Photograph by Mark D. Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

The Death of Photography

I figure photography died somewhere around 1995. Gone. Kaput.

But wait you say, what about all these zillions of images I see floating around the web?

Well, if we define photography in the broad sense of the term as any image created through the recording of a scene onto a light sensitive material then, yes,  photography can be said to be alive and well.

On the other hand if we narrow our definition just a bit from anything and everything slapped on a photo sensor to the creation of photographs that can be considered photographic art works, images that while relatively un-manipulated are somehow imbued by the photographer with a power that deeply touches the viewer’s mind and emotions, then I am sure that it has breathed its last. It passed out of existence along with the last working days of the generation of artists that many refer to as the ‘masters of photography’.

So what happened? How did such a powerful and expressive artistic medium come and go so quickly?

Photography is young. It’s barely 200 years old. Compare that to painting or music the origins of which are shrouded in the mists of pre-history. It’s also very technological in its origin and practice. Instead of being born out of humankind’s innate desire to express themselves, like a cave person scratching on the walls with a burnt stick, it began life as a science experiment.

The basic building blocks of photography have been known for centuries – chemicals that darken when exposed to light, the use of simple optics to project an image of a scene onto a flat surface, and even the concept of selectively etching areas of a metal plate with chemicals to print detailed images onto paper. Still for the longest time no one realized that they could put the chemicals on the paper and selectively expose them to light to produce a portable copy of a scene.

Finally in the early 1800s scientists, not artists, started to put two and two together and photography was born. Things just went nuts after that. The tools and techniques of oil painting have hardly changed over millennia, but the photography of today would be unrecognizable to anyone just a few generations ago.

The first rough camera image was created in 1826. It was produced in a laboratory on a metal plate using all sorts of nasty chemicals and had an exposure time of hours. Yet just 75 years later, in 1900, the Kodak company released the Brownie, an inexpensive hand-held camera that let the average consumer take snapshots of their friends and family. That’s what science and technology can do.

Before the end of the twentieth century the entire foundation of photography, the chemical process, was replaced by the release of the first digital cameras – and I mean replaced. When electric guitars came out people didn’t immediately throw away all their acousticals. When electronic keyboards came out people didn’t stop playing real pianos. How many people do you know that still use a film camera? Sure there are a few crazies out there, but to state it loosely, everybody uses digital now.

Not only does everyone use digital now, a very large proportion of the images produced every day don’t even come from a dedicated ‘camera’. They come from sensors built into mobile phones. People take photos without even thinking about it. It’s impossible to know how many images are produced per day, but estimates in the billions are not out of line. Almost every aspect of how photographs are created has changed.

Given its scientific origins, rapid technological advancement, and democratic availability to everyone, it’s no wonder that photography as an art form has a troubled past, a confusing present, and a hazy future.

Just as it took a long time for people to put together the building blocks of photography, it took decades from the time of its invention before it dawned on anyone that they could use a camera in an artistic way. After all it’s just a way to copy scenes exactly as they appear. It’s a historical reporter. It’s the poor man’s portrait painter. It’s scientifically objective not humanly subjective. One photo is the same as the next. Right? Well, not quite.

In the later part of the nineteenth century artists began to see that although all photography may seem the same, there are many different factors that can be adjusted to create unique images. Obviously one can choose the subject and how it’s framed, but they also found that they could manipulate their images during chemical processing. In fact they found that they could manipulate them so much that the results wouldn’t even be recognizable as photographs. Pictorialism was born.

Pictorialists believed that for a photograph to be considered ‘art’ the scene and the development process needed to mimic painting. Fantastical scenes were carefully staged in order to elevate the subject matter above everyday life. Soft focus became all the rage as a way to negate photography’s sharp depictions and make the images more painterly. Elaborate chemical processes were devised to alter the photos to achieve results that looked like drawings or lithographs.

These artists had the right idea. Photographs can indeed be unique. They can be artistic. They can be created by the photographer to be expressive rather than just representational. Unfortunately the pictorialists went too far. They took away everything that makes a photograph a photograph – clarity, sharpness, spontaneity, selectivity, discovery, insight – life. Photography was a unique modern form that reflected a new modernized society. It needed to find its own artistic voice.

…unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art. – Alfred Stieglitz

In the late 1920s and early 1930s the formation of Group f/64 by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke on the west coast and the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand in the east ushered in a new era in American photography. Instead of trying to hide the unique qualities of the photographic process, artists began to embrace them.

Group f/64 stated their case clearly at their 1932 exhibit.

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

Thus began what I consider the heyday of photography. When someone mentions the ‘masters of photography’ they’re almost always referring to artists that worked during the time from this point to around the early 1990s. In a period of just 60 years there were so many great artists – Adams, White, Lange, Winogrand, Avedon, Penn, Cunningham, Weston, Bravo, Tomatsu, Strand, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, Korab, Mapplethorpe, Evans, Arbus

These artists found that a photograph could be a photograph and still be expressive. Elaborate staging and heavy handed manipulation gave way to clarity of vision and mastery of craft. They found that infinite variety and incredible power is available in this medium without the need to turn it into something it isn’t. The source of that power, as with all forms of lasting art, comes from the artist’s ability to combine the prosaic materials of their chosen medium with the ineffable qualities of heart, soul, and vision.

The qualities of the soul are subtle and nuanced. They’re unique to each artist and can’t be copied. They can’t be precisely described. They can’t be reduced to formulae. We know when they’re present and when they’re not. We might not be able to point to anything specific – we feel it. They resonate with us and transform the mundane into the sublime. It’s the same with great photography as it is with all other art forms.

There are thousands of people that can paint a night sky and then there is Van Gogh.

Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. – Vincent Van Gogh

There are thousands of people that can proficiently play the Bach Cello Suites and then there is Pablo Casals.

The heart of the melody can never be put down on paper. – Pablo Casals

There are thousands of people that can take a properly exposed photograph of a mountain and then there is Ansel Adams.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed. – Ansel Adams

Because photography grew out of a laboratory and is so reliant on mechanical and electronic equipment it is incredibly difficult to figure out how to handle it in an artistic way. That’s why it took so long for anyone to realize that photographs could even be art at all and that’s why it was so easy to fall into the trap of turning it into something it’s not. The master photographers of the twentieth century made it their business to solve this conundrum. They looked at the technology, they looked at the world around them, they looked inside themselves, and they blended all three into great works of art.

At first glance a photograph can inform us. At second glance it can reach us. – Minor White

I did a wildly unscientific survey of friends and co-workers. First I asked them to name a famous photographer. Every one of them named someone from the middle of the twentieth century. Next I asked them to name a famous photographer that’s worked in the last 25 years or so – say from around 1995. Nothing. Zip. Zilch.

I spend a lot of time studying photography so I can come up with a dozen twentieth century photographers off the top of my head. I can also name a fair number from the nineteenth century. How many can I name since 1995? Only two: Jerry Uelsmann who does surreal composite images and Annie Leibovitz who does portraits of famous people. If I close my eyes I can recall several popular images, but I can’t put a name to the artist. They’re all one hit wonders and the images are famous due to media play not because they’re especially powerful.

Where did everybody go? Here we are chugging along happily – fantastic work is being produced, Ansel Adams is developing the zone system, Minor White is exploring the spiritual realms, Shomei Tomatsu is showing us how photography is like haiku and then suddenly it’s gone. All gone. Poof.

I’ve come up with four factors that taken together have effectively killed… um, I’m not sure what to call it. As we’ll see fine art photography has lost its meaning. Pure photography? Art photography? Just plain photography? I really don’t know, but anyway the four factors that have lead to my confusion are – technological commercialism, visual fatigue, the loss of meaningful language, and the conceptualization of art.

Technological Commercialism

In the 1950s there was only so much technology that a photographer could buy – mechanical cameras and lenses, enlargers, photo papers, etc. Major advancements in this type of equipment are few and far between. Darkroom work is exacting, tedious, and time consuming. While mastery of the equipment and processes is vital to producing a quality image, there are hard limits to what it can do. A photographer must be able to envision a powerful image at the time the shutter clicks. Most of the great photographers found a set of equipment and processes that fit their style and they stuck with it for years. With a familiar baseline under them they were free to concentrate on image making.

Once software and printers replaced darkrooms and cameras turned into hand-held computers, the churn of equipment began. I know people that use large format film cameras that are older than they are but nobody keeps a digital camera for 50 years. Software is on a continuous development cycle. Everything is obsolete when you take it out of the box. Of course that means that there is money to be made.

Gear companies don’t make money on artists’ souls. Photo mags and websites sell advertising surrounding articles about exotic destinations and the latest must have equipment not Zen meditation or cultivating a receptive state of mind. Image editing software isn’t hawked with claims of fewer features and simpler workflows. Cameras absolutely must have new bells and whistles with every iteration.

It’s the marketing department’s job to constantly sell photographers on new equipment so everywhere you look the message is that great photography is a formula. Carefully constructed slick presentations with eye popping colors reinforce the idea that if you have a certain camera or become a Photoshop expert or travel to a certain place then you too can be a ‘master of photography’ just like their team of ‘experts’.

This is the kind of stuff that messed me up when I was a beginning photographer. I wasted many many years trying to emulate the empty values and techniques that I saw in photo magazines. I was always frustrated. All that time I should have been concentrating on developing my personal style, learning how to capture the essence of my subjects, and honing my understanding of the craft.

Technology moves fast. We went from true masters of photography to tech kiddies in one generation. When technology rules a medium there is no heart and no human expression. Replacing Edward Weston with a Photoshop filter is like replacing a Pavoratti performance with some schmuck using Auto-Tune. It’s paint by numbers and everything looks the same.

Photographers gave up photography because they forgot that a true photograph is a creation of the human mind and heart, not a machine.

Visual Fatigue

Another consequence of the electronic revolution in photography is visual fatigue. Back when a person had to physically go to a gallery or museum or to at least open a book in order to see photographs, there was time to consider and to reflect. Photographers could strive for depth in their works because they knew that viewers would become immersed in their images. A powerful image could engage a viewer while in person and could stay with them long after they went home.

The digital revolution and rise of connectedness has changed all that. Now images come to us in a steady never ending stream. Unless you leave all your devices behind and travel to a wilderness area there is literally no escape from the deluge. On phones, on computers, on billboards, in shop windows, in print, in snail mail, on television – images fight for our attention. I can’t even go to a museum that’s showing a group of photographs without monitors on the walls running videos about the artist and downloadable apps offering to guide me through the exhibit. How can I concentrate on the works? And the images I see don’t stay with me when I leave the museum because I’m presented with a thousand new ones before I get home.

We are so tired of seeing images that we don’t even look at them anymore. Unless we can digest all the content immediately, it’s lost, because we’ve moved on to the next. Minor White never gets his ‘second glance’ – there’s no will and no time left for that. The surface is where it’s at now. Photographs don’t need craftsmanship. They don’t need to express our deepest feelings. They need to be colorful, obvious, and have a kitschy hook.

Photographers gave up photography because depth, expression, and excellence in execution are no longer valued.

The Loss of Meaningful Language

Hand in hand with the visual fatigue that comes with the immense number of photos taken each day is our loss of meaningful language to describe those photos. Let’s take the phrase ‘fine art’ for instance.

The original meaning of any ‘fine art’ medium including photography is the creation of works primarily for aesthetic reasons. A fine art photographer is supposed to be one that takes photos to create art. This is different than one that takes documentary photos for news publications or one that shoots cars for print ads or one that takes commercial portraits.

One would think that I could go to a search engine and type in ‘fine art photography blog’ and get a list of results about photographers that work in the vein of Stieglitz or Strand or Mapplethorpe. Nope. By the tenth item we are already into ‘fine art wedding photographers’ and by the fourth page that’s all we have left with over 32 million results to go. I’m sure these people are wonderful wedding photographers but to call themselves ‘fine art’ is disingenuous.  Even some of those first ten result items are just links to ‘Our Top Ten Photo Blogs You Should be Reading’ which are mostly gear and travel photography sites that have stuck ‘fine art’ in their copy in order to hoodwink readers.

While searching for anyone out there that is still practicing whatever it is that those mid-century artists were doing, I’ve tried using multiple search engines, plus signs, minus signs, quotes, advanced searches, you name it. There must be photography blogs out there somewhere, but they can’t be found amid the gozillions of sites that misuse the words. Every possible term to describe some type of ‘art’ photography has been co-opted to the point that it no longer has any meaning. Without meaningful language to delineate different genres of photography, it becomes impossible to discriminate. It’s un-searchable and indecipherable.

Photographers gave up photography because no one knows what it is anymore.

The Conceptualization of Art

The Conceptual Art movement rose to prominence somewhere in the mid-1960s. At this time artists began to question the foundations of art itself much as Marcel Duchamp did with his famous urinal back in 1917. They decided that the idea or concept behind a work of art was the important part and the actual execution of the piece was, as Sol LeWitt says ‘a perfunctory affair’.

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.
LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 79-83

Artists no longer needed to be ‘good’ at traditional art forms. Painters don’t need to paint like Rembrandt anymore. They might not need to be able to paint at all. They can just be an idea generator whose paintings are only described with words or can be painted by a team of minions. Sculptors no longer need to sculpt – they can just use found objects that they place along a wall.

Conceptual Art is why the average person on the street thinks modern art is stupid and that their four year old could do just as well as the idiots getting paid millions of dollars for making crap. That’s exactly the point; your four year old could execute these works because the execution is perfunctory (that’s a fun word). If your four year old could conceive of the ideas, they could execute the works.

Some artists went so far as to say that the execution of a work wasn’t even needed and art could consist of just an idea. The idea could be so fantastical that it couldn’t be created even if someone wanted to or it could consist of plans that the art collector would purchase and then build for themselves.

The Tate museum says that conceptual art refers to art made from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Although that might be the specific time period when the most pure conceptual art was made, I think the movement’s influence is still strong today certainly in photography.

Just at the time when photographic technology reaches the point that taking a photo can be completely automated, along comes an art movement that preaches that the performance of a piece is not important. Mastery of craft – forgetaboutit. Who needs the zone system? Who needs to understand histograms? Who cares about lighting? Fully expressing what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed – sorry Ansel not today.

All that’s needed is a concept and the actual photograph is a mere detail. All I need to do to be considered a photographer is to set the camera on auto and shoot out the window of my speeding car once every 2 seconds. All I need to do is travel around the country shooting cell phone towers. I can ace my college photography class by taking phone snaps of my friends and writing social commentary in the margins with a Sharpie.

This harks back to Stieglitz’s quote: “…unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.” Photography no longer has its own possibilities of expression. It has become merely a process that conceptual artists use as a convenient way to memorialize their works.

I’m not saying conceptual photography is bad. I’m just saying that this is a big reason why photographs like O. Winston Link’s train photos aren’t done anymore. Link wanted to document the end of the romantic era of steam locomotives. To do it he developed many new techniques for night photography, spent hours setting up all the equipment and timing all the events necessary for each shot, and meticulously developed the prints. The result was a technically brilliant and poignant body of work expressing the romance of steam transportation, the sense of loss at its inevitable demise, and the societal change that accompanied it.  In today’s world he would probably just go to a train bone yard, take some point and shoot photos of junked trains, and tape them up in airports when no one is looking.

Photographers gave up photography because it’s difficult and expressing oneself through the actual photograph is considered to be an old fashioned art form.

And so we come to the state of ‘photography’ today; we take billions of photos but never say anything. Why spend hours and hours preparing our minds and hearts, studying our subjects until their essence is reveled, and laboring over the minute details of a finished print? That’s all a sucker’s game. No one cares. No one has the time or the energy to care even if they wanted to. There are no words to describe it. There are no venues to display it.

I don’t even know what to call the kind of work that the past masters of photography created, but whatever it was, it’s dead and gone.

MDW

Comments on "The Death of Photography"

  1. What great analysis! This is a wonderful essay, Mark. It should be read by many, dammit!

    I hope at least a little bit of your discouragement about the true art of photography is for dramatic effect. But I think I know just what you mean… we are overwhelmed by images, and beyond that by all the other many distractions and stresses of modern life. We’re all dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder and it makes art seem like a quaint idea.

    The Pictorialists were definitely prone to excess in their gauzy, dreamy way, but there are some photos from that period that take me beyond painterly or sharp reality but you’re there…. [Like these two: https://cdn.britannica.com/700×450/36/136336-004-7D06AD1E.jpg or https://fencer.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/7244ruzicka.jpg?w=200&h=245 ]

  2. Thanks fencer. I took me quite some time to pull the article together and even longer to actually figure out what in the world happened.

    As you point out there was definitely some good work done in the pictorial era. I especially like Steichen’s work. And even Stieglitz started out as a pictorialist and created some fantastic images before moving away from it.

    I really am convinced that we’ve seen the last of fine art (or whatever we can call it) photography. I spend a LOT of time searching for anyone doing this kind of work and I can’t find it anywhere. One would think that with the billions of people all over the world accessing the internet, there’d be a few people out there showing off this kind of work, but if it’s out there, I can’t find it.

    I often think that if I ever won the lottery I’d open a museum or foundation dedicated to encouraging and providing a venue for artists working in traditional fine art. Sort of like my friend Manuel does in the area of documentary photography. http://mrofoundation.org/

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