Have we experienced the end of the beginning of photography?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 211, January 2018
Assuming that the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and a few other notable thinkers and scientists aren’t right then human civilisation is set to last a bit longer. And, although, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, we can be reasonably sure that we have a few more centuries to go, at least even if these Brexit infected times look like the End of Days has begun.
Lets agree that what we call photography started in about 1830 give or take a few years. And now, in 2017, some 190 years later we are where we are photographically speaking. That is to say that we have moved from the realm of brown bottles containing poisonous substances to the bland world of flat, shiny bricks designed for chatting that also happen to have small lenses on them.
Evidence that human beings have shown signs of an innate drive to record the world around them since before we were human would make it safe to assume that, if we have a future then photography has a future too. If this is the case, and I surely I hope it is, then where can we place ourselves, right now, in the development of photography and how will we be written about by future historians? How will photography look and what will shape it as it develops? The answer to this last question is perhaps for another piece but let’s continue to examine the unique time in the development of photography that we inhabit.
I wonder, of all the people who take pictures today, what proportion of us has ever taken a picture on film. We are living in a unique time because there are so many of us around who grew up and, indeed, remember a time before digital. I can recall going to one of the first demonstrations of Photoshop in the early Nineties when it was still just a tool for manipulating film originated images (having been scanned on the ‘system’ as it was known).
Lets make another assumption; when did the digital era start? For me it started in about 2004 so lets say for the sake of historical accuracy the digital era started in 2000. Thats only seventeen years ago – roughly 11% of the time that photography has existed. And how far and fast has the technology developed since then? This means that you and I live in a really special time in the development of photography. Future historians will call this an age of transition from one kind of science to another, from one way of thinking about photography to another.
To make my argument work I have to make several more assumptions. A new one I’m going to posit is that the purely chemical based era of photography represents the beginning of the medium whereas the advent of digital technology heralded the inevitable mastering of photography by machines for the purpose for which machines were invented, i.e. rapid and wide dissemination and consumption. We can describe this transition in another way; the silver halide era of photography was about the recording of experience for almost exclusively personal consumption. As technology advanced, the medium was taken from the private and into the public domain as mechanisation made distribution more possible.
In this way a photograph has gone from being a private document to a public record. Put another way, photography has grown up just as a child does; first spending all its years in its own private world and then, as it becomes an adult, moving into the world at large.
Another way that photography has recently come of age, linked inevitably to the arguments already outlined here, is the way that a photograph is consumed by the viewer. The earliest photographic impressions, fugitive as they were, would have been held as delicately and preciously in the regard of the viewer as a fledgling bird fallen from the nest.
Rapidly, as images became first ‘fixable’ and then reproducible, the value that we placed in each reproduction diminished making the content of the image more valuable than the print itself (this is another essay for another issue!). As the inherent value of the photograph has changed so has the viewer and this change in relationship between consumer and medium accounts, in a substantial way, for the way photography has grown as an art form and a technology.
We who are alive today and active photographically have a unique part to play in the continuing development of the medium. Even our children are returning to film, hugely fortunate that the chemicals, techniques and expertise still readily exist for voyages of discovery into outdated yet mysterious photochemical reactions. The past is chemical and the future is digital. The only time that we will ever straddle the beginning and the end of the beginning of the medium is now.