Are we really all photographer’s now? Brett Rogers, the director of The Photgrapher’s Gallery, doesn’t think sp – while also embracing the accessibility of the image-making process brought about by digital technology
I am constantly asked whether the digital revolution over the past decade, which has fundamentally changed the way we produce, distribute and understand photography, is a force for good or evil. Most people – myself included – see it essentially as a force for good, citing the democratisation of the medium as a positive development in unleashing personal creativity as well as political agency. But is it really true that, as a result, everyone is a photographer now?
MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr – all these networking sites are welcome as part of the broader cultural landscape which now shapes our everyday lives. But with more than 250 billion images produced in 2008 and more than a billion camera phones in use, are we in danger of wallpapering our world with a mass of deracinated images? Does our dependence on the digital represent a potentially alienating and worrying trend?
Certainly, digital technology has opened up the photographic medium to wider participation to a degree that was unimaginable a few decades ago. Almost everyone in Britain – from age eight to 80 – carries a camera phone and most people now access the Internet to search for images or to participate in various ways in the digital world. There can be no denying that the current ease of taking pictures, combined with the immediacy of their distribution, has revolutionised the way images are used and understood in our broader culture.
But how has digital technology impacted the way in which artists and photographers produce their work? Depending on the field in which they operate and the kind of work they produce, the impact varies widely. Photojournalism and the news media have been most directly affected because of the speed and efficiency with which stringers can send back images direct from the field. Added to this is the recent emergence of citizen journalists, whose images are more and more often sourced by newspapers, as exemplified by the images of the July 2006 London bombings. Every day, The Guardian’s picture editor scans an amazing 10 000 images to select a single image for the newspaper’s Eyewitness centre spread – even 20 years ago, the possibility of viewing such a huge range of pictures would have been inconceivable.
For studio-based practitioners trained within an art college context, the decision to combine analogue and digital techniques is often a conscious choice made for conceptual as much as aesthetic reasons. What matters most to them is the creative freedom offered through digital to unleash hybrid ways of working. But when it comes to the crunch, is an Andreas Gursky image any more interesting because it combines analogue alongside digital manipulation than, say, an Alexander Rodchenko or a Man Ray photograph from the 1920s or 1930s? Not necessarily – because regardless of the technology used, what counts is how ideas are successfully translated, in the hands of talented artists, into visually effective images.
What concerns me at the moment is that there is so little appreciation for the liminal and complex, the preference being tipped in favour of the explicit and frankly attention-seeking or sensational image. In our rush to reflect the world through new, affordable, digital technology and to share our visual impressions with others, we risk rendering ourselves numb with images that are so deracinated and indifferent that they don’t end up helping us see the world afresh.
Visual literacy may be an old-fashioned term carrying connotations of worthiness, but it is what is so often missing when trawling the billions of images produced each year. Where is the evidence of the truly discriminating eye, which can tell the difference between an image that enhances our understanding of our complex world and one that doesn’t? Whether it be the failings of our educational system or for other cultural reasons, I sometimes despair that we have failed to take heed of the critical message put forward by the great Bauhaus photographer László Moholy-Nagy in 1925. He said, ‘The illiterate of the future will be those who are ignorant of the power of the camera as well as the pen.’ •