Friday, May 31, 2013

A bad day for the medium

Yesterday, Thursday May 30, 2013, one of Chicago's two remaining daily newspapers, the Sun Times laid off its entire staff of photographers. In a press release, Sun Times management said:
Our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.
Approximately thirty full and part time staffers, including a number of Pulitzer Prize winners will lose their jobs effective immediately. It's not as if still photographs will stop appearing in the paper and on the web. According to Michelle Maynard, a blogger at Forbes, The Sun Times
plans to get by with freelance photographers, and rely on reporters to snap photographs with smart phones.
In other words, the paper is going to do photography on the cheap. Hypothetically turning the situation around 180 degrees , Chicago Tribune staff photographer Scott Strazzante wrote yesterday in his blog:
This is a horrible thought, but, just once, I want a writer fired because the boss decided the photographer could write his own stories to go with his images.
That would be unlikely to happen because photographers are a highly undervalued group; after all, anybody can take a picture right?

The idea that you could make an image with a machine rather than by hand, has made photography a controversial medium since its first appearance on the scene in 1839. The medium's verisimilitude in depicting a subject led the French academic painter Paul Delaroche upon viewing his first Daguerreotype to comment: "From today, painting is dead." Of course painting did not die, but it did change radically since the invention of photography. The two mediums since that time have borrowed heavily from each other. Despite the fact that the earliest photographers considered themselves artists in their own right, not simply failed painters, few in the art academies, or the general public considered photography an art.

It only got worse in 1888 when George Eastman patented his idea of a box camera that came loaded with a roll of film (roll film was also his idea). "You press the button, we do the rest" was the slogan for the Eastman Kodak camera that took away all the "hard work" of photography. Once you shot the film, you'd send the whole bundle, camera and all back to Kodak who sent back processed prints along with another camera loaded with a fresh roll of film. In the fifty years of photography before Eastman, practitioners of the medium were limited to professionals and highly dedicated amateurs who needed to master the complex process of coating plates, processing them into negatives, and printing out the final output, before they could even consider creating the image.

From Eastman on, a chimpanzee could make a photograph.

But could a chimpanzee make a good photograph, let alone a cohesive body of work? Well you know what they say, given enough chimps pecking away on typewriters you'll eventually end up with Shakespeare.

Just like the typing monkey theory, the idea that everybody could become accomplished photographers is a myth.

Fortunately the notion that the validity of a work of art should be judged primarily on its technical difficulty has been almost universally rejected. Otherwise, ridiculously difficult skills like engraving would be considered the greatest of the arts.

Still, ever since I first became serious about photography, more years ago than I care to remember, I've been put into the position of having to answer the question: "If it takes skill to be a photographer, well then, what makes a good photograph?" Truth be told, I've never been able to answer that question adequately;  photography in all its manifestations, is far too complex to pigeon hole, even if only to distinguish the good from the bad. Some photographers put as much work into a single image as would the most traditional academic painter. Other photographers shoot pictures "from the hip", images that seem as if the photographer is not even looking through the viewfinder. One photograph could be great because of its rendition of tones, for example a sumptuous platinum print with an incredibly long tonal range, or a gelatin silver print with a dramatic transition from the deepest blacks to the whitest whites. A photograph could be simply about composition like an abstract painting. Most often however, people associate photographs with the subjects they portray. The subject of the photograph could be profound or it could be banal. A photographer might organize what's before the camera carefully around the frame, or could allow the action in front of the camera to occur spontaneously. Or the action could appear spontaneous but in reality be planned down to the nth degree as in this photograph. Photographs could be about topics, or they cold be about ideas.

Is a photograph a mirror into the photographer's soul or is it a window to the outside world? Does a photograph tell the truth and if so, does it really matter? Questions like these have been pondered for the 174 years of photography's existence by thinkers from Charles Baudelaire to Susan Sontag.

One thing is certain, no one who takes art seriously today questions that photography is indeed an art form, worthy of being included in the circle of the other fine arts such as painting and sculpture.

Yet unlike painting and sculpture, photography exists in realms that are far removed from the fine arts. There are cameras everywhere and hardly an event regardless of how trivial goes by without being documented on film or more likely in this day and age, electronically. No one knows for certain how many photographs are created in one year but a reasonable guess is in the neighborhood of 350 billion. The world's largest archive of photographs today is Facebook which in less than ten years has accumulated 140 billion images and counting, 10,000 times larger than the photographic archive in the Library of Congress. By contrast, the collection of photographs in the Department of Photography of the Art Institute of Chicago where I work, a collection that spans the entire history of the medium, is pushing about 20,000 objects.

There is no question that the impact of photography made by non-photographers is far greater now than ever before. The inclusion of cameras on electronic devices meant primarily for other purposes has put image making devices in the hands of people living in all corners of the globe. Any news organization would be insane not to include images gathered from all sources including non-photographers, even non-human ones, this one for example.

But it's truly a great loss that the Sun Times, and I'm guessing more papers to follow, will be foregoing experienced, professional photographers who have dedicated their lives to the art and craft of telling stories through pictures. What will go next God only knows, professional writers perhaps?

I understand the economics of the business, but at what point does a newspaper stop being a newspaper and become just another blog? Regrettably it seems the powers that be at the Sun Times don't understand the nature of the medium of photography, and the power of a well seen image. Nor do they understand that video is not an extension of still photography, the two media serve two entirely different purposes.

Oh and for the record, owning a smart phone doesn't make you any more of a photographer than owning a musical instrument makes you a musician. Of course we now have audio software that can cover up a multitude of sins, so trained musicians are probably a thing of the past as well.

A sad, sad state of affairs indeed.


blogsolomon said...

Raymond Chandler wrote this more than 50 years ago: "An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence."

James Iska said...