“Mr. James, what are you talking about? If you read the statistics you will find the number of happy clickers, the number of pictures taken, and the ways they can be taken has risen exponentially.” I might add the technical underpinnings of the image taking process has risen algorithmically as well, and this underlines the whole premise that photography, as we knew it, has reached its end…
Endings can carry a negative connotation, and talking about it may seem to carry implications of sorrow, bitterness, anger, and at times, even helplessness. Such feelings are possible in a clouded emotional devaluation, playing the ain’t-it awful game. Perhaps we should consider the matter a bit more rationally to follow a journey that will celebrate endings that lead to new beginnings.
During a visit to a quarry near Redstone, Colorado during late summer, I spoke with a woman familiar with the history of the region. She mentioned that the white marble produced in the quarry was used to construct the Lincoln Memorial (among others), adding it is considered to be the finest such stone to be found. Nowadays, she let me know, it is shipped to Italy; only there do they still have the master artisans who can work the stone. It was this last statement struck a chord with me, and my career as a photographer.
What does it mean to be a master artisan? By definition it is someone who owns his/her own business in a trade and creates a product with their hands, from stone, wood, metal or other material, a product. The final work of a gifted artisan is often special and extraordinarily, artistically beautiful, in sharp contrast to something mass produced, assembled in a factory, by machines.
So defined it seems I could not say I’m master artisan, for even as a fine art photographer I have used a mechanical device—a camera. Then again, my photography work is not easily reproducible, at least not as originally conceived, and as originally produced it is unique or one of a kind even if offered in limited editions.
I have a more encompassing interpretation and think of term “artisan” in this way: It is a trade or craft that has been eclipsed by an evolution of techniques and no longer in vogue or practiced. Nevertheless it retains its special qualities, results, and position in the hierarchy of progress.
Over dinner that same day of the quarry visit in Colorado I was invited to dinner at a private home, one of the first constructed on Snowmass Mountain, with a spectacular view. In conversation, discussing my field of work I mentioned how things have changed greatly with the advent of digital technology; I then mentioning the conversation about the stone quarry and what it means to be an artisan. I finally concluded that I considered myself a photography “artisan”.
When I began my career in photography, film served as the sensor. I devoted myself to the search for knowledge about photographic techniques and equipment. This was before digital cameras and PhotoShop, a time when an understanding of light, optics, and other camera-related functions was not an option, but rather the essential, final and the only means–with the possible aid of darkroom techniques and talent–to creatively capture a photographic image.
One example (among many I could call on) to clarify the point. If I, as a film photographer, told a professional associate I had to use a CC30M, he would know that I would be photographing under fluorescent lights and needed to filter the green light it emissions. If it was a yellow filter, he would know I might be taking b/w aerials and needed to cut haze or that perhaps I needed to add contrast to underwater shots. These specifics would relate to an understanding of light, primary and secondary colors, how to block light and pass it, how to consider wavelengths and temperature in Kelvin. And there is hyperfocal distance, the inverse square law, polarities, circles of confusion (no, not a psychological condition, but a photographic variable), and the list grows
Today, advances in technology have programmed much of this (and similar) knowledge that enabled photography into binary functions. These and many similar understandings with respect to light (natural and strobe), optics and camera functions, have been replaced, at least in the performance of photography, by scientific algorithms, the instant LCD display in the back of the camera, and sliders in software programs. Far more significant, and not at all apparent to many wielding a camera, is that these advances have created the illusion of insignificance to details of photographic insight.
One of the guests at the dinner struck another chord by mentioning “creative destruction.” Not being an economist, I was not aware of the history and meaning of this theory, but hearing these words, one following the other, were powerful, if not contradictory. How can destruction be creative?
“Creative destruction” is an economic theory accredited to Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter. The theory’s roots derive from the work of Werner Sombart, influenced by the philosophical ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was educated by Arthur Schopenhauer, who in turn was greatly inspired by Hinduism, a religion where the process of creation and destruction plays a central role. This is its very shortened history.
What does it mean? In Hinduism, the three supreme godheads of the pantheon are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, who brings about regeneration. The Pheonix from Egyptian and Greek mythology burns to ashes to be reborn. Creative destruction is also found in the symbolism of the Resurrection of Christ. Death and rebirth: the cycle is endless.
When discussing this subject with an artist friend mine, Dr.Neal Wiseman, he brought to my attention that Frederick Perls, MD, Ph D, discoverer of Gestalt Therapy, in which he discusses in a similar way how, for instance, foods needs to be chewed and de-structured (destroyed) by our bodies, in order to make it available for rejuvenation, replenishment, and growth. Even in programming “de-structuring” leads to constructs. Without destruction (and death) there is no creation (and life); there is only stagnation. It should be mentioned the process of destruction itself does not lead to creation without the will to create that is the key driving force to economic development.
So not to stray too far from the point, I am speaking of technical innovation and the role of the entrepreneur in creative destruction, and more specifically how the new imaging of the digital age, this re-structuring is built upon the destruction of photography, which had its beginnings in the early 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution.
Today people take billions of pictures; just a few decades ago, there were just millions taken. We are saturated with pictures, which has resulted in a visual blur, circles of confusion, and a devaluation I’ve called them “pictures” and not photographs to make a point: many of the pictures that I see–even on the covers of magazines where you might expect a matter of pride—reflect a lack of knowledge and true understanding of photography.
The proliferation of images takes me to quoting a paragraph from The Art of the American Snapshot from the collection of Robert E Jackson – “It is a period when daily life, turned by a nation of consumers into an unending succession of narcissistic photo ops, becomes fodder for media spectacle, creating the lottery-like promise of instant but evanescent celebrity for anyone. These are the years when nothing is sacred yet everything is ritualized; when no one and everyone is special, and all things are made potentially interesting in pictures; and when amnesia, which thrives on prosperity, takes hold, leaving memory to scatter and fade in billions of little prints.” This sentiment, among the other diluting effects of the digital age has had on photography, where a camera is an iPhone, GPS, Video Camera, text messaging computer pad! Is it any wonder that film photography has been technologically usurped by digital/computer software companies.
Digital art can result in embellished and even fraudulent landscapes, or circus mirror type undulations of subjects, which in all can be gimmicky. But for the exceptional digital photographer/artist, this art form can, for example, create visual representations that transform dreams and concepts into powerful aesthetic experiences. These are most often formed on the basis of photos, but the outcome is not a photograph as we define it. Instead, with strong sense of visual insight, a solid knowledge of (specifically) PhotoShop, and talented creative personal artistic capabilities, the new digital art is created.
The most important point is to honor the distinction between fine art photography and digital art. Muddling them together is a disservice to each art form. It creates confusion and obscures distinction for either. Celebrate them both, for in the hands of great artists, each is worthy of complete admiration. Real fine art photography and well-executed digital art require advanced technological skill development and a keener insight on the part of the viewer (in addition to the notion of the “eye of the beholder”) for complete appreciation of the art work.
It is important to distinguish and celebrate both. I’ve mentioned that certain knowledge and understandings of great photography have now been absorbed through technological digital advances. This obscures them from even generally acknowledged existence. If, as given in my earlier example in this article, the photo you took under fluorescent light looks perfectly normal on your digital camera LCD screen, it is because scientifically formulated algorithms have automatically corrected for this light’s particular color (green) wavelengths. We can assume that nearly everyone beginning their image making in the digital era will not be aware that fluorescents cast this light, and that a magenta, a secondary color, as a filter will subtract the primary color green. Such and many other similar bits of information and techniques applicable to creative photography, as we knew it, will continue to exist, but will no longer be apparent, and therefore be lost to those creatively embracing the new digital palette.
Nevertheless, the new era of digital art demands new learning curves and I think will be far more challenging and demanding on creative output. Although I have always kept pace with changes through the transition from traditional photography to digital imaging, and employ the new technology in my professional work, I need to explore more where exactly image making creativity is headed.
For each negative aspect of the evolution in photography, there is a positive swing of the pendulum of creative new beginnings – the yin and the yang – the glass half empty is also half full. The important aspect to keep in mind is to recognize, honor, and celebrate the greatness of film photography and to welcome and celebrate the birth of digital imaging, which one-day may become a new artisan craft. My specific interest here at the gallery is to celebrate and exhibit fine art from among the best artists of both worlds.