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Too Many Photographs, Too Little Art

July 3, 2013

Recent articles in the press mirrors some of my own problems with the boom of digital photography. There are laments that despite the billions of images being recorded every year by everyone and their dog with digital media results in very little good photography much less art. A friend of mine joked that this signaled an end to elitism, but I think it invokes more of a victory of mediocrity.

The problem is just the sheer volume of images. In the past you needed a camera, film and way to develop and print the images. Happily sharing the images then was more difficult as well, limited to passing around photo albums and, if you were very unlucky, slide shows at friend’s homes. Today’s point and shoot cameras allow us to publish for all the world to see within seconds on social media. Even digital cameras are going the way of the dodo as a majority of images today are taken on smart phones.

I was trained in a sixteen week course as a combat photographer in the mid 1950s at the US Army’s Signal School. Believe me, they drummed photographic technique into your head so that you would never forget it. Later I started as a photo major at the San Francisco Art Institute where we were taught all the joys of the F64 Group as this was the place where Ansel Adams had once taught. Although he was long gone, his ghost lived on. I stupidly failed the course at SFAI by changing majors to painting and drawing, failing to formally withdraw from my photography courses. I wasn’t too bright at the time and I still am not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I do know something about taking pictures and luckily this relies on my long term memory which is still good for someone in their mid 70s; just don’t ask me what happened yesterday.

virgil

Let me take you through taking a photograph as I did in the army. Yes, and that’s me in the photograph in 1957 in Korea. The very picture of professionalism. The camera is 4×5 Speed Graphic, I believe we called it a PH47, Camera, Still. First, drop the bed, the front cover; pull out the bellows and lock it; insert film holder, making sure back shutter is open; remove slide from film holder; figure out and set shutter speed and f-stop; cock shutter; if, using flash, screw in bulb (which entails a whole other exposure calculation); focus and release the shutter. Such was the army’s teaching methods, hit you over the head with a stick until you get it, I can still do this drill in my head. The result was one exposure and you still had to develop the film and make a print. Today, with one of my point and shoot digital cameras, (and that’s me again, this time with the white hair) point, push the button down half way, then down fully and it is done.

virgil today

A photo shoot when I was in the army was usually one exposure and, if you were lucky, another for good measure and the picture better turn out. The generals whose pictures I was taking–I was in public relations–did not take kindly to me making mistakes. Mind you, my pictures were a long way from art, but the tedious method of taking photographs served me when I thought that I was making art after the army. The point, if there is one, is that still film photography required thought before you took the picture. (Good photography then and now is, of course, more about the eye than technique.) However, you tended to be more careful when every shot counted and you had to wait to see results after your film was developed and printed.

The golden age of photojournalism is long gone, along with the magazines like Life that week after week published high quality photo essays. Newspapers, themselves a dying medium, are firing their photographers and relying on reporters taking news pictures with their smart phones. Television replaced newspapers and magazines as sources for news and now television is being replaced by online media which is quicker off the mark. What is lost is a time for reflection much less any editing that might lead to quality. There is certainly no lack of choice in methods of seeing still and moving images in today’s world and some of them are bound to be first rate. The problem is finding the good stuff within the vast ocean of mediocrity that makes finding a needle in the haystack look easy.

Yes, as Marshal McLuhan predicted, yesterday’s technology becomes today’s art: historic painting by photography; still photography by motion pictures and they by television and so on, but sometimes things are lost in this march of progress. Digital photography is a marvelous thing. I have a drawer full of high end digital cameras and I am doing my best at trying to be photographer again. It is rather like signing on the crew of the Titanic for its first voyage. At the time of my first kick at the can in this profession, photography was a calling. Now you don’t even need a real stand alone camera to take decent pictures and six year-olds with an iPhone are pretty good at it. I would like to think that I still have an eye, but who cares? Don’t get me wrong, I am not feeling sorry for myself. Stuff happens and I am not about to stop it or stand in its way; however, perhaps too much of a good thing might, in the end, be just too much.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 28 June, 2013.

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4 comments

  1. The enlarger is in the garage waiting to be taken to the Sally Ann – if anyone will buy it. I like the blog… AND the cool dude (with attached cigarette) in uniform.


    • Vanessa, thanks for your comment. I do know someone who might be interested in your enlarger. Alan, the owner of the Black Duck Coffee Shop on Bridge St., is a serious photography collector. I mentioned it to him and he was interested. He thought that if you gave it to the Sally Ann that they would just throw it away as there is no market for such stuff for them. Ex Cool Dude


  2. I agree. Too many photographers, not enough good photos.
    Thanks for sending this message to me.


    • Thank you for reading it. I think that a lot pf people agreed with this post.



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