5.10.2015

Camera Stuff. Traditional photography has been transformed. You can still do it any way you want but....



I traveled around Austin and across the country this week and I can truthfully say that, based on my current observations , coupled with our knowledge of the trends of the last two years,  the age of traditional photography as we knew it in the film days, and in the transitional days of the last decade, have come to an end. The ever present, single use cameras that were once part and parcel of every mom's, hipster's and gray-haired enthusiast's daily wardrobes have largely vanished from public sight
almost overnight like pay phone booths and DVDs.

It's not just that people in every walk of life have traded in their Nikons, Canons and random other dedicated, interchangeable lens cameras for the latest iPhones or Android phones, with their very precocious, built-in video/photo cameras rather, the great majority have given up the traditional pursuit of the traditional image. The act of taking an image with a large, single lens reflex camera seems as dated, in our current culture, as making a career out of painting in an abstract expressionist style.

We've truly entered the age of photographic minimalism, driven by the evolved informality of the share culture of web as represented by posted pictographic mini-conversations (a relatively scattered activity; at times not much more than a visual grunt ). The sharing is not the same as a traditional presentation in that now the photographs are part of a seemingly endless stream of good and bad imagery. A stream of unconsciousness, reflexively recharged ad infinitum.

Not only has the hardware used to create the images profoundly changed but with the prevailing subject matter becoming ever more restricted and self-referential, and the approach to (interpretation of) that content being shed of substance and meaningful context at a surprising rate as our culture has completely morphed our understanding of photographs from icons and sign posts to something as readily consumable as coffee. Which, coincidentally, is a large part of what gets photographed.

Photography has also moved from a visual dialog about things external to the artist and has become almost completely and exclusively about the artist. The selfie being one of the most obvious examples of encroaching and pandemic narcissism available in the entire history of mental health.

What used to be a symbol of one's dedication to imaging as a passion (the conventional camera) has become an almost embarrassing relic that instantly pegs one as being of a certain generation and mindset as surely as wearing a (non-smart, or is it "unsmart") wristwatch that merely tells time --- or ordering drip coffee as opposed to french pressse or espresso based coffee. The larger camera, festooned with a long, fast zoom lens, is as expressive, and potentially embarrassing a symbol (in today's pyramid of personal, wearables) of one's obsolescence as sporting a Palm Pilot or listening to music CDs on a Sony Walkman CD player.  The world, with a more or less anemic, quasi-cathartic shrug just moved on and this complete transition happened in the space of about two years. Tops. The eery thing is that all this seemed to creep up on us but we would have seen it coming if we'd only been paying attention.

I wondered why I felt the need to do my purge of all the extraneous cameras I'd built up, like calluses, over the years just a few months ago. I wondered the same thing when Michael Johnston started the process of shedding his camera collecting surplus all of a sudden and just a few weeks ago. Were these episodes the result of coming to some sort of subliminal tipping point in our collective psyches?
In a flash years of rationalization and earnest resolve re-directed in a reaction to an unseen but no less real shift of priorities and positions, styles and fashions.

For the first time in the month after the purge I never really felt a sense of loss for the equipment I had worked and researched so hard to accrue. All those cameras represented transitional tools without much future---even though they can be used in the same way they were always used, for years to come. The reality is that the precious stuff we tried to translate into substantive imagery missed the boat like paisley patterns surrendering to the next fashion wave.

Now I've left myself with two scaled down systems that each represent something different. I think our small, mirrorless camera system were a dodge on our part to try and delay a change that I now think is inevitable. The camera as accessory, as fashion, as daily seeing tool is completely over. We can continue to carry them and think about how much we need discrete, single use imaging tools but deep down the true, underlying knowledge has soaked in and we know that there's no vibrant cultural market for the images that used to be more about mastery than anything else. There's no reason to be "always ready" for the decisive moment if all moments are equally decisive and indecisive. If we're doing nothing more with the images than feeding the firehose that's draining the creative reservoir while saturating the ground our eyes walk on with homogenous product then really, what's the point?

I look at the Nikon cameras that I have in the studio. There are two. One is a D810 and it's a high resolution tool that we bring out to give clients the best technical quality we can bring to bear for a reasonable investment. The D610 is much the same but at a lower resolution tier that's more practical for more jobs. We use both of the cameras to produce video for clients as well. Neither camera is a sexy choice. Neither one emulates the newly trendy rangefinder design of decades past. Neither is whimsically small and compact. They aren't exciting to shoot. They are rudimentary tools and that's the way I see them now.

The Olympus cameras I own are, I think, a last gasp attempt to keep myself rooted in the type of photography that seemed to me to be different from the bifurcated imaging universe I see today; the current milieu divided between images done for money (Nikon) and images done as consumable and wholly narcissistic expressions (iPhones). To me the smaller, mirrorless cameras represent the Leicas we carried in leisure moments and during the shoots to which we brought the big medium format cameras to bear. The smaller cameras resonate with me and my generation because they are a meme and a psychological link to the cameras and photo styles of people whose work and celebrity we both appreciated and envied. The Robert Franks, Alex Webbs, Susan Meisales's, Sebastiao Salgados and so many others who made photography seem glamorous, thought provoking and elite.

We've moved, as a society, from a time when photography was a privileged form of expression--- from people who seemed to be blends of artist and mechanic. They knew the language and they knew how to make the lenses and rangefinders and meters do their bidding in the service of their creation. The turning points for everything in our photographic world came when presentation (in galleries, magazines, portfolios and books) was replaced by the self-involved narrative on the web--- in which the photographer is also actor and subject and a participant in his own constructions. And in many instances, the sole interested spectator.

In the end analysis will probably show that once something that was at one time difficult to do, difficult to present, and difficult to parse, becomes ubiquitous and all encompassing, and as simple as proletariat language, it loses its power in one sense and the power is replaced in a  different way. Now instead of a single image speaking to an attentive audience we have art as capacitor charging up with millions and millions of amazingly similar images until the concentration of images creates a universal reference current of that subject and individual interpretations are completely lost in the inertia to the median.

How else to explain the enormous drop in cameras sales? The drop in enrollment in photography courses? The drop in the use of commissioned images? The general malaise among hobbyists and enthusiasts? The ebb of students from any workshop that's not strictly vocational in service to the craft?

We'll all protest that I've misinterpreted this dip in the rhythm of traditional photography; and it may be that we are just waiting for it to be reinvented in some new way. I'd love for this to happen if it's true. But I think the days of the precious show of landscapes in a stark gallery with white walls all around and appreciative audiences wondering from well crafted print to well crafted print began to die the moment Flickr and the rest of the photo sharing sites were brought forth and flung freely to the masses. Pandora learned the hard way that once the box was open we were never going to go in reverse.

I still go to shows but it's more a reflection of my generational status. Many times the audiences at even the most important shows seem like conventions of men over 50. The world has moved on, we just like to see if we can sense the addictive residue of our time on the walls.

All this rambling doesn't mean for a second that we can't enjoy taking photographs for ourselves. It doesn't even mean that we can no longer create images for money, but it does mean that everything has changed and our culture is shifting. The screen is in peoples' hands now. The images are tiny. Because they are tiny they are much more fun if they are kinetic---always moving. That's where the ads are going and that's where the content is going and no matter how you pitch it the way we absorb images has changed and that makes imaging itself change.

This is neither bad nor good in an existential sense but I can't help remembering that every generation of product development is not aimed at making the consumer happier; it is aimed at making the product itself more economical to put together, less costly to ship, easier to repair  (or replace) and more indispensable. In the same way content is driven in the same direction. How do you make it easier to construct? More appealing to larger demographics? Easier and faster to deliver? And, much more profitable; even if that means millions paying pennies rather than hundreds paying real money?

The current thought poem for the culture of money and art is that rather than make one great thing that shows for a limited amount of time we can manipulate human curiosity by making many, many lesser productions and create a pipeline of continual release that keeps the curious and trend seeking constantly at the trough. That's the current and future middle of the Bell Curve of imaging today.

Is it any wonder that we're all a bit lost about the craft we loved so much?

I love the process. I won't stop. I'll keep shooting and printing even if I'm the only audience left but that doesn't keep me from being sad about what I think we're losing. Flip that around though and a different generation might see the shift as a gift. A plus. A natural part of the evolution cycle.

This may be true but I'm pretty certain that the current camera makers aren't going to be very happy about it either.

Finally, in fine art like painting, every new movement, cenaclé and school pushed out the ones that came before it. Fauvism, Pointillism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art and Op Art. Now we're back to Neo-realism (which is manifesto-disguised representational art). Each shift led the successors to destroy the interest in and appreciation of their previous ancestors. No reason why this shift in photography will be any different.



Just re-read it and it seems cogent.

An interesting, tangential blog post from Thom Hogan: http://www.dslrbodies.com/newsviews/where-were-headed.html

A fun infographic that explains this better than I did: http://kindofnormal.com/truthfacts/2015/05/11


Back from my vacation in Saratoga Springs and ready to get back to work.


I needed a break so I convinced Ben and Belinda that I needed to head up to New York to help Ben pack up all his winter stuff (coats, boots, comforters, many pairs of gloves, acres of Polartec and GorTex and some towels) for the Summer. The boy is really very competent and quite able to handle all this on his own but if you see a travel opportunity you can couch as a favor it's my belief that you might want to consider taking it. I would then travel back with Ben to Austin. It all worked well except for the trip back. And that's totally on the weather! We ended up being delayed overnight in Albany as nothing was flying in or out of Chicago, our half way point back to Austin... 

I didn't take anything spectacular, camera and lens-wise, along with me to Saratoga Springs. Just a Nikon D610 and the cheap but nice 50mm f1.8G. There were times when I would have liked a lens that was a little longer but I am constantly reminded by my more pragmatic photo friends that "cropping is always an option." 

It's an interesting experiment to limit oneself to a single camera and a single lens in this day and age of near endless choices. While we would have thought nothing of the concept back in the days of the twin lens Rolleiflex cameras (non-interchangeable, normal lens) or as a student with a Leica M3 and a 50mm Summicron (too poor to buy other lenses...) it does seem strange to willingly limit your choices in the grand age of zoom lenses. 

It's a good exercise though, and it's amazing to see how quickly one gets used to the focal length and the constraints of composition. By the end of the first day I was finding good ways to cram everything I wanted into the frame and by the third day my brain was only looking for compositions that would match the angle of view; or,  in a pinch, a slightly wider scene that could be cropped. 

The Nikon D610, on the other hand, seems to have no limitations at all; if you discount the reality that the camera can't natively shoot square format images conveniently....

I enjoyed my time in Saratoga Springs a great deal. Unencumbered by the mountains of gear I'd been hauling around on my annual report project the week before I felt almost naked with only one camera and one lens. Heck, I didn't even go through the first camera battery by the end of my visit. The one thing I did do though was to eat well. Saratoga Springs seems to have more than its share of really good restaurants. My good friend in the town introduced me on the first night to a small place that's been there for decades called, Hattie's. The specialty of the house is fried chicken. Of course that's what I got. When the plate came I was overwhelmed. It was half a chicken. Perfect if you live in town and can take home leftovers....  But the chicken and the sides were incredible. And the company first rate.

The next morning I had a superb latte at my favorite local coffee house, Uncommon Grounds, and then lunch with the boy at the dining hall at Skidmore College. The choices were wide and varied and I made an unlikely but satisfying match of fettuccine Alfredo and steamed kale. I'd promised to take the boy out for an "end of the semester" dinner and I left the choice of restaurants up to him. We ended up at a nice place on Broadway called, Max London's. Nicely done Tuscan hanger steaks, arrugula salads, etc. 

The only glitch I have to report in my travels, and that is totally my fault, was leaving my iPhone charger in my hotel room. By mid-day Friday the calls, texts and voice mails were starting to stack up and I planned on dealing with the communications outbreak during our wait at the airport. That's when I discovered that the charger was missing. I was mulling this over when the weather struck. A possible hurricane moving toward the east coast neatly framed on the other side by a thousand mile swath of tornados and violent thunderstorms from Austin to Chicago and most places in between. 

We ended up spending the night in a hotel next to the airport in Albany and then getting up on Saturday morning at 4:15am to make all new connections. I was nervous because I was scheduled to photograph a gala event on Saturday evening in Austin. Two good friends of mine were the co-chairs and Lucy Johnson, the former president's daughter, was to be the keynote speaker. 

Southwest airlines didn't let me down. While the Saturday morning rides were plenty bumpy we pulled into the gate at Austin Bergstrom airport right on time. Four hours later I was shooting "grip and grin" photographs and looking longingly at the open bar...

I took the same D610 body but with the 24-85mm zoom lens and a 105mm f2.5 lens for a little extra reach during the speeches. I also took along an Olympus EM-5.2 and it's friend, the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 zoom and a little Olympus flash. I've never thought of Olympus cameras as being strong on-camera flash systems but the combination nailed just about everything I pointed it at. By the end of the evening I was having fun going back and forth between the two systems, mostly just to see how they handled quick flash stuff. 

Now I'm back in the studio and I have a white board full of things that need to get done before next week even gets started. The coming week is filled with "wrap up" stuff. Final retouching on some annual report images, billing jobs already delivered and resettling gear into an organized holding pattern, making it ready for the next wave.

Tomorrow's assignment is to shoot images for print advertising during a video shoot for a large, statewide, medical practice. I pack the cameras but the production company sets the scene and lights it. Should be good, clean fun. 

All the best to my friends in Saratoga Springs. Nice town you've got there...




Not my hotel. Just channeling Eggleston. Or Stephen Shore.

From my Walker Evans phase.