We are all photographers
I hear this sentiment frequently. “Now with digital, everyone thinks they’re a photographer”. And the more defensive, “owning an expensive canon or nikon doesnt make you a photographer”. But if I remember correctly, nearly everyone in the country has owned a camera since the 1970’s. That’s the reason you can pick up a Canon AE-1, that would have cost several hundred dollars in 1976, at the thrift store today for $40. Digital cameras have not popularized photography in the last ten years. duh. Not to mention, that mind-set is completely psuedo-elitist. Everyone who takes photos IS a photographer and taking photographs has been a staple of american society and culture for decades. Who cares who calls themselves a photographer, what settings they use, or how much they spent on a camera. Worry more about YOUR pictures if it’s something you like and/or want to take seriously.
Not too long ago, there was a brief and interesting dust-up (maybe? It was kind of car-crashy and I’m still unsure about what went down) over at the Tumb-la-ma-logs between one Keith McArthur and one Brian Everett, and it made me think much about photography as an art form, what it means and about its purpose.
First, some groundwork: Keith is right in saying that digital cameras have not popularized photography in the last ten years. The Internet has popularized photography over the past ten years. It made it possible for folks like me, whose photos would normally end up in a yellowed photo album in some bookcase or, more probably, in a stack of shoeboxes on the upper-most shelf in the closet, to show and share their photographs with a much broader audience. I also would argue that photo sharing over the internet contributes a great deal to many people becoming better photographers, technically (and perhaps artistically) speaking. It also removed any sense of rarity or preciousness from photographs, one of the main reasons, probably, we’re seeing a resurgence in film as well as digital manipulations that mimic film. There’s another reason, too, which I’ll come to in a moment.
In the 1970’s, while photography wasn’t rare, photographs were. Film was an expense, as were prints. Search through your grandparents’ and parents’ photo shoeboxes and you won’t find one hundred photos from the same birthday party. You won’t find a thousand pictures taken during a week’s vacation at the Grand Canyon. Those kinds of numbers were simply unaffordable. Practice was expensive.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t great photographs produced by amateur photographers, however. In one, made by my mom during a summer trip to Kansas, my sister’s about four or five and chubby cheeked. Her auburn hair is cut in a simple style, nearly pageboy. She sits on an upturned pickle bucket in high grass gone to seed and to the right and out of frame, the sun sets, casting a gold-orange glow on her hair, the grass tops, the fishing rod she holds in her hands. There is no lake visible, no place for fish, and the gold-glow photograph takes on a surreal aspect: a child fishing in grass afire at sunset. Only you can’t see it. It’s in a photo album on a shelf somewhere, I think.
My mom didn’t plan the photograph, and the result was totally unexpected. Beautiful, yes. Magical, yes. But completely unintended.
My point here is two-fold. First, we’re seeing more people consider themselves photographers, either professionally or as a primary hobby, because they produce more good photographs. Previously, when you had to consider whether or not a photograph was worth making, amateur photographers chose to mark those occasions they didn’t want to forget—birthdays, family reunions, weddings and anniversaries (why people don’t make pictures at funerals I’ll never understand, but that’s just me). They were much more concerned with recording the event than with making a compelling shot. Now, however, with development and reproduction costs nearly zero (from memory card to computer to web site), there’s no reason not to make as many photos as possible every time someone pulls out the camera.
Running the numbers
My memory card can hold about 150 photos in RAW format. If I shoot jpeg (heaven forbid) that number jumps to about 300. If I figure I’ll get one good photo out of every ten I shoot, that comes out to 15 good photos every time I fill up the memory card. Does that make me a photographer? Who knows? That number might equate with an accidental shooter—give me and a blind guy the same camera, let us each shoot 150 photos, and we just might come out with the same number of compelling photographs (though right now I’d wager he’d come out with more).
So yes, everyone now is a photographer, capable of producing compelling images, assuming they shoot enough images to begin with and are technically savvy enough to pull the images off their memory card and get those images onto the internet. But it’s not as if the conscious decisions they’re making photo to photo are producing compelling images. Rather, the entry barrier to a good photo has gotten so low, nearly anyone can do it.
Then why don’t we see more good photographs?
Photography is an interesting art form. Of all art forms, it is the most accessible. As a people we are most familiar with it (see the shoeboxes, above). There is little mysterious about it, assuming we’re talking straight or minimally altered photographs here, and not Photoshopped surreality, which I would place firmly in the collage camp. So what then produces in us the idea that a photograph is compelling? I would say one of three things:
First, the photograph is simply beautiful. Much fashion photography falls into this category. Architectural photography, too, though it often bridges this first category and second. Simply put: the easiest way to claim a compelling photograph is to make a photograph of someone breathtaking.
Second, the photograph places us firmly in a specific place at a moment in history. The most compelling documentary photographers provide this in shot after published shot.We saw it in the famous kiss between nurse and sailor, a moment of execution in Vietnam. We’re seeing it now in the White House’s Flickr stream. The photos are composed well, technically good, but more importantly, they transport us to a place and time we could never have experienced, and since it’s gone–changed–can never experience again. This, I think, is photography’s widest use and why so many people fail at creating images compelling to others: personal photographs often lack universal appeal because there is no significance to their creation. So your dog can stand on its hind legs. That’s great. Talented dog. Next? And because so many cameras now are so good, the technical superiority of one photo over another is becoming less and less an issue for appeal.
The third realm of photography is a bit harder to pin down and relies on photography’s ability to transport us, but also on our familiarity with it. And it’s why, I would argue, so many people these days are harkening back to film. There’s something familiar about film. The grain of it, the slight blur. The warm, yellow cast of indoor lighting. It’s familiar to us, almost inherently. Thus, a simple photograph of a middle-aged couple on a faded couch can be incredibly compelling because it stirs in us a wide range of memories and emotions based on our own encounters with the same kind of photograph. We say to ourselves, however unconsciously, this photograph reminds me of…something. Perhaps it’s Aunt Clair and Uncle Dan. Perhaps it’s your mom and dad just before they split. Whatever memory we conjure is bound to have emotion attached to it. It’s almost unavoidable, and the ability to slip from one past to the viewer’s past is what makes so many seemingly simple snapshots so compelling. We feel like we were there because we were. Just not right there, and not right then.
This is what I see often in popular photographs and among popular photographers on Flickr and Tumblr–and before you skewer me about the source of my photographs, remember that we’re talking about a wide net: all of us are photographers, so you can keep your rarefied art world arguments for another time, thanks. I see this bridge between moment and memory, a kind of universal fix on a singular idea: the romance of a young girl with balloons, the whimsy of Polaroids clipped to clothesline. The yellow cast and sun flare of staring too long into the sun when we were young and foolhardy and figured our souls invulnerable.
This is the place I’m trying to go with several series I have in the works. This place of shared memories not exact, but not dissimilar. I work with a digital camera and a car, and I try to exploit the lure of the American highway. I don’t know yet if I’ll be successful, but I do think I have a good idea about intent.
And maybe that should be the criteria in the end. Intent. What do we intend for our photographs, and based on that intent, do they succeed and fly or fail and fall?
Have thoughts you’d like to share? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from all of you.