I looked at a lot of work over the weekend. It struck me that digital photography has really come of age in the past few years.
It's true that photography seems to have gotten much worse over the past decade or two. But I blame that on culture; the traditional supports for serious work have withered or been blasted away, and although "sharing" is of course much more ubiquitous, social media is by definition atomized, or at least decentralized. Nothing structural has emerged yet to give form to photographic accomplishment, or give support to serious and ambitious workers in the medium. 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.
But at the same time, photographs seem to have gotten better and better. There was a time when a large part of professional photography revolved around the problem of creating a clear, plainly seen, well crafted photograph of a desired subject or event, and putting it into a form that could be used for an intended purpose. In that sense, photography has improved by leaps and bounds. It's become hugely easier for less and less skilled camera operators to come away with clear, sharp, color-balanced photographs of subjects that once were difficult but now no longer are, whether it's photographing far-off critters or photographing in the near-dark or up close, or photographing things that move.
For quite a while, I just didn't like digital photographs very much. The reason was simple. They were ugly. Not ugly in a characterful way like ugly analog things are ugly; just inherently ugly. Digital photographs started out with deficits and were further distorted by people anxious to over-exaggerate popular properties such as "sharpness" or "bright colors." The results were often mildly sickening. Too much at once was like eating too much cotton candy at a fair. It's partly why we were always looking for something a little better during the Transition years.
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. 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. It's no different now. 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. But while they have their own characteristics and style, digital photographs no longer look bad. Quite the opposite. They can look fantastic. The tech has evolved, and with evolution has come maturity. Three-dimensional, exact in description, rich in color and dynamic range. Culture may be keeping photography from meaning as much or mattering as much, but photographs themselves are getting glorious.
Of course there's no milestone for something like this—no demarcation point at which you can point in one direction and say "not quite there" and point in the other and say "we're there." But I really am starting to think that digital photography is of age, finally—realizing its promise and confidently looking like what it was always hoped it would one day be.
Just thinking out loud.
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Featured Comments from:
Anthony Shaughnessy: "I've got quite a few hiking/walking/climbing books illustrated with photos shot on film. We're talking 1980s and 1990s. Compared to today, they don't look quite up to the mark. I think now I expect more."
Svein-Frode: "It just struck me that photography and music have shared parallel developments in the past couple of decades. When music recording and instrumentation became increasingly digitalized in the 1980s things started going downhill. You could hear a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer in almost every pop album. It was an inflation in cheap sound, and later cheap technology (mp3 files), which in turn made music worthless—in a monetary sense. Much like the saturation controls of Photoshop made digital photography boring and predictable.
"But as I sit here listening to the latest Radiohead album I feel, much like you feel about digital photography, that things have matured and that digital music has finally come of age. And just as I would never go back to photographing with film, I’m not going to throw away my CDs and trade them in for noisy vinyl albums.
"That being said, some music is better on vinyl, and when I listen to '50s or '60s jazz records the pops and crackles doesn’t bother me at all, it actually enhances the experience. I could say that about photography too. When looking at prints from the old masters, a bit of blurriness and film grain doesn’t bother me at all, but a digital print of a digital image with Photoshopped grain just looks awful…."
Ramón Acosta: "Is it better because the technology got better, or is it better because we learned how to extract better images from it? It reminds me of the sample picture threads on photography-on-the.net, when someone is trying to decide which version of the 50mm for Canon is better, and when you look at the examples of the Canon 50L versus the non-L, or even versus the Sigma, you find that the 50L thread does have (in my opinion) better images. But is it because the lens is better? Or is it because the 50L with all of its quirks, is often used by more experienced (and economically stable) photographers?"
Mike replies: Good point Ramón. I realized years ago that some people thought Leica rangefinders were better cameras simply because a higher percentage of skilled and dedicated photographers used Leica rangefinders. The pictures were better. It just wasn't necessarily because of the cameras or lenses. The same idea translates to picture websites that have sorting mechanisms, such that you see all the most-liked or highest-rated pictures first. This can lead to subtle misimpressions of whatever you might be looking for.
mark I: "I just checked my photo monograph collection, all 800 books, and not one is taken on digital, not because I actively choose film photographers, but those photographers take the pictures I like. Never yet found a digital photographer I could be bothered to buy a book from. Pentti Sammallahti is still my favourite. After you insisted we learn HTML to post pics on the Camera Porn posting (humour alert). I did actually sell all my Nikon digital and stick to film, wet darkroom and all, and I still love the results and I've printed more in a month than I had in two years with digital. I loath digital prints, regardless of how good they are on screen, and I had a pro lab of my own for twelve years so I know how to print. I've decided to retire early at 57 and devote my last years to perfecting the silver print which I've been practicing since I was 14. May even get into platinum/palladium printing. So I don't actively dislike digital, just don't like it either. It may have matured, but maybe I haven't...."
Manuel (partial comment): "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?"
Mike replies: That's the cultural problem I referred to. It takes time to develop a culture of appreciating what matters. We'll get there, though, I think.