The social evolution of photography and its impact on creative work

A lens, a shutter,  a light reactive material, a dark box.

That’s all a camera is. A lens to focus and sort out incoming light, a shutter to control the amount of time the light reactive material is exposed, something to receive the light and make a record of it, and a box which does not allow other light onto the material during or outside of the exposure. Every single bit of this equation has been poured over, endlessly. Industries and companies have been founded and prospered manufacturing only one of those things. Advancements and discoveries have been made individually on each of those four things, and we’ve improved how they work together.

The technology of photography has been a fascinating evolution. The expertise required to take a picture has moved from trained technician/chemist, to professional, to hobbyist, to the general public with some practice, to literally anyone. There’s been a proportional decrease in the amount of time needed to take a picture. With the advent of digital technology, pictures became instantly reviewable. Internet allowed us to share these pictures with our friends, families, and strangers the world over. Social media allowed pictures to become a staple and centerpiece of social interaction. Finally, the most recent evolution of photography is the widespread use of phones with camera and internet capabilities. This allows photography to be sort of a constant stream, a view into the lives of our friends on a daily and banal basis.

We are bombarded with images. Services like Snapchat and Instagram make pictures, snapshots, the foundation of social interaction. Can you imagine how boring Facebook would be if it were only text? The sheer amount of pictures and images of our friends have conditioned us to demand images.

However, through all of this, the camera has remained a lens, a shutter, a light reactive material and a dark box. Who uses it, and how, has changed immensely. The way we share photos would’ve been unimaginable to Nicéphore Niépce when he took the first permanent photograph, an eight hour exposure from his laboratory window in the 1820s.

What effect does this huge shift towards an image based culture have on photography as an art form?

Creative photography in a visual world

In a world where anyone can take a decent photograph with modest means, and expensive equipment only serves niche purposes which is not overwhelmingly visually dissimilar to the end viewer, how does one stand out as a creative photographer?

First and foremost, I think that the impact of certain forms of photography will be dulled in their historic forms. Moving into this new age of photography, I think it’s important for creative photographers to evolve past precedents already set as so many types of photography lose their effect due to a visual culture. It is imperative that the artist must interject their artistry into their craft in order to rise above the flood of snapshots.

What good is a landscape when I have access to the best work of any photographer operating anywhere in the world? People are desensitized to images of beautiful and unique places by virtue of being inundated with every conceivable angle and lighting condition of certain famous locations. Instead the landscape photographer must now convey, and convey perfectly how the landscape strikes them. Something unique that they see in the land, how the land resonates in their heart and mind.

What good is portraiture when we see images of people’s faces with every expression, in almost every setting, with all their friends and the things they love around them? With the huge volume of pictures of any given person, it’s possible to get an idea for the personality of a person from the volume of photos of them rather than the quality of a photo. So, the portrait photographer must interject their relation to the subject and capture, in a single expression, in a single posing, single lighting, single frame, the broadest slice of a subject’s personality they can manage, such that the viewer is enticed, learns something of the subject and wants to know more.

What good is event photography when everyone has a camera? The photos taken by guests at a wedding will almost always be more interesting to the guests and bride and groom than the photos taken by the photographer by virtue of the fact that they have more intimate knowledge of the guests. They know the social structures and know where to point the camera, being privy to knowledge like “Oh, you know Uncle Dale when he gets a few drinks in him…” The job of the event photographer is to absorb the atmosphere of the event and inject it into every one of their shots along with their own artistic flair. While the photographer’s photos may not capture memorable shenanigans of the wedding, their photos must be graceful, artistic, beautiful, immemorial yet contemporary.

These are the forms of photography I have the most experience with, but those experienced in fields such as sports photography, photojournalism, studio photography, on and on, may have their own thoughts. Photography must evolve in this world flooded with technically clear and decent photographs that, in artistry and photographic skill, only snapshots.

The past and the future

Photography is an interesting medium in which the early days of the medium were much like any other traditional visual art form. Taking a clear picture was a lot like drawing a good drawing or painting a realistic looking painting; it took knowledge, skill, and practice. However, as technology evolved, everyone became more skilled simply by the lower threshold of knowledge, skill, and practice it took to take a photo. One evening, I was playing around with my 4×5 view camera practicing the steps of focusing, metering, setting the shutter, loading the film holder, exposing, and removing the film holder, and then I took a picture of the setup with my iPhone. It struck me that the process that took 5-10 minutes with the view camera took only seconds with my iPhone and while the results are very different, the fundamentals are there and they both accomplish the same thing: making a record of the light as it’s focused by the lens.

So, now that everyone can paint with light perfectly, accurately, and cheaply, what will become of photography? My thought is that it will go through an evolution similar to that of western painting. After realism was achieved, painting turned towards impressionism. Suddenly we saw emotion and movement being interjected into paintings. Finally, we move to modernism. The paintings of Kandinsky, of Picasso and Pollack, the drawings of Escher, the work of Andy Warhol, all moved away from strictly realistic in favor of expression of the world in a surreal and stylized manner. I can’t help but wonder if photography will undergo a similar evolution.

A lens, a shutter,  a light reactive material, a dark box.

Photography will always involve these four things. The journey of what shape these take and how we use and share them has been an interesting and fundamentally ongoing one. Furthermore, what we make with these four elements and how and how much we share it serves to create a culture which gives us expectations of what comes from the lens, shutter, light reactive material and dark box.

Here at the still recent advent of digital photography, I think it’s an exciting time to be a photographer. Because of the nature of technology, digital technology will evolve very quickly and I think creative photographers will soon bore of endless examination of gear and editing technique. I sincerely hope that our art is on the cusp of evolution, and not simply about to fade as a relic of the past into a modern culture and tidal wave of snapshots and images.


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