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Dead or Dying?

Everyone, obviously, has a camera these days; and yet, the venerable art of photography is, by most accounts, comatose if not on its death bed.  How is this possible?

The truth is that while the ever increasing availability of cheap electronics, including cameras, has, in many ways, been a boon to our society; this consumer tsunami has also left many vicitims in its wake. Some casualties are less obvious than others.

By way of example, ask any serious photographer and they’ll tell you- sometimes passionately, and often in great detail- about the implosion of professional photography.

The impossibility of making a living via this craft is always, understandably, at the forefront of their concerns; as are the collective frustrations  born of dealing with an ever demanding public which, with each passing year, demonstrates less and less respect for the profession while concurrently demanding that photographers ply their trade for free, or at best, for token wages. One photographer recently told me that a friend paid her for a portriait session with a token gift card from Target.

 

In short, there has germinated in many sectors of mainstream society, and also throughout the world of commerce and media, the supposition that because anyone can take a photograph, that there is no real reason to hire a professional, let alone any need to pay them well for this apparently simple task.

These days an editor sees no reason to pay a professional to write and shoot a freelance story.  I, and countless others, are told that a writer should just, “throw in the photos,” even if the work is of professional quality and shooting those photographs additional, and sometimes considerable additional, time and effort.

Some days it’s more difficult to tell who is more under-employed and under-appreciated- the poet or the photographer.

These unpleasant and broadly held assumptions regarding the need and value of the skilled photographer are obviously old news.  The etiology of the demise of the professional photographer has been much discussed and well documented.

Common wisdom has concluded that given the aforementioned availability of ever simpler and cheaper, yet increasingly powerful and sophisticated digital cameras and post production software, that there simply isn’t a justifiable economic need for those versed in the art of photography.fftv-dead-12-of-17

Thus, because any drunken monkey, or stoned frat boy with a cell phone, now possess the capacity to point a camera, or I phone, and record an image which can be downloaded to the local news editor, there is no further need to employ any full time professional photographers.

And because many believe that their cousin armed with a new Rebel and a kit lens is a suitable replacement for a professional photographer, pros shoot fewer and fewer weddings.  Similarly, mothers shoot their own Christmas cards thus avoiding the need to travel to the local small town studio for a portrait session.

The ultimate result being that serious photographers seem to be going the way of daily home milk delivery and the public payphone.fftv-dead-7-of-17

Two recent examples, from my own experience, illustrate the demise of the professional photographer.

I recently received a Groupon wherein a local photographer was offering a half day introductory course for thirty-five dollars. Given that Groupon receives one half any coupon sold, this means that the photographer in question was offering that half day course for seventeen dollars before expenses and taxes.  I’ve also received many other similar offers in the last year.

My second example involves a large international association who came to town.  By their own reckoning, this international group staged an event and brought into town, over ten days, a total of 362 participating groups from 64 countries, with 15,000 participants taking part in the event, making it the largest international arts and cultural event held in the history of Cincinnati.

The event’s web site claims that it was the first time this prestigious international event was held in the United States; that it was attended by over 208,000 visitors, and that, Media coverage totaled more than a billion impressions around the globe with publicity value of more than $32 million.   

 

The impact study issued by the group claimed “an economic impact of $73.5 million. Sold out concerts and competitions, merchandise sales and strong visitor spending at hotels, restaurants and attractions during the two-week event complemented positive feedback from the region’s hospitality community.”

I was informed by multiple photographers who shot this event, that of the 57 photo passes issued for this event that only two photographers received any compensation for shooting this ten day multi-million dollar extravaganza and that everyone else was expected to volunteer their skills. Photographers who shot this event were told in many cases that they were expected to shoot the event from the back of the darkened room behind the spectators.

Such economic deconstruction, I suppose, makes sense if the sole purpose for our collective existence is to view life as a ledger sheet which can only be rationalized, and justified through cost benefit analysis.  That is, a free mediocre photograph trumps any professional work of art and the bottom line dictates that we simply be content with the lousy photo and count our savings.  Ultimately, a picture from Cousin Kevin serves as well as any work of art and a free photograph is the best photo of all.

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Though, if one were to play out this logic to the very end, I suppose it would make sense to tear down every single decent restaurant in America and replace it with Taco Bells serving nothing but bean burritos and gallon jugs of diet coke.  Such a movement, after all, would serve the polestar corporate dictate of maximizing food industry profits.  After all, food is food and money is money.

And while we’re at it, why not tear down all the expensive architecture of all the beautiful cities of the world and replace those beautiful buildings without the far more utilitarian and profitable cement block buildings of 20th century East Berlin?

Or maybe I’ve missed the point and that’s exactly where we’re headed as a society.

In any event, my intent is not audition as America’s next Andy Rooney; I have no desire to become the national curmudgeon.  Times change, I understand that.

However, there is wisdom in contemplating what we lose when an entire field of art is summarily dismissed and devalued.  We may increase profits (for a lucky few), but with each passing day, the world may very well become, if not a little more ugly, certainly a little less beautiful.

Because while it is true that it’s no great accomplishment- especially given today’s advances in technology, to take a picture- it is another thing all together to take a competent, let alone beautiful photograph. An appreciation for this fact seems lacking in those who would turn their back on the field.

For photography, as any seasoned photographer knows, is an art which must be nurtured and developed over decades.   A picture is not a photograph and taking a picture by pointing a small metal box while pushing a fully automated shutter does not make one a photographer.

Photography, rather, is a subtle art which involves the rapid coordination of relatively concrete and/or objective temporal and spatial concerns in conjunction with other far more subjective and unpredictable considerations.

A partial list of the relatively straight forward, objective and predictable concerns facing a photographer any time that he or she prepares to take a photograph includes:

Focus and/or focus of the principal subject. If the primary subject of the photography isn’t sharp, then, in most instances, the photo isn’t worth having. A secondary consideration is focus of the primary subject relative to the remainder of the photograph.  Should the background be as focused as the principal subject, or, as is sometimes the case with portraiture, should the primary subject, the model, be razor sharp and set again a pleasant blurred background?

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Contemplation of the primary subject relative to the other subjects in the photograph brings us to the topic of composition-or simply said- what goes where, and what should be included and excluded from the photograph?  In composing a photograph, we are asking ourselves- what is this photo about? More than any other basic concept in the field of photographic arts, the concept of composition seems to have entirely eluded the camera wielding general public.fftv-dead-16-of-17

It’s also important to consider the movement of the subject and/or the need to capture and/or arrest that movement. This may be accomplished by adjusting the speed of the shutter. A rapid closing of the shutter can still a humming bird, the use of slow shutter speed, combined with a rapidly moving subject can produced a pleasing blurred effect which could is helpful if one is shooting, say,  a bicycle race.

All of these prior considerations, of course, turn upon an assessment of the lightning present and or available at the time of shooting. One must assess the source, or source(s), of light; the nature of that light (various types artificial- bright sun, filtered light?) as well as the need to compensate for an any unwanted, or overly aggressive source or types of light- such as bright glaring sunlight in mid-afternoon.

Some of the less objective concerns which might face a photographer- when capturing an image- depends upon the nature of the event and/or subject being shot at any given moment: the photo journalist or street photographer must assess her subject and gauge the subjects potential reaction to be photographed- i.e. – is the person aware that she or he is being photographed, and/or is the subject likely to be unhappy or even enraged or threatened by being photographed?  A subject glaring directly into the camera rarely constitutes a worthwhile image.  Accordingly a journalist or street photographer must often work in anonymity. A fact which in and of itself demands the cultivation of a distinct skill set.

Most often, however, in more overt instances, the subject is aware of the photographer’s intentions and trust must be cultivated in order to assure that the resulting portrait doesn’t reflect an unhappy, uneasy or nervous subject.   Such trust may be cultivated sometimes over hours or even days in a studio; other times a rapport must be established in seconds on the street.  The type of interpersonal communication required to build such trust is a subtle skill shared by few.

Sometimes enduring patience and/or the ability to maintain heightened sense of awareness is the key to producing meaningful work.

A wildlife photographer may wait for days in the wild to obtain the shot he wants. A landscape photographer may find it necessary to visit the same remote site, in the freezing early morning darkness, to capture the perfect sunrise.  Bryce National Park at 4am, even in the summer, is a cold damn place.

Conversely, anyone can shoot someone holding a guitar, but to get the perfect concert shot requires an intimate knowledge and appreciation of many factors including: a knowledge of music and the physical tendencies of the performers; as well as the ability to coordinate rapidly vacillating lighting with the rapid movement of the players in low light; as well as the need to shoot about ,and around, obstructions, including but not limited to amps, fans, on-stage monitors, large security personnel (who often don’t want you there in the first place) and other photographers (sometimes many other photographers as in the case of music festivals-also known as life in the pit).

This brief exegesis constitutes, of course, a very minimal list of concerns and challenges faced by any serious photographer in their quest for a great image.

Which isn’t to say that photography is a considered and cognitive process involving endless rumination- the consultation and completion of a pre-shot checklist, as it were, prior to shooting.

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Rather, to be successful under the afore-described conditions, one must spend years- or as Malcolm Gladwell would have it- one must spend ten thousand hours apprenticing to the art- that is appeasing the Gods of photography, so that he or she might one day be able to address these subjective and objective concerns instinctively, within a single heartbeat.

Or, as the great Henri Cartier-Bresson  wrote in his seminal work: “The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “ To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy. “

The point is not that amateurs cannot create photography- especially using today’s gear. For even the greenest photographer can snag the (occasional) worthwhile shot with a point and shoot camera and/or cell phone.

The point is that great photography does not happen by accident or on its own.  I’m also not saying that those who seriously shoot are only all about the cash. For the opportunity to capture fleeting reality, to finally possess that great physical and intellectual joy, is ultimately why most photographers shoot and will continue to work their craft, conjure their magic, whether or not they’re being paid.

In fact, those who disdain and/or knowingly abuse the art of photography, and those who practice the art, ultimately have the upper hand because there are many of us who cannot help ourselves but to shoot, We have no choice because- as with most artists- shooting is part and parcel of our lives and working at the craft of photography is what makes our lives rich and varied and rewarding.fftv-dead-15-of-17

As Bresson once wrote of his own love affair with the lens:

I went to Marseille. A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment. I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

In the end, beautiful images are created by those who crave to seize the whole essence of any given subject, scene or setting.  A photographer longing for beauty, Jonesing to capture the essence of any given scene, does not invoice before shooting.

And yet, how many great portraits, landscapes, works of art haven’t been produced, in the last two, three, five, fifteen years, because such photographers have lacked the means to travel and shoot such landscapes?fftv-dead-11-of-17

How many great portraits have not been shot because photographers have been forced to work overly long hours away from their studios; are now forced to drive UPS trucks all day and shoot when they can?

How many grooms go through life not knowing the beauty of their bride on their wedding day because they chose to rely on Cousin Kevin?

How many people have stopped shooting because earning a living with a camera entails too little money and so much, to put it simply, bullshit?

In the last month I’ve spoken with no less than three photographers who told me that they quite shooting for long periods of time because they had, “lost their passion.”  Each used this phrase, what does it mean?

I don’t know.  I suspect that it means that they’re simply sick of the ever increasing costs of practicing their art.  I do know that most of us continue as best we can.  I also suspect, however, that there is important, and beautiful work, not being shot and the world suffers for it.

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Me?  I’ll continue to put in my time, to hone my craft as best I can.  I’ll stand on a street corner, in a city neighborhood, freighted with a hundred kinds of light and a thousand unique faces, shooting without a gig, for free, on a late fall Tuesday night.  Because that’s what it takes, that’s the price to pay to make art.  I call it batting practice- going though the motions to maintain the muscle memory so that when the chance for that great shot comes, I’ll be ready. In going through the motions, I rarely produce anything memorable, let alone stunning, but I always learn something. I’m always moving towards that goal of getting those shots.

And all the while I won’t feel cheated that I don’t have a paying gig, because I know, as do my brothers and sisters of the lens, that if I keep the faith, and do the work, that at some point, the Gods of light and space will smile upon me and grant me a vision of the universe that few will ever know.  And that will be enough.  I’ll live simply to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

The rest of the world will have to be content with bean burritos and cinder-block office buildings.