Dockside this week, the last meeting of the 2014-15 season, near full moon and clear skies and the biggest boat ( the Lady Sandals, a private yacht that was, maybe, once owned by the actor Nicholas Cage for a few days, who also, I seem to remember, once owned a castle hereabouts he never visited – he is a man of expensive hobbies) seen in the basin for a long while (the MV Balmoral possibly accepted and then there wouldn’t be much in it either way though she was in the Bristol Channel I believe). We met under the “Big Shiny Ball” aka “The Disco Ball”, in reality the Planitarium in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Can’t say my own pictures were particularly heart stopping but I do have one, straight out of the camera, absolutely no post production, that apparently breaks the laws of physics. Need some time to puzzle that one out, or possibly engaging a Galactic Lawyer, but hey can’t say the evening wasn’t productive!
The Millennium that the Square celebrates was supposed to bring in many apocalyptic changes. Photographically it marked the beginning of the commercial change from film to digital and the relegation of a dominant medium to a men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth medium in a couple of years. Then nostalgia isn’t what it once was. Stephen Mayes in an article in Time Magazine (thanks Mark Stone for posting via Facebook) this week argued that the changes were bigger than we first thought and that the photograph as photograph isn’t “Dead as many have claimed, but it’s gone“. The interconnected context of a photograph today, never mind the volumes of data about ourselves their sharing gives away, does not represent the optically and physically fixed idea of an article of record we think it does. Only a third of any image produced digitally, represents this century and a half truism of an unadorned record (and that was always at least part myth anyway), the rest of a JPEG or TIF file is interpolated. And the data in a RAW file, the digitally closest thing to a negative, can be manipulated in a near infinite number of ways. He cites Kevin Connor’s conjecture that the camera has evolved from picture making device to a data collecting one.
This does actually matter in our interconnected world, one where the next evolution of the i-phone may have a 12mp camera and 4K video capability, but also one where ALL the data on the phone, your life, good days, bad days and secrets between friends are shared globally in real time without you ever thinking about it. The delete button ONLY works on your phone. The myriad privacy statements and unread end user licensing agreements (EULA) allow us, distracted by the shiny things that these little miracles do and say, to unthinkingly give away data worth billions and permanently record those things we, maybe, one day wish had been left to fade from memory. Oh yes the digital camera now fits right in and not just camera-phones either because we upload/share not just the image but the exif data as well, maybe add a few comments, most of them instantly forgettable, lol, corny or otherwise steeped in a sauce of our own delusional wit, rotfl – to the point of incontinence. The point is “Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’; everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation – either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself” (Mayes after Marc Levoy).
My answer to that is, it always was. Composition? Decisive moment? Story telling? All a part of the art from day one because it was life imitating art at the beginning and ever since the very presence of a camera makes a difference to the way people act. That’s why “authentic” street photography sounds akin to stalking or surveillance in behavioural technique. That, however, maybe to (slightly) misrepresent Mayes, who is actually pitching that the photograph has and is becoming much more. It may, at the simplest level, represent a 2D representation of a 3D world but that 3D world now includes other experiences. Like the hyperlinks in this post represent layers of definition, interpretation and ultimately meaning through multiple perspectives with the text serving as guide in the same way as the image fires the story we put to it. Another point that this raises in my mind is that photojournalism isn’t immune from these things it is enhanced and increasingly depends. Apart from? Especially? Isn’t a crowd sourced citizen journalism closer to the notion of a cinema verite (Though someone still has to curate it)? And who has got the time to navigate this planet around every image world? Apart from Cultural Historians, Auteurs and the long term unemployed “Ain’t nobody got time for that“. Maybe that is the point. An image has a during, usually of a fraction of a second, we can only speculate about the before and afters for the most part.
Without a doubt photography is changing. Arguably there are fewer professionals around these days and someone turning up with a camera is no longer an event because everyone, virtually, has a camera as long as they have a Smartphone – and not just in the advanced economies. Mind you, turn up with a tripod and everyone thinks you know what you are doing. Within seconds you can be surrounded by men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth telling you that nostalgia isn’t what it was and sticky fingered children asking you what that button does (not to ignore a few sticky fingered adults making off with your camera bag). Mayes is right though, new technologies, or the shrinking and disseminating of old ones does ask questions of society, not all of them comfortable to answer and in a culture of exploitation for profit the balance of privacy v profit will not naturally fall to the best individual interests of you and I. Then can you take the word of a bloke on the run from the World’s Creator Myths for breaking the laws of Physics?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Back to School for the first meeting of the 2015-16 calendar. Bring along your images of the summer and share.