The 1978 Test

"Any schoolboy or girl can make good pictures with one of the Eastman Kodak Company’s No.2 Brownie cameras." — Kodak ad from The Youth’s Companion. April 29, 1902. At brownie-camera.com, via @vossbrink.

In my feed reader yesterday, I came across this question:

If everybody can be a photographer, what will be the function of a professional?

at Foam. (via Conscientious.) The question is part of “What’s Next: A Search into the Future of Photography.

Note: Judging by the comments, it looks like it was posted about 3 months ago. Not sure, though. Trying to make sense of the content buried in Foam’s web design is like trying to have a conversation with three really enthusiastic schizophrenic hobos.

It is a question that is voiced often, although much of the time it is phrased as a lamentation rather than as a question. Usually it is raised in reference to the availability of portable, highly automated digital cameras and cameraphones; it is often also coupled to one or more of the following:

  • Professional against amateur ranting
  • Aspiring professional against amateur ranting
  • Ranting among aspiring professionals who consider themselves more professional than other aspiring professionals
  • Professional against client ranting

In all of these forms, the question demonstrates the peculiar blindness which many photographers cultivate in reference to the history of their own medium. It is a question that fails what I have decided to call “The 1978 Test.”

The 1978 test is very, very simple. You fail it by presenting as novel a question which John Szarkowski addressed in Mirrors and Windows in 1978:

Portraits, wedding pictures, scenic views, product photographs, PR photos, architectural views, insurance-claim documents, and a score of similar vernacular functions that were once thought to require the special skills of a professional photographer are now increasingly being performed by naive amateurs with sophisticated cameras. Although for the most part these pictures are approximate and graceless, they answer adequately the simple problem of identifying a given face, setting, product, building, accident, or ritual handshake. (Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows, p. 14)

There is no significant difference between Szarkowski’s observation of this situation in 1978 and anyone’s proclamation today that “now everyone can be a photographer.”

The digital photography market is a natural extension of the 35mm/APS film market (easy-to-use cameras for consumers, sophisticated system cameras for enthusiasts/professionals). There is a difference in degree of adoption, but I see no reason to identify the present as the watershed. If the status of the professional photographer was killed by technology, it was done by the Minolta X-100 or the Nikon FA. The iPhone is just pissing on the grave.

(By the way, it is important to understand that Szarkowski did not just observe the situation, though — he also observed and reported the effects of shared awareness of that situation on the work of contemporary professional photographers.)

So you see that the Foam question, “If everybody can be a photographer, what will be the function of a professional?” is an excellent example of how to fail the test. It’s hardly the only one, however. The very best fail-with-flying-colors recent example is this paragraph in a LightBox post quoting Elisabeth Biondi:

“There are no more discoveries to be made,” Elisabeth Biondi tells me on the opening night of the fourth annual New York Photo Festival. “Anyone can take a picture now, so it’s forced documentary photographers to have a more personalized vision.”

Note: Since I don’t have the context, I don’t know whether the it is Biondi or the LightBox writer who gets credit for this 1978 Fail.

This is more or less a summary of Szarkowski’s basic thesis in Mirrors and Windows, which in large part was devoted to explaining why documentary photographers were turning their inquiries more and more upon themselves.

But Szarkowski was describing a change that had been ongoing since the 60’s, and that was already embodied in the work being produced throughout that decade and the 70’s.

So the “now” in Biondi’s “anyone can take a picture now,” is either a “now” that recapitulates the situation of the 60’s and 70’s, or else a “now” that has been stretched over half a century or more by photographers’ persistent elected ignorance of the history of their own medium.

"Anyone can take a picture now," "everybody can be a photographer," has been the condition of the medium of photography for a very long time. It has been advertised at least as far back as the first Kodak cameras, and it has been lamented at least as far back as the time when dry glass plates were introduced. And indeed, the invention and popularization of photography itself in the beginning was largely fueled by a desire to make picture-making available to those who lacked the talent and/or time to become skilled painters.

(Of course, this leaves out the question of the socioeconomic resources required to own and operate camera equipment. That is an area where there has been some interesting change over time, and the changes in the last decade or so may indeed be more radical than the changes that occurred over the prior century. However no one is (consciously) talking about that when they invoke “anyone can take a picture now,” so it has no impact on their failure of The 1978 Test.)

But there is an additional dimension to failing The 1978 Test, which is that the great mass of often unjustified enthusiasm and anxiety surrounding the advent of digital everything leads us to focus far too much on the role of equipment, techniques, procedures, and the technical look of photographs.

As Szarkowski wrote:

During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows, p. 14)

Photography is literacy. It was destined (or doomed) to become so, to become as ubiquitous, and as debased, as the practice of putting words onto paper or onto screens. It means as little, or as much.

At the end of his post, Colberg said, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”

The thing is, “photographer” isn’t analogous to “writer” in the sense that we use “writer” today. A “writer” is someone who is good at putting ideas and perceptions into words that are useful, important, educational, etc. (And Colberg was speaking more specifically about novelists, essayists, etc. — people whose job is to produce good, enjoyable, important writing.)

The word “photographer” is sometimes used to refer to comparable functions within photography. However it is often — maybe even usually — used to refer to people who perform work analogous to that of scribes. And apart from highly specialized people like notaries, court reporters, and calligraphers, almost nothing remains of that occupation in industrialized countries, because we no longer have a need for them, because most of us are at least semi-literate.

That role — the photographic scribe — is dying. Of course it is, and it should. And it has been doing so for a very long time. And if you don’t understand that…well, you fail The 1978 Test.

UPDATE: I’m really enjoying the discussion in the comments — I’ll try to put together a “featured comments” update for this post at some point, but for now, I just want to point out that several commenters have pointed out something that I didn’t address above, which is that the distribution of photography has undergone a change in recent years that is significantly more radical than the rate of change in prior decades. I agree with this, and I think that “Everyone is now a publisher — what does that mean for traditional publishers/publications and for photographers,” is a valid and interesting question that belongs to the present and future of photography, and is not a carryover in the way that “Everyone is now a photographer…” is.

UPDATE 2: I pulled a snippet (“Making their photographs mirrors.”) out of the post in response to Andre’s comment. I need to check my copy of Mirrors and Windows to confirm, but I believe he’s right that I flipped Szarkowski’s thesis around. It’s not actually relevant to the main thrust of the post, FWIW, but certainly if I’m going to chastise people for not reading Szarkowski, I should try to report his text accurately. : )

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