This is prompted by a post and subsequent discussion on 1/125 about the persistent ignorance by photographers of photographic history.
We’re constantly seeing news stories, blog posts, etc. bemoaning how photography has changed “in the digital age.” There are debates about whether Photoshop post-processing or in-camera Hipstamatic-style filters are somehow cheating or lying or not photography. And, as in the 1/125 post, there are existential questions about what it means to be a photographer when anyone or everyone can be a photographer.
What I find interesting is that none of the questions are new but there’s an assumption by many people that something is different now. Maybe the context is different now. Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point where the same old questions have different answers than they used to.
I believe that there is indeed something different happening now but that people are asking the wrong questions. It’s very easy to ask the same old questions because those questions have been around forever.
In photography, the digital revolution is not a technological revolution. It is a social one. Photography’s history is marked by the constant democratization of access to the medium and a parallel dialog about what it means to actually be a photographer (artistically and/or professionally). Digital photography drastically increased the conversion rate of people into photographers. The revolution however is one of ignorance and innocence as the parallel dialog has come to be dominated by people who do not understand the past.
The questions now should have more to do with the consumption of photography, not the creation of it.
Now that anyone can publish, how do we know whether what we’re looking at is worth looking at? It’s fine for me to determine my own criteria, but I can’t expect the general populace to have the same level of awareness and knowledge. Who should be people’s photography guide in an age of internet experts and easy opinions?
How do I hire a professional photographer when I can no longer rely on the equipment to serve as a proxy for technical competence? 100 years ago, baby photos such as the one of my grandfather at the top of this post were made by professional photographers who operated a camera and created family photos. 50 years ago, most baby photos were taken by cheap bakelite cameras but professional photographers still existed for formal posed photos. Now, amateur equipment is identical to professional equipment* and it’s completely expected that the general public no longer knows what to expect from a professional.
*This brings up a side observation which I haven’t seen mentioned at all. While photography is distinguished by the increase in access to the tools of creation, it’s also distinguished by the gradual amateurization of professional equipment.
Our problem as photographers is that we’re focusing on the wrong questions. We’re still worried about distinguishing ourselves. What we should be concerned about is educating others. If we can’t teach people what to expect from a professional or what makes good photography, it won’t matter how much we try and make good photography ourselves.