Opinion – Looking Back- Ray Goulter

1973-1I was reading an old issue of the Leica “Fotografie” magazine[1] and came across an interesting article titled “Photography deserves more support”. As I read the article it became obvious that the author, like just about every photographer back in the 1970s, had no inclination of the direction photography would take with the introduction of the digital medium. At that period in the comparatively short history of photography, film was King! Film as we knew it then had become the final tangible product from the inchoation of photography through Daguerreotypes, Tintype, wet plate colloidal glass plates, dry plate glass negatives, then the application of the light-sensitive emulsion onto a plastic-like base material that moved photography from a relatively immobile state to extreme portability, opening up the entire world to the camera. After many differing film formats prior to World War II, 35mm evolved as the most popular and thus ruled after WW II, with 120 rollfilm the nearest in popularity and use.

Here’s an excerpt from the article. Unfortunately the author wasn’t named, so it was probably an employee of the Leica works in Wetzlar who wrote the article.

Anyone who is professionally involved with photography…. is generally inclined to over-value the part he himself plays, and its possible repercussions, seeing them in a distorted, unrealistic, perspective.”

The first thing I noted was the double sexist reference to an apparent male-only world of professional photography! Please girls; don’t take issue with me on this!

The writer appears to refer to an elitist attitude on the part of anyone in the professional photographic industry; but it is true males dominated it back in 1972 albeit not exclusively.

respool03It should also be remembered that quality 35mm cameras and film was relatively expensive back then, as was processing and printing, so not many people could afford to take hundreds or thousands of images in a year. 120 rollfilm was more expensive to buy and process and was generally the domain of the professional. Studio photographers used either or both 120 rollfilm or 4”x5” sheet film cameras and some specialists would have used 8” x 10” sheet film. Most amateurs, like me, used 35mm film and some of us developed and printed our own B&W photos, mainly to reduce the cost of having them developed and printed by photo-labs. Some of us also ventured into processing our own slides and colour photographs.

The Leica article goes on to say: “Certainly, turnover in photographic equipment, accessories, film, developers, and papers is continually growing: in some cases, in absolute figures, quite considerably.” This is quite true. The cost of a good quality camera was becoming more affordable, more models by the same manufacturers were appearing, and new accessories were coming onto the market all the time. As the writer states: “… this in turn has given a powerful impulse to photographic technology as a whole. Photography has in fact assumed quite new dimensions and produced sensational results.”

Questions are then asked by that author: “But what is the position in regard to amateur photography? How does it stand, for example, in relation to other spare time hobbies? What are the prospects of winning over youth increasingly as future consumers and for the increasing development of amateur photography as a creative medium in its own right? Unfortunately an examination of these questions suggests rather less optimistic prognoses. Here again we learn from the statisticians, who must surely know, that in West Germany photography ranks only about thirteenth as a hobby with adults, and that only about a third of all young people are interested in photography and actively practice it.”

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There was no prophesy in the further statement by this writer: “While camera sales are again increasing, it seems problematic whether it is possible to envisage another wave of photographic enthusiasm and activity such as characterised the immediate post-war years.” The writer goes on to state examples of lectures in photography losing their attraction, and that even when some lectures appeared to be well attended their success was short-lived and “without the lasting influence that is hoped for.”

The writer does recognise that, within the age group 25-45, there were those who were amateurs who took photography seriously as well as used it for casual times. He (she?) also refers to times when the film was loaded into the camera at some special occasion during the year and may have remained there for a year or more before finally being finished and printed. There is one gem when the writer states: “How this state of affairs could be altered is not clear, certainly with conventional equipment.” (my emphasis). The writer also states: “What is undoubtedly needed is a wind of change and new ideas.” Now that was prophetic!

01-Production-of-the-Bards-Richard-III-Now-Has-an-Oscar-Winner-Star-in-TeamAt this point in my reading I was reminded of a section of Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of King Richard III, where Buckingham states: “Why, then, All-Souls day is my body’s doomsday. This, this All-Souls day to my fearful soul is the determin’d respite of my wrongs: Hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head and given in earnest what I begg’d in jest.” The underlined part of the excerpt from Shakespeare’s play has become the now common phrase “Be careful what you wish for; it may come true.”

Well, we certainly got the “wind of change” with digital photography and the willing marriage of the digital camera to equipment that was already in the majority of homes: the computer. Digital photography, from very expensive beginnings, is now so ubiquitous it’s hard to comprehend virtually every person in a family not having some means of taking a digital image; mostly by mobile ‘phone. We now have the ability to see, on the TV or on-stream news services, photographs of nearly every incident that’s newsworthy and in many cases those that are not newsworthy.

Annual_Pictures_Graph

Has serious amateur photography really benefitted from the explosion of digital photographic technology and equipment? Has photography really improved as a result? Is there increased interest in amateur photography?

The answer to my first question would have to be a deafening “Yes!”. There might still be some who deny digital photography being ‘true” photography but they are wrong and they belong to a shrinking minority. The ability to take an image, see the results immediately, download it then manipulate it (similar to what would previously be darkroom manipulation), then print it for display or photographic competitions, has, without question, benefitted the serious amateur such that they can produce an image that was first pre-visualised in the brain of the image-taker, by a process that allows them to achieve their aim with greater ease. Many forms of digital/computer manipulation, from what I can see, also exceed anything that could be achieved in the darkroom, and with such ease (as long as you know how!).

Afghan-Girl-–-1984

The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry, known also as the “Afghan Mona Lisa”.  Is this the best Photograph taken ever

What about my second question? Has there been an improvement in the photographs people take as a result of the advent of digital imaging? My own opinion is that digital imaging has not improved photography per se. There is nothing intrinsic in digital imaging that can improve photography. My reasoning is that, no matter what the photographic medium, the result doesn’t hinge on the means by which the image was taken but on the ability of the image-maker. Yes, there are certainly a greater number of images being taken, but quantity doesn’t dictate quality. Marketers would have us believe that you need the latest whizz-bang camera with all its bells and whistles and huge megapixels in order to take a good image! Such marketing statements are only a ploy to get the public to purchase their product. Certainly there are aspects of equipment that extend a photographer’s ability to take certain types of images, e.g. micro lenses, but the same can be said of film-based equipment. Agreed – there has been an improvement in the production process but the image is really only the product of the artistry of the image-maker, not the equipment used. Don’t confuse the two. If you disagree, then logically it was only the maker of the brush and paints used by the great artists that made their paintings so great; or that the purchase of a black belt makes you a judo champion.

My third question isn’t so easy to answer. There certainly exists a continuing interest in photography by that group of people we would classify as “serious amateurs”. We see those serious amateurs every time we attend a photography club meeting.  We see the evidence of their serious photographic interest every time we have a competition evening or attend a photographic exhibition. We are passionate about our own photography and perhaps we can even be charged with seeing ourselves in what the writer of the Leica article referred to as “a distorted, unrealistic, perspective”. Why I can’t state for certain that there has been an increased interest in amateur photography due to the digital explosion is that the reduced number of members in photography/camera clubs and the fact that so many photographic clubs have closed tempers my judgement. If the advent of digital photography resulted in increased interest in amateur photography why then aren’t photographic clubs benefitting from increased numbers and patronage, and why isn’t there an increase in the number of photography clubs instead of the decline we see? All this in an era where there are more digital cameras being sold than ever there were film cameras, and nearly every mobile ‘phone now can take both still and movie pictures. Even many cameras now have the ability to record movies as do mobile ‘phones.

I think part of the answer, for there isn’t any single factor or influence, is that there are so many other interests that compete with serious photography to grab the attention of all of us. Social – some would say anti-social – media certainly has a large bearing on how most young people spend their time. I was going to say “spare” time but these days few people have “spare” time. Social media is a huge consumer of imaging but I would add that little pre-visualisation goes into the vast number of images posted to the various social media platforms – except maybe for sexting messages!

best-camera-phone

It’s my opinion that the means of taking an image with a mobile ‘phone is so ubiquitous that it’s accepted without any conscious intent on the part of the purchaser of the mobile ‘phone. The mobile isn’t generally purchased as an image-taking piece of equipment by someone who sees themselves as a serious amateur; it just happens to be another function of the ‘phone integrated with the ability to upload it direct to your preferred social media platform or transmit it instantly to nearly anywhere on Earth. Therefore, the vast majority of images taken using a mobile have little benefit from previsualisation of the result. A major use of mobile ‘phones is for the taking of “selfies” – a term coined by an Australian that has had the fastest integration by a word into all languages than has any other word in history. Maybe there’s a parallel there: it can be likened to the fast acceptance and adoption of digital photography.

The digital photographic medium took the world by storm, or rather by a cyclone of Tracy’s intensity, and in doing so both achieved and failed to achieve what the Leica article writer wished for. It has certainly been at the expense of film-based, i.e. “conventional equipment” photography. The writer said there was a need for a “wind of change”, but this was in the hope of improving amateur photography. What we have is the wind of change but the benefit to amateur photography isn’t, I feel, what the writer wished for. There is also little doubt that digital photography has had a deleterious effect on professional photography. The number of commercial photographers has decreased considerably since the advent of digital cameras, mobile ‘phones, iPads and tablets etc., that anyone considering setting up a commercial studio would be well advised to do market research and their sums carefully beforehand.

professional-photographer-evolution

Evolution of a Professional Photographer

The writer of the Leica article bemoaned, back in 1972, the apparently reducing interest in amateur photography by young people. To repeat part of the earlier quote: “only about a third of all young people are interested in photography and actively practice it”.  I don’t have empirical data, but it seems to me considerably less than a third of young people that are actually “interested in photography”, even though the vast majority “practice it” by taking large numbers of images.

What do you think?

[1] Leica Fotografie, English edition, No.1 1972 p21, Umshau Verlag, Frankfort-on-Main (former W.Germany)

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