Volume 10 • Number 1 • March, 2017
The Sky is Falling!
The Sky is Falling!
by Huntington Witherill
The sky is falling!
There appears to be a growing faction of concerned photographers out there who are convinced that the photographic medium is, once again, in the midst of revolutionary upheaval.
In what is being predicted to be a fundamental paradigm shift in the medium, itself, proponents warn that anticipated changes will cause the core principles – those that form the very basis of our long standing perceptions about what photography is and how it is practiced – to become culturally and functionally irrelevant, and as such, no longer applicable. Some even speculate that photography, as we know it, may well be in jeopardy of disappearing altogether. Is the sky really falling... again?
Among the reasons cited as being at the forefront of the impending sea change is the ease with which technical acuity can now be accomplished through the use of digital tools and materials. Yes... I know. This sounds a lot like the old conventional vs. digital arguments we've been hearing for years now, coming from a small group of film photographers primarily focused on the mechanics of the medium. The twist, here, is that this current doomsday scenario is being trumpeted by, among others, some digital photographers, themselves.
Apparently, for some practitioners, the fact that digital cameras and software can now facilite the ability for most anyone to easily produce a clear and sharp photographic record – that reality appears to pose a threat to their aesthetic livelihood. The upshot being that because virtually anyone can now produce a technically competent picture with relative ease, the overall meaning and value of photography have been somehow diluted and diminished. And, as proof of this they point to the fact that there are now, literally, millions upon millions of digital camera owners tethered to various social media websites, posting countless technically competent (though aesthetically vacuous) pictures for the world to see. Oh, the humanity!
According to proponents of the pending implosion, when it was harder to achieve a sharp and tonally clear photograph, and there were far fewer individuals able to do so because the tools and materials were less easily controlled back in the old days, there was a particular form of importance and special meaning to photography that (presumably) no longer exists because virtually anyone can now produce a picture that is technically sound. So let me be sure I understand this correctly. Because anyone can now potentially produce a sharp picture with little effort, the very meaning of the photograph, itself (beyond its mere technical prowess) is soon to be rendered as culturally and functionally irrelevant, and by extension, obsolete? Really?
Would I be going out on a limb to suggest here that technique is, once again, being confused with aesthetics?
Since when was a sharp and/or tonally clear picture considered to be the over-riding prerequisite for any truly meaningful photograph? Yes, the ubiquitous rise in popularity of (and ease of access to) the medium, itself – in response to the advent of digital tools and materials – is undeniable. Yet, with a sharp increase in both "good" and "bad" photographs (not to mention, a significant increase in the number of individuals who now vicariously perceive themselves to be serious photographers), I fail to understand how that equates to the pending demise of the medium, as we know it.
Acts of creative self-expression which have been practiced by artists throughout the ages (regardless their chosen medium) have always had very little, if anything, to do with the relative ease or difficulty encountered in achieving reliable technical proficiency.
Hopefully, and not to be too blasé about this, when it comes to photography, I continue to think it's still reasonably important (actually, downright crucial) precisely where you point your camera, and at what point (in time) you choose to trip the shutter. I have yet to see a camera that is self-pointing and specifically pre-programmed in terms of when the shutter is activated. Of course, I suppose that anything is potentially possible, though that self-pointing feature is likely to remain a pretty tough nut to crack.
The camera is just a tool. It is the artist's purposefully honed decision-making process that potentially creates meaningful art. Tools may help to facilitate meaningful art, but they most certainly do not create meaningful art. If you doubt this, set your camera on a shelf for a couple of days and see what transpires. What you'll quickly discover is that the only thing your camera is uniquely adept at is... occupying shelf space!
Clearly, both good and bad photographs are now far more ubiquitous than they used to be. No argument there. And, admittedly, if you peruse the Internet to excess, you might very well come to the conclusion that virtually all of the "photography" being produced in this day and age is downright sub-standard. (And of course, the fact is that most of it – most assuredly – is indeed sub-standard!) That's the way it's always been. Bad art has always outpaced good art, by a considerable margin. Is it possible that a steady diet of repetitive exposure to this kind of negativity leads to overall negative perceptions of life in general?
Just because there appear to be a lot of unknowing individuals on the Internet who might characterize themselves as being photographers – simply because they own a modern camera and are able to post a sharp picture while gathering "likes" and "dislikes" from like-minded individuals on social media websites – that does nothing to address, let alone acknowledge, the overwhelming importance and ongoing relevance of the photographic medium as a means to achieve bona-fide artistic self-expression. Achieving that potentially effective visual communication through the application of years of dedication, personal exploration, aesthetic discovery, and spiritual awakening remains a unique and highly relevant pursuit.
There is a significant and relevant difference between the two extremes. And that difference is no less applicable (nor less relevant) today than it was fifty years ago. Yes, the sheer numbers are on the rise. Yet, I continue to believe that the relative percentages (good versus bad photographs, as it were) remain virtually the same. You can rest assured that truly meaningful photographs have not suddenly become the purview of any neophyte who happens to own a camera. In the overall scheme of things, truly great photographs continue to be as relatively rare as they have always been. Admittedly, strictly in terms of sheer numbers, just as with the sea of "bad" photographs being currently produced on a daily basis, there are also far greater numbers of "good" photographs being produced than there used to be. Isn't that a good thing? Is not the greater good precisely what we humans endeavor to aspire to?
Now, I would admit that because the act of posting pictures on the Internet has become such a routine practice, the act itself has been significantly obscured and diluted to the point of being far less attention grabbing than it used to be. So what? Surely that doesn't warrant the demise of the medium, as we know it. Technical prowess and artistic merit are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they, even remotely, mutually assured.
Those who regularly read this newsletter may recall that, not too long ago, I posted an article titled: The Trivialization of Photography in which I suggested that photography, despite ongoing ruminations of its pending trivialization, has steadfastly allowed me to continually learn more and more about myself and more about the world in which I live, and that it has taught me more of life’s lessons than any other pursuit I’ve engaged. I also suggested that photography has allowed me to better utilize acts of visualization, thereby allowing me to more keenly observe, reflect upon, and ultimately to connect with, the essence of that which goes on in the world around me. In short, my life has become far more personally satisfying, meaningful, instructive, fulfilling, and rewarding as a result of having spent so much time observing the world through the eye of a camera. Those highly germane attributes of photography (the core principles of fine art photography, in my opinion) certainly have nothing to do with how easy (or difficult) it may have been to acquire a technically competent picture. And those attributes most assuredly have nothing to do with what anyone else might choose to do with their own pursuits. As such, the important attributes and objectives of fine art photography that I suggest, herein, remain no less relevant today than they were fifty or even a hundred years ago.
I have always considered fine art photography (or any other form of potentially expressive artistic medium) to be ultimately about the process of using one's chosen approach as a means to achieve the realization of personal fulfillment through passion, dedication, self-awakening, self-discovery, self-improvement, self-actualization, and (hopefully) an overall sense of well being and spiritual enlightenment. And frankly, none of that has anything to do with the ease with which technical proficiency can be acquired in any specific artistic medium. Nor does it have anything to do with the unknowing masses who may or may not erroneously perceive themselves to be traveling a similar path.
The value, meaning, relevance, and reward of a life spent pursuing artistic self-expression (in this case through photography) is of course not about the destination. Artistic self-expression is all about the individual journey. It's about your own personal journey as a photographer and as an artist. What the rest of humanity may or may not be doing is simply not a part of that equation.
I think photographer and writer, Guy Tal, expressed the above sentiments both succinctly and eloquently with his turn of phrase: The greatest reward for a creative life is not in what you create, but in how you live.
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Photography (as we know it) is very much alive and well. The ongoing pursuit of a creative life through application of the photographic medium, as we know it, continues to remain a well-rooted and solidly anchored endeavor. You can rest assured that it will not be so easily supplanted.