No other art form is going through so big and fast changes as is photography. We are witnesses to a photographic revolution, a “photolution”.
What is it?
It has many element coming together in synergy. Here are some:
• The smartphones, their ever smaller and lighter equipment with ever more imprssive camera performance. It belongs to the past that, say, iPhone photos had to be low quality. True you can’t do with them what you can with a ‘real’ camera, a digital SLR, but you get super quality pictures with which you can do other things such as using:
• Apps small and cheap tools helping you to do hitherto unimaginable things when taking and processing a shot. That you can’t do – yet – with a digital SLR, although I guess we shall soon get apps for them too – like you can now get extensions and accessories including lenses for the iPhone that make it come even closer to the DSLR.
• We can carry them with us permanently – “the best camera is the one you carry with you” and not the one you left at home, too bulky, heavy, expensive and thus risky to take along.
But of course the smartphone revolution is only one sub-revolution of the larger photolusion. Whether you use this or that type of digital camera, you become part of the very dynamic changes caused by:
• Digitalisation – the end of expensive films and darkroom processing. Digital formats are free and can be processed in millions of ways – even to the point where the original shot is hard to identify.
• Photoshopping – the immense possibilities embedded in that super complex software that makes your old darkroom look like a thing of the stone-age. While you can’t make a bad image better in Photoshop you can certain make a good one better – or turn it into something completely different such as a piece of abstract art, but still photography- based.
• We increasingly live in an age of images and communicate through images. still or video. It is very true that one image can say more than a thousand words – not because texts are not important or effective as means of communication or because they can not give more vivid information and details but because people, grosso modo and sadly so – don’t seem to think that they have the time to read but do take time to see.
The latter is often quite superficial, however, as any gallery owner or museum guard will tell you. Research done at art museums reveals that the average time people spend in front of an art work is 15-30 seconds.
• Social media and globalisation and the across-the-world communication revolution. Images as media and carriers of meaning and messages is increasing exponentially – one estimate has it that 1,8 billion images are uploaded daily!
• Photography has been accepted as an art form in and of itself. Nobody in the know dares say that there is art and photo – as if photography wasn’t art or could not be art. Photography is going through the same acceptance process prints and multiples did in the 1950 and 1960s – you know the time when people thought that the only fine thing to have on their walls was an oil painting.
A couple of reasons for that are:
• Artists took in photography in various forms and shapes as elements in their paintings and prints – just think Rauschenberg, Richter, Polke, Hamilton, Hockney – the latter funnily thinking some years ago that photography was kind of dead. Rauschenberg was a brilliant photographer (too). And perhaps photo realism – paintings looking like photographs – have played a role too?
By using photography in collages and other contexts, these and many other artists gave credibility to photography being an art form – potentially, at least – and not merely a hobby or family thing.
• Prices on the market. In an era where people collect art at least as much because they see art as an investment as because they love art, photographic art is greatly helped by fetching ever higher prices at auctions and photo-specialised galleries. No, I can hear you say, prices don’t necessarily correlate with quality. And I agree. But in a way high prices is a factor that helps photography as such to be defined as ‘fine’ art – also all the photography that never ends up in auction houses.
• Photography now inhabits its own “world” – specialised galleries, museums, academies, fairs, contests, magazines, and auctions – it’s becoming a respected art form in more than one sense in the broader “art world”.
Technological innovation and what it might mean?
Much of the above has happened because of technological innovation. What could it mean for the substance – the content, nature, deep identity or whatever – of (art) photography?
One thing is fairly sure: photography will never again be what it once was. It is a revolution in the media, techniques, forms of presentation, etc.
The concept of art expands – again
When painting was a dominant art form – well, it still is of course but – graphic prints with their numbered editions as well as photography wasn’t serious. It could take months or years to paint a painting. And those who did – as well as their connoisseurs – thought that it shouldn’t be possibly to press a button in 1/60 of a second and then call it art.
Could it be that something similar has happened the last 10-20 years? That photographers with an (D)SLR think it is too ‘cheap’, not ‘real’ photography and cannot possibly be art when somebody presents them with a digital image shot with a smartphone, perhaps through an app, heavily processed there or in Photoshop and then uploaded to, say, Instagram and various websites – digital galleries and portals etc.?
Collectively sharing worldwide
For instance, you may still print out your images and hang them on your wall including gallery walls. I do that and enjoy it immensely. But the days of the traditional photo album and the slide show are numbered.
The present will also, likely, lead to more virtual galleries; of images being submerged into walls or shown on screens on walls, almost like wall paper; images being projected in public places, etc – just as you see huge neon signs for commercial products in the big cities, why should you not see art photography too?
The painting, the sculpture and the print is fixed in time and space. Photography – light -doesn’t have to be, it can be projected onto different surfaces and change constantly or in a sequence that tells you a story – perhaps when you sit on the bench in your city park.
And you’ll have video apps explaining the history and features of any place you go to, including of course exhibitions and fairs.
When some of us were children, the carrying medium was the family photo album. You sat in a small circle looking at small black-and-white images of family members, friends and places.
Today can also be about a single or a few viewers who sit and browse a website or Instagram on an iPad – or take Instagram walks together – but the difference is that at the same time there may be hundreds of thousands who are watching the same image, some sitting not only in your living room but perhaps on the other side of our shrinking globe.
And you can like, share and dialogue about it with them if you want.
This holds a huge potential for community-building, cross-cultural exchanges and – hopefully friendlier – perceptions of what is different from your own culture and ways of seeing.
Whatever the answer to that, my hunch is that all these innovations in and perceptions about what photography should or should not be are already completely re-defining the art of photography from the moment of shooting over processing to presenting and viewing/sharing the final work.
I find it entirely likely that we have only seen the beginnings of this photolution and that there are exciting times ahead for us all – everyone who takes a picture, whether an artist or not, and everyone who views the images.
The picture itself as reality
The days are over too when a photograph was defined as some kind of representation of reality. Painters were always granted the privilege to show us the world in a different, subjective way and not necessarily show us exactly what the motive looked like – it was always interpreted.
But not so photography – it should, predominantly, be reproduction, representation – and deviate no longer from the reality than a black-and-white image did from a reality of colours.
Today’s photography has no such limits. The documentary genre is still around of course – and will always be. It will always be important to be able to take a good landscape photo or portrait.
But then there is all kinds of blurred, abstract, geometric, collage, instantaneous, conceptual, etc. photography – the myriads of every-mutating techniques, purposes, expressions, experimentations, manipulations that photography was never associated with because it could not be – perhaps with the exception of methods such as pinhole photos and photograms (non-camera based).
There was a time too when painting was representation to a large extent too. Then someone arrived on the stage and said – Hey! It doesn’t have to be a depiction of some kind of known reality, it can also be abstract!
From then onward, when a painting became a reality of its own and not associated with a visible reality, painting was revolutionised.
It seems to me that photography is undergoing a somewhat similar metamorphosis – revolution. A photo can very well be a reality of its own, something without any reference points to empirical reality out there. Photo avant-gardists of course knew that long ago; now it is being accepted as an important genre of art photography.
I see this photolution as highly liberating – as a good revolution should be. I’d say that it is by far the most dynamic feature of our contemporary art world – which is just a subcategory of the image times we live in – really and virtually.
Embrace the photolution! Explore whenever you can.
Books I recommend as inspirational and will later write about in details:
Fred Richin, After Photography, W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2009.
Carol Squiers, What is a Photograph? International Center of Photography, Prestel Publishing, New York 2013.
Jackie Higgins, Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus. Modern Photography explained, Thames & Hudson, London 2014.
Marvin Heiferman, Photography Changes Everything, Aperture & Smithsonian, New York 2012.