PHO­TOG­RA­PHY IS DEAD

Camera - - CONTENTS - paul bur­rows, ed­i­tor

THOUGHT THAT HEAD­LINE MIGHT GRAB your at­ten­tion. The dec­la­ra­tion was made re­cently by the ac­claimed film direc­tor Wim Wen­ders (who is also a keen pho­tog­ra­pher) at the open­ing of an ex­hi­bi­tion of his lat­est Po­laroid prints. Wen­ders points the fin­ger of blame firmly at the cam­era phone.

In a short video in­ter­view posted on the BBC News Web­site, he ob­serves, “We’re all tak­ing bil­lions of pic­tures so pho­tog­ra­phy is more alive than ever, and at the same time it’s more dead than ever.

“The trou­ble with iPhone pic­tures is no­body sees them. Even the peo­ple who take them don’t look at them any­more, and they cer­tainly don’t make prints.”

If you’re a reg­u­lar reader of this mag­a­zine, you’ll know that I’ve dis­cussed this topic here on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions over the last year be­cause it’s se­ri­ous now, and only go­ing to get worse in the near fu­ture if some­thing isn’t done. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that pho­tog­ra­phy is dead, but it’s def­i­nitely on the stretcher, in pain and head­ing for the am­bu­lance. The con­ve­nience fac­tor of the cam­era phone is un­de­ni­able, but it’s ac­tu­ally too con­ve­nient, which has had the ef­fect of de­valu­ing pho­tog­ra­phy so no­body cares what hap­pens to the im­ages ten sec­onds af­ter they’ve been taken. So, OK some get shared via so­cial, but their life­span is still fleet­ingly short and the world quickly moves onto the next post.

The real tragedy here is that the cam­era in­dus­try has just let it hap­pen. As sales of dig­i­tal com­pact cam­eras plum­meted, there was only col­lec­tive hand-wring­ing, but no pos­i­tive re­sponse. A once-thriv­ing sec­tor of the in­dus­try was meekly handed over to Ap­ple with a shrug and a re­signed ‘Oh, well…”.

What’s more, we’re al­low­ing it to be classed as pho­tog­ra­phy… no, wait… cre­ative pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause some fancy apps can per­form all man­ner of vis­ual jig­gery-pok­ery. Ye gods!

Com­ments Wen­ders, “I know from ex­pe­ri­ence that the less you have, the more cre­ative you have to be­come. Maybe it’s not nec­es­sar­ily a sign of cre­ativ­ity that you can turn ev­ery pic­ture into its op­po­site.

“Pho­tog­ra­phy was in­vented to be some sort of more truth­ful tes­ti­mony of our world than painting. It’s not re­ally linked to the no­tion of truth any­more. Peo­ple look at pho­tographs and think some­thing’s done to them.”

In other words, the whole medium is in dan­ger of be­ing tarred with the same brush, which should re­ally an­noy you if your ap­proach to cre­ative pho­tog­ra­phy is the no-pain-no-gain one. Up be­fore dawn. Out in the cold or wet. Wait­ing, wait­ing, wait­ing. Get it right in the cam­era.

There are some signs that the cam­era in­dus­try is fight­ing back, pro­mot­ing cer­tain mod­els as the next step up from the smart­phone, but we’re go­ing to have to do a whole lot bet­ter than, for ex­am­ple, sim­ply mak­ing it eas­ier to take self­ies. We have to some­how get back to the value of a pho­to­graph as a record, a mo­mento, a mem­ory, a unique piece of our own per­sonal his­to­ries. Does this value come from hav­ing to in­vest more in the cre­ation process? It would seem this is one of the fac­tors be­hind the phe­nom­e­nal re­vival of vinyl records (and now au­dio cas­settes too), along with the tan­gi­ble as­pects of a “phys­i­cal for­mat”.

The owner of Aus­tralia’s sole press­ing plant for vinyl says. “Vinyl records are like books. There’s some­thing about the time­less­ness of it”.

Ah, re­mem­ber “The Book Is Dead” head­line of a decade or so ago? Well, the book pub­lish­ers did some­thing about it, cre­at­ing more ap­peal­ing prod­ucts which the elec­tronic medium just could not match vis­ually and cer­tainly not as a tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ence. Now e-book sales are in slow de­cline (hav­ing only ever reached 20 per­cent of the to­tal) while the printed ver­sions are more pop­u­lar than ever. The irony is that the dig­i­tal imag­ing tech­nolo­gies pro­vide many more ways to print pho­tographs, but lit­tle is be­ing done to pro­mote the prac­tice to a wider mar­ket. Even more ironic is that the most photo print­ing be­ing done right now is via the in­stant film prod­ucts… as it hap­pens, Wim Wen­ders’s favourite medium. This sug­gests that the de­sire for a phys­i­cal print def­i­nitely ex­ists, but the chal­lenge is how to take it fur­ther via more uni­ver­sally ap­peal­ing pro­cesses so “… there’s real value in hold­ing it and plac­ing it some­where spe­cial in your house”.

That last quote was ac­tu­ally made in ref­er­ence to vinyl records, but it’s ex­actly what we should be aim­ing for in pho­tog­ra­phy too. I firmly be­lieve the print is the key to es­tab­lish­ing a clearly demon­stra­ble point of dif­fer­ence be­tween pho­tog­ra­phy and snap­ping with a cam­era phone… and it’s also the key to re-es­tab­lish­ing the value of a pho­to­graph, if only via tan­gi­bil­ity. And, in the process, we also need to add value to the word “pho­tog­ra­phy” it­self, by be­com­ing a lot stricter in defin­ing what it is and most def­i­nitely isn’t.

Wim Wen­ders has an opin­ion on self­ies, for ex­am­ple, “I take self­ies my­self, of course, but it’s not pho­tog­ra­phy. Look­ing into a mir­ror is not an act of pho­tog­ra­phy.”

And he doesn’t want cam­era phones in­volved at all so, he con­cludes, “I’m in search of a new word for this new ac­tiv­ity that looks so much like pho­tog­ra­phy, but isn’t pho­tog­ra­phy any­more”.

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