A Reflection on Photography and the Photographer in the Social Networks Era

We don’t write. We take pictures and shoot videos. We snap everything and stick it anywhere the server capacities of social networks let us. Why? Do we covet likes, compliments, recognition, attention? Aren’t you fed up with that?

In the past five years, I have met a great number of people thanks to my projects on Mácha, Andersen and Exupéry – colleague photographers, viewers, customers, media and gallery folk, people in discussion groups on social media and elsewhere. I do not feel authorized to discuss or draw conclusions on the social aspects of those “alone in the crowd” or the replacement of a real friend by a virtual one. What I am interested in, though, and what I am trying to take in and retell to myself is the perception and assessment of good photography. What does this assessment depend on? Why do I spend more time with one photo, image, than with another one? Why is it, that without a wink I pass landscape photos that would have left me staring open-mouthed five years ago? Is this part of some kind of aesthetics heritage?

This article is for those who think about photography not in the intentions of improving the quality of their photos but the quality of their testimony.

Many starting or casual photographers, but also gallery visitors or course participants, mostly deal with the technicalities – the extent of Photoshop usage, the extent of editing, the choice between digital and analogue photography. Fewer are interested in the photographic intention, the purpose of the pictorial communication, the adequacy or exaltedness of form. They rarely share, but for a few exceptions, that they struggle with themselves as the creators, with inventiveness, choice of subject and so prefer to discuss technical categories (type of camera, lenses, tripods, printing media). Sometimes this leads to comical situations when they compete in who does less editing and who can get a good shot at the first attempt… I have also taken part in a discussion on how any type of manipulation of digital photography is inacceptable while not taking into account the argument that the photo is already manipulated by the data processor or the particular settings of the camera. One of my friends was even accused, when experimenting with photo editing, that what he was showing was too much and that he would never become a good photographer.  

A long time ago, John Paul Caponigro, described how his father, Paul Caponigro, would develop those amazing analogue, black and white landscape pictures together with Ansel Adams. How they would dance around the enlarger, play with screening and settings, how they would fiddle about with the whole take, including a detailed examination of the location, choice of photo paper and the  right filters before even pressing the shutter release (not to mention the tens of kilos of material that they would carry to all those locations in New Mexico, Yellowstone, etc…) Yes, besides a specific feeling for the situation and light, a good photo has always been about technique, it always has and always will be, regardless of the principle on which light is transferred to the final medium of presentation, analogue or digital. If you were interested in experiments in the analogue-chemical field, including the addition of colour to negatives, believe me, you would be surprised by their scale and extent. And I am skipping the option of digitizing negatives and  their subsequent editing. But is that the key issue?

The number of images flooding us today is incredible. Society has changed immensely in this aspect. How does out brain process this? Just think of Instagram – that is the essence of the era, the social medium for photographers, because the main message is an image, nothing more… How many pictures can I look at before I get bored scrolling? Ten? Twenty? 20 seconds? 30 seconds? Why am I even scrolling? Photography as trash, the inflation of aesthetics… I resist negation in the sense that society is becoming ever more superficial, but it is hard to understand and to identify oneself. However, it can also be viewed from a different point – simply, competition in grabbing attention has multiplied (if it only depended on the picture). To be fair, even the number of great pictures has multiplied!

There might not be a way back, professional photographers have lost part of their exclusivity, mostly in the technical aspect. Some photographic professions have also vanished, because now, anyone can “take a snap” and who would be willing to pay for it? A professional photographer must try much harder now, because those technical toys can enable an increasing number of people to take a relatively good shot without the struggle of studying, whatever we may think about that. And please, for once, let’s leave out cellphones… 🙂 So, in this sense, we are getting back at the start of the evolutionary spiral, but  several levels higher up – what is the added value of photography that someone is willing to pay for? Is it important, from this point of view, whether it is digital or analogue? Am I taking photographs for an expert, educated society or a potential client?

I do not depend on photography for a living, I work in a different field, so it might seem that I am out of the woods. But even in my field there is great competition, and perhaps even more people work in the field than in photography. I am relatively successful. What is the link here? Even my field, management in manufacturing businesses, has undergone great changes. Many things have become automated, a person feels like a cog in the wheel, the reaction required must be fast, ideally immediate, long gone are the days when it could be thought through. I had to learn many things connected with the trade on the go – marketing, presentation, rhetoric, psychology, labour law and also master the industry’s quality management standards, theory of constraints, languages, project management. A lot of work, frustration, lots of gratification. But I managed, somehow – no wonder, I only had the last twenty years to do so…

When I go back to the beginnings in this sense, then editing in Photoshop, composition rules, analogue or digital, those are tools that I have to master – and I still haven’t mastered many of them. Yet, that is not the most important, that is kindergarten, foundations of the trade. Even a photographer today, must learn marketing, rhetoric, labour law, communication with the media, project management… But I think, that the crucial aspect for me, as a photographer, is to figure out what “industry standard” will enable me to convince the public to buy my photos, or, in a broader sense, the quality of my visualization service – and by that, I do not mean a rule or regulation. If my beloved impressionists had waited for such rules and regulations, they would have quit after their first exhibition. Are great technical or editing skills enough to attract attention? What is that added value that ultimately transforms those “thousands of hours behind the camera” into an identifiable and desired authorial voice?

Obviously, there is no universal answer to this, and everyone needs to figure it out for themselves. It is important to set a direction, and nobody can do that for me. I have to decide – am I going to ride on the cart or walk behind it? For myself, I have picked the route of independent projects connected to the cultural heritage in a broader sense. My ambition is to create a beautiful photograph with an inner story that will caress but also make one stop and think. This year, the process of QEP certification was a great lecture for me – it clarified, simplified a lot for me and also set the bar much higher for the future. Just the brief overview of the judges’ portfolios was obliging.

I’ll see what this will suffice to in my case, where my next steps take me. In any case, I am glad to have people around me who I can value for their unique inventiveness and professional erudition. And I wish you all arrive at this recognition! I wish you – good light, firm hand, open heart and ruminative, non-orthodox friends!

Liberec, May 12th, 2020