coincidence, one of my colleagues (a photo historian and past curator at the Eastman House) and I were just discussing the Newsweek article this morning. Our reaction was, blah, blah, blah… This kind of rhetoric has been popping up for years and not just since digital made the scene. Last time I checked, Photography was alive and well here in Rochester…

  • Kyle — 9:31 AM on December 13, 2007

    As previously iterated, the quantity of photographs being taken is basically the only downside to the digital revolution in photography. Sure, you can find some certain beauty in film if it’s what you really like, but the film doesn’t make the photograph — the lighting, composition and artistic elements make it a good photo. No one has ever said that music would die when it went digital; Well, maybe they have, but they weren’t taken seriously. There are still vinyl record enthusiasts, just as there are still film-shooting enthusiasts, but they are few and far between (here’s where I wish I had number on this year’s total vinyl sales). I get the feeling that these same people would also prefer to defecate in the woods rather than in an indoor toilet, just because “the forest makes such nice scenery — and it’s so much more natural.”
    That being said, I think that in the next few years we will see technologies begin to emerge that allow us to more easily sort through and find those good photographs. I know that such digg-like technology already exists, but the key is going to be interface. At some point, someone is going to come along with a brilliant online rating system, allowing everyone to instantly tag a site, photo, video, etc. with their opinion and relate that opinion to those who have also viewed the material, and to those with similar interests as the rater. It’s a matter of making it intuitive enough for anyone to use. This may even mean dumping ratings entirely, and getting ratings from data such as how long people view a certain photo on average. Aside from the obvious privacy concerns of ideas like these, I don’t think there’s much else keeping us from getting there.
    (E.)P.S. John, there’s a slight bug in your blog — if you preview your post, you can’t post from that page. It wants me to enter “photoshop” again but there’s no place to put it. And I apologize for the post script humor :)

  • Bruce Watson — 9:44 AM on December 13, 2007

    Nicely said. Isn’t it amazing how long people are willing to beat a horse long dead?
    I vowed years ago to keep out of all the film vs. digital debates. Not worth the time required — a far better use of that time is to be out photographing!

  • Alex — 1:11 PM on December 13, 2007

    Well, also being an old timer, my first good camera was an Exa 1A in 1963, and my first computer was 10 years ago, I think that photography has never in it’s history been more alive and exciting and more promise for the future than ever before. I feel with the new Adobe software, with my acti 24v process camera, and my Nikon D70 that I am on the same road that the first photographer that was vaporizing Mercury in the horse drawn wagon was. We have never had more tools to create more new views that ever before. The best part being we can take the best of all of them and create from all of them at the same time. We have done it in one generation. Many of us are still alive and remember from the beginning of our own darkrooms to today’s computer digital capability. Whoever came up with the “dead” needs to get a grip.

  • Rob Reiter — 3:20 PM on December 13, 2007

    I’ve been a photographer since I picked up my first camera at the age of 7 (cost me 50 cents and two Wheaties box tops.) I’ve done fine art printing commercially, first Ilfochrome/Cibachrome since 1975 and inkjet for the last ten years. I shoot entirely digital now for the last three years and I couldn’t be happier. I agree completely with your feeling on this silly matter.
    Photography isn’t dead, but in a handful more decades, those who claim it is will be. Then the rest of us, or our clones, can continue enjoying taking pictures, probably holograms.

  • Scott Valentine — 3:45 PM on December 13, 2007

    Here’s something germane, if a bit dated… Fred Ross, director of the Art Renewal Center, similarly decries anything that isn’t representational realism in oils as “not art”. Ok, I’m paraphrasing and simplifying, but the idea here is that this one-time curator of a very large museum thinks notables like Warhol and Degas are just scamming people.
    Basically, if it wasn’t painted to his exacting standards in his own pet genre, it doesn’t qualify as true (or good) art:
    This kind of narrow-minded arrogance is disgusting in someone who supposedly speaks for historical art with an authoritative voice. It’s the worst kind of bigotry imaginable; that which assaults anything “different than me”.

  • A. Dias — 4:31 PM on December 13, 2007

    I could not agree with you more. Photography is not any less today than it was 100 years ago.

  • Ann Shelbourne — 4:50 PM on December 13, 2007

    I still stick with film for a lot of reasons.
    It’s extremely economical.
    (Yes I process my own Color Negative film and it costs me about 29 cents per 36-exposure 35mm roll or four sheets of 5″ x 4″).
    Storage space of the resulting images is far less when measured in cubic feet.
    Negatives can be scanned to high resolution Tiffs; accessed via ACR and manipulated in Photoshop just as easily as can digicam images.
    Color negative film has a much greater dynamic range than digital cameras are able to capture in a single exposure.
    Cameras and their lenses last for years and don’t go out of date every 18 months.
    Large-format cameras, with their adjustable backs and lens panels, provide capabilities that a fixed-back digicam cannot begin to match.
    I am not dependent on batteries and my cameras don’t die in cold weather.
    Each to his/her own but, as long as film continues to be made I have seen nothing that tempts me to buy a digital camera … yet.
    I guess I just don’t drink KoolAid!

  • Phil Brown — 6:22 PM on December 13, 2007

    Thanks for commenting, John. It’s nice to see a widely read blog such as yours come out and say what many of us are thinking.
    It’s interesting that very few people using digital ever tell someone using film that they should stop if that’s what they like. I still have my film camera that mounts the same lenses as my digital.
    But if you go the other way, there are a lot of film-only users who strongly oppose digital but they can not provide any particular reason beyond personal preference.
    Anne: I assume your printing costs exclude the paper, and you’re taking into account the cost of disposing of the chemicals in an environmentally responsible manner, right?
    Storage space for 1GB image file is a few microns. Not sure how film is far less than that… There are issues with digital storage, but if you understand DAM and recognise what the inherent risks are (just as they exist with film) then you can deal with them very effectively and easily.
    Yes, negatives can be scanned, but then you have these massive storage problems of several microns of platter per image that you apparently rail against. There’s also the time to scan, the cost of the scanner or paying someone to scan it, and a scanned TIFF has far less capacity to be manipulated than a Raw file (although that’s less of an issue as manipulation my not be required).
    Dynamic range? Shooting Raw with a 10 stop range on something such as the new D3 or the Alpha 700 and then the capacity to manipulate in Raw. How much dynamic range do you claim to be in your film? With the latest technology it’s about the same.
    My digital camera will be replaced next year (well, I’ll keep it as a spare body) after 3 years of use. Only because there’s an upgrade available that’s got enough features to prompt me to do it, not because I can’t do it. My 6mp DSLR can produce A0 print sizes in some cases. Sure, I know a lot about printing and most images can’t go to that size, but then I don’t usually print that large. It’s not out of date – there’s just something extra available to me now. I used to change film cameras about every 5 years.
    Batteries are an issue, but it’s easily overcome. I can supply 240v in the middle of the Australian outback, several days driving from the nearest piece of civilisation. I can even transmit the digital files (at some expense) via the internet from there. A lack of knowledge of understanding of the available technology does not mean it does not exist.
    You do realise that digital backs have been around for many years, right? And tilt-shift lenses are available for DSLRs. It’s catching up in some areas, but how does that invalidate digital photography?
    If I’m not mistaken, Anne, you use an inkjet printer, so you use a digital workflow. That workflow is receiving huge attention and development as a result of digital photography. Lucky for you :-)
    Enjoy your film, but realise that it’s just an alernative – not a better alternative.

  • Mel Trittin — 6:56 PM on December 13, 2007

    Well said.
    Here’s my take.

  • Roger Theriault — 7:33 PM on December 13, 2007

    Autofocus – what choice do we have? I definitely miss the split screen focus on my old Canon AE-1, and I took lots of bball pics from behind the basket where quick focusing (or pre-focusing) was important. Good manual focus seems to be a premium feature today… :-(
    But back in the 80’s all I had in the darkroom was a piece of cardboard on a stick (cheaper than today’s tools but not as versatile :-)
    I had very little cash for film and processing. And I felt some guilt with every roll I processed as I watched the chemicals go down the drain… certainly that isn’t good for the planet?
    Photography HAS changed and it will continue changing and not every change will be good… but generally, it IS better, so it’s not DEAD yet, it’s new & improved.

  • Scott Valentine — 7:37 PM on December 13, 2007

    To Ann Shelbourne…
    There are many, many counter points to your arguments. In the end it comes to preference and compromise. Do I spend money on film and darkroom supplies, or do I spend it on ink and electricity? Do I composite an image or use color negatives? Do I transfer or scan? Should I put my batteries in an inside pocket or hope my thumb lever doesn’t get jammed?
    My D100 is about 4 years old, still going strong after almost 50,000 shutter clicks (yeah, I experiment a lot). One of my lenses was purchased with my N50 almost a decade ago, and I’ve used manual lenses older than me.
    If you want to compare large format resolution and flexibility, check out Betterlight and Leaf for digital backs. Add a tilt-shift, maybe some Photoshop lens blur, and that argument falls flat.
    The biggest difference between film and digital is the amount of time you can leave the shutter open and still get a good shot, and even that gap is closing (batteries are more limiting right now, as it turns out).
    This theme is really the same as CD vs. Vinyl – you will never overcome the emotional attachments.
    So, it’s not about drinking the KoolAid, it’s about understanding yourself, your needs and your desires. If you prefer film, great; don’t try to justify it to everyone, just do what suits you. It’s none of our business, anyway.

  • Maryland Wedding Photographers — 4:20 AM on December 14, 2007

    Nice points. There are much bigger and better issues to discuss. Let’s not kid ourselves, multiple exposures, dark room techniques, cross processing, are all manipulation of their time. I laugh at the notion that digital is easy and cheaper. I just know I did not spend 4k on film bodies. I totally agree with the faster learning curve since you get great feedback. But there is also enough options in the cameras and tools to also hang yourself.

  • John Weber — 6:37 AM on December 14, 2007

    I had no idea this argument was still even around. Kind of reminds me of the conversations in the late 80’s about computer design vs. traditional. Yeah how did that work out?
    I have a whole drawer in my fridge of slide film if anyone is interested!

  • imajes — 6:59 AM on December 14, 2007

    Judging by Erwins Puts’ article shouldn’t his surname be spelt ‘Putz’?

  • Ann Shelbourne — 11:56 AM on December 14, 2007

    Sorry John but I can’t relieve you of it as I never use slide film — only color negative!
    [Scurrying back to my darkroom for 30 minutes to process another five films!]
    Yes I could have blown a truck-load of money on a load of high-end digital stuff but I think that actually travelling around the planet with the cameras that I already have is a far better use of my money.
    I am NOT trying to persuade anyone else to think my way but am just pointing out that there is still another way to take photographs — and that it just happens to be the better choice for me personally.

  • usome — 9:36 PM on December 16, 2007

    I have a whole drawer in my fridge of slide film if anyone is interested!

  • Ann Shelbourne — 8:02 AM on December 17, 2007

    Just to provide an example of the economics of the situation:
    For a planned five-week trip to China, I could have spent somewhere between $16,000 and $20,000 to replace my existing film cameras and lenses with digital equipment of the same calibre.
    Instead, I took two Olympus OM bodies and six lenses — all of which i have owned from a long time; and $500 worth of Kodak Portra (professional color negative) film.
    The processing is costing me about $35 in total — and I already have a Nikon Coolscan to scan the resulting negatives at the time that I am ready to use them.
    The rest of the $16,000 (which I might have blown on digital equipment) paid for two people to take eleven internal flights and travel in great luxury in private chauffeur-driven cars throughout the length and breadth of that huge country for five and a half weeks.
    I have returned with nearly four thousand frames of usable images.
    I did NOT find any need to “preview” them on a digital-back to know that I was getting the shot that I intended!.
    Neither did I have any problem with X-ray damage to my film although I took it through security checks some 14 times.
    I just made sure that I took cameras and film as carry-on luggage (those x-rays really do not affect normal-speed film but checked-in baggage is a very different matter); and carried my fast 400 and 800 ASA film in a ziplock bag and asked for hand-inspection of that — which was unfailingly and cheerfully granted.

  • Scott Valentine — 4:18 PM on December 17, 2007

    To be fair, Ann, you have already spent the money on traditional equipment and a Coolscan. I can go spend $1800 on a Nikon D300 and use all of my current lenses. To use your arguments about things already paid for, I have about 20G in flash memory cards but I could spend another $500 to get a total of 60G, which comes out to about four thousand shots.
    In that package, I can match the quality of your film, and have about 10 ounces committed to images, as opposed to many rolls of film. I can switch ISO on the fly, so no need to change rolls or carry clips to fish out the ends.
    If you have existing lenses for Canon or Nikon, they generally work on the dSLRs – I have no idea about Olympus OM.
    Processing costs me nothing but electricity, and I actually don’t use my digital screen for anything more than checking exposure on the first shot.
    And, I don’t have to spend that money again for the next trip. Nor do I have to handle processing chemicals or scan negatives. If we charge by the hour, it seems film might lose out due to time spent.
    So there’s really no point to the discussion other than to prove it’s a personal choice. You like film, I like digital, we both do our jobs.
    It seems awfully silly to try and justify the choices in equipment when the end result is an image. Let the image justify itself.

  • Moving services — 2:14 AM on June 04, 2008

    It seems awfully silly to try and justify the choices in equipment when the end result is an image. Let the image justify itself.

  • Shea Gaetani — 7:22 PM on July 28, 2012

    Can i upload short excerpts of copyrighted content on youtube?Is it supported by fair use provision?

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