I think the first step is to admit that most of the stuff we do is nothing special and that we do it to fill the time in a pleasant way. But is that enough?
The last ten years have seen incredibly dynamic growth, excitement and change in photography. At its very best, at the top of the craft, artists have successfully thrown out decades of convention, antiquated thinking and the safety of old rules in order to transform the art. At the other end of the spectrum never before has there been a greater quantity of the same poorly seen and poorly executed work foisted on the world's visual markets.
Collectively, we've spent the last ten years breaking away from the constrictions of film photography only to, in most cases, end up re-applying the same tired conventions in the new medium.
The single most pressing questions I hear when I meet other photographers for coffee and conversation are variations of these: "I have all this gear but I need some inspiration. I'm looking for the right subject matter. I'm bored just shooting. I feel like I'm totally prepared but I don't know what I want to shoot. How do you decide what to shoot?" And, after we talk for a while the conversation floats back to firm ground: "which camera body? Which lens?"
It's time for a new re-invention of photography.
Most of the progress we've made falls into two areas. We've spent a lot of time getting digital to be reliable and of equal quality with the film technologies that we had used for decades before. While digital can be noiseless we are only now conquering the dynamic range issues and characteristic curves that make and made film so alluring. In fact, most of us would have continued to shoot film if not for the stark differences in perceived operating costs. So now digital starts to decisively pull away in terms of technical quality. Cameras like the Nikon D800 and the Sony a99 are delivering very high resolutions combined with wide dynamic ranges and low noise. Equally importantly they are doing it without the bulk and slow operating performance of medium format imaging platforms with which they now compete.
The second area of progress is post production and digital manipulation. I've been using Photoshop since the year it was invented and clearly remember the first iterations which had no options for layers, or even undo. You worked and saved and worked and saved. Now all can be changed with the wave of a hand, the click of an action or the magic of the right plug-in. You can pretty much make any image anything you want. Its very ease seems to impel us to use and abuse it. Coupled with this kind of post processing control is the maturation of ink jet printers which allows us to print to just about any size with high quality, archival keeping qualities and in-house control.
But have we really moved the art and wonder of photography forward? I would say "yes" for a very small number of practitioners who use the medium as a spring board for their ideas. I would say most of us are stuck firmly in the aesthetic realm of the 1970's and 1980's. We just make it all faster, in greater quantity, and print it bigger (if it gets printed at all...).
One of the first culprits is the pressure of group think that aggressively postulates and then rewards the idea that the only thing which matters in terms of labeling photography as "good" or "bad" is the technical quality of execution. Is the image sharp? Is the image noise free? Does the image encompass a wide enough range of tones? But rarely do we, as a culture, relate to the idea behind the image. What was the artist trying to say with their perfect image? What concept did they put forward that will add to and change our collective thought processes? How will the image move the needle and set the stage for a new way of looking at our lives and our cultures?
The fact is that most of the flood of images we endure is highly imitative and self-conscious. It's more in the realm of proving technical mastery than anything else. At some point a compulsive adherence to even the idea of technical quality as a major qualifier of acceptance is destructive to the art. Not to mention the reality that our eagerness to show off our techniques tends to make us content agnostic.
But how did we get to this place? How did we develop photography into a religion that worships almost entirely at the alter of objective parameter measurement and metric analysis? Why do we copy so many (self fabricated) star photographers (who themselves seem obsessed with teaching technique) on the web? Why is DXO Mark so popular in our photo lives? Why is it important to so many people that their camera or lens be able to squeeze out a tenth of a percent more something than a competitor's camera? Are images of our acne endowed but beloved teens made better and more endearing when rendered clinicially sharp? Do images of our weathered and worn spouses become more alive when rendered by a machine with more or better pixels? Are snapshots of kittens and puppies more enduring because we can now blow up the images and see texture on each follicle of kitty fur?
I would say that, with the help of ad agencies and camera makers, along with the mind boggling explosion of blogs and photo sharing sites, that we've effectively reprogrammed the brains of three generations, and mutated our thought processes to the point where the analysis of the tools trumps anything that can actually be done (creatively) with the tools.
I think most bloggers start out trying to generate a mix of art, experience and gear. They quickly find that every time they talk about gear, or review a favorite lens or camera, their number spike like crazy and every time they post something heartfelt and about the art of photography their blog readership drops faster than a plutonium feather through a vacuum. Their blogs evolve into something they never anticipated. What started as a behind the scenes showcase ends up as an educational blog with a credit card gateway. What started as a technical sharing site morphs into a running ad campaign for workshops that teach how to. Never why to.
Let's face it. Most photographers have a financial incentive in running a blog. They wiggle around until they find a selling proposition that works for them and then they optimize. If you find the greatest payoff in click throughs and ad sales comes from gear reviews and the glorification of technique then it just makes sense to steer more in that direction. Which steers everyone into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a technical culture the person with the corner on facts is king of commerce. And so it goes. Even my favorite non Kirk Tuck blog seems to be larding in more "interesting" lenses and cameras than every before.
My point in all of this is simple. As a culture it's pretty obvious that we're fixated on process and gear and largely ignoring aesthetics and concept. We are dumbing ourselves down in that we absorb and regurgitate stylistic "differentiators" (fancy borders? different filters?) that have no relevance to messaging, thoughtful content and point of view. Adding destructive filters to a banal documentation doesn't elevate the banal documentation into a different realm. Especially when so many others are using the exact same filters on exactly the same kind of banal documentations. Madness. Paint by numbers. Stand here and use f5.6.
If we all become completely invested in the process only, with no point of view and no reason other than our own short term (imagined) pleasure, then the vast majority of images created in our lifetime will have less real reason to exist that toilet paper.
I've always preached the idea that constant practice makes one a better photographer, and perhaps there is validity to this on a commercial level or in the practice of street photography where, at least, you're being out on the street increases the chances that you'll find something worthwhile at which to point your camera. But I'm re-thinking my whole hypothesis. I think we shoot and share too much. And it's mostly done without regard to challenging ourselves as artists with inquisitive brains. I'm guilty as heck of shooting stuff not because it's the way I see a subject but because it proves or provides a technical point I want to make in conjunction with my writing.
So, what do I hope for? Now that the megapixel race seems less important and now that the web based experts have have taught everyone on the planet how to use small flashes indoors and out, how to shoot people on skateboards and bikes, how to shoot women in halter tops and high heels, and now that everyone seems to be settling in with their favorite PhotoShop celebrity post processing, I'm hoping that some strong, disruptive and highly creative artists come forward into our collective space to actually challenge us to try and make some art that has balls and a voice. I'm looking for the equivalents of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon who shook up the world's perceptions about photography in the 1950's and 1960's, even in the 1990s. I'm looking for a William Frank who can bring new energy to shooting in the streets. I'm looking for someone like Bill Brandt who re-invented portraits in the first half of the 20th century. Where is the current generation's Diane Arbus? I'm equally welcoming to painters like David Hockney crossing over to do some unique camera work as well.
For that matter where are the peers and counterparts to Gary Crewdson and Alex Gursky? Why the insistence on only emulating the easy targets? Is it just harder for people to be found in the clutter? Has the signal to noise ratio dropped below 1:1? Have we just let our aesthetic sensibilities atrophy to such a level that we can no longer even recognize something that has a real message? Or did we never care in the first place?
There are so many big themes in the world: The collapse of economies, the collapse of cultures and countries, the denial of jobs for a generation of college graduates, the collision of western culture and middle eastern cultures, the clash of religions, the changing domestic roles of men and women in relationships, the ascendancy of women as income earners and learners and how that will effect sexual politics, how we'll redefine beauty as people become larger and obese, and how we envision the future. Love, Hate, Wonder. Big themes that are just there for the taking. Big referents on which to hang our artistic visions. Or something as simple as a new distillation of what it means to possess beauty.
I would love for teachers to come along and, instead of showing us where to hook up the flash trigger or how to meter fill flash in sunlight, would push us to dig down and understand that we have a voice and a point of view and it's at least as valid as anything else out there. And it's that which we should be sharing and discussing rather than creating another image of a kitten, or a filtered landscape meant to impress everyone else on a discussion forum about how sharp our newest lens is.
I would love to see galleries spring up that are filled with transformative work instead of imitative work. I'd love to see photographic prints that are sharp with vision instead of just sharp as a litmus test.
I've caught myself, in my own little world here, heading out to create images to use in the blog that are quick and functional instead of good and personal. I am as guilty as everyone else because, at the center of our art is that nasty little secret that it's now easy to show off technically. Newbies are entranced by flash in daylight or narrow depth of field or mixed color temperature mastery. But we seem to have forgotten that these are just the tools we should be using to create messages; they are not the actual message.
The state of photography today? We've never had more effective tools and we've never (collectively) used them in a more mundane and safe way. We're paralyzed by our need to perfect things instead of getting inside our own heads and understanding what we want our photographs to say. We've burned through the value of workshops as they related to construction techniques of building a visual house but we forgot to include an education about how to create the idea of the house. We have the construction company ready and equipment with all the tools and materials but we forgot to include an architect. We forgot that building well is also about building to a design. To a concept.
We built the photo equivalent a super collider but we have no idea what we're looking for or how to get started. At the risk of unleashing a whole new wave of workshops I'll say this very frankly: There is no value to a workshop that only teaches you how. The new value is the workshop that teaches you why or prods you to connect with a voice deep inside of you that needs to sing out.
Gone are the days when it was cool just to be able to show up and make a workmanlike image. We can do that with a phone and pulse now. The real magic will be learning to tell the stories of our hearts in our pictures. And to give them the power to move people because of what they say and not exclusively because of how they say it.
The workshop or online class I want would teach me how to connect to my own subconscious and learn what it is that has the most value to me as a person. As a member of our civilization and as an interpreter. The best workshop experience I ever had was one on creativity given by Ian Summers. No cameras. No photography. But some meditation and a lot of exercises that helped me get clear on what held me back as an artist and how to change my own perceptions. How to become clearer about what I love to see and how I love to see it.
The blogs and forums? They filled a void for people who wanted current, hard information and needed a source. But they didn't layer in relevance.
The next big trend? Might be wishful thinking on my part but wouldn't it be cool if we all slowed down and took a chunk to time to understand what drives us to do our art and our hobby and how we can bring the best of ourselves to the process instead of mindless repetition and duplication? And instead of working to sheer quantity wouldn't it be great to distill down our work to a group of incredible images that take your breathe away rather than an unending stack that leaves you tired and out of breathe?
In the end art matters more than technology. It's art that becomes the critical source of our history of civilization. Art and literature. And we have the tools to effect our own renaissance if we are only brave enough to connect with what we do intellectually, intuitively and emotionally.
It's not enough to be sharp and well exposed anymore. It's time to put our better brains to work.
Less an object of reason and technology. More an object of power and emotion.
"Show me something I've never seen before."