PHOTOGRAPHY IS DEAD
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”.