Academic Essay

I wrote the following essay as a part of my Photography in Context module. I wanted to share it with you in order for you to see that I not only enjoy the practical side of photography, but the written and more academic side as well.

With the starting premise that the landscape of photography is on shifting sands, discuss some of the debates around this theme and how they inform your understanding of the future of photography.

The digital age, a time in which technologies have increased to such a high standard that we are able to find and share information through a mass of linked digital devices, has left photographers pondering over the future of photography. In the 1990s, the term “post-photographic era” (Wombell 1991 cited in Lister 2004: 304) was coined which sparked countless debates among both practitioners and theorists of the photographic industry. According to both Ascott (1996) and Ritchin (1990a, 1990b), the new digital photography, brought upon by the digital age, separated theorists into two categories: those who thought it was “a moment either to be celebrated as a release from the constraints of photographic representation(Ascott 1996 cited in Lister 2004: 302) or “a moment of cultural panic in which the values and practices of photography were seen to be threatened” (Ritchin 1990a, 1990b cited in Lister 2004: 302). Taking into account these two main perspectives, it could be argued that the majority of practicing photographers agree with the latter. This essay will critically discuss some of the major disputes surrounding the digital age’s affect on the future of photography and the post-photographic era.

In the 1880s, George Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie box camera, which some theoreticians believed was the starting point of a “mass, popular practice of domestic photography” (Mitchell 1992 cited in Lister 2004: 302). Before this, photography was a rarity due to the large format cameras and the expense behind the profession. During the digital and mechanical age, technologies have increased due to the elevated number of digital natives. (The term digital native was coined in Marc Prensky’s 2001 essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (Prensky, 2001) and it means “a person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and so familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013)). Photographic equipment and software have therefore been made more readily available and easy to operate for the laities of this industry, which has caused a considerable rift in the ideas behind the future of photography.

In 2009, a survey was published and released to the public entitled “Photojournalist: An Endangered Species in Europe?” Its findings suggested the three main areas that were disconcerting photographers were as follows: low pay rates, protection of author’s rights, and the competition from nonprofessionals (McCairley, 2009: 24). With the constant updating of media technologies, individuals are now able to acquire small digital devices that allow them to not only successfully photograph and film on-site events, but to share them instantaneously across the globe. These smartphone photographers have increased to such a number that the likelihood of them not only witnessing, but photographing significant news events creates a problem for the professional photojournalists of our generation. Ritchin (2013) states: “Today nonprofessionals have found that they can post photographs and videos that are not so very different from those of mainstream media, if at times considerably quirkier and more immediate” (Ritchin 2013: 9).

These photographic novices offer what has been perceived as a more realistic interpretation of certain events as, with them being part of the mainstream audience, they do not offer a representation, but instead show the view of the audience through their photographs, making the visuals of an event seem more relatable and authentic. It can also be suggested that this same audience has become less interested in the quality of the media images, allowing nonprofessional, smartphone photographs to become more popular. Some people may also argue that the decrease in quality of these journalistic images may in fact enable the photograph to seem more authentic and realistic. With this style of documentary photography becoming increasingly prevalent, the demand from this audience heightens allowing opportunistic individuals to take on the more relaxed position as an amateur photojournalist. As a result of the number of nonprofessional photographers increasing by the day, practitioners of the art of photography not only find that they are competing with each other, but with the millions of digital natives worldwide.

This increase in visual photographic information has consequently led some theorists to question whether we need a higher authority or a new category of photographers, called “Metaphotographers” (Ritchin 2013: 6), to sift through the mass of accumulated digital images in order to separate the important from the insignificant. Nonprofessional images may indeed be more relatable than those of the professionals but what they tend to lack is the contextualization behind them. A single image alone in among the billions of other shared pictures will not have the same impact as a photograph that has been commissioned to have a purpose and, therefore, a meaning.

Although this may be the case, some major news companies are appealing to the desire of the mainstream, digital native audience by requesting that the public send in their individual images. By doing this, the large, multi-national news corporations single out images from the broad number that are vastly accessible and give this single capture a context that makes it just as powerful as those of the professionals.

The majority of photographic practitioners and theorists have obviously seen the competition from nonprofessionals as having a negative impact on the future of photography. However, some optimists may be able to see past the primary negativity and see that this dramatic change in competition has opened up an opportunity for a new breed of photographer to be born: the “Metaphotographer” (Ritchin 2013: 6).

The increase of easy to use, quality photographic technologies and software has not only created more competition for the professional photographers of this digital age, but it has also created problems for all types of photographers and photo editors.  Introducing largely available photo manipulation software into the digital native population has meant that nonprofessionals can enhance the quality of their images, and that the authenticity of professional images are constantly being questioned. With many people from the photographic industry dramatizing the complexity of the problems photographers have had to face during the digital age, many are beginning to believe that the future of photography is going to rapidly decline into a “digital dystopia” (Ritchin 1990a, 1990b cited in Lister 2004: 312).

The use of these photo manipulation softwares on this ever changing medium has also meant that some practitioners consider that the power in determining the credibility of the image has been transferred onto the audience, allowing them full responsibility to question whether they think that the image is genuine. The variety of images that the digitally capable population view on a daily basis may in fact be authentic, but the uncertainty illustrated by the individual about the legitimacy of the photograph will continue to overpower the truth. As Ritchin (2010) argues:

Not only will readers have to depend upon editors to limit and identify their use of image-modification techniques, but with the adoption of electronic cameras and more effective home-computer imaging systems, photographers (those not replaced by robots or video) will have to be trusted a greater extent as well. (Ritchin 2010: 98)

Taking into account Ritchin’s (2010) argument, the fact that this current, highly critical audience now possesses the capacity of deciding the truth behind an image, means that the pressure on professional photographers has increased to an even higher extent. The continuation of the mounting pressure on professional practitioners has lead some academics to question whether the intimidation of the nonprofessionals will cause a dramatic change in the future of the industry. Some believe that the professionals of this medium will deflect the responsibility onto the nonprofessionals, allowing them to take over the photojournalistic sector.

However, some theorists believe that the integrity of the images in this day and age should not be brought into question simply due to the introduction of more photo-editing softwares. A selection of professionals have argued, since the beginning of the photographic era, that the truth behind an image has been constantly challenged and doubted through the diversity of representations that a single photograph can hold. Sarah Kember (1998) wrote:

Computer manipulated and simulated imagery appears to threaten the truth status of photography even though that has already been undermined by decades of semiotic analysis. How can this be? How can we panic about the loss of the real when we know (tactically or otherwise) that the real is always already lost in the act of representation? (Kember 1998 cited in Lister 2004: 329)

Looking at the quotation above, it would appear to suggest that the introduction of photography in the early 1800s as a more realistic representation, to that of paintings, would have created a decline in the interest of artistic portraits. This was not the case. It has been suggested, not only by Kember (1998), that photography is not as truthful a representation as once thought and, it can be argued, that a majority of photographic academics agree with this statement.

Despite the fact that most of the evidence, shown previously in this essay, suggests the majority of photographic professionals find that the introduction of greater digital programmes will impact negatively on the future of photography, a valid antithetic argument should be taken into consideration. This counter concept has already successfully taken place within the history of photography’s greatest competitor and neighboring industry: Art.

Before photography was first introduced, the art of painting was seen to be the truth-telling medium in which the representation through portraiture acted as an accurate portrayal of the subject within the painting. When photography first made an appearance onto the artistic scene, many artists demonstrated similar concern to that which professional photographers are now displaying. However, many artistic specialists soon came to realize that, with the competition (photography) being able to create more realistic images, they were able to adapt the restrictions of art in order to broaden the creativity and experimentation of the profession, resulting in movements such as expressionism and contemporary art.

Historical events, such as this, that show similar attributes to the changing of photography, provide evidence that many theorists can use to accumulate probable ideas about photography’s future. Ritchin (2013), for example, proposes that the constant competition of nonprofessionals should allow existing, expert photographers to challenge the constraints of their photographic practice:

But the urge to pronounce photography dead today also might be contested by another idea: the introduction of expanding digital media challenges photography – now the elder medium – to transform itself. (Ritchin 2013: 47)

Ritchin (2013) is convinced that the professionals of this “elder medium” can adapt to the pressures evoked by the nonprofessionals. It is suggested that the consistent stressors placed on to the professional practitioners, from the amateurs, (stated above) will in fact lead to a decline in adversity as it will enable the specialists to experiment with their chosen area of expertise, pushing the boundaries of what is classified as photography. Specifically, Ritchin (2013) argues that the “existence of all of these images should similarly stimulate practitioners of various photographic traditions to push harder against long-held constraints in order to reinvent their medium in other ways” (Ritchin 2013: 48).

As the digital age has advanced through the years, and the competition and challenges have heightened for the professionals of the photographic commerce, both practitioners and theorists have turned to history in order to attempt to predict the future of photography. If these apparently negative events had never occurred, the medium of photography would not have been able to progress to the developmental stage that it is at now.

Although originally writing in 1999, Ritchin was able to congregate evidence from the digital age that suggested the continuation of competition among the increasing digital native population was beginning to create a shift in the paradigm of photography: “As a result, while corporate control of the mass media has tightened, there has been a profusion of individualized statements by photographers in a variety of alternative and newly vigorous forms” (Ritchin 2010: 101). Fourteen years on from this initial written statement we are only just beginning to see evidence of the development of a newly formed creative photographic industry. As the digital age continues and the photographic era begins to adapt in the way that few practitioners expected, the debate around the future of photography will continue.

Looking back at how the digital age has caused such controversy and debate among the photographic industry through simply democratizing the available technologies and software, it is easy to understand why the majority of theorists feel that the threat of a “digital dystopia” (Ritchin 1990a, 1990b cited in Lister 2004: 312) is becoming notably prominent. The increase in competition from nonprofessionals creating concepts such as “Metaphotographers” (Ritchin 2013: 6) and the challenges of the authenticity of an image seems to create a very negative impact on the future of photography. However, some idealistic individuals have highlighted the fact that these ‘negative’ notions have meant that photographers are able to recreate the conformities of the industry through the addition of experimentation and creativity.

The debates behind the future of photography will continue and adapt depending on the changes of technology within the digital age. Due to the uncertainty of the progress of this period, we cannot successfully predict what the post-photographic era may hold.

Finally, at the moment, photographic practitioners and theorists are at an increasingly intriguing time in which the development of the future of photography can indeed be questioned and challenged. Hren (2012) states: “It’s really an exciting time, and for us as photographers and film makers, we’re really inspired, totally inspired, of the prospect of where we are going as well as what we have been able to achieve” (Hren, 2012).

List of References:

Ascott, R. (1996) ‘Photography at the Interface’ in Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. ed. by Druckery, T. New York: Aperture. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

Hren, G. (2012) Future of Photography. [online] available from <http://blip.tv/greghrenphoto/future-of-photography-6078716> [26 October 2013]

Kember, S. (1998) Virtual Anxiety: Photography, New Technologies and Subjectivity. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

McCairley, D. (2009) Photojournalists: An Endangered Species in Europe? [online] available from <http://www.ifj.org/assets/docs/023/247/2cdcf17-bac4cf7.pdf> [27 October 2013]

Mitchell, W.J. (1992) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

Oxford Dictionaries (2013) Definition of Digital Native in English [online] available from <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/digital-native> [27 October 2013]

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’. On the Horizon [online] 9 (5), 1-6. available from <http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf> [26 October 2013]

Ritchin, F. (1990a) In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography. New York: Aperture. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

Ritchin, F. (1990b) ‘Photojournalism in the Age of Computers’ in The Critical Image. ed. by Squiers, C. New York: Aperture. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

Ritchin, F. (2010) In Our Own Image. 3rd edn. New York: Aperture

Ritchin, F. (2013) Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen. New York: Aperture

Wombell, P. (1991) PhotoVideo: Photography in the Age of the Computer. London: Rivers Oram Press. cited in Lister, M. (2004) ‘Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction. ed. by Wells, L. 3rd edn. London: Routledge, 297-336

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