I’ve been reflecting on the fact that there are plenty of technical discussions about camera equipment and the general know-how of photography. I wanted to examine the role and importance of the still image and its ongoing significance in the ever-changing landscape of media and visual communication.
Some time ago, I was going through some of my mum’s meticulously kept family photo collection when I came across one of her wedding photographs – taken in the 1950’s. It was a beautiful 8×10 print in black and white. 19 years old at the time and in her wedding dress, she was not looking directly at the camera, as was the style. Her facial expression was also informed by a sense of shyness and wonder. I was quite struck by how spectacular and classical this image was, and despite her protestations, I insisted on framing it – a statement not only of the lasting importance of a single special image but of the importance of printing, especially now that most images are in easily lost or disposable digital form.
Any artist will be aware that a portrait is supposed to be honest. The idea is to present a narrative about the personality of the subject, if possible, to try to show something which isn’t immediately obvious. Or to document an important event in the life of that individual or collection of individuals. Unfortunately, we seem to be constantly bombarded with images designed for social media and advertising, which have an inbuilt bias toward a narcissistic, youth-oriented discourse and are either very stereotypical, if not completely phony. In this realm, the elderly tend to be almost invisible – and we apparently live in a utopian consumer paradise of perpetually happy and smiling youth, surrounded by backgrounds of equally glamorous and superficial intent. In this world, even the locations are stripped of their identity and serve only as a tableau to emphasize the smorgasbord of perfect bodies and faces on display.
In his excellent article “The Generation of the Self Obsessed”, Nasim delves into this subject, especially from the perspective of how social media has cultivated a kind of mass narcissism. Nasim also wrote a related piece about the ethics of photography.
I want to take this analysis a little further. In some ways, my title “The Power of The Image” could have been “The Image on Life Support”. You see, my mother’s wedding photo from the 1950’s, what to speak of the famous portraits of antiquity painted in oil on canvas, were created in a very different social and technological context. Digital imaging devices are now ubiquitous. My apprehension is that with the rise and ubiquity of the digital camera and image, there has been a corresponding decline in the sense of visual and aesthetic acuity. The threshold of discrimination between high and low, art and pulp, has declined exponentially along with the exponential production of the image. I see the result as a direct threat to the role of the artist. I also see the steady decline in the power of the image. If you will excuse the metaphor, if snow leopards were as common as house cats, they would lose a lot of their mystique.
Of course, I hesitate to generalize. Amazing photographers like Steve McCurry, Annie Leibovitz, and many others produce spellbinding work which perpetuates a universal visual language and iconography of our times. I’m certainly not suggesting my own photography is even remotely in that league, and I’m sure there are many thousands of “professional” photographers who struggle for recognition and some type of modest financial reward in a very saturated arena. To rise above that arena, I imagine, requires the creation of work which few are capable of while acknowledging that while widely known among photographic circles, even famous photographers have nothing like the recognition of the typical celebrity. Every teenager on the planet is familiar with Taylor Swift or the Kardashians, but how many of them know of Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams?
While mentioning the saturation and commodification of the image as a commercial vehicle I have to return to the genre of wedding photography. I imagine most photographers are aware it’s one of the most contested markets. In Australia, we use the analogy that it’s like “seagulls fighting over a chip”.
Perhaps this speaks to the blurring of the line of demarcation between smartphone photography and shopping mall-style image mass production, where formulaic posed shots with minimal creativity and narrative content are churned out relentlessly. The question, I suppose, is how to elevate the public aesthetic beyond the superficial and mundane? How to bring recognition and financial reward to photographers possessing creative merit who may be working in obscurity and relative poverty? I doubt that the so-called “photo contests” with their invariably steep fees are the answer. Along with many other professional photographers, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like a threatened species.
Many of us (especially companies like Nikon and Canon) are aware of the precipitous decline in sales of cameras and the corresponding rise in the sales of smartphones. For many people, the convenience of a smartphone far outweighs the qualitative difference achievable with a traditional camera. Given the enormous resources and R&D being poured into smartphone camera development, it’s safe to assume that those qualitative differences are going to decline as time goes on.
Another point which seems to have been missed is the medium through which the still image is viewed: I imagine most photographers are editing and viewing their work on a decent monitor. In my case, it’s a 32” 4K monitor with a resolution of 3840×2160. These stage photographs captured with the Nikon Z6 and Sigma 105mm Art lens, or something like a long exposure using the excellent Tokina 16-28mm, are highly detailed when viewed through the medium of a good monitor.
I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing dismay when those same images are uploaded to Instagram and displayed on the tiny screen of a mobile phone. Note also that Instagram doesn’t allow the image to rotate, as does Flickr, to be viewed on a larger scale. The image stays in a kind of shrunken version of itself, in many ways stripped of most of its subtlety and nuance. Instagram tends to force cropping – I’ve found that I have to crop an image taken in landscape mode into portrait mode, or Instagram itself encourages by default that the image be cropped into a square format. The result may attract more attention and visual impact, nonetheless, in my stage photography work, the surrounding performer, or the stage and lighting environment are all compromised by a set of variables beyond my control. This is to say nothing of the algorithms governing the social value and popularity of the image as dictated by Instagram.
Ultimately, I think it’s a challenge to stick to high levels of originality and artistic integrity. Of course, I often take quick snapshots with my mobile phone…I would just never use them professionally. At least to me, there is a clear line of demarcation between something disposable and an image I want to be paid for and preserved as important; as is the still clear line of demarcation between a high-quality lens and camera system as opposed to even the best mobile phone camera. There is still a big difference.
Additionally, there is the issue of the “short attention span”. If Instagram is indeed the primary medium for the viewing of the still image, how do we counteract the fact that our image may be viewed on a tiny mobile phone screen for less than a second, liked and discarded along with the rest of the transient and disposable stuff our lives are crowded with; think art galleries versus shopping malls. Think classical ballet versus the cinema complex. Western technological culture is wealthier than ever, however, I reiterate my previous argument that we are more divorced from our spiritual and cultural heart than ever. There’s an epidemic of the western cultural artifact having a tiny lifespan as opposed to something like Aboriginal rock carvings, still alive after thousands of years.
Of course, I’m presenting this argument because Instagram and its brethren are, I believe, at the epicenter of seismic shifts in the way we not only view the image but perceive our relationships and the world around us. While some may argue it’s a process of democratization and the natural and evolutionary advancement of our social construct, I would be more inclined to compare it to a kind of visual global warming. Humanity has done more damage to the environment in the last 200 years than in the preceding 200,000. Technology has enabled wonderful advances in medicine, science, and other fields, yet at the same time, deforestation and the extinction of entire cultures, languages, and animal and plant species is taking place at breathtaking speed.
I’m not trying to initiate some type of vendetta directed toward Instagram or social media in general. My focus is more on examining the crucial role social media plays in the dissemination and understanding of visual communication, as well as the electronic platforms used to contextualize our understanding of the image. It’s just a fact of life that most images are taken with and viewed on mobile phones through a social media app. The question is, I suppose, is the role of the traditional photographer now becoming irrelevant, and is there anything that can be done about that?
If we take the still image as an art form, then art should by definition inform the culture and have a more impactful discourse than displaying the latest lifestyle iteration of our favorite Hollywood celebrities. Yet of those celebrities, few seem to focus on the socially and environmentally pertinent issues of the day rather than themselves. I laud such examples because the weighting given by Instagram and social media in general means that taking a stand on the environment or inequality by someone unknown is like listening to crickets chirping in the wilderness.
Apart from the decline in the aesthetic and the ability to actually discriminate between images on the basis of their quality, narrative and dramatic impact, subtlety and nuance, or their power as an agent of social transformation, I’d like to mention another major factor in the production and value of the image and how, once again, Instagram and other social media platforms are at the center of this shift. I refer to the increasing use of video and how video production is evolving to become the visual medium of choice in social media.
As the video technology of mobile phones and mirrorless camera systems develops, I believe the power and narrative possibilities of the still image may potentially decline even further. On the small screen of a mobile phone, a video clip tends to be far more captivating than a still image. Don’t believe me? Look at the thousands of promotional and commercial videos on Instagram – the ratio of still images in the commercial sphere is heavily weighted in favor of video.
In my field of stage and performance photography, I find it more challenging to navigate the politics of taking still images when priority is invariably given to the video production; mind you, in many cases, the video is bland and mediocre – the type where the videographer puts a camera on a tripod, mid-stage at the rear of the auditorium, presses the on button and then switches it off after an hour or two. To use another analogy, video at this level of production is like fast food; it fills you up but contains no real nourishment. These videos will be watched once or twice and then begin to gather dust.
The still image does, however, potentially contain depths and possibilities which can never be fully explored in the momentary “sound bite” of our short attention spans, nor in the form of a video clip. It represents a frozen moment in time, a memory, or a unique moment or emotion which can never be reproduced. I fear that it’s in the process of being devalued – if not becoming an endangered species. It’s important sometimes to remind ourselves what a single, powerful image can do. To mention Steve McCurry again, his image of the Afghan Girl is one of the single most iconic photographs of the 20th century and shows that an image can speak in a universal language capable of transcending all kinds of political, economic, religious and social boundaries.