What, precisely, is the role of photography today?
Ten years ago we all thought the answer was pretty self-evident. It was a method of recording an approximation of what the eye saw for various purposes ranging from holiday snaps to high art via advertising, prison mug shots, and camera club material, etc., etc. There was a limited scope for embellishment in the processing and printing but on the whole film was a fairly faithful medium. Then along came digital.
Digitalization of photography was not an isolated phenomenon, it was part of the great IT revolution and cannot be considered outside of that context. Moving from chemical film to electronic sensor had many repercussions from the obvious practical ones like reduced dynamic range and increased sensitivity to the slightest variation in light levels (this meant that cameras had now to be smarter than the operators to ensure a reasonable exposure, a reversal of the former position), but there were also the wider implications such as the viewing process no longer being the fixed and controllable event that looking at a print was.
This electronic tsunami has now, I believe, peaked, and what we see is a new landscape where the process of recording an image has become not only easier but far cheaper. Such empowerment should be welcomed, cautiously, for there is much of value that the waters washed away in the rage. The first and most obvious casualty is that quality (however defined) is now considered a function of camera expense rather than operator skill.
A second and less obvious perversion of the old order is that the multitude of pictures now created has changed the way in which they are viewed. No longer are carefully prepared prints studied at leisure but images are flicked through on the monitor, a device which cannot display the wealth of detail, tonal values, subtlety of shade or colour and effects of light that the old-fashioned wet print can. Not only that but the wet print was an unreproducible article in its own right. Variations in chemical concentration as prints were developed ensured that each picture was unique. Another detrimental effect is that every monitor is different and so the photograph will appear differently on each device that is used to display it. LCD screens for instance will lighten areas of pictures that we may wish to remain black, ruining an effect that was carefully built into the original picture.
I could go on listing the changes that digital has brought but I’d like to make one further point and that is the camera has now become little more than an extension of the home computer and although I have been part of the camera club movement and learnt a great deal from it I fear that it has moved on to the web in such a way that editing and censure of the results is not encouraged, indeed it is considered the height of rudeness to suggest deficiency in another’s work. This leads to the general acceptance of poor quality imagery being used in places where those responsible really should know better.