The Value or Death of Photography

Friday, July 30, 2010

Recently I was able to appreciate the craftsmanship of the great masters as I walked the museums, palaces, cathedrals, and cities in Italy.  These amazing artists would participate in the process of their piece from the beginning to the end.  Each work showed the hand of the artist, showed their craftsmanship, and these works hold great value to history, culture, and art in general.  I highly respected the process and I wanted to make sure that I integrated this into my own work.

So I took a look at the photography industry, and I’m disappointed in the direction it’s heading.  Photography today, except for a select grouping, has become automated, thoughtless, digitized, and easy.  I have problems with our cameras having easy scene modes for shooting, or Photoshop being loaded with actions that make the wanna-be photograph look amazing.  I’m tired of having to explain my position when one tries to inform me (as if for the first time) that the world is full of people who think they’re photographers because they have a dSLR and a blog, as if I didn’t know.  They tell me as if I should reconsider my educational path.  Believe me, I know all about the “Auto” photography world.

Professional photography is hurting, as you could understand.  Individual artists who truly understand their craft and can demonstrate their hand are not quite as valuable anymore.  Clients are requiring thousands of images on a CD, why? — because the boy down the street with his camera will do it!  Prints are going out.  Professional print shops are dying left and right.  Professional studios aren’t what your neighbor with the camera has, so there are less and less studio shots, which then puts professional studios out on the street!  Is this really the future of photography?

Read this, from famous and historical photographer Ansel Adams (from his book, The Negative):

“…the general trend today is to apply high laboratory standards to produce systems which are sophisticated in themselves, in order that the photographer need not be! …I cannot help being disturbed when “progress” interferes with creative excellence.”

Everything is available to be done for us from beginning to end.  Our cameras will interpret a picture for us.  Then we import it to our photo editing software and it amazingly interprets the image and tells you how it should be.  Then you quickly change the look by running a pre-recorded set of commands created by some businessman (known as actions or Lightroom presets), and it looks done!  It’s done!  In such 3 simple clicks you have an image that would have taken the great masters hours to produce, but without the passion and craftsmanship.  You might ask if this is a bad thing (and I hope this post helps enlighten you that I think it is), but are our “photographers” understanding the process anymore?  Do they know how to expose properly, how to slightly correct exposure digitally, or how to add effects from the beginning? When you rattle off 10,000 images for an event, and magically get a few good ones… I don’t think so.

I believe our images are sets of mass produced visual pollution for a pay check.  It’s no wonder everyone can be a photographer these days when the world makes it so easy (especially with digital)!

I’ve been reading some of the writings of Karl Marx, and in his article The Communist Manifesto, he writes (notice how this applied to photography):

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman.  He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.  Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race.  But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production.  In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.  Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion that burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.”

I love that… “as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.”  As the demands of photography become more automated, less personal, faster, and basically more repulsive, the amount people are willing to pay for these services becomes less and less.  Just look on Craigslist.  The fact that people become appendages to their machines for the most “simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack” is unknowingly hanging photography by a thick noose breaking its neck while slowly cutting off air to its life.  Yes, I’m talking about the death of photography.

I do hope, through raising awareness, that some will see the value in photographic craftsmanship.  That there is value in understanding and being able to work the machine.  That there is value for paying a professional who carefully and artistically provides you with an amazing set of photographs!  There is so much value here, the world just needs to see it!

I know this doesn’t apply to only photography… what are your thoughts and experiences?

Categories: Photography, Thoughts

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Comments (3)


  1. Beverly Ririe says:

    In studying the industrial revolution I became increasingly uncomfortable with the loss of the individual craftsman –the one who saw his area of expertise from beginning to end — due to the mechanized production of fabrics, products, etc. We have generally become a world of specialization where it takes a team of individuals to produce one specific product or service vs. one individual producing a product or service from beginning to end. Although most of the products and services we enjoy are from team efforts (and I do greatly appreciate them), I do believe that there are still many who also value the expertise of individual craftsmen such as truly skilled photographers, those who produce an item of value which might include a number of skills. It seems there are an increasing number of people who recognize the skill of the potter and would cherish a uniquely made dish rather than mass-produced dinnerware, or those who would love a handmade sweater from a skilled artisan vs. a mass-produced department store item, or those who value the amazing miracle of a live performance vs. a digitally perfected audio recording, or a delicious homemade meal from scratch requiring thoughtful preparation vs. an instant frozen concoction. Developed skills and talents are worthy of recognition. The challenge is in educating the viewer or receiver of the goods. As we are educated as consumers, we value the process and time and skill of the artisan/craftsman. You are actually doing that with your writing and photography; you are educating us and we are learning to appreciate the nuances, the individuality, the skilled expression of the photographer — YOU as well as others! The value of the skilled human touch in any art form is priceless!

    I believe the artist has a responsibility to uplift and edify — make the world a better place with the talents God has given to him — in essence to serve others. I believe that if that is our desire, God magnifies our talents and actually teaches us how we can improve upon ourselves and how we can bless others in profound ways. I love you!

  2. I never thought of my position like this, and I quote:
    “The challenge is in educating the viewer or receiver of the goods. As we are educated as consumers, we value the process and time and skill of the artisan/craftsman. You are actually doing that with your writing and photography; you are educating us and we are learning to appreciate the nuances, the individuality, the skilled expression of the photographer — YOU as well as others!”
    I really hope that the world will know that there is value in the work of the craftsman… and I hope to help enlighten their minds! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Raymond Chou says:

    Fabulous post my friend. I like how you incorporated the great masters of the past and Karl Marx in your explanation of what photography has become today. Although all of us who engage in our craft professionally might be fated with this challenge (and I’m sure it’s only going to get harder), I believe that what will help us rise above those who are getting by by using the latest photoshop actions and gear is something that neither money can buy nor a lack of passion can create. I can tell from reading your posts that it’s something you have an abundance of. All you need to do is keep letting it shine!

    P.S. Thanks for your comment on my retouching tutorial =)

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