Photography in the age of Tumblr

It’s so easy it’s ridiculous. It’s so easy that I can’t even begin – I just don’t know where to start. After all, it’s just looking at things. We all do that. It’s simply a way of recording what you see – point the camera at it, and press a button.  How hard is that? And what’s more, in this digital age, its free – doesn’t even cost you the price of film. It’s so simple and basic, it’s laughable.   from: Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult by Paul Graham


Photo ©David Slater


What does it mean to make a photograph today? Cameras today make it very simple to get a technically excellent shot.  Everybody and there brother has some sort of picture taking device and they use it as evidenced by the number of images on sites like flickr and tumblr. Point and shoot, point and shoot. Why it is so simple even a monkey can do it.  I am sure by now you have seen the photo self portrait of the black macaque monkey who got a hold of photographer David Slater’s camera and if you haven’t it’s above. It’s a charming photograph taken by a being who had no idea what he was holding or what he was doing.

But is that all there is to it? I often get into debates where I work ( a digital imaging studio at a prestigious University) with administrators who believe all my photographers have to do is a push a button. No thought, no need for visual literacy, or any sort of level of technical ability. What I usually do is invite them down to the studio and let them sit down with me or one of the photographers as we setup and shoot an object. But before hand I show them all the work I go through preparing each and every piece of equipment (testing, calibrating, profiling and creating input profiles as well as creating the technical metadata that will be embedded into every single file). Even though the monkey only pressed the shutter while the camera just happened to be pointing at him, I am sure the photograph above would not have been possible if the photographer didn’t take the lens cap off or even turn on the camera, let alone adjust the settings and from what I could tell from what I have read on the internet, the photographer cropped the photo to make that composition and he also states that he gave the macaque the camera to see what would happen (thus acquiring rights to the image). There was intent on the part of a knowledgeable professional photographer.

My point is that not only does a photographer need technical ability and visual talent, the photographer also needs an intelligence and an intent to communicate a specific something which (just as in good writing or music) then becomes universal, something shared by a majority of a population. The photographer does not only have to do it once but he must do it over and over again for years. And you photograph through good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer. Some images are good, some images are better, some are kept and many are thrown away. There is no vomiting of pictures into the digital well. One good picture (by chance) does not a photographer make.

Photography is hard as Paul Graham explains (from the same piece as above, emphasis mine):

It’s so difficult because it’s everywhere, every place, all the time, even right now. It’s the view of this pen in my hand as I write this, it’s an image of you reading now. Drift your consciousness up and out of this text and see: it’s right there, across the room – there… and there.  Then it’s gone.  You didn’t photograph it, because you didn’t think it was worth it. And now it’s too late, that moment has evaporated. But another one has arrived, instantly.  Now. Because life is flowing through and around us, rushing onwards and outwards, in every direction.  

But if it’s everywhere and all the time, and so easy to make, then what’s of value? which pictures matter? Is it the hard won photograph, knowing, controlled, previsualised?  Yes.  Or are those contrived, dry and belabored?  Sometimes. Is it the offhand snapshot made on a whim. For sure. Or is that just a lucky observation, some random moment caught by chance? Maybe. Is it an intuitive expression of liquid intelligence?  Exactly.  Or the distillation of years of looking seeing thinking photography.  Definitely.





3 thoughts on “Photography in the age of Tumblr

  1. This is a great post. Camera are everywhere, but it takes more than a camera to make a person a great photographer. The knowledge, the experience, the visual creative spark,and yes, the equipment make the difference. And just shooting for years, and having it be the core of you. Anyhow, my take. 🙂 Thanks so much for this post.

  2. Thank you for voicing my own frustration with the attudes towards photography and the skill and leanring that must go into the process of producing a great image worth keeping. Snapshots make great memories and are worth having for that. But a great image is much more than a snapshot. Hopefully it’s an art form in itself.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I am sure a great majority of working photographers today share the same or similar frustrations. We photograph because we have to. It’s who we are!

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