Tuesday, September 24, 2013
As images get more commoditized, pro photographers play a more important role than ever
Everyone in the photography community knows about the uproar that followed in the wake of the firing of the Chicago Sun-Times staff photographers and the subsequent "classes" given to staff reporters on the use of iPhones. A few weeks after the layoffs, a comparison between the lead photo about the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup victory on the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times went viral. A friend emailed that comparison to me, and it prompted me to rant a bit about a fundamental change I've noticed in photography. Several articles and blog posts that came across my various news feeds inspired me to reexamine my rant.
Myth: The Tool = The CraftThe medium of photography has always confused the tool with the actual talent and craft. Every photographer has a story about showing a favorite photo and getting the question, "What kind of camera did you use?" The leap of logic is that the photographer didn't take the picture, the camera did. In the iPhone era, it has become prevalent to take this same notion in a bizarre new direction. Since it's the camera that really takes the picture, and since that picture just has to be good enough for display on the web, just show people how to use an iPhone, and you've got Photography and Photographers. Note, it's not about showing people how to SEE. This bizarro-world mind-set has become so common that the very institutions that should be leading the medium forward are actively defining the craft in terms of a tool of the lowest common denominator. Who needs DSLRs and the photojournalists who know how to use them? iPhone snaps are good enough for the web, so all we need are the people who have iPhones. The limitations of the mass-market device are driving the state of the art.
We're in an unprecedented age when, as a culture, we're actively and willingly regressing on image quality. We have tools—incredibly advanced DSLRs and fine optics—that can take sharp, clear photos, and motion clips at higher resolutions and bit rates than ever before. We can do more with those images and videos, yet collectively the "it's good enough for the web" and "it's fine for YouTube" mentality is becoming prevalent.
At the same time, photographic creativity is being equated with the application of grungy Instagram filters, as a recent Lexus ad shows. The Instagrammers who were invited to participate in this "creative collaboration" were precisely placed by the Lexus team who had preplanned the composition of, literally, every single frame in what's essentially a stop-motion commercial. There was even a sign on the set admonishing the Instagrammers, "Do Not Mess With The Crop. Instagram Will Crop For You." I love Instagram (you can follow me if you'd like), but I don't think the app is the pinnacle of photographic creativity. And don't get me wrong, I love my iPhone. I shoot photos with it and share them on Instagram all the time, but it hasn't relegated my 5D and my quiver of lenses to the closet. The iPhone is always with me, which is great for snaps, as a camera of last resort and as a photography sketch pad. The iPhone shouldn't define photography, though. At the Chicago Sun-Times, I believe they've confused the tool with the craftsman. The insidious thing is that more and more people have the same confusion. Knowing how to use a camera, whether it's a modern DSLR or an iPhone equipped with Instagram, is the first step to being a photographer. It's not the end of that journey.