Access to cameras makes photography better

This is a response to this article: Access to cameras devalues photography

Let me preface this response by saying that I do appreciate the love of the craft from which Betsy wrote the original article. I also, having not met Betsy, can only assume that she hopes for the best of the craft of photography as well. I also can say that she probably a very nice person and this is not an attack on her in the slightest. But, her opinion that the proliferation of access to a medium devalues the medium as a whole, is wrong. Also, please forgive my enumerous ammounts of grammer errors and mispunctuation.

Let’s start with breaking down her arguments. (Feel free to skip this section if you don’t like reading. I’ll reference her points later.)

Paragraph 1 – We take a ton of photos. She also states that for this discussion it doesn’t matter what gear you use to take the photo. She does concede that there may be positive aspects. Then finally she asserts her opinion as follows “it may have had an overall damaging impact on the way we appreciate the art of photography.”

  Paragraph 2 – She states that there is a proliferation of photography as a whole (any type of image capture) which is undoubtedly true. She then partially seems to go back on the statement she made in the first paragraph about the type of image capture device is irrelevant by quoting a study that says 90% of people only take photos with their phone. This juxtaposition of phones and proper photography equipment stages “casual photography” (taking photos for non artistic reasosn) in a negative light which she capitalizes on in her next sentence. “The ease of access to camera equipment has led to overall lower quality photography and a decreased admiration for the technical skill and creativity it requires.” She asserts that photography quality has decreased and the appreciation of the art has decreased.

Paragraph 3/4 – She uses Nersin Danan as the expert opinion to add credibility to her argument. Nersin is a 21 year old photographer in college who has a pretty impressive list of clients, but her career is fairly social media and pop culture focused (This is not to discredit the source, just add context). These paragraphs assert that because we see extraordinary photos constantly, we don’t appreciate them as much.

Paragraph 5 – She states that “being a photographer” requires more than minimal effort. An opinion backed by Professor Barker (Asbury University, Photography). They state that photography as an art must communicate truth (my simplification of the statement as I agree with this assessment of art). The crux of her argument follows the previous definition of photography as an art. She states that the art of photography is being lost as more people take more photos casually without artistic intent. She then cites social media and emerging technologies as a reason this trend of people taking casual photos won’t change. This statement infers that the posting of the photos to the public is also part of the problem.

Paragraph 6 – Just because you own a piano does not mean you are a good pianist. She then transfers that to photography. Finally, she ends with a call to action for readers to take a second thought before posting a photo online. Inferring the detriment of the art if they are not careful.

The reason I took the time to break the original post down is to be as thorough as possible because this can be a slippery subject. By that I mean, a lot of these beliefs are deeply rooted in what people believe about art and stem much deeper than this specific conversation. Her argument is this:

  1. More people are taking photos casually instead of artistically
  2. More photos devalue the art of photos
  3. More photos are seen which lowers the appreciation of photos

(Photos are seen as resources in this view, the more of them, the less valuable they are.)

I just want to touch on this side topic briefly. She does mention at the end of her article “Anyone with a cell phone can find some way to justify calling themselves a photographer.” which is a different topic from what she chose to argue. If I see people calling themselves photographers and they aren’t making tangible effort to become better at their craft I will also smack them on the back and tell them to kick it into gear. Because the following also condemns those so called photographers too, just in a different way. But, that’s not what she chose to discuss so…

On to the counter argument.

We must define “photography”. Photography is the capturing of a single image via a machine with a sensor (digital or photochemical). This is opposed to manual methods of rendering an image like painting or drawing. The sheer fact of capturing an image is not art. The “art of photography” is to communicate through what you capture (in a philosophical nature, to communicate Truth). Which, Betsy correctly knows and quotes Professor Barker on.

But the rest of her article does something which I have seen too often these last few months. She sees a trend which causes her to feel negatively and then wrongly associates the causation. Her assessment of the trend I will define as “The overall mean artistic quality of photographs has decreased.” This means of all photographs taken within the world the average artistic quality has dropped. She then also points out the trend “The barrier of entry to take a photograph has diminished exponentially.” (Paragraph 2) I would agree with both of these statements. Smartphones have made the cost (effort and money) of taking a picture almost nothing. I also agree that there are billions of more photos being taken without them having an artistic intent. This guarantees the mean of artistic value has decreased within photographs worldwide. Think of an exponential scale, as more photographs are taken, more will have to be “less quality”. But that also means the raw number of quality photos will increase as well.

Time = quantity of photos, Technological Capability = artistic quality

Time = quantity of photos, Technological Capability = artistic quality

 

Let’s use the example that Betsy uses in the article. People in the park taking pictures of each other. Think about how much effort those photos would have taken to get 30 years ago. You would have had to own an SLR, know what you are doing, and then get them developed. All of this to get pretty much the same photo of people standing in a park. Because, let’s be real here, we have all seen the family photos from our grandparents. They look exactly the same as the photos we take now. But the same is true about real photographers like Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, or (my personal favorite) Joseph Sudek.

If my assertion that “the sheer number of photos are increasing, therefore most photos will not be artistic” also means that the appreciation of good photos shouldn’t change (I am just assuming it wouldn’t change, if it did, it would make people have a higher bar for “good”). But, she claims in her article that appreciation of true artistic photos are decreasing. She states this because people are just looking at a ton of photos and it desensitizes them to the good ones.

Side Note: I’m just gonna knock this softball out real quick. Her Nersin Danan quote does not fit logically at all. Her statement assumes that people are being exposed to extraordinary photos all of the time causing the viewer to be desensitized to extraordinary photos. I’m pretty sure in this context “extraordinary” is synonymous with “artistic”. Isn’t the whole goal of this to further the art form? If that’s the case then more actual “art” is always good. Because according to Betsy’s article people not taking quality photos is her problem. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It sounds like an angry studio executive from the golden age of Hollywood asking for the good old days back. You know, when everyone loved the films they made because they were the only ones available.

Anyway…

Now, barring paragraphs 3 and 4 from her post I will attempt to pose a reason people’s appreciation of “quality photography” is dropping. Even if that really is a trend that’s occurring because that statement is just an assumption, but that’s another topic for a different time. So, if the appreciation of the art of photography is dropping, this might be why:

The proliferation of cameras are not making the art of photography worse. It’s showing how mediocre most “photographers” photos are.

Yeah, yeah, I know that’s pretty harsh, but hear me out. Before the smartphone, to be a “photographer” you had to take a physical camera with you to take cool photos. It’s not that most people “can’t see the cool pictures” it’s that they never cared enough to take the photo. By “cool photo” I’m referring to the one of your friend standing in an abandoned house or of your coffee cup. (again, I am talking about the majority of photos taken, there is still high level photography being done by true artisans) But now, the effort isn’t that great meaning that everyone can take mediocre photos of flowers sprouting out of sidewalks or symmetrical things on a desk.

Now what this proliferation has done has devalued the medium in it of itself. In more laymen terms, I am saying that a clear clean picture is less valuable intrinsically. In the same way people used to watch legitimate nickelodeons because they wanted to see a picture move, people want to capture images of life that reflect their life personally. The trend in photography was as follows: “Holy crap that’s an image of a thing on thing, that’s awesome” to “Look at that! I took a photo of my mom” to “That’s a really clear photo of your family, it’s like a pro did it.” People are no longer impressed by shallow depth of field and a sharp image from edge to edge. The shock factor of the medium itself has worn off because technology has made it easier to accomplish the technical aspects. Literally the only barrier to entry for a photographer now is their own artistic vision (in most cases).

The parallel in the film industry is this:

Betsy is saying: We have the art of “film” in the form of vertical videos of cats on youtube (well, to non-millenials this isn’t art) and the art of “photography” as pictures of coffee cups on tables. So, we need less cat videos and coffee photos so people can appreciate the true art.

I am saying: We have a lot of cat videos maybe I should make something better, like the next Casablanca. Or, “We have a lot of pictures of random symmetrical objects, maybe I should take a picture of something that communicates truth to people.”

The proliferation of a medium is never the problem. This literally  (I know I have said “literally” twice now, but I mean them both times) happens in every artistic industry. Technology makes it so that anyone has access to it. The true artists will rise to the top and take it to the next level because they will use the new technology to their advantage (also, usually,  they won’t be the ones complaining about the medium).

This is Mediocrity (taken by me last year)

.

These are Photos (taken by true artists last year)

Time – Radcliffe Roye

Time – Radcliffe Roye

National Geographic – Moises Saman

National Geographic – Moises Saman

National Geographic – Gerd Ludwig

National Geographic – Gerd Ludwig

There is more I can go over. I could exhaust this topic and have written a book, but that isn’t my goal and I’m tired of writing. I just can’t stand the cynical artistic view that is so prevalent today. The view that “someone else is ruining the medium by using it casually.”It places so much blame, it’s so wrong, and perpetuates mediocrity.

Now whether or not you agree with my assessment, I hope you can see a few things.

  1. The original article’s assessment of certain trends occurring is fairly accurate.
  2. The original article’s assessment of the causation of these trends and its meanings are wrong.
  3. Mediums it of themselves should never be valued as artistic. They should only be a vessel for the art created within them.
  4. Proliferation of a medium only leads to better artists and more quality art.

To my friends who consider themselves a “photographer”. Let’s take a step back for a second. This is not against you at all. It is perfectly valid to feel that your medium of choice is under attack artistically. In some ways it is (but, like I established, I think it’s misplaced value in the medium in it of itself). But, this is a call to become a better artist. That is something we must strive for as artists or we need to give up that title.

Higher expectations never devalue things. They only push things to get better. Why would we want people to be ok with worse art? That’s just dumb. We need to be the best we can be. Photography is not dying. Photography is experiencing a rebirth (and has been for a while now). The proliferation of mediocrity shows people how they need to step up their games and truly live up to the definition of an artist.

P.S. Post whatever photos you want. You might find you love the medium and begin to learn its artistic value, or you might make a mediocre photographer better. And, again, this is not an attack on Miss. Betsy. I’m actually quite happy she brought up this topic so that way we can talk about it and all become better because of it.