Has a medium become the ultimate cliché of art? What was once a craft of daunting physicality and psychology can now neatly fit into your pocket. We have all heard the elder folks express amazement at the “beauty” of a digital camera and how “we never had anything like this in our day, it was never this easy.” But is it really better? Sure, from the consumer standpoint, but what about from the artist’s standpoint? The artist is competing with a far larger group of individuals that deems themselves “able” to take photographs.
The true artist is one who aims to discover a personal vision. The fashion photographer, the photo-essayist, the pictorialist, and the landscape artist have all developed a way of imaging the world; each strives to be highly unique. The artist has reason and purpose. The camera is a weapon for change. Now, the proliferation and accessibility of photography has allowed the everyday civilian to mindlessly document. One push, they are done, and they move on. Could it be that the definition of an artist has become frighteningly broad, possibly to the point where photography is in fact no longer an art, but instead a pastime.
Lets take a look at the facts. It began with the daguerreotype. These kinds of photographs were one-of-a-kind treasures. Described by poet, physician and essayist Oliver Holmes as “mirrors with a memory,” daguerreotypes were meant to be savored and viewed closely, appreciated for their perfect clarity. But, if you have ever looked at a daguerreotype, you may notice how everyone looks a bit, well, off. They always appear to be serious and stiff. Back in the day, exposure time was not exactly a fraction of a second, but rather ranged from three to fifteen minutes. Speed became the obsession of photography. It was the speed that dictated the artistic process and thus the aesthetic outcome. Some artists began working large, using negative plates with dimensions of 16” x 12”. This fairly slow yet monumental approach spurred the artists to consider what it meant to wait, to wait for the right motif to reveal itself, wait for nature to converge at the perfect moment, to wait in alertness. Soon thereafter, an exposure time that allowed for moments to be frozen and examined was developed. With the advent of this newfound speed came more philosophical debate, but this time about the role of a photograph. Was the world like a snake, shedding its skin, and giving a uniquely beautiful part of itself away to the indiscriminate, abusive power of the speedy, needy public eye? As proven by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, photography now had the power to expose the previously invisible. Through his most famous work, “Animal Locomotion (1887),” Muybridge gained notoriety for his discovery and development of sequential imagery. He photographed human and animal actions in such a way that is comparable to flip books. His photographs break down a previously fluid movement into individual, multiple poses that when viewed in sequence, explain the movement as a whole. So what does this mean? This means people’s perceptions of the world changed drastically. They could reorder their lives into compartments. The new photography reordered the collective consciousness. It was through this compulsion to compartmentalize that time zones came into existence and the railroad systems developed. This new system of organization now governed the everyday flow of life. Photography was the defining symbol of the faster world.
And what does photography do today? Does it truly initiate change and question our foundations? Can it have the same gripping sense of reality as Mathew Brady’s war images of dead soldiers of the Civil War? Can it bring about social change like the work of Dorthea Lange? Or does it now only align with the superficial, as the Kodak motto went, “You press the button and we do the rest”? Click.