Not Everything New Is A Good Thing

Not Everything New Is A Good Thing

I wasn’t going to post today. Have a lot to do and little time. But a reader’s comment yesterday got both brain cells firing at once.

A year or two ago, someone, long since forgotten, told me that schools had stopped teaching cursive. For you older folks, that means longhand or script. (Don’t know why some people have to meddle and substitute a new word for what was a perfectly good existing word, except when there is an agenda behind doing so.) At first, I thought the person was joking. Not so. Apparently, children are now taught to print, but not to write, and barely that, the excuse being, now that we have computers, handwriting is no longer necessary.

That has got to be one of the silliest, and frankly, most stupid ideas I have heard in my life. It makes me question whether or not the folks who made such an absurd decision shouldn’t be relieved of their employment positions by being bodily thrown from the building. The practical uses notwithstanding (what if your battery dies?), handwriting is a form of expression, an art form if you will, and the second such form of expression (finger painting being the first) through which a child can connect with the world and share something of himself with others. It is unique to every single person on Earth and constitutes one of the first meaningful achievements in one’s life. It is part of becoming a civilized human being and essential to it.

Only one gratuitous photograph today. This seems to be the appropriate place for it:
Vergüenza (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980 — Vergüenza means “shame”)

I’ve mentioned before that I am working on getting into photogravure, in a big way. The method for platemaking that I am using was developed (partly; the more I look into it, the more I find that a host of others have contributed) by Don Messec. He posted two short videos on the process, here and here, a few years ago. Those videos will give you the idea, but they are far from complete and Mr. Messec would like you to spend some money taking his workshop(s) to learn the whole process, which nonetheless has some problems he says he has yet to work out. Not having that money, I spent the last year or so experimenting, filling in the missing pieces and working out the aforementioned problems. Anyway, this long walk around the barn leads to the fact that I have, of course, been keeping notes. But not on my computer. That just seemed inappropriate. Clearly inappropriate. My notes on this new process are written in pencil, in a handmade, 8.5″x11″ leather notebook with light brown pages, hand-sewn to the leather. A long leather strip is used to close the book by wrapping it around the outside. (Purchased on eBay from a talented craftsperson. I just looked, she doesn’t seem to be there any more and there is now a LOT of poor imitation.) That is simply where such notes belong. Of course, if I had not been drilled at length in handwriting as a child, such a notebook would be simply a useless amalgam of leather and paper, because I would be incapable of writing in it, or at the very least, doing so would be such an arduous task as to make it wholly impractical. To handicap a child, let alone, generations of children, with the inability to write words on paper and the capacity to do it well, if not elegantly, is a crime, and absolutely, not progress.

Today I received an email. One of those solicitations from Amazon; you know, for books their software has deduced you might buy. Sometimes they are wildly nonsensical. Today, they thought I would buy two ebooks on the photographs of 19th century pictorialist photographers. EBOOKS! Why on Earth would I want a digital book of 100+ year old photographs? That makes no sense to me, at all. From a practical standpoint, in digital form, you have no idea what the images are going to look like compared to the actual photographs. And they are going to look different on just about every digital device. At least on paper, whatever the printer’s approximation of the original might be, that approximation will appear the same to everyone who buys the book. More importantly, there is a tactile, intimate experience with a book that is never going to happen with the digital format. A book of fine photographs belongs on paper, not on a screen. A digital instruction manual, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

I recall an old Star Trek movie in which the crew landed on a planet where the indigenous people had rejected technology, even though their technology was far more advanced than that of the Star Trek crew. They lived a bucolic life, devoid of all the advanced tools they were more than capable of employing. That struck me as a very dumb premise. It makes no more sense to completely reject technology than it does to embrace it so absolutely as to reject all the finely honed skills and wonderful benefits of the past.

People can use and benefit from advanced technology without also rejecting all that has gone before. Many superior skills and ideas from the past are now lost forever, because new technology has replaced them and no one bothered to continue with the old. The so-called obsolete has a lot to teach us. (That includes people.)

Technology should be viewed as providing useful tools that are not always appropriate. Life is at its richest with a blend of both old and new. Progress is of little value when it leaves behind something that used to feed the soul.

I believe this is why there is currently somewhat of a resurgence in alternative photographic printing techniques. People are striving to reclaim some of that connection to a more complete experience that is often lost with new technology, digital photography in particular.

Though I have completely transitioned from analog to digital photography, that does not mean I am blind to its shortcomings. Digital camera resolution is decidedly inferior to analog, though analog printing rarely used all the resolution contained in film. Inkjet prints, especially those made on coated papers that are supposedly ideal for the purpose, are cold, sterile and far less permanent than their manufacturers would like us to believe; the reasons I print on watercolor papers.

Film and analog paper are disappearing at an incredible rate. Most of the B&W printing papers that existed just  few years ago are gone. The many varieties of film have also largely vanished. Several of the techniques I invented for B&W photographers are now unusable because the films they relied upon no longer exist. Soon, analog B&W photographers will have a choice: switch to digital, or make their own B&W printing papers. This could be a good thing. Silver-based B&W papers at their best were frankly, not all that wonderful. Getting them to surrender a visualized image was often an uphill battle. Photographers might just end up producing something significantly superior, by hand.

Anyway, enough of my rant against blind, rampant consumerism and the adoration of technology. If the old is better, keep it. If you prefer analog photographic materials, stick to them. I’m 100% behind you. I have yet to experience anything in digital photography that can match the smell of a roll of 120 Tri-X on which the seal has just been cracked open.


Is Fine Art Photography Really Printmaking?

Is Fine Art Photography Really Printmaking?

Today’s gratuitous photographs are three images of little old ladies in Peru. The word “vieja”, means “old woman”.

The Fine Art Photograph At A Serious Crossroads

Until very recently, there was no doubt about what constituted a photograph. A photograph, whether vacation snapshot or fine art, was an image derived via a lens, by photochemical means, on paper! Then, the photograph got hit by the cross-town, Digital Express.

There were brief forays into other substrates; metal for Daguerreotypes and Tintypes, glass for Ambrotypes, a variety of materials. And of course there were lantern slides, followed later by the more familiar, 35mm color slide (aka transparency), also just different substrates. But, the target by and large has always been paper and the intent, to produce a tangible, precious object. The question now is, how has that all changed? Or, has it changed?

Not very long ago, less that twenty-five years, most photographs ended up on paper. Film was still king and aside from some pretty anemic scanning options, and transparencies of course, the only thing that could be made from film was a print. Now, very few photographs are printed on anything at all. They are kept on smartphones, uploaded to web sites, stored on hard drives, almost everything but being printed. Photographs meant to be shared are simply emailed, instead of making extra paper prints, especially since there was never a paper print to begin with. Children are probably already asking their parents, “What’s a photo album?”

Vieja En Las Oscuras
Vieja En Las Oscuras (Arequipa, Peru ~1980)

If a print is desired, inexpensive inkjet printers abound that can produce a very high quality image. Anyone with the price of a printer and the ability to read an instruction manual, can turn out good results. Those who struggle with instruction manuals can pay a small fee to someone else for similar, or even better results, at a low price.

How does all this affect the fine art photographer? Is a digital image just as desirable as a paper image? Perhaps more so? Is an image on a screen just a little bit less real than one on paper? Is it less tangible? Has the public lost its fascination with physical photographs? Is an actual print, now just old school and unremarkable because pretty much anyone can do it, or have it done?

Moreover, can an image that exists only on a screen be a fine art photograph, at all? It would probably not be difficult to make an argument that it can, especially in the current artmosphere (you heard that term here first) that seems to reject virtually nothing that is effortless and new and everything that is old and requires skill and training. You won’t catch me making that argument, but I can see someone taking that position and defending it, successfully.

This all leads to the inevitable question: Must a fine art photograph be defined as a physical object? Or can it consist only of electrons, and still be legitimately called a fine art photograph?

Vieja Con Bolsa De Plástico
Vieja Con Bolsa De Plástico (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

I can’t necessarily solve the mystery, but I think I can tell you what’s coming because of it. Until very recently, a fine art photograph was absolutely a physical object; a print on paper (or occasional other substrates). It couldn’t be something else because there was nothing else for it to be. To many fine art photographers it will remain just that, forever. But the people who view art as something ever-expanding and ever-advancing (one has to ask if all the changes they champion have to be, by definition, advances, and why some aren’t in fact, reversals) will insist that photographs that are not physical objects are still art, and still valid. I suppose there will be those who choose to live in both camps, but the majority of photographers are going to split at precisely this intersection. Those who prefer a path of least resistance and smallest effort will absolutely go the route of the non-physical image. It is a LOT easier to produce. But it is also highly fugitive.

Paintings have a physical presence that cannot be scanned, and displayed on the internet. The essence of the painting is lost. Part of what makes a painting, a painting, is its physicality. The same is true of the fine art photograph. In order for it to be complete, it must have presence also. A fine art photograph is a work of art, on paper. (And occasionally on other supports.)

Fine art photographers will continue to make images on paper, because that is what the photograph is. It is not complete unless it is a physical object. Fine art photographers by and large are going to remain makers of images on paper.

Vieja Con Bastón
Vieja Con Bastón (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

This leads to another interesting question: Is fine art photography really a branch of printmaking? Printmaking is producing art on paper with ink, not what analog photography usually was, but certainly what happens with a photograph and an inkjet printer today. In fact, digital photography is assisting photographers greatly in moving even closer to printmaking, because now, an inkjet printer can be used to create an enlarged digital negative, or in my case, an enlarged positive, for printing photogravures. The whole world of chemical-based, alternative photographic printing has been broadened tremendously by the advent of digital photography and it is quite probable that a significant proportion of fine art photographers will use those digital advances to make an ever-expanding variety and improved quality of analog photographic prints. 21st century digital technology is helping modern photographers to make better 19th century process photographs on paper. Ain’t technology grand!?

Where fine art photography is going from here is a big deal. I’d love to see someone else’s thoughts, aside from my own. Please feel free to post your opinions and ideas.


Reproduction Hides A Multitude Of Sins

Reproduction Hides A Multitude Of Sins

Buying Fine Art Over The Internet Is Very Risky

This post is a necessary precursor to fully understanding the next post, coming up tomorrow(?).

My first experience teaching photography was at a school in Atlanta, where I was hired in about 1982(?) to teach studio lighting. I’m a natural light photographer. Go figure! I’ve actually forgotten the name of the school and am pretty sure it isn’t there any more. That was thirty years ago. (It was on Peachtree Road, but then, in Atlanta, all the roads are named Peachtree.)

I had an educational experience of my own while there. One of my duties was to supervise my class while they were in the darkroom, making sure they didn’t ruin equipment or themselves. So, I saw a lot of their photographs first hand. As beginning students their photographs, from a technical standpoint, were, well…
they were, beginning students.

The school had its own internal organ and I was handed a recent copy of it some time after starting to work there. The purpose of the publication was to encourage students by giving them a place to show off their images in print. Most all of the student photographs in that issue were ones I had already seen in the school darkroom. I was shocked by what I saw. The apparent technical quality of those images was greatly enhanced by the reproduction process, despite the fact that the printing process was nothing at all to write home about. It was just standard, two or three dots to the inch, very poor quality halftone.

What I already knew to be absolutely awful photographs didn’t look half bad as reproductions. I have since seen the same phenomenon many, many times. The same is also true of the computer screen. It makes really, REALLY bad photographs, look not so bad at all. This realization led to one of my standard axioms for the last several decades: “Reproduction hides a multitude of sins.”

Oddly, the opposite is equally true of good images. Reproduction in print or on the computer screen seems to rob images made by skilled artists, of a great deal. Offset and digital reproductions of well made original photographs that I have seen, have been decidedly anemic by comparison. This too seems to be pretty much a universal law and of course, makes it exceedingly difficult to know from an image on a web page or in print, whether or not the original is actually any good. Most images are inferior and all inferior images are made to look much better by virtue of reproduction, while at the other end of the spectrum, superior images are brought down significantly by the same processes, losing a very great deal.

Part of that loss is due to the inherent degradation suffered because of the reproduction processes themselves (halftone or digital) and part is due simply to the fact that reproduction eliminates the far from inconsequential physical presence of a fine art image on paper.

A reproduction is simply a representational, matter-of-fact, stand-in for a fine art photograph, stripped of all of the intimate experience of the original image on paper. The feel, texture and three-dimensionality of the paper and the subtlety of the image thereupon, are missing. There is no there, there. (Gertrude Stein) The soul of the image is absent.

This is why it is risky to buy art over the internet. Bad images are made to appear substantially better than they are. Good images are robbed of their souls. I am certain this is equally if not more true, of paintings and sculpture.

(Sooner or later, somebody is going to say, “David Kachel says to pass up good looking art on the internet and buy the stuff that looks awful.” Who knows, it could work!)



Scenic Locations Worst Place For Photography Workshops

Scenic Locations Worst Place For Photography Workshops

My Next Workshop Will Be Held At The City Dump

I’ve given a lot of workshops (not for a decade or so), all centering on the Zone System when it was in vogue and when I was half of a big deal as a Zone System “guru”. Now, if the Zone System is brought up in conversation (it isn’t, unless I bring it up) it is usually greeted by blank stares and the word, “huh”. (Is “huh” a word?) Because I was teaching the Zone System, close proximity to a multi-station darkroom was far more important than access to a beautiful landscape. My students were mostly indoors the whole time, with an occasional foray to a nearby park in order to gather cannon fodder.

Found Objects Still Life (very much in early stages)
Found Objects Still Life (very much in early stages)
NB — You may have noticed that there is no link connected to the above term “Zone System”. I googled it. After two pages of wildly incorrect definitions, I gave up. I once reviewed a Spanish language book on the Zone System while giving a workshop in Mexico for Kodak. It was a beautifully made book. Unfortunately, the author had no clue what the Zone System was or how to make use of it. It really isn’t that difficult, but most of what was written about it over the years, by authors other than Ansel Adams himself, was wrong.
The Zone System is simply visualization of the final print you wish to produce and based on that visualization, controlling the manner of both film exposure and subsequent development, so as to provide a negative that lends itself most easily to producing that visualized print on the type of paper most likely to lend itself well to that negative and the envisioned manner of printing. (Not rocket science.)
It has nothing whatever to do with matching negatives to grade 2 papers.
And BTW, I have yet to see any reason at all that the Zone System is in any way applicable to digital image capture and processing/printing, as some are apparently claiming. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Goose egg. That’s like applying bicycle mechanics to space travel.

Most others who give workshops have had a different approach; one that tended to appeal more to the outdoor experience that a lot of workshop attendees seek. I certainly understand that. A beautiful locale is much more pleasant than a darkroom and lecture hall, and almost certain to attract more students. But I wonder about the wisdom, with regard to actual learning, of taking students to a location famous for low hanging fruit!

OK, on second thought, I don’t wonder about it, at all. A happy workshop attendee will result in more attendees in the future. The easiest way to get happy students is to take them somewhere they are sure to get the best images of their life, even if they wear blindfolds while photographing and someone spins them ala pin-the-tail-on-the-photographer, before setting them loose.

I mean, really! How difficult is it to get the best images you ever captured when you are at a workshop in Yosemite, or the slot canyon du jour? (The next person to show me a slot canyon photograph is risking his life.) Low hanging fruit. Easy pickin’s. Certainly gratifying, but perhaps not the best way to learn. In fact, definitely not the best way to learn.

One of the great hurdles of becoming a fine art photographer is getting beyond reproducing other people’s photographs, and moving on to making your own. Most, never get beyond this point.

Of course, we all have to start out emulating someone. Nothing wrong with that. It is educational, provides experience, and helps us get wherever it is that we’re going. I was an Ansel Adams clone for years. I believe there is now a twelve-step group.

But if one is at a workshop in Yosemite! Well, the outcome is almost certain to be extremely Adamsesque and worse, the easiest images there. The low hanging fruit. We all like an easy one from time to time (I never pass one up), but real work is required to make any meaningful progress. And the best place for that is where there isn’t any low hanging fruit. Without it, one has no choice but to sweat.

The way to learn is by photographing garbage! Junk!  A landscape with so little to offer, it tends to make the weak-willed contemplate suicide. Advancement is achieved by making something out of nothing, not by doing what everyone else and their uncle can do just as well. No pain, no gain. Agony is the secret to success.

Fortunately, just about everyone has that agony readily at hand, without having to spend hundreds of dollars on gas and motels to get there. It’s usually right where you live. Pick a nearby location with little or no promise. Work it until you start producing good images. The harder it is, the better for you. When you are sure you’ve exhausted the place, keep going back until you have at least three more.

When finished, you may wish to follow this exercise with copious amounts of alcohol, followed by a weekend trip to some place with a lot of low hanging fruit!

Rinse. Repeat.


Fine Art Photography Being Lost

Fine Art Photography Being Lost

Not Everyone Claiming To Be An Artist, Is!

This is more or less a continuation of the previous post, but sufficiently tangential to call for a different title other than, Part II.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care very much for the title Fine Art Photographer. I’ve also stated here and there that the reason for this is the fact that the world’s portrait, wedding, Bar Mitzvah, baby picture, calendar, and cute pet photographers are now all calling themselves fine art photographers. The phrase has lost all practical meaning. (If you Google, fine art photography, the results returned will contain so little related to actual fine art photography, as to render the search, utterly useless.) But there is more to it than just that. There are other people calling themselves fine art photographers who are also, no such thing. Sadly, an ignorant and blind public fall for it, easily.

Abrigado De Periodico
Abrigado De Periodico (Arequipa, Peru ~1980)

Drowning In Amateur Wannabes

One thing that has never been lacking in the art world is groups of artists who point their fingers at other groups of artists, loudly proclaiming: “You’re not real artists!” Which, I guess, is pretty much the same foolishness I am committing here. But, there is justification for example, in musicians proclaiming that a group of people who simply own pianos without knowing how to play them, are in fact, not musicians. (Strangely, famous musicians who happen to own cameras are often heralded by ignorant morning show stars as fine art photographers, when they are in fact, just amateur snapshooters with access to a gullible and fawning press.)

Photography has always been very alluring to would-be artists because of its superficial simplicity. In fact, advances in technology have made it so simple to produce a technically acceptable image that it has made photography into an anyone can do it exercise, to a degree never imagined by George Eastman.

This has resulted in a peculiar phenomenon. There are now some fine art photography galleries that refuse to see the work of newcomers, at all. This might seem foolish on the surface, but the motive is one of self-preservation. That previously mentioned ocean of wedding and pet photographers, along with a sea of hobbyists, are inundating galleries with requests to show/buy their work. They sincerely believe their work qualifies as art because they cannot see any difference between their work and that of photographers they admire. That giant chasm, as mentioned in the previous post, is utterly invisible to them. There are so many of these people trying to get their vacation pictures into art galleries that some of those galleries have had no choice but to slam the door on everyone, preferring instead to seek out artists secretly.

D’Onofrio (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

Counterfeit Artists & Galleries

The general public is an easy mark for the unscrupulous when it comes to art, and especially, photography. Start with a population utterly and completely uneducated about fine art photography. Add in the fact that they believe fine art photography is nothing more than photographs just like theirs, only technically better. Make those photographs into gigantic, severely oversaturated prints framed in very poor taste, and you have a recipe for swindling thousands, if not millions.

In recent years it has become popular in low circles, to dress up like Steve Irwin, sling a camera around your neck, photograph yourself climbing over rocks while dangling that camera, and give yourself titles and awards that don’t even exist for fine art photographers. These people then open gigantic so-called art galleries in high-end shopping malls in order to sell too-large, gaudy, oversaturated, out of focus, color vacation pictures, using promises of el Dorado made by staff employing the sleazy techniques of used car salesmen, to gullible people who don’t know that real art galleries are seldom found in shopping malls, much less that the Christmas tree decorations masquerading as art in those galleries look nothing whatsoever like real fine art photography and will in fact, never be worth anything at all. (Promises of financial gain are the favorite tool of the art swindler.)

But Wait, There’s More

It is difficult to resist diving into a long dissertation here about art education and how it has been taken over by entrenched academics who would like us all to believe that one cannot be an artist without a degree, while they issue those degrees for the express purpose of producing more inbred art teachers whose sole purpose is to produce even more of themselves. It is also supremely difficult to deny the urge to talk about how all that inbreeding has led to art no one understands, because there is nothing to be understood, and that is being used in a global multi-billion dollar game of The Emperor’s New Clothes for the sole purpose of swindling the rich.

I will therefore restrict myself to discussing the new photographers who are the product of those schools, who know nothing of the history of fine art photography, are entirely unable to produce a technically proficient photograph (because those same art schools have taught them that talent and skill no longer matter; only intent is important), who have no desire to learn from those who went before because they believe their predecessors have nothing to teach them, and who wish to produce only one of three things:

  • Illustrations of a vague art theory they are too superior to explain
    (and that are of interest to no one else)
  • Political statements intended to promote a collectivist utopia
  • Visual non sequiturs, designed to relieve the rich of their money
    (The Emperor’s New Clothes)

Complete Loss of Continuity

It is as though at some point in recent history, the timeline for fine art photography was totally severed by some giant celestial axe. New, would-be, fine art photographers have no idea and no interest in knowing. Ask them who Edward Weston was, they don’t know. Stieglitz? Minor White? Hell, they don’t even know who Ansel Adams was?! How is that even possible? To bring this point completely home, this would be on a par with a student of music admitting to never having heard of a single classical composer.

Do these new photographers desire to seek out still living masters to learn from them? Not a chance. And they simply cannot produce anything remotely resembling a fine print, to save their lives. If fine art photography is not about the fine print, then I must admit, I have no idea what it is about!

Mujer Con Dos Bolsas
Mujer Con Dos Bolsas (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

Is It Our Own Fault?

Fine art photography seems to be a rudderless ship. New photographers believe they have nothing to learn from the past, especially on a technical level. This is peculiar since art schools have always stressed the importance of art history. One would think that at the very least, new photographers would desire to know what went before, if only to avoid repeating it. Most can’t even tell you the difference between a fine art photograph and any of billions of ordinary photographs.

Lots of people, and I mean a LOT of people are masquerading as fine art photographers, without even bothering to first find out what that means. At the same time, some are pretending to be fine art photographers for the express purpose of bilking innocents of their money.

What is especially odd is that swindlers can cheat innocents out of thousands of dollars for a single photograph that is not remotely art, while most genuine fine art photographers have a terrible time selling their work, costing only a few hundred dollars, to anyone. This is in no small part due to the fact that fine art photography tends to be subtle, B&W instead of color, and requires some investment of effort from the viewer. Big, gaudy, oversaturated photographs of crashing waves at sunset require no investment other than cash, and must only match the colors of the sofa.

Art schools are pretending to teach fine art photography when they too seem to know nothing about it. (The attitude appears to be: “We are artists. Photography is art. Therefore, we must be photographers and qualified to teach photography.) Oddly, the greatest teachers in the history of fine art photography could not today get hired to teach fine art photography at a junior college!

The question that begs to be asked is, “Who is at fault, here?” Aside from the obvious, the swindlers, the artists with political agendas, etc, etc., there is one overriding, inescapable answer.

We’re at fault! Fine art photographers are at fault. In our desire to be accepted as artists, we have allowed the art world to re-define fine art photography and to steer it in directions that make no sense. We have let them define fine art photography as something foreign, unfamiliar and undesirable. We have not stood up to say, “Stop, that is not fine art photography”.

We have not exposed the swindlers in khaki shorts. We have not told the wannabes that what they are admiring in those glossy magazines is not art. We have not ridiculed the morning show hosts who hold up pretenders as the real thing.

But worst of all, we have simply not bothered to teach the public what fine art photography is, thereby allowing those with agendas, or the simply ignorant, to do it for us.


All discussions of what is or is not art, eventually spiral away into nothingness. That is the nature of art. If you can explain it, it probably is not art. Even those things at the extremes of ‘not art’ can be seen as art by someone. There are in fact, homes proudly displaying day-glo orange Elvises on black velvet. And there are certainly more than a few rich fools willing to pay absurd sums of money for a piece of string stuck to a wall with a thumb tack, or a home appliance encased in plexi-glass.

All we can do is try to educate people when the opportunity presents itself and loudly denounce those who are deserving of it, whenever possible. It would do my heart good to see a few dozen fine art photographers picketing a shopping mall ‘gallery’ with signs saying, “This is not art!”


Fine Art Photography In Upheaval

Fine Art Photography In Upheaval

What Is Happening in Fine Art Photography?

(Sprinkled With a Few Gratuitous Photographs from Peru)

Chicos Lustrabotes
Chicos Lustrabotes (Arequipa Peru, early 1980s)

Just as the industrial revolution turned the world on its ear, causing such bizarre things to occur as Luddites demanding a law declaring that socks could only be made by hand, every aspect of our lives is now in upheaval as a result of the digital revolution. The whirlwind of the digital juggernaut is even more life-altering, but here we’ll restrict ourselves to the narrow sub-topic of how the digital photograph affects fine art photography. The change is profound and its final extent as yet, unseen.

What I am not talking about is the technology of making a photograph: sensor vs film. That subject has been done to death and is a waste of time. We’re talking about the effect of the digital photograph itself on the way the world sees, values and appreciates fine art photography, no matter how that photograph was made.

This revolution in fine art photography actually started long before the arrival of digital photography, and even before the end of the industrial revolution, with the famous advertising line “You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”. No doubt George Eastman had no idea of the world altering changes that phrase would engender when he coined it in 1888 but that phrase, and the camera it advertised, began a slow upheaval in fine art photography that the digital age has since vastly accelerated.

Familia Viajera
Familia Viajera  (Arequipa Peru, early 1980s)

Before “You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”, to the general public photography, all photography, was alchemy; pure magic. And almost any photograph was held in awe. Not just because of what was seen in the image itself, but equally because of the mysteriousness of the process. Much as a primitive tribe might have placed a Zippo cigarette lighter on an altar and worshipped it, the world was fascinated with the photograph in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries and wanted to see photographs wherever they were shown.

Early on, photographs were precious things to be safeguarded in luxurious Union Cases (also, Google “union case”, then click on Images) and later, in ornate photo albums. People were absolutely mesmerized by photographs and remained so, right through the 1950s.

After Eastman started selling his Kodaks, fascination with the photographic image remained, but took a different path. Now it was possible for anyone to take photographs and photography as a hobby shortly took off like wildfire. Advertised as a way to relax after a hard day, photography became almost a universal pastime. Portable cameras that did not have to be sent to New York for processing and did not require unwieldy materials appeared everywhere, along with camera clubs and enormous shows of photographs at museums and other large, prestigious venues. Camera stores cropped up all over America (and Europe) supplying these millions of amateurs. However, despite the fact so many were making their own photographs, photography still had that alchemy fascination, and for one very significant reason:

The photographs of amateur photographers bore little resemblance, especially from the standpoint of technical quality, to those of the fine art and professional photographers of the same period. Even the photographs used to advertise cameras to consumers were never taken with those same, or even similar cameras. Sometimes they weren’t photographs at all, but drawings made to look like photographs. Often they were hand colored and drawn on so much that even when they were in fact photographs, they looked as though they might not be. No matter what the amateur photographer did, he could not even get close.

Kodak ad using a photograph
Kodak ad using a photograph


Kodak Ad using a drawing
Kodak Ad using a drawing (Or is it a photograph covered in pencil and paint?)

Amateurs desired to imitate the quality of fine art photographs and even artistically inclined commercial photographs, and they fairly worshipped the photographers who were producing work at that level. But it was impossible for them to produce quality even close to what they were seeing, so they kept trying (and spending more money). The mystery and admiration remained.


It is important to note at this point that there is a very large gap between what the general public is usually capable of seeing and what might be right in front of them. Most people simply cannot see the subtleties, and even the not-so-subtle qualities, in a fine photograph. They haven’t looked at them enough and have seen few if any in the flesh, erroneously believing reproductions to be an adequate substitute. What is glaringly obvious to the artist is often utterly invisible to the public. This was brought home during four years of operating my own gallery. Numerous visitors made perfectly innocent remarks that proved they were not seeing what was directly in front of them. Some didn’t even notice that my images are brown!


As equipment and materials improved, and more and more amateurs were able to produce better work, the popularity of photography continued to grow exponentially. Large exhibitions of pictorial photographs (what the public most admired and tried to emulate) drew tens of thousands of visitors. One exhibit in Canada actually topped a million admirers. All the while, professionals with large followings produced very advanced work that hobbyists tried hard to emulate. Manufacturers took advantage of this hero worship,  using fine art and even commercial photographers and their work to sell film, paper, cameras, just about everything, while those same photographers advertised workshops and books that offered amateurs a presumed path to emulation. Even today, some hopefuls still pay handsomely to attend workshops taught by the remaining gurus of that era.

Continuous advances in film and camera technology enabled snapshooters to continue improving their results. With the advent of inexpensive color film, a very large leap was made. Seeing that color moved them much closer to getting prints that looked like the images they imagined, the great mass of photography enthusiasts jumped to color photography almost overnight. Only the most serious amateurs remained interested in B&W. Fine art photography, which was almost exclusively B&W, lost close to the entirety of its amateur enthusiasts in an instant.

Those newly converted to color photography found new heroes in photographers who were not artists: photographers specializing in travel-related landscape, commercial and portrait photography, sports, wildlife and outdoor photography (not quite sure what that means).

Because color photography is by nature, so very literal, amateurs began to see less and less difference between their new color images and those of their newly adopted heroes, also working in color. The perceived gap had narrowed considerably.

With time, fewer and fewer snapshot photographers could see any difference at all between what they were doing and what professionals produced. Well before the advent of digital photography, ordinary people with the latest cameras were starting to make remarks to themselves like,  “I coulda done that with my camera.” (They were also occasionally saying it out loud to fine art photographers. Trust me on this one!) Of course, they couldn’t. But that isn’t important. What’s important is that they THOUGHT they could! And they thought they could, because the gap between what they could do and what professionals were doing was sufficiently narrow that the snapshooter could no longer see the gap at all.

El Lavado
El Lavado (Arequipa, Peru early 1980s)

Case in point… When I lived in Arequipa, Peru there was a widely known, obnoxious, rude, supremely racist, unbearable fellow there who was also stinking rich by way of inheritance. He lived all by himself in one of the finest homes in the city. Charlie was an amateur photographer who held a very high opinion of his own photographs. He had to, no one else did. One day he showed me a magazine article with reproductions of photographs made by Ansel Adams and in all seriousness, demanded to know ‘what Ansel had that he did not’. My list was long, but speaking only of photographs, Charlie’s work could not have stood up to that of even the worst fine art photography wannabes of the day. My point? He was serious. He genuinely could not tell the difference. He could not see the ocean-wide chasm between his work and that of Adams.

Once a person is no longer able to distinguish between a good fine art photograph and an amateur snapshot, his appreciation for fine art photography ends. The vastness of the difference matters not. He can’t see it, therefore, it is not there.

There is another problem. The art part of a fine art photograph is substantially more invisible to the public than the technical differences. To most of the public, a fine art photograph has always been a photograph exactly like one of theirs, superior only in technical quality. When that technical superiority is no longer noticeable, there is no more fascination.

The digital photograph finally brought that day, when the public could no longer see the technical superiority of the fine art photograph, compared to their own. Now, the vast majority are inclined to believe they can “do that with their cameras”. Of course, they can’t. But remember, the difference they cannot see, is not there! People don’t respect what they believe they can do themselves.

The fine art photographer has two choices remaining:

  • Either continue courting the ever-shrinking audience of people who can see (always miniscule), hoping to educate more
  • Find ways to make fine art photography noticeably different and obviously unachievable, once again. Make it stand out.