Fine Art Photography In Upheaval
What Is Happening in Fine Art Photography?
(Sprinkled With a Few Gratuitous Photographs from Peru)
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.
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.
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.
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.