Bold statement, I know. But let me walk you through how I got there before you decide to disagree.
Photography at this point in time has had a long history, and we could go into all the processes and outcomes of the daguerreotype, wet plate, dry plate and more, but that’s a history lesson for another time. I would, however, be remiss (and most likely criticized) if I did not at least acknowledge the aforementioned era and development of the photographic process. Yes, there were photographers before colour film. Yes, they worked in various methods. And Yes, they are worth looking at and exploring. But let’s compare apples to apples here. Black and white is now an option for photographers and not the only option available as it was for many years. A necessary distinction when comparing analog and digital photography. To understand how I got to this controversial conclusion, we must skip ahead to when colour photography became mainstream. We must start, then, when Kodachrome came onto the scene.
In 1936 the Eastman Kodak company released their tri-colour film to the masses. A definitive moment that made colour photography accessible to every mom, pop, and child around the world. When it came to the artists, colour film photography was used in a way that we now take for granted. Each shutter snap was a choice that had a cost, a “decisive moment,” as Barthes would say. But each was available to all.
Skipping ahead once more, things changed with the invention and adoption of digital photography. But what changed was more than a simple switch from analog. What changed is how we see and use photography. There was no more decisive moment; the taking of a photo was now allowed to be taken for granted. It has evolved to the point where now we are all photographers. So the question begs asking – if everyone can be and is a photographer, what defines the medium of photography as an art form? What separates the artist from the rest? Can photography still be considered art? This is where it really begins.
A bit about me, I studied photography both in its analog and digital processes. I know my way around a colour-dark room and feel just as comfortable editing photos in photoshop. Relevant, in case you were beginning to think this article looked like some sort of hate speech on digital photography. I’m not sitting on some high horse of the past looking down from my lazy boy yelling, “you darn kids!” Instead, I am merely suggesting that it is about choosing the medium; as far as I can see, there are two mediums. Digital and Analog.
Digital has the ability to be everywhere, refine at the moment of capture, manipulate in real time and edit live. It is speed. It is precision. It is light. It is the future. Analog has romance and nostalgia, where confidence is required before the click. It is patience, understanding, dedication, and class. The separation is necessary once again to appreciate each one for what they are. If we combine the two, we lose what is most valuable to each one, what defines each one, and what makes them great as their own entities. It is a choice, not a definition; both can be great, both can be shit.
So, what defines the medium of photography as an art form? I have grappled with this question as a photographer and appreciator for years. And what it has come down to, in essence, is the craft. The making of, the tireless and meticulous dedication to the work, the painstaking revisions and decisions to match the image in your head. This is the craft, but where is it? I haven’t seen it in photography for a while. (Honourable mention to graphic designers and illustrators for picking up the slack)
The cynic in me says that it’s gone. Things are too accessible and available to everyone that there is no need to craft. What does it matter, and who will notice in a never-ending feed of images? People put analog photography on a pedestal and talk about it like it will forever be considered an artist’s medium. Oh yeah? Tell me, did you mix the chem, process the film, and develop the images? OR just get the lab to scan them so you can post them with the hashtag portra400, never to pick up the negatives. Worse yet, you just use filters to make it seem like you shot on film? Light-leek filters and fake grain are the true bastardizations of the photography world. And you digital photographers, you’re not off the hook either. When was the last time you printed an image or framed it? When was the last time you pushed the capabilities of that “shot on an iPhone” slogan for yourself or experimented in any way with the presets?
This is how I concluded that photography is no longer an art form. This is how the tool became so easy that the craft wasn’t necessary. But this is not the end. This is just how it is for now, and I implore any photographers out there to get past the tool and work on the craft again, for photography’s sake.