« April Fool (and Thoughts About Ads) | Main | The Mac Isn't Dead Yet »

Monday, 03 April 2017


"Digital images don't look like film photographs. A new aesthetic has emerged. There's really nothing new about that; every era and every stage of technical development has had its characteristic "looks." If you know enough about photography, many photographs telegraph their age and their era."

Can you suggest any books or articles that explore this concept?

(And this question comes from someone whose knowledge of pre-digital characteristics is pretty much limited to "Boy, reds really do pop on Velvia.")

I agree, Mike. Only a few years ago, bloody battles were being fought online about image quality--whether digital was "as good" as film. Thankfully, we seem to be beyond that, and our attention can turn from debates about the quality of images to a focus on their character.

We are, I think, living in a kind of golden age in which photographers have more choices about approaches and materials than ever before.
Digital produces glorious clarity. But film has its own look--one that many of us prefer for some purposes. For example, a medium-format film image has a particular character that emerges not only from the nature of the light sensitive surface, but (as referenced in a post here sometime over the last few months) also from the rendering qualities of medium format lenses.

How wonderful that we have the option to choose tools and workflows that fit the emotions we hope to convey and ideas we wish to express.

You might want to read the editorial in the current LensWork magazine, which invites thought on the notion that digital photography has made it exponentially easier for folks to make competent work, or at least think that they are doing so. The article offers far more nuanced thought than this, but that's the theme, and the questions posed give one pause.

Although you may be right that there are no demarcation points after which we were "there", collectively, perhaps what's important now, is to understand our own demarcation points. The aesthetic advances given by the technology affect our own work personally and differently from each other, or, at least, differently for each style or tribe of photographers.

It's probably also the case that each of us will experience multiple demarcation points as we continue to mature with the technology and change styles and interests. I have several of my own demarcation points but one still stands out: when I got my most recent body & a 1.4 lens, my evening walks became "photo-walks". I could hand-hold decent shots (well, sharp and well-exposed, at any rate) of almost anything I came upon and the camera was small and light enough to never have to leave behind.

I too was an early scoffer at digital photography. But now 17 years in I realize that it is just an evolution much the same as comparing the words and writing of William Shakespeare to Wendell Berry. Who knows where we will go next? but as fast as change comes now I may even live to see another significant change. Just so I don't have to buy all new gear! :)

Have to respectfully disagree. I think your comments are an over-simplification and a generalization, much like what happed to magazines and books when desktop publishing became available. Just because a lot of untrained people had access to too many fonts does not mean that beautiful books were not being published by people who really knew typography.

I think we reached the point in 2005 where digital cameras, lenses, and technologies (file conversion & editing, display technology, color management, and printing capabilties) were at a point where digitially captured and rendered images could be as, or more, compelling, informing, engaging and artistically valid as they were in the film era. I remember how much time I was studying digital photography at that time, and learning from superb photographers like Greg Gorman, Vincent Versace, Vincent LaForet, Bob Hanashiro of USA Today, Peter Reed Miller of Sport Illustrated, James Nachtwey, Jay Maisel, Jeff Schewe, Martin Evening, etc. All of these photographers and artists were producing absolutely beautiful work with digital photography.

The key was, though, is that you really had to know what you were doing to produce this level and quality of work. You had to study and master all of the various disciplines. For example, I spent a year learning color management.

Personally, I was producing a lot of work at that time that was being published and/or printed. I participated in camera clubs and photography competitions and did quite well. Most importantly, I was producing work that was simply not possible with film, and prints which are still hanging on my walls, beautifying my home.

Sorry Mike, but I've got to strongly disagree with your base premise; that digital photography is somehow of a different kind than film photography.

In my own pictures, the move from gelatin to silicon has been a continuum. My approach and my aesthetic have evolved over time, but there's was no substantive shift in the way I saw or executed pictures when I picked up my first digital camera in 2004. Yes, the technical aspects of photography have become much easier with digital, especially when working with color. But, other than that, a good picture has always been a good picture, and the technical considerations have never determined a picture's success or failure.

I'd suggest that possibly your early opinion of digital pictures was influenced in large part by overuse of bells and whistles, and the exploitation of developing tools that didn't exist prior to digital.

[Nice to hear that there are those with experiences completely the opposite of mine. The Transition disrupted my practice of photography extensively and persistently. --Mike]

But a photography is not a photograph until it's printed. I wonder what people a hundred years from now say about this period of time of cell phone albums. "They sure didn't print many pictures did the?"

Wonderful, well written, thoughtful post, Mike. Having a weekend break certainly helps you. Just going back to read it again. Congratulations, Bruce

You could say photographs are no longer in their teen age years. Regardless of the medium upon which the images is recorded, the end result for the most part from a digital medium (source) is better
in all ways when printed.
And as a result of technology being made readily (cheaply?) available as with point and shoots/telephones and similar there are more images available for us the consumer; now if we could just get those stored images on smartphones printed rather than residing in memory;
an image is only memorable if it is printed and made available to others!

I think this post is really interesting when considered along side the 'On & In New York' post. I clicked through to the prints on offer from Magnum and was amazed at the prices and also amazed by the grainy and, in some cases, slightly out of focus quality of the photos. By the standards of today, in which we have come to expect and maybe demand absolute perfection, technically, in our photos the Magnum library proves, to me, that absolute perfection is simply not required for a photo to have a relevance far into the future.

I followed a comment to one of the last weeks' Arbus posts down the kind of rabbit hole that only the Internet can provide: the BBC's six-part documentary, "The Genius of Photography." I can't find the link, now, but I am sure that I read it. The episode that focuses briefly on Arbus also highlights the work of the most famous photographers of her generation: Gary Winogrand, Jay Meisel, Nan Golden, Larry Clark etc. These are all names you know, whether or not a specific photographer is your cup of tea. I didn't watch the whole series. Maybe those who straddled the commercial world like Penn and Avadon and the like are elsewhere. What struck me about the film of photographers working is that they appear always hungry, always seeking, always looking for the instant that will reveal or illuminate or deceive . . . whatever it was they were after. A couple of things occurred to me about your post above, mentally cross referenced with the documentary I had just seen.

1. Photography has been radically democratized by the advent of digital and the Internet.

2. We don't know yet who the visual genius of our current age is and we have no way of knowing what viewers in the future will value, if anything, of what is being produced today. If there is Shakespeare or Penn or Mattisse among today's happy snappers we don't know it yet. And I will admit that there is a rose-among-the-dross, needle-in-a-haystack quality that the the future image prospectors will have to confront. Who knows, maybe tomorrow's curators are learning machines?

3. With the democratization of any art form you necessarily have a drop in quality. Let's face it, even among the photographers of the time the artists featured in the documentary stood out as extraordinary. Multiply the universe of do-er's and makers by 1 million and it is a given that there are going to be a lot (a LOT) of boring efforts. But (see #2 above) because the act of photographing is easier today, maybe the next Matisse can get his hands on an iPhone with lower barriers to entry.

4. I think you can analogize our technological moment (in imaging and communications) to a moment around 1500, about sixty years after Gutenburg invented his printing press (or in our case, the Internet). That moment was an instant just before large shifts in everything Europeans thought they knew about the world. Immense disruptions are just on the horizon (e.g. Martin Luther, Shakespeare, the Northern Renaissance etc.), but no one who was "in it" -- that is alive at that moment of history -- could really fathom what would come next.

I don't know where to go with the last point, except to say that what you think of it may depend on whether you are a glass-half-full (seeing progress) or a glass-half-empty (seeing decline) sort of person. I do know that the professional person I envy is the archeologist of the year 2400. What a record of ourselves we are leaving! Here's hoping they have an HTML encoder/decoder and know what to do with a jpg . . . .

[Edit: I am currently obsessing over how to make my current digital imaging look like my film efforts of last century. Take, that! future aesthetic archeologists. It's a fake-real-faux-old-new image. Provenance/schmovenance . . .]


"A sense of hyperreality, clarity above and beyond what the eye can see, and a certain gloss of fictionalization—or formalization—a polishing-away of the visual chaos of life—is characteristic of the look of the best photographs today. "

I have to challenge the word "best" in your statement above. I feel that the above described photographs are more of a gimmick, cartoons of sweet bright candy color that lose the connection to reality. What is fascinating is when one can look at an image and know that person, place, thing exisited in real life and somebody saw it that way.


I would say the numbers are better. However, the Rose criteria says that for a signal to be detected it needs to be 5 times stronger than the noise. In the past there were very few doing art and very few photographers. Thus to over power the noise was easier. Now dogs have cameras, making the noise super high. To be detected is so much harder, that I will argue by the numbers its much higher than you realize.

Hmm. I tend to like (and take) digital photographs that don't *look* like digital photographs. I don't like the posed, clinical look, and I'm an old timer: I tend to like photographs that come out of the camera, with a minimum of post (and camera!) processing. Yes, I convert most of my photographs to black and white, but I haven't yet exhausted that medium, and I like photographs that highlight form and light, and that doesn't need color. Keep up the good work; your postings always cause one to think.

I have to concur. Avoiding the more egregious examples that tend to push one or more of its attributes to the extreme (too much HDR/sharpness/saturation/etc), I see a high number of modern images that make me pause and admire their creator's facility with the medium. (It's similar in music - while we might collectively feel that it's all been done before and nothing is truly original any more, the typical standards of performance and production far exceed those of even twenty years ago.) It feels like working with digital production methods has finally bedded into the culture.

Thanks for clarifying some of my thoughts! The same process can be seen in many fields, of course, from literature to TV and movies to music and so on. Technique and technology are improving by leaps and bounds, yet it seems to be getting harder and harder to create something meaningful, let alone of lasting value - or at least very few people are doing it.

For me, you are always at your best when you do this. Muse. "Think out loud."

Your thinkin' makes me think.

I prefer film, especially transparency film and in sheet format (when I want to shoot product); but I have to say, it's gotten to the point that I can probably afford to rent a camera for a professional shoot, that will give me results close enough to transparency film to be "moot" (especially for reproduction). I certainly can't afford to own one, and I certainly don't have the chops to "futz" the file to the nth degree until it looks absolutely perfect (that's a "post" shoot hire for me); but at least I can rent the camera that will store enough information in "raw" to go down that road if need be.

Still not easier than taking a transparency and dropping it off at the lab.

Interestingly, I've run across a web site of someone I know on a tertiary level, who's now trying to earn money as everything from an image consultant, to a stylist, to an actual photographer. I know for a fact, that he owns no lights (nor knows how to use them), and no professional camera, and does everything with an iPhone. Whatever he's showing on his site, is OK if that's the type of work you are looking for, and it's impossible to "shame" him about the fact that he has zero professional chops what-so-ever! He is brusk and demeaning to anyone who would suggest that he even needs that type of education.

I used to be emotional about this type of stuff because I could see the difference, and was amazed that others couldn't. Seeing the difference was the definition of being professional. I've now heard so many erroneous statements about my industry from the under 40 crowd, both sociologically and technically; that I've realized it's just over. Just trying to earn a paycheck and clear out to do personal work, before the last little bit of my soul is chipped away.

Technology has changed everything so much that today, it's not even like we're trying to close the barn door after the horses escaped, it's like we're trying to close the barn door after the horses escaped and the barn burned down!

My feeling is that digital photographs still look - not necessarily ugly - but unattractive. Too sharp, too "real", and yet in a paradoxically plastic way. The popular alternative is to attempt a (colour) film look by rendering the highlights yellow, the shadows blue and the images unsaturated and washed out, ie nothing like most film images. This look, more than any, is what I think will telegraph the current era.

I could never see why people didn't like digital photography in its early years. 640x480 digital photographs didn't look like film photographs, but I liked the immediacy - like liking Polaroids. They were their own, different media. You don't have to like apples if you like pears ..though they're both fruit.

Having tried Mr Morita's '81 prototype 'Mavica', and then having bought a proper production one in 1997, the camera which - for me, anyway - was the "coming-of-age" camera was the Panasonic GF1. It had immediacy, it was small, it was easy to use, it was quiet, it had a supply of different lenses, the quality of its pictures was 'good enough' and I could get whatever photo I wanted with that.

Now we have high ISOs way beyond what film ever had, silent electronic shutters quieter still than the little leaf shutter in a Roller 35 or a Minox 35, we have more lenses than any reasonable person would ever need - with built-in stabilisation, oy veh! - and now all we need is to remove the glass from lenses to take away the weight and size.

I just LOVE progress!

they never looked bad...they looked different

The same phenomenom has made music "worse". In fact, it has atomized, or at least decentralized. In seventies and eighties everybody knew, what is a hit or top music (even if they did not like it). Now the culture has shattered. There are different channels for every taste. There are no "hits" any more in the way that was 40 years ago.

The same with photography. Something for every taste. The problem is, that you do not have different channels for different type of pictures. No dixie jazz, soul, country, heavy music etc channels to avoid the type of music you want to avoid. Every channel is full of pictures you would like to avoid. Oversaturated, overmanipulated, purposely spoiled etc.

You have only 2 options: to receive a flow of all kinds of pictures or to receive none. I want a third option: only good pictures in my flow.

Sounds like you're describing Gregory Crewdson's massive staged confections as the characteristic æsthetic of digital photography. Certainly it's much easier to create this kind of image with modern digital equipment, with its improved tonal range, malleable color, and resolution limited only by one's patience for stitching and assembling in Photoshop. The creamy smooth tonality achievable with digital capture, and the ease with which one can create 'better than life' neon color surely encourage a certain look.
But digital capture (and printing) is a river with many braids. Great high ISO performance has facilitated a wave of night photography with gorgeous rendering of star-filled skies, something most folks will never see due to rampant urban light pollution. The high resolution and color accuracy of current gear permits one to craft the kind of droll, plain, painfully honest photographs you see from Stephen Shore, Jeff Brouws or Alec Soth. Or, you can venture out with a pocket full of spare batteries and take long exposures of waves and night scenes like Michael Kenna or Michael Levin.
The sky's the limit with digital. It can be anything you envision. That's why it's so much fun!

Amen to the post. Now we must go to pt/pd and such to break away from sameness, BUT! why do we need to? Methinks we can separate real work from capture, since capture is no longer difficult, and hopefully the photography community(s) will relax and pay attention to the subject instead of technical mess.

I was tempted to direct T. Edwards to Richard Benson's wonderful book The Printed Picture, which reviews the entire history of printed images and shows how the available reproduction technologies channeled and defined photography.
But, good grief! It was just published in 2008 and now it's going for >$150 used!
I'll have to dig my copy out and put it in a safer place...

"The old culture has been partly or mostly cleared away and nothing has taken its place. It's several magnitudes tougher now to make a splash, become known, or create work that will get widely noticed. I would argue that it was never easy to tame and tether the essentially subversive and unruly nature of the medium, but now we're back to a sort of Babel. It's all iconoclasm and chatter, not to mention inundation."

The era of big splashes is all but over, replaced by a thousand little splashes that together create the tide. Your website and musings are a perfect example of this new age.

From a distance it may look like Babel but we all unconsciously try to filter the noise until we find the signal that we seek. That's the challenge now, finding our needles in the haystack, but improved search and AI (there is groundbreaking research being done with neural networks learning to identify objects - faces, people, animals, cars, etc... in a photo) is making that easier and easier. But we are already seeing the effects of being stuck in bubbles of our own making. Interesting times indeed.

And with that, I'm out of metaphors.

The death of photography? It's hard to draw a reassuring lesson from one historical parallel, but here's the parallel anyway, and I add a question.

During the 18th/ early 19th centuries, church, aristocractic, noble and royal patronage for the arts declined significantly. These had provided not only $$, they'd been also the arbiters of style and quality. When the "system" fell apart, painting, for example, went sort of every which way. There wasn't one style, Baroque or Mannerist for examples, through the filter of which almost all painters saw the world. Instead some tried to develope this way, some that way and others a third. And the quality of the work, of even very popular stuff, varied a lot.

But. There were unifying trends. First, there was a new sensitivity to light and atmosphere, second, old rules of composition gradually were left behind, and third, there was a new distinction between what the eye was taking in and what the mind was trying to filter out.

By the late in the 1800s these trends had coalesced into Impressionism, which did have wide influence on the vision of painting.

Has photography become fragmented in a similar way, and are there at the same time significant and studied forces at work?

I woke up this morning, stumbled to the computer and read an exceptionally intelligent and important article about photography before I finished my first cup of coffee. It’s been a long time since that happened.

"And it's true that photographs now don't look like they did twenty, thirty, and forty years ago. Digital images don't look like film photographs. A new aesthetic has emerged."--MJ

The truth of what you say about photographs now no longer looking like they did twenty or thirty years ago, Mike, is nowhere felt more keenly than in the darkroom, where the photograph I am making does not, cannot, look like most of the photographs out there. What do I use as a reference for my darkroom picture? When I send a darkroom print to my friend, how will he view it compared to what he sees everyday. As a disappointment? How am I myself to view it?

So, when you state "photographs seem to have gotten better and better", you're referring to aesthetics only. I agree.
On the other hand, though, the creative side has receded. One aspect which surface you've only scratched in your otherwise interesting and thoughtful text is that people imitate each other like there's no tomorrow. All photographs look pretty much the same nowadays.
And what's the use of all that clarity if it serves poor, uninteresting images? It's all nice and well to picture auroras, canyons and make long exposures of seascapes; they'll look wonderful with the high relolution digital cameras can achieve, but ultimately they're a waste. Those photographs show no talent, no imagination, no creativity.
Another disturbing fact is that people feel the need to 'shout' in order to make themselves noticed. The aesthetics of digital photography serve this purpose well. People try to exacerbate the aesthetics of their photographs in order for their pictures not to be smothered by the multitude of photographs that are published every second on the internet. As a result, people's appreciation shifted from content to aesthetics. Hence the compulsive use to HDR, the extra resolution and the larger than life colours. It's too shallow for my tastes.

I watched the wonderfull Saul Leiter documentary the other day, In No Great Hurry, and he used digital from early on (as have some other masters). What struck me is that his process didn't look so different from film. Print contact sheets, then use those to make first edits. I suspect we will see one or two digital photograph Saul Leiter books published.

This conversation brings back to me the thoughts I was having about 15 years ago, when I was taking some time off and reading about early Life magazine photographers and other professionals. It was amazing, the amount of people that were photographers for maybe 10 to 15 years, tops, and then just moved on to writing, editing, or some other areas of publishing, or other industries.

Maybe the idea of doing something and being able to make a living at it for 40 or 50 years, is just a fantasy in the arc of employment history. Maybe the technology of an industry changes to the point that you just don't care about it any more?

For me, not only has the technology changed to make the industry "meh" (i.e. whatever I liked about the film/chemical based part of the photographic process, is emotionless and meaningless to me in the digital process); but the actual TYPE of people in the photographic industry has changed so much, that the people I have to work with are not cut of the same cloth as the people I worked with 40 years ago. They still exist somewhere, they just don't go into my field the way they did at the tail of the Mad Men era!

Every generations 'best and brightest' picks a different area that interests them and gives them the best financial and emotional reward. Those people are no longer in my field and haven't been for some time.

An excellent article. As several commenters have noted, technology has made it much easier to produce “adequate” photographs, music, and journalism. We have many, many more people seeking to express themselves photographically, musically, and editorially. We also have accomplished professionals find their livelihoods challenged by large numbers of aspiring, generally part-time professionals willing to take less, and many buyers of work willing to purchase the merely adequate in place of the better or best. Those who call themselves professional photographers numbered just 34,070 in 2016; there were 65,360 in 2000 (both figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). To be sure, some are in related occupations, teaching photography perhaps, or journalists who take photographs along with their reportorial responsibilities. The loss of print media has meant the loss of photo editors, people whose job it was to find and pick the better or best from the adequate. Photographic websites typically lack editors, although competitions can help. But to standout and succeed professionally requires relentless self-promotion, talent, and a great deal of luck.

"A sense of hyperreality, clarity above and beyond what the eye can see, and a certain gloss of fictionalization—or formalization—a polishing-away of the visual chaos of life—is characteristic of the look of the best photographs today."

That makes me think of the pics in the ads Apple ran for their iPhones' cameras.

Maybe those captured something of the current look, but to me they tended to sterility.

I think part of the problem is that there is no pre-curated feed to tell us what is good or bad any more. I am tired of looking at images I already know like my own fingerprints, and being repeatedly told how amazing they are.

They were amazing when they were taken, in the context of the time. They are not a template against which to judge everything that comes after.

TOP is 'just a blog' but it's the best written blog on the web. Did the rules of English change in recent years, or is it just the talent of its editor? Do the millions of meaningless drivel blogs somehow reduce the quality of TOP? On the contrary. But if it's editor had to start a publishing company to produce a magazine, we would not have TOP today.

The same applies to photography. I have seen some exceptional work by some excellent photographers who are using digital to capture meaningful ways to see the world that would be difficult/impossible to do otherwise. Some were feature on TOP.

They just don't fit into the well established curatorial niches that we are used to being informed about and have come to accept as 'worthy'. We need to look more and judge less.

It took decades for photography to be accepted as an art. It then took decades for colour photographs to be taken seriously. Now it is taking decades for digital to be taken seriously.

But it will be, and we will come to understand what makes the difference between good and bad soon enough.

You, sir, are a provocateur. As usual, you opened up a nasty philosophical-psychological-socioeconomic can of worms under the pretext of posing an innocent enough question about photography. You want to tickle and bring out the reactionary in very one of us, don't you?

When the grand tour was the exclusive preserve of the few gentlemen of endowed means and exquisite sensibilities, the putative sentimental education gave us the odd bright light like Lord Byron. And kept at bay the great unwashed. Now, every summer millions partake the same pilgrimage. The grand part of it is gone. How sad! When painters had to concoct their own paint, only the few preternaturally gifted and obsessed pursued the craft. Lowering the barrier of access and raising the capability of tools are always accompanied by laments over the loss of quality. How reactionary! Aren't we confusing exclusivity with quality? Does the rise of the average necessarily subtract from the heights?

Is it the camera, or the photographer? Well, some of us can use all the help we can get from the camera (and Lightroom).

Which is not to say that the embarrassment of riches brought to us by technological innovations is all warm and sunny. The dark side to this is the rise and spread of the self-proclaimed expert. The conflation of anti-expert and anti-elite is deeply troubling. Everyone is a google-click or two away from being an expert in global trade, climate science, vaccines... Shudder. Unlike wealth, innovation does trickle down -- for better and for worse.

There is an addendum to that: we are, now and for the past 20 years or so, used to see digital reproductions even of film photos. Because books are, as well, digital scans of chemical photos.

It is a bit like the Gioconda joke: it looks some much better in books than in real life.

There is a slight hint of dissapointment on the audience faces when you get to a photo exhibition and originals are exhibited [I am talking about the general public, not "conoisseurs" or "posers"]. There is a lack of pinch, punch and so on that we are so accustomed now due to mobile photography.

"Getting Glorious", eh? Well I mainly agree with you, Mike! The medium has never seen such a wealth of possibilities so democratically accessible! I think we could have a whole weekend symposium on this subject. I know I could certainly fill time on it. But I promised myself not to get sucked into it today, particularly since this article is already old.

To those who are prone to grumbling about “digital” photography and its relations may I make a suggestion? Life is short. Change and broaden your focus. Instead of viewing photography from a techniques and technologies perspective, view it for its currently boundless potential as an expressive medium. If you’ve spent a career using photography largely as a figurative and descriptive medium use it to make a statement of feelings. I think such a path will lead you to more satisfying destinations of more sophisticated imagery. Make every effort to see more photography off the internet, or at least away from social media and amateur hubs.

Just my two cents.

An image is worth a thousand words, and since being efficient and economical in personal time and resources is widely sought after, and everybody happens to have a phone camera in their pocket, it is no wonder then that photography has become humanity's most used language. The problem lies in that we photographers insist on looking at photographs as art objects, but most of them are just noisy chatter. It is what Joan Fontcuberta calls post-photography. The problem doesn't lie now in photography per-se, but in the way we look at it. That explains why, ironically, in this golden age of image capture, only photographers rant about the current state of affairs. Everybody else is delighted.

The comments to this entry are closed.