What do an 8 x 10 view camera, a 4 x 5 field camera, a Hasselblad, a Leica, a digital SLR, a Holga and a cell phone camera have in common?
There are no images contained within any of them. They are capture devices. As you hold one of these capture devices images exist only as a conceptual prenatal expression to be birthed of the photographer’s heart, head, aesthetic, and awareness.
A camera is the mechanism by which we acquire the image, in essence a tool. Different tools will have different attributes, which may be reflected in the expression, but the tool and its attributes are in service to that expression, neither totally independent of it nor supreme over it. Like a paintbrush each camera / lens and controlling variables will have a different stroke, a different aesthetic gesture. It is a reflection of the artist’s acumen to use those attributes in support of her aesthetic.
Robert Frank would not have opened our eyes to a different way of seeing by using an 8 x 10 camera. In 1959 surely there were many who thought the nature of a compact 35mm camera not adequate to the highest form of the art. And yet, we have Frank’s iconic study, “The Americans”.
Photography is an art form, undeniably, born of technology. To insist on freeze framing the photographic arts in a particular decade where one was more comfortable with (or more truthfully, conditioned to) the technology of the time, perhaps is an expression more of personal frustration and is potentially limiting a comprehension of the art form’s evolution that can only come from considered engagement. To belittle change, especially as options for creative expression via new tools and techniques and software grow exponentially, is to deny the evolution of the art. Disliking the evolution will not slow it, nor will it appease tortured souls proclaiming the cheapening of, or annihilation of the art.
By no means is that meant to indicate that an artist must change at the beckon of technology. No, that misses the point, (although in the commercial sector that technological evolution is pretty much forced on you, but by choice can be exclusive of your personal work).
There are artists offering us wonderful gifts of expression working in platinum printing or wet plates or other, dare I say, old technologies. These processes are in service to the aesthetic expression of those artists. That is as it should be. But, I suspect that the higher-level artists working in those processes don’t spend a whole lot of time whining about where the medium is going. I think they are too busy making good art. Making art that is true to their vision.
It is always difficult to see beyond our own context, and I believe currently there are many photographers missing the bigger picture (sorry) when it concerns cell phone images. Yes, there are a bazillion inane, bad, silly images transferred to social media instantly from cell phones, but 95% of those images have nothing to do with photography as contextualized by photo artists. Individuals posting those images are no threat to stealing your editorial or commercial clients, no threat to the retail portrait photographer, no threat to the fine art photographer. I would submit to you that most of those people are not even thinking about photography. What they are doing is having a conversation. Yes, they are simply talking to others. The images serve as a bridge of ambient intimacy. It must be apparent by this time that we have experienced a stunningly rapid paradigm shift in how we communicate with each other. One power of this instant communication via social media platforms is to introduce images into the conversation, and in many cases the images substitute for what words would have conveyed. Remove those images from your contextual prism of photography, and perhaps you will begin to relax. Step back, understand, people are conversing daily with images and that conversation is the primary context, not the art world or academia’s definition of what photography should be.
Think about the power of that shift, people transmitting images almost instantly to have ordinary everyday conversations. For decades Jeremy Wolfe, professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University, has studied then way humans “see” photographic images. Tests have continually shown that we seem to be designed to communicate via images. We will remember far more details of an image after just one or two seconds of viewing than we do from reading a description of that same image.
The evolution to conversing with images is exploding now because we can share an image just as quickly as the spoken or written word. Physiologically the dramatic shift to communicating with images makes sense. Since photography’s invention in the early 1800’s it is estimated that there have been 3.8 trillion photos made. Ten percent of that total has been made in the last 12 months.
Ascribing an aesthetic value judgment of photography to the capture device (a cell phone) is really kind of a preposterous notion in an industry dominated by technological shifts. As of next week you will be able to purchase a Zeiss Sonnar lens with a 20mp sensor in it, (Sony DSC-QX100). The lens /sensor comes with an adapter to optionally attach it to a smart phone wherein the smart phone will act as the viewing screen and an app will allow you to set the camera’s controls from the touch screen of the phone. The image will be saved to both a memory card in the lens and to your phone, where you can process the image in your preferred apps and share instantly with social media.
Look, I think we just stop calling this cell phone photography. There is a camera in there! Or, there are now high quality photo technologies designed with the phone in mind. For the average person it allows them to have a more detailed and effective conversation via images. For the artist it is a unique paintbrush with a different set of attributes and used with sensitivity and awareness allows the artist a precise expression. When you wake up tomorrow morning photography is going to be different than when you go to bed tonight. Get used to that. You can view it as the demise of photography or you can see it as an exponential increase in potentialities.
Jon LIsbon, October 6, 2013
Thanks to the following photographers for supplying images for this post.
Sita Mae, http://www.sitamae.com
Arthur Hand, http://www.arthurhand.com
Erika Weierick, https://www.facebook.com/itsanerika213
Jon Lisbon, http://jonlisbonphoto.com