I can’t think of one art form that has died; perhaps this is because art, by definition, depicts an enduring aspect of the human experience. I have no worries that photography will be the first to perish. But there is something gnawing at its soul that I find intriguing. A few things, actually.
Photography is probably the most accessible “art” form we have. Everyone takes pictures. Many, many people play an instrument, but it’s unlikely that you’ll record your friend or family member’s playing and listen to it daily. We do that we photographic images, though. Our walls and refrigerators are plastered with photographs, most of which were shot by amateurs. It’s an art form whose price of entry is almost nothing, which makes the price of being “exceptional” very high. The talent, equipment, and dedication required to rise above the ocean of camera-wielders is astounding.
And it’s a spectrum: Aunt Sally’s images blend into the enthusiast’s, which blends into the talented professional, which blends into top 2% of photographers. This blending makes it difficult to evaluate and critique, two necessary conditions of any art form. That’s a nibble, I think; a gnawing.
So many photographers, working on so many levels, makes it difficult to find paid work: full-time photographers are undercut by part-timers who will do the job at half the price; part-timers are undercut by Freebies. All of this is being discussed endlessly and hopelessly. The unspoken challenge is that less work also means slower improvement; even the best photographers improve by virtue of working.
Unlike ever before, artists are working in an environment where “free” is a common price point. There’s free music on the internet; free books in the library; free news; free concerts; free performances; and apparently “free” (but often stolen) images on the web. And when things aren’t free they can be “bulk rate.” Netflix gives you unlimited movies for a monthly, bulk fee. “Free” art is less common among artists who produce a physical object that can be hefted around your apartment—like a painting or sculpture; but if it can be turned into something intangible—a song, an image, or a movie—then there is a growing expectation it can be had for free. Munch-much goes Death on the ankle of Photography.
The accessibility of photography also leaves us drowning in images in a way that has never happened in the history of our or any other art form. Our hard drives are clogged with unprinted and forgotten images. I worry that this surplus devalues truly exceptional images. My mother passed away last year, and each of the limited number of photos of her are a treasure. I don’t think I would feel so attached to them if I had inherited a hard drive with a thousand images. Worse, I don’t think those few would have stood out in a sea of mediocre images. Historically, painters have had the same complaint of museums: hang a work of art next to twenty other paintings and what do you get? A mind-numbing experience. I can think of few things more chilling than my work contributing to the numbing of the public’s response to photography. Munch-munch.
On the bright side, there has never been more of a demand for images. With the internet, we live in an increasingly visual world. This means opportunity for more money, creativity, and excellence. Two forces are clearly at play here. How will we navigate them?