7.02.2010

Is technology destroying art? Does anyone care?


This is the naked die of a micro something or other.  We shot it last month for the semiconductor company that makes it. Its brethren will go into some sort of consumer product that will make some person's life more efficient.  And the promise of that increased efficiency should have meant more free time for that person to do things for themselves.  Play with their kids,  wash the car, see a movie,  or do art.

But it isn't working out that way.  Society is using the increased efficiency to get more out of the next person.  More lines of type per hour.  More lines of code per day.  More products more quickly to the marketplace.  Cameras that autofocus faster and have aquarium modes. More profits to the shareholders. More stuff.

Cellphones seemed like such a good idea.  They would free us from the umbilical cord that tethered us to the desk or to the house.  But it didn't really work out that way.  Faceless corporations found that they could get more "free" work out of their workers by using a virtual umbilical cord that keeps workers connected to their offices nearly continuously.  And injects a sensibility that there's duty to make the job one's life.

And please, make no mistake, when I say workers I don't mean it in the old communist way:  as a description of the uniformed factory people who made things with their hands or dug for coal.  When I say workers now I also mean the lawyers and executives and nearly anyone who has a job working for anyone other than themselves.

I've watched the progressive strangling of people's time by new technology.  Executive dads sitting in the bleachers frantically jabbing at Blackberries with their thumbs trying to get in front of a new "issue" while little Johnny makes a soccer goal that dad doesn't catch.  I watched three investors glued to their iPhone screens in the middle of a play and wondered why they'd taken the time to come to the theater.  You could quiz them and they wouldn't know whether they sat thru "Oklahoma" or "Romeo and Juliet".

Everyday I watch couples at restaurants staring into their screens instead of each other's eyes.  They seem afraid that they'll miss something.  That the world will introduce the next miracle and they want to be in on the genesis and get the announcement.  So much so that they miss all the important stuff.

So, efficiency was supposed to give us time to exercise and relax and invent and enjoy and do our own art.  But what it's really done is increase the work week of the fully employed, robbed them of their own un-contracted leisure time, convinced people that a salaried position means 24/7 contact (and mindshare) and left them ragged and unable to concentrate on the present and the  here and now.  It robs them of living life as it's happening.

And the ability to process great volumes of information hasn't done much for us either, as far as I can tell.   May be it's good for predicting sales or elections.  Data mining can't stop hurricanes or earthquakes but endless data availability progressively robs us of our privacy and financial security.

But none of that really bothers me.  I understand better than you might think that the nature of western man is constant innovation---for good or bad.  No, what bothers me is that we've used all these tools to turn our lives into something that's measured based on productivity.   Volume.  Throughput.

I heard a great actor speak two days ago.  He defined art.  It's not about which lens renders hairs on the kitty photo the sharpest or who's got the best toys.  And it's certainly not measurable.  He defined art in this way:  Art teaches us what it  is to be human.

But this is a problem because art is notorious for being unmeasurable.  And in a society that values ranking and measuring above all else it gives one the feeling that art, which teaches us what it is to be human, is being replaced more and more by craft just for the sake of craft.  And the craft is powered more and more by precision, performance and production and less and less by ideas and translations of human experience.

It starts in school.  We, as a society, need to give as much weight to the study of art and art history, music and drama as we do the math and science courses.  We need to make sure our kids are as content literate as they are process literate.  I can assure you that, as technology becomes more and more pervasive the real value; the "gold",  will be content.

Multitasking?  I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in......

A quick look at a recent editorial job.

My friend, and one of my favorite "lifestyle" models, Ann.  In Book People Bookstore.

Contrary to the idea that all professional photographers are competing against each other constantly, this job came to me as a referral from a photographer who was booked up on an architectural project and trying to make hay while the sun shown.  He nicely recommended me to his client of many years.  It was a shelter magazine and they were doing an article on the ethics and results of shopping locally, instead of sending all of you money out of your community by spending it at national chains.

The editor had lived in Austin and remembered one of the great remaining independent bookstores in the country,  Book People.  Three stories of great book inventory right in the heart of Austin's downtown.  Could I find a model, go there and shoot some variations and send them some selections?

Their directions were clear and concise.  We quickly came to a contractual agreement and I sent a letter of agreement to them with all of our terms and a description of the project.  Business part done.  Now it was time to get down to business.  And I made a mistake.  I should have shot this with conventional gear and gotten down the road.  But I was in the middle of "micro 4:3rds fever"  and I grabbed an old legacy Olympus lens and an adapter ring and pressed my EP2 into service.

Ann and I did a bunch of shots around the store.  We followed the brief.  But the light in the store was pretty low and, not wanting to go past ISO 800 on a magazine job that might require the images to be used as a double-truck (two page) spread I shot a lot of stuff wide open and at slow shutter speeds.  

The camera was fine.  A bit noisy maybe, but nothing I couldn't handle with some judicious noise reduction in post production.....It was the lens that was the Achille's Heel.
I should have spent more time testing that particular vintage lens.  I'd shot some stuff outdoors and it looked great at f5.6 and f4.0  but down at f1.5 and f2 it was a whole other story.   But not one that was readily apparent on the camera's LCD.  When I got the images back to the studio I blew them up on my cinema monitor and looked closely.  The lens just didn't have the bite it needed.  In it's defense, at f1.5, not many do.  As to my own defense,  hubris comes before the fall.  I thought I could pull off more than I could.
I called Ann back and she graciously agreed to shoot again.  I grabbed a full frame camera and a well corrected lens and shot the whole thing over again.  This time I shot at f4 and smaller most of the time.  And I carefully blew up test frames as big as they would go on the LCD screen to try and make sure that I was getting critically sharp stuff.  I came back and edited through the second take and sent along 30 different files.

This was all invisible to the client.  I met their deadline and sent the images they needed.  Fortunately the quality control came from my end first.  And yet,  I don't feel like I made the worst of decisions.  It's good to try new stuff and push envelopes and boundaries.  The first stuff I shot had a great feel to it on one level.  But it was too far into devolution to pass the publication test.  If I posted it here I'll bet few could see the differences between the files.  But my QC department can be tough.  Especially when the client comes from a peer recommendation.

Why am I sharing all this with you?  I don't know.  I guess I'm going against basic marketing by admitting that we're all only human and making mistakes is part of the deal.  I don't always follow the standard play book.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  But I know one thing:   If you're going to screw around with "alternative gear/processes"  leave in enough time buffer to do it over again.......

Rainy day here.  Rainy week.  Cancelled shoot.  More blogs.

Ken Rockwell's Prediction for the future of professional photography

Sometimes I'm accused of being less than optimistic about the future of photography for professionals.  The usual suspects tell me to become better and smarter.  If I could I sure would.  But most people just tell me that the world is cyclical and that I should hold tight and hope it all comes back.  I've got my own opinions but I'm always interested in what other people in other markets think.


I know many of you hold Ken Rockwell in less than high regard but in the last five years of reading his stuff on his blog I can't recall a single time that what he says hasn't turned out to be pretty darn true.  In a column a few days ago he went through his mailbox and answered a few questions for us.  Most were along the lines of, "what camera should I use?" But this one had to do with this question:


3. Future of photography & photographer's role in it?


And I find his answer quite interesting and along the same lines as what I would say.  That I agree with him doesn't mean that I'm personally depressed.  Or that I am a "sore loser."  Or that I need to get over myself.  Or that I should be irrepressibly Pollyanna about the future.  It only means that I dispassionatly agree with his assessment of the future of photography for money as we practice it today.  If you click the title of the blog it will take you to Ken's site.  Scroll down the page a bit to find this list of answers.  Without belaboring it further, dig in:  


(The following is from Ken Rockwell's blog.  ©2010 Ken Rockwell.  Don't pass it along without attribution, please!!)

3.) Downhill, and less of a role in it.
Why?
The future is downhill because photography, which is the art of seeing, has beendiluted into becoming a hobby for computer people, instead of an art practiced to excite the imagination of others.
Photographers will play less of a role in it, as most pro photographers will no longer be needed because today's cameras do all the technical stuff for which paying photography clients used to have pay someone with basic technical skills. These people with basic tech skills, but little to no vision, used to get by by calling themselves "photographers," even if they were simply camera jockeys who could wrangle a light meter, but had little ability to see the picture in something, or see it from a new angle. Now that anyone can snap a technically decent picture, only those with the ability to see the real image inside something will survive as photographers.
Photography is exactly like sculpture. When you start, you've got a big block of something that means nothing. The artist is the one who sees the final work living inside this big block. The final carving away of the unnecessary bits to release your vision into tangible form is simply the final mechanics, not the art. With photography, you're removing the irrelevant parts, leaving only what matters. It's seeing it in the first place that is photography or sculpture, not the carving or the snapping.
Tomorrow, all we will need are the real photographers with vision, while clients who don't need vision, but merely a decent record photograph, can do it themselves.
We've already seen this in stock. Guys no longer can pull in $30,000 every month through formal stock agencies renting out old slides of people standing in airports holding phones, or holding blank signs, or pointing to globes. Today, everyone can and does snap these same boring images and sells them via microstock online. (Hint: why not photos of hot girls holding phones? Why aren't those images sold as stock?)
Photography is the art of seeing. Photography is showing people things in ways that they didn't see for themselves. Photography is the art of seeing the picture that's already standing in front of you, but that no one else has noticed. Photography is the art of recognizing the hidden beauty in everyday things. Photography is the power of observation.
Photography has never been about cameras. The hard part about photography is seeing something. The trivial part is taking the picture of it once you've seen it.