Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs. —Alfred Stieglitz
Take a look at the image above. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t, or maybe you’re not sure. Any of those opinions is acceptable. What’s important, though, is that I did not ask you to look at a photograph. I asked you to look at an image. Photographers understand the difference. What you see here might have started with a camera, but the offset double exposure was manufactured in Photoshop® as was the processing. What you see above barely resembles the photographs at all.
Are we still photographers? I’m speaking specifically of those of us who consider the medium of photography our profession, or at least more than just a casual hobby. British fashion photographer turned media specialist Nick Knight doesn’t think so. In an interview published this morning in Business of Fashion, Knight makes the case that we do so much more with images today that we can no longer put modern imagery in the same class as that produced by legends such as Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe.
While I found the interview itself rather gratuitous and was annoyed by Tim Blanks anointing of Knight as some kind of creative god, there are some valid considerations. What we do with imagery now can be considerably different than what we were doing 30 years ago. But does that mean we are not photographers? If we’re not photographers, what are we? How do we define ourselves and our work?
Carrying Around A Camera
Perhaps the question of whether we are photographers wouldn’t such a volatile issue if people would just stop asking us, “what is it you do?” Replying with, “I’m a photographer” has been my answer for more than thirty years. Identifying as a photographer is a role that people understand. Regardless of how manipulated an image might be, publishing entities still give credit to a photographer. We simply can’t think of any other way to accurately describe our work without launching into a detailed diatribe that hits the boredom point after 15 seconds.
Knight refers to what he does as “image-making,” for lack of a better term. His justification is that the end product might include sound or 3D or any number of other elements he might include. He also thinks photography is dead in traditional terms. He refers to his website, SHOWStudio, as “the home of fashion film.” Nick is very good at what he does, but when we strip it down to its core, the base product is still the same: photography.
While what we do with a photograph has changed, however, the base product hasn’t. Nick’s not carrying around equipment that’s any different from the rest of us. The base product of a still camera, even if it’s housed in a phone, is a photograph. If the base product is multiple images strung together so as to infer motion, then it is a motion picture, or film. Therefore, the people who create those photographs or films are known as photographers. We can add additional titles on to that, but for public identification purposes to call ourselves anything other than photographers is just silly.
To Modify Or Not To Modify
At the heart of this issue is whether and how we modify an image. Now, let’s be clear: photographers have always modified images. The type of toner being used is the most basic form of image manipulation. Toner changes the base color of an image. This is why some older images are different shades of brown or amber, while others have a more silver or blue hue. To say that photographers didn’t begin manipulating images before 1985 is disingenuous at best.
What has changed, though, is the ease with which image manipulation is done. Global filters are everywhere, even on your cell phone. All one has to do is touch a button and the image is altered in any number of ways. More advanced software allows us to add and remove objects as well as change the shape of things and people. Sometimes those modifications are necessary and welcome. Other times, though, the results are nothing short of a disaster.
Nick mentions his amazement with what people are doing on Instagram. Yet, over the past couple of years, one of the most-used hashtags on the social media site is #nofilter. People are proud and happy when the photograph they take is of sufficient quality, in their opinion, to not require any form of filtered distortion. Much has been made in the media about magazines altering the shape of models’ bodies. A growing number of prominent models are including riders in their contracts that prohibit any physical alteration of the pictures for which they’ve posed. While there are many modifications available, they are often not well-advised.
Evolving As A Medium
Nick makes an interesting statement that not only reflects his views of photography but of its relationship to society. He says:
… we must be creating new things. We must be evolving as a species. We can’t be the same physically and emotionally as we were 500 years ago. We’re no longer chimpanzees, but we’re not where we’re going to be. Although they are the same stories, we’re not exactly the same people.
I don’t think anyone would question that the equipment with which we take photographs has changed dramatically. Photography has been in a constant state of evolution, if one wants to continue misusing that word, from its very inception. Wet plates, copper plates, film of various sizes and quality, digital development and everything else has kept the medium of photography in a constant state of flux.
Photographers have always been agents of change. We are constantly looking for a different way to use this tool to express ourselves. While the rate of change has sped up thanks to the technology brought to bear, and the number of people involved, to infer that the medium has ever been stagnant is misguided and, quite honestly, insulting to the photographers like Avedon and Mapplethorpe who helped push the medium forward.
Take My Picture, Please
While there is plenty of reason to get all excited over the new and different ways one can use digital images to create things never before imagined, we cannot let go of the fact that all the cool and creative things people like Nick Knight and others do is the exception, not the rule. The primary use of a camera always has been, and still remains, to capture a moment. We see it in the selfie obsession that has consumed the Internet. We see it in the volume of pictures people post to various social media sites. Filtered or not, what matters is that photographs remind us of something we did or something we saw or someone we loved.
A lot has been written about how Millennials are an experience-based generation. They invest less in physical objects and more in doing things. As a result, they are less interested in hiring someone to create a distinctively new and different digital image and more interested in hiring photographers to capture those experiences that mean the most. From weddings to diving expeditions to parachute jumping, photographers are much more frequently asked to capture those experiences than create something cold in a studio.
Not that there isn’t a place or demand for what Nick Knight and others do. There is. But the global demand for their work and innovation is nowhere near being strong enough to warrant completely redefining the entire medium. At the end of the day, all anyone wants is for us to take their picture.
Tomorrow, We Will Still Be Photographers
Our medium of capturing images continues to change. We all know that. There are some incredible and mind-altering advancements coming in the very near future that could well change, again, the way we look through a camera and decide what to capture. How we process those images continues to change as well. Wonderful things are coming down the road.
Perhaps, someday, when we gain the ability to take recognizable pictures in the dark, we can refer to what we do as something other than photography. The word means “writing with light.” As long as there is still the transfer of light onto media so as to capture an image, we will still be photographers. There’s nothing in that word to cause us shame. Embrace it rather than run from it. We are photographers and damn proud of it.