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?”
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.
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”. 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 . 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.
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