Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Cameras Get Better; Pictures Don't

Syracuse Gothic: Mony above all
Konica Autoreflex T, Tri-X @ ISO 800, Processed in Acu-1

 As the great photographer Ernst Haas is reputed to have said to Bob Schwalberg (European editor of the now defunct Popular Photography) when Schwalberg was enthusing over the latest equipment developments, "Ach, Schwapselberg, why is it that cameras keep getting better but pictures don't get any better?"
Pictures indeed have not gotten any better, but we are in the closing stages of a great sea change in photography. Photography is essentially a product of the modernist era and was perfectly suited to expressing the ideals of that philosophy, which implicitly included optimistic humanism. Photographically, this reached its zenith in Edward Steichen's great "Family of Man" exhibit and book. The influence of optimistic humanism continued strong in photography for many years, although we gradually forgot why.
Now we are well into the postmodern era, and support for optimistic humanism has greatly eroded. There has been a crashing loss of faith in man. Who today would say with Hamlet "What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals?"  

Instead of being seen as an heroic figure with unlimited potential for progress (the twin-lens reflex camera, by the way, was the perfect instrument for expressing this heroism because the viewpoint was usually one of looking up at the subject), he is now seen in a negative way as a threat to the environment and a creature for which we can have, at best, only tentative hopes. Man has been deconstructed, and this is the reason nature, landscape, and environmental photography, although they have always been with us, have now come to the fore. The idea that "the proper study of man is man" has been largely abandoned, and where it continues, it is often the study of people living in primitive cultures, as in much of Chris Ranier's excellent work; people who are living closer to and presumably in greater harmony with the environment. This also accounts for the recent spate of books about "Native Americans."
The great humanist photographers Robert Doisneau and Fritz Henle are dead, as is Henri Cartier-Bresson who exited this life dabbling in water-colors. Elliot Erwitt is in his 90s. B.A. King, least-known but one of the greatest humanistic photographers, spent the last 20 or so years of his life using his camera to advocate environmental concerns. These men and many others were part of a movement that produced much of our greatest photography, but it is on its last legs. As a Christian, I consider modernism and optimistic humanism to be flawed philosophies, but they nonetheless created a climate in which great photography was produced. 

Syracuse Gothic: Do Not Enter
Konica Autoreflex T, Tri-X @ ISO 800, Processed in Acu-1

Photography is about reality, but under the influence of postmodernism we are fast losing the concept of reality. This is reflected in the trend to computer alteration of photographs, which loosens the connection between photography and reality and threatens to break that connection altogether. From that moment, photography, as photography, will be dead. It may continue to be a nice hobby, a more-or-less profitable commercial activity, and a pretty plaything, but its power to inspire a sense of wonder will be gone. A virtual reality is no substitute for the real thing.

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