“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. : )
It is important to remember that an anonymous photographer is simply a photographer whose name we have lost, perhaps temporarily. When we recover it, and find out the name of his town and his wife (or her husband), we can begin writing dissertations about him or her, but the work has not changed.
As usual, Szarkowski manages to cut to the heart of the matter — in this case, the matter of “vernacular” photography. As I may have hinted previously here at 1/125, references to “vernacular” photography or its various synonyms and relatives (anonymous, found, snapshot) almost always make me cringe and lose interest.
It is not that I am opposed to some body of photographs to which these terms may refer. What bothers me is the authorial attitude implicit in attempts by writers, artists, bloggers, and curators to explain what it is that is supposed to interest me when I am seeing their aggregations of such photographs. The implication is that the photographs in themselves do not have value except by virtue of being found and arranged by some credentialed individual.
I am reminded in these cases of the Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin signs a snowy landscape so that he can sell it as a work of art. This sort of authorial appropriation can be regarded as an act of audacity and cleverness, or as a furtive act of intellectual laziness; I’m sure in many cases it is a blend of the two. But in either case, what makes the act possible is the conspicuous absence of the real author, who is unable to speak up for his or her intentions and desires regarding the work.
Given this, I think that many artistic and curatorial enterprises based on found photography look a bit shabby in light of Szarkowski’s reminder above. It is hard not to feel that a major part of the perceived value of these photographs to their finders is precisely the absence of an author, or of an author who has any kind of power or presence, and that if an author of this kind was introduced into the scenario, the finders might suddenly turn their attention elsewhere. (In other words, what attracts finders to such photographs is often not the strength of their content but their weakness, their vulnerability to appropriation.)
(Note: I should acknowledge that I’m doubtless stretching Szarkowsi’s words far outside his original intentions for them, since my reading of them could, with very minimal effort, be adapted to explain equally my distaste for the work of some photographers whom Szarkowski championed, like Eggleston.)
“From Country Elevator, Red River Valley, 1957” by John Szarkowski, via Lens Culture
I must have read somewhere, at some point, that John Szarkowski was himself a photographer, but it doesn’t seem to have registered with me at the time. So when Jeff Curto, in an episode of The History of Photography podcast, described Szarkowski as a “photographer in his own right”, and then followed it up with his photos, I was surprised. And I might say surprisingly so since I should have known already or at least somewhat expected it.
The reason for this fact finally sticking in my head is probably that this time I was presented with his photos and not just his name in connection with the photographs of others. Szarkowski the curator’s legacy – he was director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1962 to 1991 – hugely outweighs the legacy of Szarkowski the photographer, if that can be separated as easily as that. If it can’t, I guess it only makes his photos more interesting. I’d like to say that given examples such as the photo above, that Szarkowski the photographer could stand on his own without help from Szarkowski the curator. But, given just how much Szarkowski the curator has influenced how we look at photographs, I could very well be mistaken.
As an aside, if you haven’t heard of The History of Photography podcast, by Jeff Curto, before, I suggest you try watching an episode. As Curto describes the podcast himself, it “is recorded during class lectures for History of Photography, Photo 1105 at College of DuPage. The podcasts are intended as review for students in the class, but thousands of people around the world have found them useful to their education as photographers.”
“At the Cafe, Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958,” by Robert Doisneau. In John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs.
Looking at Photographs is one of my go-to books when folks ask for recommendations of books about photography. It’s that rare beast in the world of books (and content generally): it is a wide-ranging review which does not feel like the first week of a freshman intro to history of whatever course.
Of course, by the same token, Looking at Photographs does not provide the kind of comprehensive background someone needs to fully understand what they’re seeing and speak authoritatively about it. (I think Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography and Jeff Curto’s podcasts are the best place to start when it comes to that comprehensive background.)
What Szarkowski does, for each photograph he features, is to present to you a strong and clearly stated viewpoint. I find in many cases I don’t agree with that viewpoint, or I think that he fails to pick up on what is really interesting, or important. But the fact that the viewpoint is there, and that it is presented to you directly and succinctly, is really marvelous — especially, if you don’t agree with that viewpoint. Because of course that gives you the opportunity to form your own.
The book is full not of truths, but of provocations.
The photograph above, by Doisneau, is my favorite in the book, because it is the one which Szarkowski’s prose most illuminates for me:
Most photographers of the past generation have demonstrated unlimited sympathy for the victims of villainous or imperfect societies, but very little sympathy for, or even interest in, those who are afflicted by their own human frailty. Robert Doisneau is one of the few whose work has demonstrated that even in a time of large terrors, the ancient weaknesses and sweet venial sins of ordinary individuals have survived. On the basis of his pictures one would guess that Doisneau actually likes people, even as they really are.
-John Szarkowski, “Looking at Photographs,” p. 172.
This is a fantastic insight — although I am not at all sure I believe it — and it is one which forces me to try to see Doisneau in a different way than I had before.