Will Photography Ever Walk on Two Legs Again?

Photography called, it’s fallen and can’t get up. Copyright 2019 Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

A friend of mine sent me an email in the middle of the night regarding two questions that were haunting him.

The first, why does photography suck today?

The second, what’s up with all the photography cheating scandals?

Now, before you get all huffy about the first question, take solace in the fact that photography does suck today. No, not a question, said while wagging a finger and doing an Amanda Priestly impersonation, it simply does.

Photography shouldn’t suck, as it’s never been easier. Which might just be a big part of the problem.

It’s so easy today, that a self anointed expert, with YouTube followers in the six figures, can profile a new lens while shooting it with one hand and recording himself on his iPhone with the other.

Something that easy isn’t likely to engage one’s brain, but that’s not the whole answer, as people who really want to be good at photography suck at it as well.

Making photography easy has been the goal of camera manufacturers since Kodak introduced the Brownie. Easy things should be easy, like playing bass kind of easy.

You hear about the guy who signed up for five easy lessons on playing bass? He missed the last three because he had a gig.

There’s plenty of bass players out there, but there’s only one Bootsy Collins, and whatever he did to become great wasn’t easy to learn, or easy to survive for that matter.

Photography starts out easy enough. it only becomes hard once you start getting good at it. It’s fun, a learnable craft, a hobby, but be careful. You feed it after midnight, like my buddy did, and it can turn into a real monster.

Learning this craft in the darkroom days was difficult. We all know this, even those of us who’ve never worked in one. It’s a cliche. Still, we use this as a touchstone to mark the craft’s decline. The ease of digital lowered the bar, lowered the self-culling rate that once encouraged low and medium talents to find the lightproof, revolving door and show themselves out.

My buddy took it a step further. He raised an interesting point that is worth exploring.

He challenged me to think of a world where nothing in media was “real”, whether that medium was working in fiction or nonfiction, everything and anything could be depicted on screen in a realistic manner. He used the release of James Cameron’s The Abyss as the watershed. When that film came out in 1989, thirty years ago, its main selling point was the lifelike digital effects. Not the acting, or story telling, or anything else that is crucial to good film making. Just the special effects. Everything written about the movie, the reason people went to see it, was to see the groundbreaking computer trickery.

That’s the place where today’s young photographer grew up. If you think it, you can photograph it. They’ve never known a world where post-production didn’t exist.

Combine that mindset with the infamous shaky camera Folgers Coffee commercial (which first aired at about the same time). Once, these commercials were carefully scripted stories designed to sell coffee, but now the story was gone. The narrative was replaced by style. Remove the story and there’s no need for a moment, a resolution, or even a call to action (to put it in advertising terms).

Of course, all narrative wasn’t abandoned, and style didn’t completely replace substance, but I do think there’s something to this.

Imagine you’ve grown up hearing only elevator music. There’s still music, it’s just that all the soul and creativity has been removed. With that as your base, what kind of music do you think you’d create yourself?

Garbage in, garbage out.

Music of course has an advantage over photography. If you want to tap into the power of classic music created by passionate artists who knew their craft, you sample it. You piggyback your new work onto the strong shoulders of those who came before you. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when James Brown’s (pre or post Bootsy) wheel is still rocking and rolling along nicely.

Film directors use this same trick as well with the montage set to a pop music classic. It’s easy to take a pretty woman and turn her into Pretty Woman when Roy Orbison has done all the heavy lifting.

You can’t sample Eddie Adams. Joking! Don’t be silly, of course you can. Just don’t expect that your Lego recreations will help bring any wars to a quicker end. They will however look splendid hanging in some hipster’s dining room. Oh the irony.

And this is where we’re at.

We’ve gone from the mostly practical effects of the first three Star Wars films, which required a stunt person to do something risky and amazing, to the later versions that have Jedi Knights sprinting around like Benny Hill. As viewers we’re invested in the first and laugh at the later.

Yes, I just searched “star wars benny hill” on YouTube and this came up (along with many others). It’s from the first Star Wars movie of course, but still makes the point. You’re welcome.

Photography is about experiencing the moment. Observing something in real time and sharing it with the viewer in a visual appealing way. You’ve got to be in the room to make that happen. You’ve got to be on the street in Saigon. You’ve got to know what it smells like before you can properly see it. This isn’t writing after all. That’s what photography is all about.

Photography today is like listening to music made by people who’ve only experienced Muzak. They’ve never heard the original version of Walk This Way. They don’t know who Aerosmith is and Run DMC just frustrates them.

Me — “Dude, you’ve got the iTunes, just type in AEROSMITH and give it a listen.” Them — “I’d never let my vision be tarnished by an outside influence. And how dare you assume my gender!” Me — “Um, okay. Sorry?”

And that’s before we get into the whole old-white-males thing.

There’s nothing older and whiter than Muzak (I’m not sure on its gender), and that’s what photography has become today. The influences that you should be studying aren’t always at your fingertips. It takes work. It takes time. Sometimes it even takes money. You might need to buy a book now and then. It’s easier to just get on the elevator and tap your toes. Don’t fight it. Don’t make any waves. Accept of course when someone makes a joke or two that offends you, then it’s time to release the Kraken.

(At this point I’d like to offer my humble apologies to all the bass players out there.)

Photography is bland and lacks soul because it got rebooted. The past was forgotten so it was forced to start over. Right now it’s in the Brownie stage of evolution. Everybody has a camera, it’s easy, it’s cheap and it is accessible. People are using it in very straightforward way, like how the first fashion photography mimicked the illustrations that Vogue had previously relied upon.

The fashion magazines and the photographers who served them evolved quickly, but they were motivated. Magazines made money. Lots of it. The photographers who served them best, who brought in readers, made money too. Sadly, we don’t have that motivation anymore. Most of the photographers you see getting published today are working for peanuts on the frontend, and don’t make any licensing fees for their work on the backend.

Where’s the motivation in that?

The best photographers have largely left the party. The marketplace has forced them out. You can see it in the political coverage coming out of Washington DC and on the campaign trail. We’re back in the Ektachrome 160, pushed a stop days. Pictures of record. Beto stood on another countertop. Here’s the proof.

Don’t expect any of this to change anytime soon. Without competition there’s no stress on the marketplace. No motivation to get better. No reason to evolve. The people who would have applied that pressure, who would have inspired and motivated the pack, have moved on.

You know it’s true.

The same can be said for sports photography, portraits, street, name your genre. The low and medium talents are thriving. They think they’re in the show, and they are. The fact that nobody cares to watch the show anymore is lost on them.

To answer the second question, the contest scandals, that aren’t really contest scandals because the rules are vague, changed, or rationalized into meaningless drivel. This trend is also due to the rebooting of the craft. It’s like the ectoplasm photos of the 1920’s, or press photos before the idea of not setting things up was firmly established (say in the 1950’s for most of us and around 1900 and never for National Geographic). People do it because they think the results are cool and they get rewarded for it.

At some point, well maybe, people will collectively realize that the power of photography lies in its ability to record a scene as it is, not as we imagine it to be. That the odd power line or telephone pole in an otherwise “perfect” landscape, makes the picture and doesn’t ruin it.

Well, we can hope. Evolution is a notoriously slow process. Remove the competition and there’s no reason for it at all.

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