‘Photography has left the building,’ claims Stephen Mayes in a wide-ranging essay on the future of photography for Time LightBox. But does new technology really represent a paradigm shift in the very nature of photography?
Mayes is a leader in his field, pioneering innovations and spotting future trends. He sees possibility when others lament the past. This is a positive future, and the antithesis of so many commentators. In the next stage, he says, photography will grow up as it experiences a paradigm shift.
I admit, I had to re-read the article a few times, and while the detail may be fuzzy, his big idea is clear: the next revolution is coming; don’t get left behind. To critique such a grand idea makes me feel like the mean guy who says the future won’t have flying cars. I’m not that guy: I want a flying car, but I still believe it is a car, even if it flies.
The word ‘photography’ is used throughout the essay, but I assume he was thinking about photojournalism first. By avoiding using the word ‘photojournalism’ he stops people saying ‘It’s dead!’ His vast experience in the discipline, the context of Time magazine and the World Press Photo Award’s current canvassing on ethics (alluded to in the piece) suggests this is the target. Like a preacher to a familiar flock, he pleads, ‘Stop talking about the child it once was and put away the sentimental memories of photography as we knew it for all these years.’ How often have I heard people lament the golden age that has passed.
The article begins with a statement about a revolution in all photography, but later on Mark Levoy of Google is quoted saying there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’, ‘except in photojournalism’.
An Oxford scholar joked that their rivals in Cambridge have the bad habit of extending their limited experience in east England to the entire universe. He cited Newton and his falling apple which was then extended uniformly to the planets. The theory worked until we discovered black holes. Are Mayes’ musings likewise universal in their application to all photography or should they be limited to the branch of photojournalism?
Photography has passed great milestones from childhood to puberty with the digital revolution and then the adoption of smartphones. The art has moved from picture-making to data-collecting. Next we will pass from ‘two dimensions to explore previously unimagined possibilities’, with the photo as ‘a vessel for immeasurable volumes of information’. The future photography will have more dimensions and more information, which sounds very exciting. Do we need more information in a frame to better the ‘crude 2D rectangle’?
Augmentation (integrating information and data in visual forms) is a very exciting new branch, but does it mean photography has left the building entirely, or is it constructing a sparkly new extension called computational photography? The brilliant example of Tomas Van Houtryve’s augmented images presents a sophisticated form of computerised photography. Is this a more refined version of cameras that printed the dates in bright orange font or hand-tinted glass plates? Is photography moving or just expanding?
Mayes describes Cubism from 100 years ago as an example of where photography is going – “using multiple perspectives to depict a deeper understanding”. This seems a true revolution in art: circling back to the past. Those artists stripped back the visual form to amplify meaning considering the component parts. They were informed by new ideas and insights, which they incorporated in their work but they simplified. And photography already contains that philosophy.
He states, ‘It will not be long before our audiences demand more sophisticated imagery that is dynamic and responsive to change, connected to reality by more than a static two-dimensional rectangle of crude visual data isolated in space and time.’ I actually laughed when I first read that. These crude rectangles can reduce people to tears and turn governments from war. Mayes certainly believes that more than most, so its crudeness must be in comparison to a vastly superior future. So what is the alternative being offered? Moving, three-dimensional, sophisticated complex forms, I suppose. Interactive, digital, multi-layered are the trendy buzzwords, but in these the form of the essence of the photograph remains intact, and when we add other stuff we make them something else. Do we need to redefine photography?
The two-dimensional representation of reality is a constant outlet of human creative expression, from the Chauvet caves to modern tablets. I imagine a French caveman once predicted the demise of finger painting as he held a hairy stick in his hand to the envy and wonder of his peers. Painting may have left the cave, but it is still painting. Art continues to connect us to reality in abstract and representational forms.
Using LIDAR or electron microscopes may sound revolutionary in photography, but they are still using light to make a picture. This sounds a little like chronological snobbery (newer is better), which is as dangerous as nostalgia.
Photography remains relevant in the tsunami of information unleashed by the Internet because it manages complexity simply. New technology offers new (exciting) ways to know more about our world and to explain it, but why is adding immeasurable volumes of information to the simple image necessarily an advancement? We need simplicity to focus the attention on what matters.
If photography has left the building, maybe she has gone out to find the photographers and editors who have wandered into fashionable cul-de-sacs and got distracted. Maybe it was us who moved, not photography. Mayes’ aim is a laudable one – to spark debate and wake photojournalism up from the dreams of past glory to consider where we are heading.
If this is about connecting to an audience via smart apps and interactive web sites and virtual reality headsets, then photography remains very much at home. And if photography’s new building has lasers and flying cars, then count me in.