A mini project photographing animal skulls.
Again, it would appear to be the case that cheating in Photo competitions just isn’t worth it. First, it was the World Press Photo winner, now it’s the Sony World Photography Awards — Youth Award. The message should be clear by now. Cheat and you will be found out.
According to a report by Photocritic, the winner of the Culture category in the Youth World Photography Awards, Borhan Mardani was disqualified due to lying about the age he was when he took the award-winning photograph.
I’m a photographer, but I don’t know everything.
A facebook acquaintance posted the following underneath a photo he had taken in the market in Canterbury.
“This old guy makes me smile. Every week he’s down the market trying to take photos with his old-school camera in his beaten-up satchel. He spends hours just hanging about playing with his camera.”
The accompanying photograph showed an elderly photographer squinting through the viewfinder of his camera, quite oblivious to the fact the he was, in turn, being photographed.
A conversation developed on facebook between the original poster and his friends, openly mocking the elderly gent for his poor camera, his ‘satchel’, his clothes and generally age.
Clearly photography, in the eyes of some, is purely a young man’s game and anyone who was retired should simply not be embarrassing themselves by being seen outside with a camera.
Putting aside what exactly constitutes an acceptable upper age limit on photography for these commentator’s, I was particularly interested in the photograph of the photographer and what it the comments said about the camera he was using.
All the comments were made by young men (under the age of 30) who considered themselves to be photographers. Many, according to their profiles were offering ‘professional’ photographic services of one sort or another and they clearly considered themselves to be knowledgeable about the subject.
Strange then, that not one of them could recognise a digital Leica or a Billingham bag. Not once, in the list of comments was the merest suggestion that this elderly gent might actually know what he doing, or accept that there might be a different approach to the subject than having a huge lens attached to a Canon or Nikon body.
This is snobbery of a sort, but snobbery based upon a combination of postmodernism and ignorance. As we have discovered, postmodernism as a theory rejects the idea that science and rationalism can lead to ‘truth’ about the social world we live in. This rejection leads directly to the view that no set of ideas or opinions are inherently superior to any other set of ideas. In other words your opinion is just as good as my opinion. While superficially attractive to some, it inevitably means that in a ‘balanced’ debate, knowledge and ignorance are considered peers.
As a theoretical approach to understanding the sociology of family life, perhaps postmodernism has a place, but when discussing the merits of a particular camera, this is simply the politics of the playground. My camera must be better than your camera because it is heavier/it is bigger/it’s a Nikon/it has more pixels. Combine this facile line in argument with almost total ignorance of the subject and you have a metaphor for the state of photography in the early twenty-first century. My camera must be better than your camera because I don’t even know what your camera is!
A photography student once asked me what I’d done over the weekend. When I told him that I’d been to a concert he asked the artist, then shrugged when he was told who I’d seen, ‘He can’t be famous, I’ve never heard of him’. This casual dismissal of the life work of Leonard Cohen is entirely typical of the attitude of a new generation of photographers (and so many others) whose world view seems to be framed by a series of very simple statements.
- I know enough
- Things that I don’t know aren’t worth knowing
- If they were worth knowing, I’d already know them
- Things that people have done before me are irrelevant to me
- Things that I don’t know are irrelevant to me
This general attitude to the unknown was summed up recently in another facebook post.
“Just been to the Tate modern for something to do and cause it was free lol. Anyway looked to see if there was any photography on display for a bit of inspiration and for new ideas. Well there was, ooo good I thought. Wtf some famous called Harry Callahan (no not the Clint Eastwood one) had a display of images that i walked round and just came out thinking eh am I missing something I see some amazing images on here from some cracking togs who are probs never going to be famous so how the ell did this guy make it. Totally baffled … Mind you I bet some peeps also walked round and thought the heating duct on display or the strip lights stuck on the walls also looked great. Hmph modern art wtf … Will go to the national portrait gallery next time lol”
Now, as this was a post on social media, not a formal essay, perhaps we can forgive the grammatical inaccuracies (lol (sic)), but the content seems to directly confirm my points above.
When I joined in, this was the reply;
“I dont understand why we need to know about the history of photography to make us into a better photographer of the present. Surely a knowledge of your equipment, processing techniques, and most importantly having an eye for a picture is whats required. Yes by all means look through old master togs images and read all about them (if you have the time) I wish i did (roll on retirement). Im sure it will give you something to think about but i dont have the time or inclination at this moment in my life. I like to follow modern day togs and enjoy the work of Joe Cornish as well as a few togs on this and other sites on here and flickr, and viewbug and 500pix and Landscape photographer, and portrait photographer etc, etc,”
It is, of course, everyone’s right to take this attitude, but going back to Plato and the allegory of the cave, those who live by the flickering flames and watch the dancing shadows for information are, perhaps, not the best judges of objectivity.
Of course, this sounds extremely elitist, but boils down to a question raised by the American satirist PJ O’Rourke in ‘Ruplublican Party Reptile’; is it better to be smart or dumb?
O’Rourke suggests that this isn’t as easy question to answer as it would appear. He argues that smart people don’t drop bombs on other people, but on the other hand dumb people can’t design or build bombs!
He eventually comes to the conclusion that smart is better, because, well, it’s the smarter option.
In a world where cameras (or at least the means to take photographs) are ubiquitous, it is perhaps no surprise that the average level of knowledge of photography among ‘photographers’ is less than it was a generation ago. As another commentator of facebooks put it, the ability to use a ten stop ND filter on a modern DSLR to photograph a bridge does not make you an artist. You might get a pleasing image, and all your facebook friends may well tell you that you’re great, but with modern technology, this is literally childsplay.
To dismiss a highly knowledgeable, innovative, and talented photographer such as Harry Callaghan (who was also a superb teacher who inspired generations of photography students with his work), with the perjorative expletive ‘wtf’, shows not only profound ignorance, but (again) the attitudes of the playground.
That something, such as a camera, actually works is seen as being far more important than the process that makes it work. In actuality, there aren’t many people who understand how something as simple and ubiquitous as a Light Emitting diode (LED) works and there is a vanishingly small percentage of people on the planet who actually understand the maths behind a mobile ‘phone, but these examples are orders of magnitude more technical than going to the trouble and effort of reading around the subject that you claim to be somewhat of an expert in.
A current (at the time of writing) quote attributed to the comedian Ricky Gervais comes to mind, ‘They say ignorance is bliss. This might be true for the ignorant, but for the rest of us, it’s a pain in the arse’.
More thoughts on postmodernism and photography.
McLuhan sees the media (of which photography is a part) as influencing reality. Baudrillard sees the media as a replacement of reality itself. It’s not that a particular photographer or photograph is postmodern, but that the media saturation of images creates alternative ‘realities’ that have less to do with the modernist ideal of objective truth than of popularity. Similarly, the ‘worth’ of a photographer is judged, not by professionalism, knowledge and competence, but by the hyper reality of banality and aggressive self-marketing that characterises much fashion and ‘deadpan’ photography.
The Post-modern world.
The comedian and activist, Mark Thomas, observed in his one-man play, Bravo Figaro, that in the 1970’s and 1980’s, while the political Left took on the right-wing politics of Margaret Thatcher, it left itself completely open to the undermining influence of postmodernism. In a few sentences, he effectively summed up the postmodern influence on politics and culture without explaining it at all. While the remark, in the ‘knowing’ environment of his show, caused a ripple of amusement (which was its intent), it neatly encapsulates the position of many. The term is in common usage, but very few can define what it actually means (although Thomas is clearly one of those few).
We live in a postmodern world, we’re often told – and nowhere is this more apparent than in photography. No longer do we accept the doctrine that ‘the camera never lies’. With modern technology, everything is suspect, every colour can be changed, every model can be ‘enhanced’ to help sell a product, every image can be ‘photo shopped’.
Postmodernism makes little sense without reference to the terms modernity and modernism, but again, there is little consensus about the definitions of these terms either. Rather there is a more or less, shared world view that unite modernists or postmodernists as groups. As such both terms are epistemological, concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge itself.
As Barker ( 87, 2003, Cultural Studies,SAGE, London) says, the concepts of modernism and postmodernism concern:
- “cultural formations and cultural experience, for example modernism as the cultural experience of modernity and postmodernism as a cultural sensibility associated with high, or post-modernity.
- Artistic and architectural styles and movements, that is modernism as a style of architecture (Le Corbusier) or writing (Joyce, Kafka, Brecht) and postmodernism in film (Blue Velvet, Bladerunner), photography (Cindy Sherman) or the novel (E.L. Dotctorow, Salman Rushdie).
- A set of philosophical and epistemological concerns and positions. That it, thinking about the character and knowledge of truth. Modernism is associated with the enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau and Bacon along with the socio-economic theory of Marx, Weber, Habermas and others. Postmodernism in philosophy has been associated with thinkers as diverse as Lytard, Baudrillard, Foucault, Rorty and Bauman, not all of whom would welcome the characterisation. In broad terms, enlightenment thought seeks after universal truths while postmodernism points to the socio-historical and linguistic specificity of ‘truth’.”
While useful in pointing out the problem, this account of the difference between modernism and postmodernism only begins to explain the two concepts.
Historian are often divide history into different ‘ages’, or as Marx suggested, ‘epochs’. Modernism, then is the historical period following the middle ages. Starting with the enlightenment, it developed in the period of the ‘twin revolutions’. Enlightenment thought is marked by the belief that Reason can demystify and illuminate the world, replacing religion and superstition. Human creativity, rationality and the march of scientific progress are a break with, and in stark contrast to, the traditional values of the middle ages.
The first of the above mentioned ‘twins’ was the emerging industrial revolution of the mid eighteenth century. Moving from the land to the town, there was a massive increase in productivity in Britain (the first of the new industrial nations) and a marked shift towards a capitalist mode of production based around the exchange of labour for money in the newly developing industries.
Instead of producing goods domestically for immediate use, there was a shift towards the production of mass consumer goods. Rather than productivity being based around the family unit (mainly in the countryside), production was arranged around a strict impersonal division of labour using industrial equipment.
The second ‘twin’ was the development of political and indeed revolutionary movements. The American war of independence in 1777 was followed by a quite different revolution in France in 1789. Britain, of course, had experienced its own civil war from 1642–1651, but harness to the industrial revolution here there was the feeling that real change in society was possible.
All around the established feudal system was being attacked or eroded. For the first time in century’s people began to believe that the established social order was neither innate, nor inevitable.
Giddens (1990) (Giddens, A. The consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge) provides an account of the development of modern modernism as having four aspects.
Firstly, the Industrial revolution transformed an a pre-industrial society with low productivity and zero growth rates into a society with high productivity and growth. As Hobsbawm points out (1969, Industry and Empire, Penguin, Harmondsworth) the population trebled and the value of economic production quadrupled in this period.
Secondly, Giddens introduced the concept of surveillance. The emerging industrial labour force was constrained into new, and quite foreign, work practises. Rather than the weather or the needs of the season determining the pace and nature of work, under industrialisation, the mechanisation and intensification of work under capitalism meant that work itself could be used as a means of exerting discipline and new working habits.
As Giddens puts it, “who says modernity say not just organizations, but organization – the regularized control of social relations across indefinite time-space distances.” (Giddens 1990,91) The term surveillance refers to the collection, storage and retrieval of information as well as the direct supervision of activities and the use of information to monitor populations. Under modernity, the population were put under and new and intense surveillance very different from that of pre-industrial societies.
In this aspect of modernity, the development of photography has proven itself to be a great tool of the industrial nation state. Recording of people and places greatly aides the process of surveillance in society, but used as a propaganda tool by the state, can be used to form and shape opinions and attitudes in society. Photography, in the hands of the makers of policy, becomes a powerful implement to form and reform beliefs about the nature of reality.
The third aspect of the development of modernity for Giddens was Capitalism itself. The processes of inquiry and innovation that capitalism brought with it were perhaps best summarised by Marx in the Communist Manifesto.
“Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive powers slumbered in the womb of social labour? (Marx and Engels, 1967, 12)
Modernity, through capitalism proved a highly dynamic force. In its desire (need) for new markets, new sources of profit, capitalism has effectively spread across the world from its European roots .
Lastly, Giddens lists the nation-state and military power as an aspect of modernism. Giddens recognises that the modern state as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon. The state, as we understand it is a container of power constituted by, “ a political apparatus recognized to have sovereign rights within the borders of a demarcated territorial area.”
Nations are not just political formations. Very importantly they are cultural entities which function to produce and reproduce national and cultural identity. For many people, we identify ourselves primarily as belonging to a perceived national identity based upon a shared culture and ideology. Here, again the photograph can be used as an element of cultural hegemony. Through photographs of places we have not been, or people we cannot personally know, we form stereotypical opinions about the world which are mere caricatures of the real world. With no better sources of information we cannot form more accurate pictures (sic) and are therefore have our ideas about the world framed by others.
So far, the above description could (and perhaps should) be described as modernisation. Modernism refers to the cultural forms bound up with this modernisation. Modernism is inherently an optimistic world view, based as it is upon a history of industrial, economic and cultural progress. Modernists have faith in the power of science, rationality and industry to transform our world for the better. Perhaps, above all else it refers to the optimism than come from believing in the superiority of your own culture. That is not to say that modernism equates to certainty about the future. On the contrary, it is a world view based upon the constant revision of the dominant theories in the light of new knowledge or new ideas. Modernism is society based upon the scientific method, with a more or less constant improvement in the lot of individuals as society progresses.
Photography can be seen as a metaphor for modernism. It could not exist in a mass form without the productive basis of the modern world. Through photography, we impose order on the world, slicing reality into finer and finer time segments. Photography, almost by definition keeps it’s subject under surveillance and the use of photography to record people and events fixes them in time in a way impossible before it’s invention. From the beginning of photography, it has been used to inform and form feelings of nationalism and identity. It creates notions of similarity and difference in a visual form that resonates with the stereotypes held by individuals, and as such reinforces and helps create those very stereotypes. Lastly, the manufacturing and distribution of cameras and associated accessories is inherently capitalistic. The drive for increased profits and market share creates an atmosphere of innovation and competition. Cameras get better, in real terms they get cheaper, and the large corporations are constantly seeking new ways to engage consumers and create brand loyalty.
In, The God Delusion, Dawkins describes the zeitgeist of modern society as a broadly advancing front of reason advancing into the future. There might be uneven development of progress, and there might be occasional setback, but generally the history of the industrial age has been the advance of reason and progress. Although writing about religious beliefs, Dawkins clearly sets his thinking within the modernist project. Moderism, therefore can be seen as a metanarrative, a grand narrative common to all. The term developed in (ironically) postmodernism refers to to a comprehensive explanation, a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience or knowledge. In other words a cultural paradigm to which almost all subscribe. For Dawkins, the cultural paradigm is one of modernism, but Dawkins would be the first to acknowledge that such general progress might have severe problems along the way.
There is a dark side to modernism, and this dark side is not new. While Darwin is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest thinkers of his age, not only did his work and writing truly revolutionise our understanding of evolution and the interconnectedness of all life on earth, it also gave rise to the phenomenon of social Darwinism, and to the pseudo-science of eugenics.
The critics of modernism point to the disruptions of traditional lifestyles and the continued existence of poverty and squalor in industrial cities. During the modern age we have experienced two world wars, death camps and the threat of total global annihilation after the development of nuclear weapons.
Photography has documented many of these paradoxes. War photography was initially a propaganda tool to show the glory and justification of war. When Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to record the war, his posed, stilted images avoided images of the dead and wounded. But by the time Robert Capa took the shot, ‘The Falling Soldier’ in 1936 of the death of a republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War clearly showed a more graphic interpretation of a similar event. In both instances the allegation has been made that the photographers involved are part of an attempt to form opinion rather than simply recording events. While the establishment looked to Fenton to record images that reflected the war in a more positive light, critic of Capa have claimed (from the publication of the shot) that this was a staged event designed to give a distorted image of the conflict and to raise the fame of the photographer.
Modernism has always been associated with such paradoxes. While the industrial age has brought huge increases in the material wellbeing of individuals there has been is some quarters a rejection of this ‘science will conquer all’ enthusiasm and the search for natural laws which will fully explain the nature of reality.
Some go as far as to suggest that modernity actually lies to us about it’s progress and achievements. Conspiracy theorists have long argued the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960’s and 1970’s were staged events to dupe the public into accepting huge budget increases for NASA and the American military. It’s probably no coincidence that this conspiracy gained signicant ground arfter the release of the film Capricorn One in 1978, a thriller movie based upon a hoax landing on Mars!
Adorno and Horkheimer (1979, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso. London) argue that the logic of the enlightenment and modernity is actually a logic of domination and oppression. They equate the desire to dominate and conquer nature through science and rationality, with the desire to dominate and conquer human beings. The logic that leads to the industrial revolution also leads to the death camps. Modernity effectively eliminates opposing ways of thinking and claims to be the only basis for truth in the world.
Foucault (1984:76 ‘Nieztzche, Geneology, History’ in P.Ranbow (ed), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon) goes further and his arguments break with classical enlightenment though in a five keys ways. As Barker (2003:201, Cultural Studies Sage London).
- Knowledge is not metaphysical, transcendent or universal. Rather, it is specific to particular time and spaces. Foucault talks not of truth per se, but of ‘regimes of truth’, that is, the configuration of knowledge that ‘count as truth’ under determinate historical conditions.
- Knowledge is perspectival in character. There can be no one totalizing knowledge that is able to grasp the ‘objective’ character of the world. Rather we both have and require multiple viewpoints or truths by which to interpret a complex heterogeneous human existence.
- Knowledge is not regarded as a pure or neutral away of understanding. It is implicated in regimes of power.
- Foucault breaks with the central enlightenment metaphor of ‘depth’. He argues against interpretative or hermeneutic methods that seek to disclose the hidden meanings of language. Foucault is concerned with the description and analysis of the surfaces of discourse and their effects under determinate material and historical conditions.
- Foucault casts doubt on the enlightenment understanding of progress. Knowledge as discourse does not unfold as an even historical evolution, but is discontinuous. That is, Foucault identifies significant epistemological breaks in knowledge across time. He rejects any notion of telos or the inevitable direction of human progress.
However, Foucault argues that it is not simply a case of making a clear break between two ways of thinking, modernism and postmodernism, but of questioning the nature of the tools we use to explain the physical and human world around us.
“What is this reason we use? What are it’s historical effects? What are the limits, and what are the dangers? (If) philosophy has a function within critical thought, it is precisely to accept this sort of spiritual, this sort of revolving door of rationality that refers to us its necessity, to its indispensability, and at the same time its intrinsic dangers. (Foucault 1984, 249, What is the Enlightenment? In the Foucault reader)
Others, such as Lyotard, go much further, claiming that there is no unity of language, no common understanding between all people, but islets of language, small groups who understand each other but have no common understanding with other groups. Meaning, understanding, world view, is determined by a specific set of circumstances which are simply not understandable for any other than the group to which they apply. There are no universal truths. There are no rules which apply to all people. Everything is relative and culturally specific, not only between obviously different cultures, but within national cultures.
For many commentators postmodernism is a form of cultural relativism. Claims to truths cannot be weighed against each other and are of equal merit. One person’s opinion is regarded as being as valid as another’s. This view is very seductive to many people. Under modernity there is a hierarchy of knowledge, with professionals and the educated having primacy over more ‘common sense’ views and opinions. Under postmodernism, why shouldn’t everyone be able to voice their opinion?
With the advent of digital photography and the birth of social media, the relativism of vying photographers clamouring for attention has reached fever pitch. With vastly easier to use (and cheaper) equipment, more and more photographers are attempting to make a mark for themselves, often arguing that the old standards of knowledge, professionalism, and experience means little or nothing in the face of their ‘talent’ and better editing software.
The modernist rejoinder to this remark takes many forms, but here I take the example of capital punishment. Poll after poll suggests that the majority of the British public are in favour of a return to the death penalty for certain crimes. Periodically, the issue is raised in Parliament and, on a free vote where each Member of Parliament can vote on his or her conscience, the motion is rejected. To many this seems undemocratic, and is clearly out of step with the public mood. However, under the British system of democracy each MP is a representative of their constituents rather than a delegate. MP’s vote on the basis of more informations, and frankly better educational standards, than the majority of their constituents. The argument from modernity is simply that information and education trump ignorance.
While there is a dark side of modernity, likewise there is a dark side of postmodernism. In a culturally relative world where you can effectively choose the position you hold with regard to personal truths, it is perhaps no surprise that in large bookshops there are as many books on angels as there are on popular science, and that some hold the healing power of crystals to be as efficacious as medication prescribed by a doctor.
In the photographic ‘world’ is therefore becomes easy, and fashionable, to draw a (in most ways quite artificial distinction) between the digital/social media world on the early twenty first century and the the film based technology of the last century. Photographers, instead of being shamefaced about their ignorance of the nuances of film and traditional darkroom practise, applaud and rejoice in this lack of knowledge.
Living in a world where using technology is considered far more important than understanding that technology, and ‘talent’ amounts to trusting the ability of the automated settings of the camera, photography is the almost perfect metaphor for the postmodern world. Endless debate on forums about the merits (or otherwise) of different cameras, camera systems, or the size of a sensor disguise the simple truth that the vast majority of camera users (sic) have absolutely no idea how a camera works.
Attitude replaces knowledge as a measure of ‘professionalism’.
Towards a bright future?
A colleague recently asked me a very simple question. Why do cameras still have mechanical shutters?
A simple enough question to ask, but the answer to needs some contextualising.
Before me I have two cameras. The both perform the same function – they take photographs, but they operate in rather different ways. The first camera, the older, uses light to produce latent images on photographic film. The second, slightly newer, uses a CCD sensor to convert light into an electrical charge.
The two cameras do the same job; they even look similar. The second, a Fuji S1 Pro looks remarkably like the first, a Nikon F60, but with a slightly deeper body to accommodate the extra batteries the newer camera requires.
One might even, recognising the family resemblance of the two cameras, conclude that the second camera has somehow ‘evolved’ from the first in the way that we are familiar with in car design. It appears, superficially that the Fuji is somehow a refinement, and improvement on the Nikon.
The truth is somewhat different. The Fuji is, indeed, based upon the Nikon. I’m told that if you take the Fuji apart, you will notice that, crammed with electronics, the film compartment can be clearly seen. Everything that is not part of the circuitry that makes the Fuji a digital rather than a film camera has been retrofitted into the body of an already existing film camera.
This makes a lot of sense, at least initially, for the camera manufacturers. Using tried, tested and relatively cheap technology it was possible to recreate the feel the tactile qualities and camera layout of the familiar, in a new digital form.
People familiar and comfortable with SLR’s adapted quickly to DSLR’s, and the benefits of the new technologies have consigned the vast majority of film cameras to the dustbins (or the hands of the enthusiasts who still appreciate the qualities of film).
Fast forward a decade and the big manufacturers are still clinging to the older aesthetics of SLR design while internally the quality of sensors, lenses and other technologies have progressively improved.
As a keen photographer for a number of decades, I have accumulated a number of cameras over time. While I still have the Fuji and the Nikon, the sad truth is that they stay at home while I take out different cameras. Another camera sitting on the shelf more and more often is my Nikon D300, although I still love the feel of the camera and the quality of the shots it can deliver. I find, however, that given the reality of lugging several Kilogrammes of camera equipment for miles on a walk, I pause and consider whether it’s worth the effort. The temporary solution for me was to buy a second-hand compact camera. As an ex-student a couple of years ago had produced some great work with a Canon G9, I chose this model.
After a few weeks walking, in Scotland, then on the East Coast, and finally on the South Coast, I realised that it was time for, well if not a complete change, then a change in direction. Many times the Nikon had stayed in the car in favour of the Canon, so I realised the decision had already been made. After considering options for a while I finally decided to buy a Olympus OM-D M5.
As a Compact System Camera it combines solid camera build with small size and outstanding quality.
There are things I do not like, or at least have no use to me, such as a touch screen, but that can be easily turned off. The electronic viewfinder was at first unnerving as it shows the preview of the image taken in the viewfinder, rather than on the rear screen of the camera. With my 40-150mm lens, the camera clearly ‘hunts’ for the best focus which can be disconcerting, but nine times out of ten delivers a correctly focused image. And, compared to my Nikon, it’s slow.
But, and it’s an important but, it’s small, light and very high quality.
I still have the Nikon, and there are time when it will still be the camera of choice, but those times are fewer than I would have initially thought.
An addition, its size has a massive unexpected side-effect.
This side-effect manifested itself in quite a negative way when I first took the camera out for a test. I was photographing a music event and, having official accreditation, was inside the barriers getting close-up and personal with the acts.
Another photographer, after clearly glancing down at my little Olympus, literally tried to brush me aside! Instead of a band of musicians in front of me, I found myself looking at the back screen of a Canon 30D as its owner tried to move me with his right arm.
The chain of thinking (I can’t call it logic) seems very clear to me. I have a bigger camera than you, therefore I’m more important in the hierarchy of photographers, therefore I can push you aside and occupy the position that you are standing in.
I freely admit I did not react well.
The diminutive size does have advantages. I no longer suffer from the perception by others that I am some sort of predatory threat to them and their children. Street photography becomes a real possibility again. The folding down screen of the Olympus and the fact that I can trigger the shutter simply by tapping the rear screen means that I can take photograph from waist level, without appearing to touch the camera controls at all.
If I was a paranoid parent, I should be more concerned with the Olympus than I ever should be with a bulking, ‘look at me, I’m a photographer’, Nikon or Canon. Even more of a ‘threat’ would be a camera that can be used without notice, produce good quality images, and has the capability of directly posting those images onto social media, or being sent via email.
Actually, as we well know, these devices already exist and their mass appeal constitutes a huge problem for dedicated camera manufacturers. The large players in the camera market have not only been on the wrong page of the book, but they are looking at a book of their own making, completely ignoring the actual needs and requirements of their potential market.
While the offerings from Nikon and Canon have got smaller and lighter, the emphasis has clearly been on quality. Brilliant quality lenses attached to extremely capable, multi-mode bodies that look and feel like ‘proper’ cameras, and capable of producing results unthinkable from a digital camera ten years ago. Photography has never been cheaper in real terms, and professional quality results are within the reach of every hobbyist.
Paradoxically, this emphasis on quality may be a mistake. Faced with the choice of a quality DSLR and a smartphone, many will vote with their feet and carry the more useful, smaller and lighter ‘phone. Faced with the choice of spending several hundred pounds on a camera, or the same amount on a ‘phone, many, many people will turn away from the camera.
The result for the camera manufacturers is a decline in sales. Consumer digital camera sales are down a massive 36% in 2013.
A vanishingly small percentage of photographs are printed at all, let alone to exhibition size. Images are for sharing in the digital world, and the easiest way of sharing is by using a smartphone! Throughout most of the photographic age, photos have been used for documenting special occasions and social lives. But now we do not need a dedicated camera to do this. As such most people do not have a use for a camera.
Compact digital cameras sold around 11 million units a months in 2011. By 2013 this has fallen to 4 million. As the quality of smartphones increases this trend starts to edge into the quality end of the camera market. In 2013 sales for DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras have fallen 10-15%.
From January to October 2013, year on year sales for Canon have fallen 23%. The figure for Nikon is 18% Manufacturers considered to be more fashionable by many users, Sony and Fuji have seen a 35% fall in overall sales.
Christopher Chute, from International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that Nikon might be out of business in as little as 5 years, ‘You’re talking about a 10-15% decline in DSLR shipments all over the world. Which is kind of shocking because that market has been growing double digits for almost ten years. Nikon recently said they have a five year plan to address this. And in my view, this five year plan should have come out five years ago. They’re not going to be around in five years’.
Indeed, while the (at the time of writing) recently released Nikon DF DSLR is a thing of beauty, it will not save the company as the market for a £2700 camera is never going to be large. (The News agency Reuters (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/07/nikon-earnings-idUSL3N0IR39F20131107?type=companyNews)) . On the 7th November, 2013, Reuters report, ‘Nikon Corp cut its full-year unit sales forecast for high-end cameras for the second quarter in a row on Thursday, as a dramatic fall in demand among photography hobbyists that began last year accelerated faster than expected.
The company posted a 41 percent drop in operating profit to 21.9 billion yen ($222 million) for the six months ended September, saying overseas demand for pricy single-lens reflex models had remained depressed.’
Added to the woes of the large manufacturers is the impression held by many hobbyists and professionals that the major manufactures (such as Nikon) merely field-test new innovations on the buying public. When the D610 was announced, there was a ground-swell of users hoping that this new model would address some or all of the problems buyers had found with the previous model, the D600. Rushing new products to the market is not the answer, sorting out issues (particularly with software) before the camera is released might be a partial answer.
As most photos are shared on the internet, the requirements for high quality, large files, is vastly reduced. The internet actually requires low quality files for easy transmission. A photographic ebook available on the amazon website may be less than 1omb in size for the entire book. Users of images are more concerned with what you can immediately do with it than they are with the quality of the image.
Quality images on social media are not only irrelevant, they might be counterproductive. If the point is sharing, then producing technically excellent images are creating cultural distance between people. Competition rather than sharing becomes the order of the day, while, while of interest to enthusiasts, is simply boring turn-off to the vast majority of facebook users.
For the enthusiasts there has been a real resurgence of interest in the latest offerings, which interestingly, look back to a time when photography was an elitist pursuit of the few. The aforementioned Nikon DF looks and feels like a traditional SLR camera. The Olympus OM-D and Fuji X series cameras are creating interest through the desire of photographers to use cameras that give them the tactile experience of more traditional cameras. The question, of course is whether the enthusiasts can maintain a market large enough for the camera manufacturers to survive. Photography is now a cheap hobby. It is less expensive in real terms that it ever has been. For camera manufacturers to survive on an enthusiast-only market, then the reality is that camera prices will have to increase substantially. As the early sales of the Nikon DF camera show there is little appetite for expensive kit, this is probably not a sustainable position.
What makes a great portrait?
There are many, many, good photographers producing vast numbers of excellent images. The question that springs to mind then is how do we distinguish between a great portrait, and one that is technically good, but in the scheme of things will be forgotten, next year, next month, or even tomorrow.
The advent of social media such as facebook has meant that it is very easy to work ‘out there’. Get together a bunch of ‘friends’ who’ll admire your work and it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that in some way your work is more worthy than that of others.
Photography as a hobby has never been cheaper or accessible. In 1983 a Nikon fm, body only, was around £200. The average price of a house at the same time was around £24 000. Only a crude comparison, but that would make a Nikon fm body around £1200 now. Running costs are minimal on modern cameras, and the degree of technical skill required to get a photo with correct focus and correct exposure is almost non-existent.
As a result the number of hobbyists and ‘semi-professionals’ has exploded. Clearly there are still great differences between skill levels, but it could be argued that the number of great photos, as opposed to technically competent photos has not increased.
The reason for this assertion, I’d suggest, is that there is a basic misunderstanding of what makes a great portrait. In literary terms this is the difference between a novelist and a biographer.
The novelist is creating a story with the photograph. He creates work grounded in his mind, rather than reality. From the initial idea he creates the image with the model, and perhaps a Make Up Artist, then carefully crafts this together on the shoot, then edits it on the computer in the way that he has previsualised in his initial thoughts.
The biographer, on the other hand starts from reality and goes about presenting that reality in a way that tells a compelling story about the sitter (not model). It’s when the biographer captures the true nature, the true character, of the subject that the opportunity for greatness emerges.
When Duane Michal uses the term ‘fartster’, he alludes to this fundamental difference. The fartster, in this sense is the novelist, constantly confusing the concepts of fashion and art. Taking fashion photos is not art, and without art, a photo cannot be great.
Get a ‘real’ person, with an interesting story, execute it brilliantly and then you may create a photo that will withstand the march of time. Knowing the story isn’t always essential, but the photograph must convey the biographical intent to be considered great.
An example of fine craftsmanship from a colleague.
We have this bear.
He’s actually a class-bear who lives in a Year 2 classroom, but he does like to get out and get involved. During the London 2012 Paralympics the bear went to the wheelchair basketball at Greenwich. He met a member of the South African paralympic team and had a very enjoyable day. That is, until he met the Met.
Outside the arena there is a line to signify the Prime Meridian – zero degrees longitude. As the bear has spent some time trying to help his children learn about time, this was a great photo opportunity for the little guy. The bear sat on the meridian. I photographed the bear.
Glancing around, it became apparent that a few sports fans (bear fans?) were photographing me, photographing the bear. Within seconds a flash crowd of Japanese tourists were photographing the people photographing me, while I tried to photograph the bear. The pathway to the arena became completely blocked and this attracted even more people to see what the fuss was all about.
At that point the Metropolitan Police arrived and arrested the bear.
The point of this (true) story is the proliferation of photographs in our everyday lives and the interpretation we place on the photographs we see, and indeed take ourselves.
Nearly 40 year ago Sontag (1977) published the series of essays ‘On Photography’ (Sontag 1977). The essays start, as do so many things, in Plato’s cave. Humanity, for Sontag, is still captivated by the mere images of the truth. But the advent of photography has greatly increased the quantity of images clamouring for our attention on the cave walls. In some ways the walls themselves are enlarged as photography changes the terms on confinement in the cave. Photography teaches us a new visual code, it teaches us what is worth looking at and, very, very importantly, what we have a right to observe.
Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material; “just about everything has been photographed” This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view, or should view. Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality.
Photography and photographs, along with film-making have fundamentally altered our relationship to places that we have never been to. Not only do we expect to be able to see, but see in high definition and in extreme close-up. Is what we see, the same as experiencing the reality ourselves? Sontag was writing long before the digital and social media revolution that has seen us able, and more than willing, to share images of our everyday lives, often with complete strangers.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that seems like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” (1977:4)
Photography is, she argues, treacherous, as it provides most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past. Photographs are less interpretations of the past, as miniatures of the world that anyone can make. As such photographs have a credibility in the minds of people that goes far beyond the written word. We believe images of far off places – we believe images of the past.
“Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph.”
Sontag, of course, realises that this presumption of truth in photographs should be judged with caution. She cites the example of the Farm Security Administration project in the 1930’s to share the plight of sharecroppers. The team of highly talented photographers took dozens of photographs of their subjects until they thought they’d achieved the precise look that supported their own notions of poverty and dignity.
(Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936)
The camera doesn’t lie, we’re told. Neither does it tell the whole truth.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal shows how controversial the truth can be in the hands of a photographer. It has been suggested a number of times that this (second) raising of the US flag on the island of Iwo Jima at the end of WWII was set up as a propaganda piece.
Lange and Rosenthal present interpretations of the world, which as photographs are given a credence that other forms of information do not have. In a sense they have no more objective truth that my earlier assertion that the bear was arrested by the police.
Sontag argues that the growth of photography has been in tandem with the growth in tourism. The massive growth of phototaking is concomitant with the mass transit of people around the world for pleasure. Sontag suggests that the very activity of picture taking is soothing and assuages the feeling of disorientation felt when visiting different cultures.
Photography doesn’t just provide a ‘truth’ of tourism, proof that it actually happened, but provides a form of stability for the picture taker. It also provides ‘protection’ from the alien culture that the photographer finds himself in. Not only is the experience made more real by the camera, the camera becomes a shield, a filter, a cipher through which to interpret the world.
This process, of tourism photography, perhaps reaches a logical conclusion with the work of Murad Osmann, (http://imgur.com/a/HlXzY). Osmann presents a series of photographs, taken as instagrams where he, the photographer, is pulled around tourist attractions around the world by the subject of the photograph, his girlfriend. Every photo repeats the same pattern, with only the location and clothing changing from shot to shot.
These photographs provide the ‘proof’ of the event, but the photographer is shielded, not only by the camera, but by the subject herself. At the same time the photos create a sense of ‘insistence’, the onward march of the photos modeling the process of tourism itself. Ultimately the goal of the process seems not to actually go anywhere, but to be able to demonstrate that one has actually been there. The photo of the event has preeminence over the event itself. This is clearly shown in Osmann’s sequence of shots, but can be equally seen in photos of tourists standing beside signs showing where they are, or indeed images of British police arresting small bears.