Photography: getting back to basics
As a keen photographer and art lover, I’ve often asked myself which of the two I prefer. By art, of course, I mean painting, though photography, as a form of visual expression, is undoubtedly an art form and is apt to give as much pleasure as anything else within the confines of a frame. But I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be able to accept the parity that photography seems to have achieved with painting.
These days, it seems all too easy to gain artistic prestige on the basis of taking a few photos. In an age saturated with digitally-enhanced images, art acts as a more honest visual refuge, embracing us with a tangible humanity that invites us to think in a more reflective way. Art touches us in a way photography cannot.
But photography has its place and I love it. Most people have a relationship with it to some degree, and digital technology and the inclusion of a camera on most mobile phones has spread the snapping habit. It is ingrained in modern culture. Yet, as art forms go, photography is a young one. Its starting point is traditionally viewed as the year the world’s oldest surviving photo, View from the Window at Le Gras, by Nicéphore Niépce, came into being around 1826. Though the Greeks and others along the path of history had a knowledge of optics and could create an image using the camera obscura (pinhole camera), they could not preserve it. Inventive zeal and the application of chemistry during the 19th century eventually solved the problem of holding down a scene from reality, of fixing it permanently in order to create a durable image that could be reproduced many times over. The photograph – literally ‘light drawing’ – and photography were born.
The complexity of taking a photograph during the 19th century gave photographers a claim to artisanship: calotype, wet-plate collodion, dry gelatin plate – photography’s early language reinforces its status as art. In addition, the cameras were large and crafted in brass and wood and the chemicals used to bind the images to glass plates, and then to extract them, had dangerous names like silver nitrate, which had to be handled directly by the photographer.
Roll film and the first film camera, developed toward the end of the century by George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, changed everything. Eastman made photographic equipment affordable to the masses and freed amateurs from photography’s intrinsic chemical aspect. The chemicals required to produce an exposure were in place on the film strip, while image processing could now take place by passing your roll of film to a photographic laboratory. During the 20th century, however, professional photographers would come to be defined not only by the cost of their cameras but by the visceral link they maintained with photographic chemistry in the darkroom.
Though film photography in the 21st century may not be dead – the red safelights of darkrooms still flicker on and off in some quarters, and Ilford continues to produce black and white film in the depths of Cheshire – something has changed. A rather big something. Digital technology has revolutionised photography completely. Completely. Computers, the internet and the real-time availability of the photographic image has taken photography into realms that George Eastman could never have dreamed of. Now, we plunder it shamelessly in the manner of propaganda to add kudos to our social media pages: taking selfies, snapping food in restaurants (a peculiarly female habit), smiling with partners to advertise current togetherness levels and revealing our latest location in an irritating, faux-blasé manner. Digital technology, it is true, has made photography immediate and fun. The visual downside to this, though, is that across the internet there is a proliferation of bad photography that would once have remained firmly in a Supersnaps wallet somewhere in the attic. To rub salt into the wound, the loathsome Instagram positively encourages people to take grainy pictures with awful filters. Photography appears to have taken a beating through its democratisation and inextricable link to social media.
We now have a generation of people who have no experience of film photography. Though digital technology has undoubtedly made the business of obtaining an image easier, the process is a more clinical and detached one. Before digital photography, you would take 24 or 36 exposures on a single roll of film and wait days for Boots to develop it. Now a camera allows you to store hundreds of shots on a memory card which you can use over and over again. You can then view those hundreds of photos courtesy of your computer in a matter of minutes. Remarkable, really.
Or is it? Many photographers are becoming increasingly dependent on photo-processing software such as Photoshop and Lightroom, not to make slight improvements here and there but to transform an image completely. The magazine section of your local WHSmith is stuffed full of glossy magazines devoted to this post-processing, all purporting to offer ‘essential’ advice on how to get the best image from your computer. What is the point, though, of taking a photograph then sitting for hours in front of a screen trying to make it better? Isn’t the idea – and ideal – of photography to preserve reality, to trap those photons art cannot? Worst of all, we seem to have developed the habit of elevating software-savvy charlatans to the status of ‘whiz’ – even ‘artist’ – amazed at their know-how while forgetting that, in the main, they are people who probably cannot draw.
We need to get back to basics. Those who love photography understand that it’s an art, and practising an art ought to be a pleasure. Did Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the great early photographers, tamper so assiduously with her stunning Victorian portraits? David Bailey, too, is great precisely because of his lack of interest in composition and his post-processing lightness of touch. For sure, Photoshop and its ilk have a place in the vapid, airbrushed world of commercial photography, but for more personal photography do as little as possible with your images. If you’re not happy with a photo, try cropping it or return to the scene a little wiser at a later date and take another shot. Any good photographer will tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than taking a photo that requires little or no editing. It may sound obvious, but if you have to spend an inordinate amount time working on a photo to make it look good, it’s probably not a good photo. Just delete it.
A balanced, not overly-composed shot in colour or black and white will always win the day. With photography, like most things in life, less is always more.
Main image, chosen by the Editor of Northern Soul, is by Matthew Graham (Country lane, Downham © Matthew Graham, 2014)
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