It’s a question I am often asked, and I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to answer. I used to have no hesitation saying ‘yes’, and I still take pictures quite a bit, so why the problem?
It’s partly that so many people take, share and publish photographs, so that what was once a particular, identity-forming activity has become something mundane. It used to be a little odd to feel the need to take photographs every day, but now lots of people do that. If everyone is a photographer, then no-one is a photographer.
Many of the old concerns and habits of the photographer have been eroded. Think of fiddling with dials to set aperture and shutter speed, worrying about depth of field, hyperfocal settings, swapping lenses and camera bodies, or even hoarding and cataloguing physical images—negatives and slides and prints. These practices were made a part of photographers through repeated bodily actions, particular to the medium: how much are you prepared to carry? Where and how? Do you conceal your equipment? Many of those preoccupations and habits are hardly necessary any more. The evolving innovations of digital photography read like a wish-list of the enthusiasts of the analogue generation: sophisticated auto-focus, variable and auto-ISO, inbuilt colour correction, instant review. They were experienced as a release from restrictions but also as an increasing number of skills being made redundant: the automation of tasks that once needed knowledge, consideration and care.
The most extraordinary effect is the rise in the quality of snapshots. Over a century ago, Kodak famously proclaimed ‘You press the shutter, and we do the rest’, but ‘the rest’ often produced disappointing results. Now, with a compact camera or phone, people can make competent pictures most of the time, even in circumstances that would have once seriously tested professionals. Better still, they can immediately see their results and make adjustments accordingly. I know photojournalists who feel technically deskilled by the iPhone, and use it for their work with an ambivalent feeling of liberation and surrender. Amid the mass production of decent technical images, the figure of the photographer begins to fade.
For professionals, of course, the consequences have often been dire. It is no accident that Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future?, his lament over the transfer of expertise to software, settled on the bankruptcy of Kodak as one of his key examples. The Chicago Sun-Times decision to no longer employ photojournalists is the latest marker in a long-term decline in the security of specialist photographic professions. Even the skilled fabricators of commercial propaganda come into competition with 3-D rendering programmes; here the old jibe against architects—that the building is an inconvenient stage between the plan and the photograph—is pushed a stage further: why go to the trouble of photographing an object when you can use the plan to make a convincing photo-fiction?
I never made much money out of photography, so my situation was different: each frame of film exposed was an economic sacrifice, an irrational expenditure in the illusory pursuit of artistic and subjective autonomy. So the effects on me, and on many amateurs, were less about money than about behaviour, sociability and aesthetics.
The peculiarity of the enthusiasm for analogue photography was quite a bit to do with the delay in seeing the results (except with Polaroid, which was far too expensive for habitual use). Images could not be immediately shared with subjects, and the photographer was often seen as a spy, an isolated observer, held apart from the social scene. The LCD screen on the back of the camera transformed this immediately, plunging most photographers into conviviality; and social media furthered the process.
Given that the timely stream of data in social media is as important as finished projects (wrapped up in the physical form of show or book), work can be shown in progress, in a flow which may never complete itself. Again, there is a liberation from the requirement to make a definitive statement, and a surrender to launching one’s images into a social context over which there is no possible control.
So much of what photographic enthusiasts thought made up a ‘good photograph’ was bound into technical considerations (and art-world photographers still generally defend their identity and distinction from the mass through a display of technical virtuosity carried to a standardised and thus absurd extreme). Since those technical virtues are increasingly within the reach of anyone with a moderately good camera or phone, and a vast torrent of competent photography is produced and shared—the billions of images displayed on social media—where does this leave the aesthetics of photography?
Amid this mass production, there is homogenisation and standardisation but also great variety, as if every aesthetic position was already filled. It becomes harder to judge images against such an overwhelming field. The effect is greatly exacerbated by the sheer number of images made and shared: complaints about photographic overload
go back at least to Lewis Mumford’s 1952 Art and Technics. He recommended ‘aristocratic’ restraint in the face of the over-production of ‘democratic’ images. With digital media, while cameras may be expensive, the extra cost of taking more images is truly tiny—a barely noticeable increase in your electricity bill. The multitude of images is much harder judge against each other since they all have a tendency to seem equally adequate. If you are looking for, say, five independent factors of judgement in a set of images (for example, the facial expressions of two people, the position of a passerby, the focus and the exposure) then for each picture added to the sequence, the number of factors to be judged across the series increases exponentially. For three pictures it is 125 (5x5x5). For fifteen pictures, it is over 30 billion. The increase fast outruns the limits of human attention.
This effect is scalable. Demarcations that are drawn around a group of images are not hard and fast, and depend upon viewers’ perspectives and purposes. For a picture editor, a group may be the pictures that depict a particular event, or even a particular moment during that event. For others, it may take in a far broader ambit—and at some historical distance, even an entire period. So the increased number of images has consequences for how we judge them, and how we pick out the exceptional (if we do).
So, am I still a photographer? Or, come to that, a critic of photography? I should probably confess to using a digital camera with traditional dials for setting aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. I still like the restrictions imposed by a fixed lens. So some of those old bodily, behavioural and technical habits survive, and may mark me out as a specialist (or an eccentric). But perhaps they are no more than signs of mental rigidity on my part, of holding onto the illusion of the exceptional, aesthetic and autonomous self.
It is not only harder to say whether or not you are a photographer, but harder to say where the lines lie between professional, social or artistic work. As the divides between these areas increasingly blur, so it is harder to assign a picture to one realm or the other. Fatal pressure is applied to the ideology of artistic autonomy, and with it the autonomy of the individual. If we are all artists, then none of us are.
Published on 1 July 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks