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

The Day Photography Changed

The featured image for this post has no particular meaning. It doesn’t say anything about me as a photographer. I’m not using it to make a statement. There’s no implied symbolism. It’s a discarded cup. A red cup. It’s floating in a puddle of water. That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.

It’s a photograph about nothing.

I took this photo several years ago. Why did I take it? To be honest, I don’t really know. It was a sunny morning at the beach, there was this cup in the water, it was bright red, it was floating, I had my camera with me, I took the photo. It’s nothing really – a throwaway shot. That day I went on to take a lot more photos. They were black and white. They were of the rocks and the water and the sky and the waves. They were completely different.

Here’s a photograph that I took later that year oddly enough at another beach. It’s an orange ball that someone left behind. Again, I was there, it was orange, I took the photo. I didn’t think about it. Another photo of nothing. What the heck?

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

I blame it on William Eggleston. In 1976 Eggleston working with John Szarkowski at MoMA had a ground breaking show called “Color Photographs” that changed photography from that point on.

Many people think that this was the first serious show of color photographs and that was what set it apart from all others. But major color shows had been done before, way before, including another one at MoMA called “Color Photography” held back in 1950. Not only was that a show of color photographs but the photos were from some of the biggest names in the biz. Names that are traditionally associated with working only in black and white. Names like Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Robert Capa, and Irving Penn. So color was a part of the 1976 show, but it wasn’t the big groundbreaking element. The real issue, the real revolution for photography was the change in the artist’s attitude toward his photos.

Eggleston’s photos were about nothing.

The nothing was the important part. If Eggleston wanted his images to be about pure color he would have taken photos like Mark Rothko painted canvases – solid blocks of color filling the frame. Instead he took colorful photos of whatever was in front of him. It didn’t matter what, a red ceiling with wires running across it or the inside of a freezer or people standing in a yard with blank expressions. There is no statement being made and there’s no symbolism. The photos exist simply because the objects were there and the camera was there.

Until this time fine art photography was dominated by the masters of the medium. People that pulled photography up from being a scientific oddity and mere historical documentation device to a true art form in its own right. Dorothea Lange was about using her emotional and insightful photos to spur social change. Ansel Adams gave us expansive awe inspiring views of the American wilderness. Minor White taught us to explore our inner selves with his Zen-like approach to capturing the essence of his subjects.

For these artists a photograph was significant because it was about something – intensely about something. Their photographs are powerful because of their vision, their dedication to mastery of the craft, their force of will to blend the complexities of life with their personal expression. A viewer can get lost in one of their photographs finding new details and insights with each viewing.

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

“The secret, the catch, and power lies in being able to use the forms and shapes of objects in front of the camera for their expressive-evocative qualities… the ability to see the visual world as the plastic material for the photographer’s expressive purposes.” – Minor White

Eggleston’s photographs went a completely different direction. They represented a break in the photographic tradition. Working in a sort of stream of consciousness way, Eggleston’s photos were not used to express his deepest feelings or to visualize the world in any particular way or to elicit a particular reaction from the viewer. They are what they are – the mundane everyday parts of life recorded without comment. The colors make them eye catching but the substance, or lack of it, is in the subject matter. I was at a certain place. This is what was in front of me. I took a photograph. I have nothing to say about it.

“There is no particular reason to search for meaning.” – William Eggleston

“It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there wherever I happened to be, for any reason.” – William Eggleston

So it’s 1976 and we have Eggleston and Szarkowski showing us a new direction for photography – colorful images of everyday objects and activities. Photographs with subjects that are no more than skin deep and full of attention grabbing color. Photographs of lunches and people standing by a road and people sitting on couches. Sound like anything you know? That’s right, Eggleston was the original Instagrammer. The original social media influencer. Before anyone could even imagine streams of images scrolling past us on a handheld device, he had already created the aesthetic for it.

“It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there wherever I happened to be, for any reason.” A better description of what is on Instagram you could not invent. Our world was created by William Eggleston over 40 years ago.

At the time of this writing Eggleston is 80 years old. I don’t know if he has any personal social media accounts. I couldn’t find any. I couldn’t find any comments he has made about social media or the state of photography today. Does he like the direction photography has taken since 1976? It would be cool to find out.

Is it a good thing that now nearly everyone takes photographs of nothing to the exclusion of all else? Have we gone too far? It’s one thing to be the first, the groundbreaker, in a new style, but is it still valuable to do it the 10th time, the 100th, the billionth? Should we stream images of whatever is in front of us faster and faster until every bit of our lives are stored on the Internet? Is there room in our world now or in the future for anything else?

Comments on "The Day Photography Changed"

  1. Hi Mark,

    I don’t get around in the blogosphere as much as I used to, but always glad to find another of your thoughtful posts.

    At first, I thought your lead “nothing” photo was a cup in the air. Interesting to know it was floating.

    I was watching an episode of Seinfeld today (probably for the third or fourth time, and I still get a kick out them), which is a show about “nothing.” It seems to be a trend in our culture.

    It’s all about the framing, the context, it seems to be…. Even your nothing photos are worth looking at, just because of your well-considered, artful blog (and of course your aesthetic eye, which instinctively seems to place objects in good places).

    Anyway, thanks for the post. It made me think.


    1. Thanks for dropping by. Your comment is insightful as always. I was just thinking about writing a follow-up article about the difference between photos that are really about nothing and ones that seem to be about nothing but actually have something in them. It’s a fine line there.

  2. Hi Mark,

    That is a very fine line! Remember Christo, the guy who wrapped buildings and landscapes as installation art? In some art museum in Paris, I remember one of his smaller pieces — a wrapped toilet. A regular white ceramic toilet. Now what is that?! Since it’s in a prestigious museum, it’s got to be art, I suppose, but I don’t know if it’s nothing or nothing with something!


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