The ‘death of photography’ debate is not a new one. As digital photography made strides past film in the 1980s, so the smartphone, internet era now seems to threaten photography’s status as a profession and an art form. However, while the traditional (if it ever was) industry and practice of photography faces undeniable challenges, this new landscape – in which the medium is, paradoxically, more popular than ever – is less hostile than it first appears.
Casual photography plays a fundamental role in our daily lives, shaping the way we capture experiences and communicate with each other.
Smartphone cameras, editing apps and of course Instagram, have hugely affected the way we take, and think about, photographs today. Picture taking itself is now as normal as tying shoelaces – done almost instantly and with little second thought. Casual photography plays a fundamental role in our daily lives, shaping the way we capture experiences and communicate with each other. The art itself is no longer a difficult technical practice, confined to those with expertise and expensive equipment. Instead, we are now all photographers, at least in the limited sense that we can all capture, produce and disseminate our own aesthetically pleasing images.
Not surprisingly, smartphone technology has damaged the areas of professional photography which relied on the exclusive technical ability of photographers. Events, weddings and portraits were once the exclusive ground of an industry professional. Now, however, friends of the bride and groom can easily muster a few professional looking photos. The professionals in such areas are affected two ways: either their work is demanded from them at a much cheaper rate (as with the £50 standard for end-of-year events at Exeter) or not at all.
This really is no bad thing, unless you’re an ardent purist or the wedding photographer affected by all this. If such previously lucrative photography extracted its value from technical basics that an iPhone can easily reproduce, then the ‘skill’ of setting up a photo – to the right shutter-speed, white balance, and so on – was arguably mechanical and rudimentary. While the purist might argue that a knowledge of how the camera works is essential, this becomes a moot point in an era where ‘good-looking’ images can be made without it.
This value – of seeing the world through the eyes of others – is achieved to an unprecedented level in today’s world.
However, mechanical technique is half the picture. It is one thing to take a technically balanced photo; it is another to compose it with a sophistication and awareness that communicates a specific message. This is where experienced photographers will always have the upper hand. The continued success of professional editorial, fashion, documentary and art photographers shows the value of astute composition and sophisticated visual communication. Here, great images do more than merely capture their subject matter as it is. Instead, they convey a specific message about it – whether a high-profile portrait, a fashion statement, a socio-political issue – to which the photographer’s experience, ingenuity and sensitivity is vital. If image taking is mechanical, image ‘making’ is a distinctively human practice which smartphone technology will always struggle to reproduce.
Despite this, there remains a threat that committed photographers will face an oversaturation and cheapening of photographic practice, where sophistication and creative voice is overlooked. With images everywhere, pumped out every second, it might seem increasingly difficult for photographers with a nuanced, subtle message to ‘get noticed’. But the possibility is there, with social platforms offering photographers the chance to create a specific audience for their work. What matters is that, in doing so, photographers develop their own distinctive voice rather than conforming to marketability, and are received by audiences who pay closer attention to the ideas contained within photographs, rather than their superficial and easily attainable aesthetic appeal.
While the economic value of photography today – and the possibility of a lucrative career in the industry – might be challenged by its proliferate and widespread use, its cultural value remains strong. This value – of seeing the world through the eyes of others – is achieved to an unprecedented level in today’s world. Furthermore, the medium’s ever-changing status is often reflected in the practice of many contemporary photographers (Alec Soth, Wolfgang Tillmans and Tobias Zielony to name a few) and in recent exhibitions (with The Photographers’ Gallery’s ‘All I Know Is What’s On The Internet’ a current example).
Photography, it seems, is embracing yet another transitional phase, with its practice changing and diversifying as the less adaptive are left behind. As the medium becomes more popular and at the same time more saturated, the art and practice of photography – if not as lucrative as it was – is still very much alive