May 2012 Archives

Photography Next

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(Notes for practitioners) Each single day, for under $20 of operating cost, an individual can now record, store, catalog and distribute a thousand different images produced photographically, over a geographic range including most of the industrialized world. 

As a consequence, scarcity of images is predominantly a decision, not a precondition.

For the last 60 years, almost every approach of "critiquing" photo images automatically presumed that an image's "value" accumulated in seven stacked layers of scarcity. Each layer was a characteristic of the available picture, relatively measurable against other pictures. Listed in order from bottom to top, those layers are:
- occasion (opportunity to discover or draft the new image)
- insight (distinctive idea about the image material to capture)
- craft (construction skill)
- production (output volume)
- stylistic difference
- supply (distribution volume)

and finally,
-access.

As with most marketing, twisting the dials in any given layer (or combination of layers), to raise or lower the perceived level of scarcity, created certain kinds of demand; and promoting the importance of the demand was the default way of attributing importance to the image. Put simply, in any layer, the higher the demand generated from scarcity, the more important the picture's showing up there was deemed.

But now, the combination of  cameraphones, hidef video, computerized image processing, and the web has nearly blown that entire system away.

Before, in isolating pictures by "importance", the "system" was the likelihood that the hierarchy of scarcity would predominate, with occasions being the discriminator at the bottom, and access the premium distinction at the top.

In its place, the new reality is that technology rapidly and almost freely overcomes scarcity in every layer, making each layer virtually independent of each other. At any moment, hundreds of thousands of people, machines, and even animals are actually generating images without significant constraints in any aspect (layer) of the old hierarchy. At the least, cameras are everywhere, all the time, being easily controlled by more people than ever, who can find, see, exchange and approximate each other's pictures at frequencies and volumes blurring nearly any reason to assume a significant uniqueness of any picture.

Of course, there are still relatively exceptional pictures. But now that every layer of potential exception is most likely to feature abundance instead of scarcity, the simplest useful perspective for critiquing photography relies on contexts in which the picture is finally encountered.

The default situation today is that you are looking at an image that may have hundreds (or even hundreds of thousands) of reasonable substitutes, and you know that this is the case; so the formula for importance has little to do with the individual instance of the picture.

Instead, the fit of the picture to the moment of experiencing it is the source of its importance. This points directly towards the practice of designing the presentation of the picture to predispose its influence in the moment of its presentation. This is neither a new concern nor a practice likely to diminish.  But what it means is that the "eventfulness" of a picture is the hardest-driving factor establishing its importance.

Very soon, highly affordable cameras will run in video mode at high enough performance to allow any "freeze" in the image stream to be saved as a still image with fidelity comparable to most images actually produced only as stills now. Knowing that this will be true, photographers will definitely take advantage of it as the simple logical extension of the motor-drive, bracketing, and in some instances even high-dynamic-range (HDR) technique. The practice of selecting moments from the image stream will become ordinary and it will succeed enough such that the customary alternative of preparing for "the decisive moment" of exposure will not absolutely lessen but instead will retreat to more specialized use. This change of default practice is important because it will draw out what is already true in photography, namely that following the original conception of an image, editing is the most important aspect of all.

In effect, editing is the fundamental stage in designing the presentation of the image's picture with intent to influence -- and overall this concept of design will ascend to a dual role of both branded critical differentiator and primary audience attractor.

It is not by coincidence that the two major commercial photographic industries sensitive to demand (Hollywood and advertising) build their product  on "art direction", their term for the presentation design. In the much smaller industries of galleries and publishing, editing the show has had due recognition; but going forward this skill now anticipates expansion by orders of magnitude -- to cover both the skillset of most photographers and the vast collection of imagery circulating throughout the web.

The impact of that will be to call into question the meaning of "artistic importance". In criticism, as opposed to in connoisseurship, this will actually go through a re-conceptualization.

The question will NOT be "what makes a photograph art?", but instead, "what purpose of art does this photograph serve now?"

And the question will not be "is this photograph an important artwork" -- but instead will be " how is the artistic function of this photograph significant?"