Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is Photography Over?

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is hosting a two day symposium on April 22 and 23 called, “Is Photography Over?” Several participants in the discussion include such photographic luminaries as Peter Galassi (the curator of photography at MOMA in New York City), Geoff Dyer (the author of the excellent book about photography, The Ongoing Moment), and Philip-Lorca diCorcia (acclaimed artist/photographer). There is an announcement about the symposium on the SFMOMA site here and more interesting there are the written responses to the question, “Is Photography Over?”, here. The answers make for long reading, but they are fascinating food for thought.

This question prompts me to think about the topic as well. Is photography at a crossroads? Yet again? Well, more than most artforms, photography has been on a steady course of ever-changing technology that has changed the way photography has been accomplished. I mean, very little has changed in painting for several hundred years. If you include the cave paintings of ancient Cro-Magnon people, we’ve been painting, even making air-brushed paintings, for tens of thousands of years. The same could said of music and singing, even with computers and improved recording technologies, live music performance hasn’t really changed all that much. But photography has changed a lot.

In the course of its not quite 200 year existence, we’ve gone from hand-made paper negatives to colloidal glass negatives to plastic-backed negatives to now, no negatives at all in digital capture. And that’s just talking about the recording medium. Cameras started out as large wooden direct-view devices and then went to complicated mechanical boxes that could focus the light into an image to now, miniature computers. The evolution of cameras has been one of miniaturization, for the most part. Cameras keep getting smaller as the image quality keeps getting better. Today, the sales of consumer point-and-shoot digital cameras will probably disappear and be replaced by the cameras that are in our cell phones. If this hasn’t already happened.

What does this mean for photography? I have no doubt that photography will continue to change its form like the shapeshifter it has always been. If it stops, that will mean that it truly has died. For the average person, they may soon no longer have separate dedicated cameras, but they will continue to document their everyday lives the way we all have since photography was invented. The role of and need for photography is one that will not go away.

The biggest challenge to the new era of digital photography is the question of Truth. Photography, whether it was ever absolutely true or not, has always been perceived as a documentary tool. Photographers capture the events and subjects in front of their cameras with absolute fidelity as they happen. They capture the Truth. Now with Photoshop, especially the frightful implications of CS5, you can no longer assume any photograph is the Truth. Every photograph can be undetectably manipulated. Of course, the act of manipulating images has been with us from the beginning of photography, but never has it been so easy to do. This is a serious challenge for photography and photographers. Though in another light, perhaps it now places photography in the same context as painting, which has never had the same restrictions to depicting truth and reality. Perhaps, perhaps.

Anyway, does all this mean the end of photography? I don’t think so. Photography and photographers are good at adapting. How we deal with the issue of Truth is an important issue, but not an insurmountable one. Photography will continue to change in ways we can’t imagine at this time, but the reason for its existence will remain with us as long as we exist—to record and remember our lives, our world, and our dreams.

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