This article probably makes me sound more like a jaded, pretentious, and bitter old man who still remembers using glass negatives than a twenty year old college student, but the field of photography has changed dramatically over even the last 10 years, and I’m not sure I like where it’s going.
I say ten years because that’s about when the Nikon D1– the first “affordable” digital SLR– came out, and digital photography started its slow but exponential take-off. But we don’t even have to go that far back; let’s just go back 5 years to my freshman year in high school. At this point, when I started photography, we had a decent darkroom setup with about 30 enlargers, as well as rolling rooms, a developing room, and a color darkroom for the “advanced” students. There wasn’t even a computer in sight. Now jump ahead to my junior year, 3 years ago. The school bought a mac and an Epson 4800, and opened up a digital photography class. Most people were still working with film, but the change was happening.
Now jump ahead to the present. A few months ago, I went back and visited the school, only to find the photo department in the middle of some remodeling. They were taking out the darkroom, leaving only one enlarger for the truly hardcore, and replacing the enlargers in all of the other slots with computers. One of the few places new photographers still had the opportunity to get their hands dirty with real film and real, careful, developing processes was going out of business.
Some might argue the rise of digital photography has helped make “photography” more easily accessible to everyone, but I don’t think this is true. I think it has just given more people the ability to “take pictures.” You would be hard pressed to find someone coming out of my high school’s photography program now who even knows how to manually focus a camera, or who takes the time to carefully adjust the composition and exposure of his photograph in the field because he will be able to so easily just “photoshop it” later. In making this diluted, snapshot form of photography so easily accessible, I think the rise of digital has drastically lowered public appreciation for the work of truly talented photographers.
Back in the “good old days,” I think it was fairly common to think of Ansel Adams as a skilled and masterful artist. Now, when I go to a photo gallery with my friends, the contemporary photographer on display might have taken some nice photos, but most of my friends “could have taken that same photo if they were just there and had a better camera.” Things like Photoshop filters have enabled them to make even their poorly executed photos look neat. So now, rather than simply appreciating the time and effort the other photographer has put into his work, they sit around stroking their egos, trying to convince themselves that the photographer isn’t all that great and that they could have done better. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at some examples from flickr.
Here are two photos which I believe are really beautiful. At the time of this writing, one had 19 views, 5 comments, and 2 favorites. The other had 7 views and 3 comments, one of which was my own.
In short, that’s real photography that took time and effort, and might not actually be so easy to duplicate; i.e. my friends probably couldn’t have taken them. And people don’t like these.
Now here are some examples of, simply put, bad photography that people love.
That is a ridiculously over-processed image with nothing of interest going on, so it is probably true that anyone could have taken this photo. It has 104 views, 19 comments, and 3 favorites.
Another uninteresting, easily reproducible photo. 44 views, 25 comments, 1 favorite.
It almost seems like photography has lost its status as an art (I would guarantee that “art” galleries outnumber photography galleries at least 5:1). Professionalism no longer seems to have any value. Rather, people seem to seek out amateur qualities in artwork so they can comment on how they could have done better. Sadly, true beauty means nothing when competing with self-interest and narcissism.
Photography is, without a doubt, changing right now. It’s just not clear whether it will become something new and amazing or merely a shadow of its former self.