Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Photography isn’t dying, it’s evolving

I’ve been aware of a few articles, blog posts and online discussions recently that amount to a kind of a debate on the future of photography, probably best summed up by this from the Guardian: “The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an artform?

Smartphones cameras

Smartphones cameras

I’ll resist my initial instinct to simply reply “no, don’t be ridiculous…” as I think that some of my recent reading around the history of photography has helped me to put debates like this into some kind of context, and in doing so can help me to better understand the present.

Simplifying the argument presented: the ubiquity of the equipment needed to take photographs (the mobile phone) is leading to a degradation in photography as a profession and/or as an art form (the emphasis depends on whose view you’re reading). As the Guardian subhead has it, “we’re drowning in images”.

But does this ubiquity mean that photography is “dying”? Of course not. It’s clearly changing, but it’s not dying by any means. It’s been changing since it was invented, and it will continue to do so, but it’s never going to die.

History lessons

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

This is where it’s useful to examine the present through the lens of the past. I’ve recently read Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1931 work (well, the 1972 English translation) “A Short History of Photography”[1]. At the time of his writing, photography had been in existence for less than a century. It probably felt like a very long time from that standpoint, and so maybe felt like a fairly mature art form. He refers to the “rise and fall of photography” and makes the bold statement that “the prime of photography occurred in its first decade“. And yet from the 21st century point of view, such a statement is ludicrous.

Intrigued by this notion of how change impacts photography, I got an excellent book called “100 Ideas That Changed Photography” by Mary Warner Marien [2]. The ‘ideas’ covered in the book range from technical innovations (such as the lens and the shutter – it’s pretty mind-blowing to think that these weren’t always present) to more conceptual developments in how photography is used. One can imagine that for many of these innovations, a portion of the photographic population would proclaim loudly that the end is nigh: “35mm / colour / Polaroid / digital / smartphones / Instagram* will be the death of photography!!” (* delete as applicable…)

Taking the long view, such premature death knells can be seen for what they are. Photography has survived – flourished! – after each of these seemingly cataclysmic changes in the past. The uses of the medium are expanding and evolving, but that doesn’t detract from its existing uses. How anyone can predict that the use of smartphone cameras will somehow affect photography as an art form is beyond me.

Evolving into new uses

Get beyond the doom-mongering and what is genuinely fascinating about the current phase of photographic culture is that a new category of use is evolving. Photography has a number of applications, e.g. as art; as social record; as evidence; etc. What’s emerging with the camera phone generation is that a photograph can now be communication in and of itself. The ubiquity of the tool for capturing, sending and receiving images means that an image needn’t be a cherished memory of a particular event, it can be a transient piece of (visual) information that effectively performs the function previously monopolised by text.

Snapchat

Snapchat

The democratisation of technology means that instead of texting a mate to tell them you went to a great gig last night, you can send a photo of it as it happens. The image is the message – made, sent, received, understood, discarded. Snapchat, one of the big tech success stories of 2013, is built around this premise of self-destructing images. Other online giants like Instagram and Twitter are beefing up their private messaging services, recognising that photo-as-message is a huge growth area. This evolution of the one-to-one photo message is lagging only slightly behind the phenomenon of sharing/broadcasting (think Facebook) that inspired the ‘death of photography’ debate at the top of this post.

Maybe the best analogy is that the current glut of images is like society has just invented postcards. Postcards didn’t kill off the letter, just like magazines didn’t kill off the book, just like the printing press didn’t kill off handwriting. The fact that a new type of image has been invented – throwaway, instantly made and shared – isn’t a bad thing. And it’s certainly not going to stop great photographers with a genuine mastery of their craft continuing to create beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, shocking images. Quantity does not prevent quality. Cream rises!

1. Benjamin, W. 1931. A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
2. Warner Marien, M. 2012. 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King 


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The Photographer’s Eye and The Photograph

My first full week as a photography student and I’m away from home all week, without DSLR and coursework folder. So the practical exercises won’t be starting just yet. Ever one to make the best of the situation, I decided I could use the time at stations and airports and on trains and planes by at least getting some reading done!

I’m unlikely to blog this level of analysis on everything I read, but I’d like to get down my thoughts at this early stage, as a snapshot of my current level of understanding and appreciation. Then I can come back to this in x months/years and see if I’ve learned anything. Maybe my future self will be embarrassed by my ignorance, maybe I’ll decide I had it all nailed from the start…

I’ve been reading:

  • Freeman, M. (2011) The photographer’s eye. Digital edition. Lewes: Ilex Press
  • Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press

The Freeman book I’m actually re-reading, as I first got it last year – before I knew he was the OCA TAoP course author. This is very much the more accessible of the two, as it looks at photography – as the title suggests – from the point of view of the practitioner. It deconstructs photographic composition into a series of linked facets (the frame, basics of design, graphic elements, light, colour, intent and process). These facets are all illustrated with clear examples (interactive examples in the case of the digital edition) that certainly clarify the point being made – although in many cases it’s not immediately clear yet how to put the concepts to use in one’s own photography… I guess if we knew that, we’d all be writing photography books. But it’s a very instructive and enlightening book, and it bears re-reading.

The Clarke book is another kettle of fish. It’s subject is the photograph itself, not so much from the photographer’s point of view but from the viewer’s – or, as he prefers it, the reader‘s. It’s concerned with the analysis, critique, interpretation and appreciation of the photograph, and places the photograph as art in a historical and cultural context. I’m finding this a little more heavy-going. A bit more, well, scholarly. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far (What is a photograph? and How to read a photograph) and I’m finding it mostly fascinating but occasionally a little pretentious. Maybe I’m still naive as a student of the arts.

I’ve gone back to review the snippets I underlined from the first chapter, on the basic definition of the photograph. Here’s a few that resonated with me:

  • “The photograph […] speaks very much to a sense of power in the way we seek to order and construct the world around us”
  • “… the photograph’s dual status as simultaneously both object and image”
  • “The photograph has a multiple existence which informs its multiple meanings”
  • There is a summary of six aspects of the structure of photographic discourse: size, format, editing/ordering, surface, authenticity and time
  • The photograph is “in the end, a sealed world to which we bring meaning; a complex play of presence and absence”

I found the chapter on ‘reading the photograph’ to be a little more troublesome. Not totally impenetrable by any means, but it did lose me once or twice, it has to be said. The words Clarke uses most often to describe photographic reading are “problematic”, “ambiguity” and “complexity”. Three pairs of example photographs are given from Diane Arbus, Matthew Brady and Lee Friedlander, and in each case I ‘got’ the analysis of one much more than the other. Either a coincidence or a deliberate tactic on the part of the author? Who knows.

I understood – and found highly interesting – the process by which one can read a photograph rather than simply view it; to identify points of entry that allow a deeper interpretation, and to continue analysing to get a better idea of the message the photographer was trying to get across. I think my issue is that you can only ever get an idea of the photographer’s intent. And some of the interpretations placed on the examples given seemed to stretch the imagination somewhat.

I get that Arbus’s Identical Twins (1967) is actually a study of identity and difference not surface similarity; but I struggle with the assertion that it is “a visual essay on the nature of photographic meaning”. On the other hand, maybe ‘intent’ doesn’t need to mean conscious intent, and the fact that (e.g.) the slanted path in some way represents Arbus’s askance world view is something that she herself wasn’t aware of when pressing the shutter. Again, who knows? The second Arbus example, A Family On Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York (1969) is in my opinion easier to read, as the themes and symbolism seem a more deliberate commentary on the society it depicts.

Albuquerque (1972), Lee Friedlander

I found the Friedlander example Albuquerque (1972) less satisfying in terms of its ‘reading’. While I do agree with the “lasting impression of emptiness” given by the absence of people (emphasised by the solo dog, obediently sitting), I have to say that I don’t yet see “a distinctive statement about contemporary America” or that it “gluts the eye with images of implied communication”. Maybe I’m still something of a philistine, but the explanation that “Friedlander’s photographs are deliberately difficult to read, indeed, they make difficulty basic to their meaning as part of a larger critical process” seems to me to be a little ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. So, the significance is that it’s hard to make out the significance? (I will revisit my opinion on this later in the course, to see if my appreciation of his style has changed…).

Anyway, to reiterate, I am finding the Clarke book genuinely fascinating. It makes my brain hurt a bit, and I find myself re-reading some passages, but that’s good, right?