Thursday, September 20, 2012
Put a Fork in it or Is Photography Dead Now?
On the one hand, we constantly hear about how photography is "dead." How digital has killed photography and everybody is a photographer now. Maybe that's true, you can, for certain get lots of cheap camera gear nowadays, but, does having camera gear really make you a photographer? (There's an old saying, "buy a piano, you own a piano, buy a camera and you're a photographer!" that comes into play here.) Most of those in the know are smart enough to know that being a good photographer is much more than being about gear. (Ahem, yes, I know I say this a lot, but it's worth repeating.) Enough about gear though, this is more about photography in general, rather than any specific gear in question.
I tend to think that photography is not dead, it's just changing, maybe changing dramatically-changing so much in fact that we might not recognize what pops out the other end, but not dead and certainly not dying. What I mean by that is that there is now more opportunity for a great number of photographers, yes, gear has given that to us in part, but it also means that it's harder for one photographer to "corner the market." In the old days, one photographer could, for example, get "exclusive" photos of, say, Elizabeth Taylor, and be the only one with those shots. There was money (and still is) in being the only one with something, but it's becoming increasingly harder to be the one and only one with something. For a recent example, look to the photos of Kate Middleton on holiday to see what I mean here. Photos were taken of her and sold to a host of magazines and, I'm sure, there was not just one photographer involved. Maybe only one will get arrested or face a lawsuit from the Queen, but, let's face it, if one guy got the shot, I'm sure there were more, and more images will surface over time (as the scandal dies down and pops back up again for us all to follow in the news.) For the photographers in question though, now it's harder (if not impossible) to be the only one with an exclusive shot.
If you're a landscape or travel photographer, things have changed too. Gone are the days when you could just wander off into some uncharted location. I went to Iceland last year and, while that sounds exotic, millions of people have literally been there/done that. There are cruises to Antarctica, and guided tours to the worlds highest mountain peaks. To put it bluntly, there is basically little left of the Earth's surface that has already not been explored and even photographed. Perhaps this helps explain our fascination with the recent Mars rover-we're all itching to see something new and, thanks in part to advances in photography and the proliferation of photographers, the Earth has all but dried up in this regard. It's not new to us anymore, nothing is with the possible exception of Mars, so photographers are forced from the "new" into the "different" and that's a big enough cultural shift that it's jarred a host of people. (Who were, no doubt, used to the old rules.)
Consider too what's happening in the middle east. With riots breaking out in the streets, there are a lot of opportunities for a photographer to really cut some teeth here. When I say that, I mean, think about the old Spanish Civil War type photos-photographers have a unique opportunity to be perched on the front line. Now, this is where photographers, especially professionals, do best here. I'm fully expecting to see folks like the good folks over at VII or Magnum or wherever to come out with a host of images from the recent Embassy attacks and the recent violent uprisings. Unfortunately (and I say that because I do not like war of any kind) there will be photographic heroes coming out of this. This is the kind of thing that can make a photographers career even brighter. (In the "gosh, I hope he's safe!" department, one has to wonder where James Nachtwey is right about now.) These people, I don't think of their careers as being threatened in any way, in fact quite the opposite. I think they are being called upon to do more here. If anything, the 24x7 news media is upping the game for them, and there is now more demand for these type of images than ever before.
If you study the history of photography, and I mean study the actual history here, not just what was recorded in the books, but take a good hard look at the work and the photographers over time, there have always been "periods" of photography, cycles if you will. Sometimes, fashion photography was out in front, with those folks making the most money. Other times? Man, they couldn't get arrested if they stood out in the square naked. Likewise, photojournalism has it's ups and downs. And, what about fine art? Oh, don't even get me started on fine art. There have been times when fine art photographer was deader than a doorknob and other times when you could just put a price on a frame and get some money for it (without even supplying a quality image.)
I think we're seeing a shift in the cycles yet again, brought on in part by the advances in gear (stuff like the iPhone) but also brought on by the way things just, well, change. For example, historic prints are at record prices (try buying an Ansel Adams these days. Heck anything famous will set you back over a million dollars. A million dollars! And they say photography is dead. Ppppft!) No, what I see happening is photojournalists are doing more and called upon more, the fine art market is doing quite well for those well-established artists, and there is a lot of fragmentation and chaos as the rest of the lot try to sort out what the latest iPad announcement is going to mean for the kids in the hall. The bottom line here is that I think, for the traditional photographer, one who maybe shoots portraits at your local mall, yes, maybe photography is dead, but images and the photography business aren't going anyplace anytime soon. There are a lot of new trends, a lot of new happenings, and, I'm sure, a lot of new things will emerge out the other side of all of these changes. New things will happen, photographers will use tools in new ways and, yes, even some new, never thought of photographers will emerge from this chaos. The lathe of the heavens, the spin of technology turns yet again to make something new, just as seasons change and fashions get replaced, so too does photography morph into something new against the whims of society.
To put it another way, photography is not dead, it just smells funny. Maybe the traditional photographer is a lost breed, but we look at, share, and enjoy more images now than ever. Images are setting record prices at auction houses, galleries are staying afloat, and we still have a host of magazines, newspapers, and the like, most of which are now available for download to new devices. So, bottom line? I don't think photography is dead, but maybe it's changing and these changes might kill off what's left of any kind of "traditional" photographer. That's kind of the way things are though, I mean, it's an adapt or die type of world and so you have to do your best to keep up with the changes if you want to play in it. It's really no different from the changes facing many other fields and we owe it to ourselves to look ahead while trying to keep up (in order to avoid being left behind.)
Until next time...