Sunday, November 03, 2013

Picture This: The End of Photography

It's over. Photography is dead. You heard it here first.

Actually, you might have heard about this three years ago if you attended the symposium "Is Photography Over?" in April 2010 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On the Canon Digital Photography Forums the death of photography was announced in February of 2012. In May 2013 the Small Camera Big Picture blog asked the question: "Is Professional Photography Dead?"

Aaron Lindberg starts his September 2, 2013 fstoppers article with the same question. In response to the growing army of photographers lamenting the end of their professional craft at the hands of wannabe photogs armed with $800 Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras, Lindberg ultimately implores pros to "take down a large client you never thought you could" as a way for professionals to stay successful in the business.

Really? I can do that?

The signs of the demise of photography are evident. Eastman Kodak Co. announced this week that it's stock would start trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Emerging from bankruptcy the venerable photo company heralded their phoenix rising with a shiny new business model as a "global technology company offering breakthrough solutions and professional services in the packaging, graphic communications and functional printing markets."

Perhaps the end of photography is at hand.

Looking at the data it would seem the death of photography has been greatly exaggerated.

In an ABC News piece on digital photography aired in October, John Donvan reported 850 billion photos are taken every year now. Check this Overgram infographic for more on the history of photography and some data on the increase of the number of pictures taken throughout the years.

Perhaps it is the end of professional photography we're talking about here. 

The LittleBirdLittleBee says that Lindberg is wrong. "I think photography is a cassette tape" says Little Bee. "And it's had it's day. I think I bailed at the exact right time. I am thankful every day that I'm not still pushing against that tide."

Armstrong Redwoods State Park
It feels a bit like the pros are doing a lot of griping while the rest of us are having a field day with our smart phones and cheap DSLR cameras that take amazing pictures with very little training, technical skills, or artistic ability.

Life on Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook couldn't be any better for us amateurs.

Back at the SFMOMA 2010 symposium you will hear a lot of discussion about the end of the art of photography. With so much digital photography and all the ways in which we consume it, some are asking why should museums present photography as an art form any more?

Panelists devote quite a lot of their discussion to the history of photography and they raise questions about whether photography can be considered an art form today given the nature of the field in relation to the changes in technology and the expansion of high quality camera equipment to the masses.

Some of the most interesting discussion centered on what photographers did with their cameras and the types of images they created in the early days. This was a visual art form more than 60 years before Photoshop.

Melies colorized "Trip To The Moon"
Much of the debate looked at the intersection between film, video, and photography and how the lines are being blurred as the new technology allows for both video and still photography even on your own smart phone.

The 2011 Martin Scorsese film Hugo brought one of the great artist to light for a new generation. George Méliés's films were more photographic art then they were movies. His film images were created using large art pieces he created and arranged with his actors in front of his camera.

Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov is another early filmmaker who worked visual magic with his camera. Blurring the lines between documentary and propaganda for his Communist backers, Vertov also tried to create films built on fantastic photographic imagry -- more as art than narrative film.

Let's be realistic about this. In today's world photography has changed. For the better, and for some, it's for the worse. I know photographers who spent more than 20 years in the craft who gave it all up and never looked back. I know filmmakers who never learned non-linear digital editing and became unemployable almost over night.

Does that mean we are talking about the end of photography as an art form AND the end of professional photography as we know it?

I believe the debate is still going on these questions.

What is true is that the way we create, manipulate, and consume imagery is changing before our very eyes. Literally. Some of this change in technology is based on the needs and wants of the consumer.

When my son was born digital photography was in its infancy. The first consumer level digital camera capable of connecting to a personal computer came out the year before he was born. This was about ten years before YouTube was created so people were not easily posting videos online.

However, the ability to capture still frames from video recordings made it possible for me to capture these images and post them on the web as part of a site I called "Noah on the Net."

Not the most amazing quality when it comes to today's standards but the wow factor of putting pictures online for family and friends far and wide was pretty high.

In fact, I continued to create digital photo collages for many years and began sending them to mailings lists that grew and became too difficult to manage. It's not surprising that this is one of the most popular aspects of social networking today. According to Overgram, 70% of Facebook activity is based on photography. That's 70% of more than one billion users!

Let's get back to photography . . . or the end of it anyway. 

I wrote about the end of Kodachrome in 2011 when Kodak assigned National Geographic Photographer Steve McCurry to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome. That was two and a half years and about three trillion photographs ago.

It's clear to me that photography is booming. It's changing but it's not dying.

It's never been a better time for photographers who want to practice their craft. For me, digital photography expanded my opportunities to capture my family history and daily fun in life. But it's also provided an amazing opportunity to be a National Geographic photographer. I took this picture in November 2008 which was selected as part of the Daily Dozen for the Your Shot competition.

So go ahead and smile. Photography is not over and you might just need to take a selfie because your Facebook cover photo needs updating.