Photography is Dead, Long Live Photography

Eduard Muybridge

English photographer Eadweard Muybridge was one of photography’s early pioneers — in the 1870s he used specially-designed cameras to photograph series of still frames depicting animal and human motion.

Two years ago while taking some local nature photos, I saw and photographed a bald eagle and a blue heron fighting over a fish. The photograph itself was nothing fantastic, but still “a keeper” since I had never heard of such behavior. Even more amazing, when I got home and looked into it, I could find no photographs of such an event on Google — not even one! I had photographed something that was not yet findable on Google — I had defeated the machine. Two years on now and the machine is definitely on top again — there are now at least a few dozen photos of eagles and herons going at it, and several much better than mine.

Which brings me back to the title of this piece — of course photography being dead is just my personal opinion, and to be completely honest it only refers to a certain type of photography, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Photography Has an Identity Crisis

Since the beginning, photography (ca. 1837) has had a bit of an identity crisis — is it an art, a science, or just merely a documentary tool? Until recently photography had been in a large part limited by what could be photographed by the available technology. Early photographers had to struggle with media that was terribly light insensitive by today’s standards. This, in combination with large cameras and the lack of artificial lighting, kept early photographers limited to shooting still life images, landscapes, and excruciatingly posed portraits.

Perhaps even more restrictive, for more than the first 40 years, nearly all images, and all high quality ones, required the creation of a photographic plate, the exposure, and the developing all to happen while the photographic plates remained wet — a period of no more than a few minutes. You had to have your own lab, you had to have it with you, and you had to be your own chemist. Photography was most definitely not a tool for the masses, but rather for a very select few. Even with all of these limitations, photographers during this period figured out how to produce stereographic (3D) images, “freeze frame” photographs and produce the first precursors to modern motion pictures.

Photography Club

In the late 1930s, well after the fiftieth anniversary of photography, the “common man” interested in being a photographer could join a camera club in Iowa, as evidenced by this WPA poster.

Photography’s Fiftieth Anniversary Saw Great Changes…

While photography was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, it was also undergoing revolutionary technological changes: “dry” film had been perfected, liberating photographers from being “tied” to their labs; smaller, less expensive cameras that could be hand-held and used almost anywhere had become available; and the development of half-toning printing allowed photos to be used in high-volume printings like newspapers. The “common man” could now aspire to be a photographer.

It also meant that the number and type of photographs being taken increased dramatically. With these developments photographers even began discussing the then apparently absurd notion that photography could be used to create comprehensive catalogs of “all” things. But even approaching this goal would have to wait for more than a century.

…The Next 100 Years, Not So Much

For the next 100+ years photography did not change much — color photography became a reality, and increasingly sophisticated lenses and cameras came and went in a gradual evolutionary process. But broadly speaking, photography and how it was used did not change significantly. The amount of personal photography grew explosively, while the amount of public photography – that shared beyond the ties of close friends and family via print media, art exhibits, etc. — also increased at a much more modest rate.

This meant that many of us have had access to a fairly dense set of photos detailing our personal experiences, but sparse access to everything else. Between newspapers, Life magazine, National Geographic, and other travel/pictorial magazines, we then had a very broad idea of what the world “looked like,” but without much detail. Some pictures here and there, but certainly not enough to stop most people from taking boatloads of photos to “document” places, things, and people. Everyone could dream or even try to be the “Ansel Adams” of their own experiences. The era of “snapshots” had begun.

The Snapshot Era

Finally, the last dozen years or so has brought us the next revolution in photography. In a short period of time, digital photography combined with the Internet have started to make a serious dent in what had been the pipe dream of creating a photographic “catalog of all things.”  Flickr, once a pioneer and now old fogey in the Internet photo “business,” has a catalog of at least a couple hundred million photos available for free “public” use in its Creative Commons in addition to the billions more that can be looked at, but not legally used other purposes. The last time Google discussed how many images it had indexed over three years ago (aka an eternity on the Internet age), that number was ten billion images. And of course, how could we not mention Facebook, is adding about 350 million photos a day to its stockpile of 240 billion photos.  This is the snapshot era overdosing on steroids.

Maybe not every “thing” has been photographed – but it’s sure starting to seem that way. Obviously, and by definition, no two photographs can ever be exactly the same since each one represents the view for a precise instant in time when seen from a specific and unique location. But do a search for “Eiffel Tower” on Google and you will discover a seemingly endless number of photographs of the “thing,” the vast majority from a small set of viewpoints, and almost none of them really truly original.

Snapshot Photography is Mostly Dead

To me personally, the snapshot is dead, or at least, in the language of the Princess Bride, “mostly dead.” It’s becoming almost impossible to be original when photographing things, especially when done so without much thought or when “shooting from the hip.” In large part the use of Instagram, with its easy variations and faux creativeness, are a testament to the lengths to which people feel they have to go in their of search of creating something unique. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think snapshots are going away – rather they are becoming like the seemingly never-ending masses of animated but soulless zombies in our popular media.

What does this mean for me personally as a photographer? Well, for one thing, I think that we are already well past the point when photography was largely defined by what could be photographed, and now will be defined instead by what it makes sense to photograph. Personally that means I strive to make photographs of the highly personal, of the ephemeral, of things and events that others might not have access to, and or of that which is not “seen” by others.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.