Photography Changes Everything

[“Photography is not really, in the end, mainly controlled by photographers, nor mainly consumed by people interested in the photographic aspects of any question that it touches..”]

Unknown photographer. Kodak Snapshot of Family Standing in the Back of a Blue Station Wagon, 1962.National Museum of American History.

Unknown photographer. Kodak Snapshot of Family Standing in the Back of a Blue Station Wagon, 1962.
National Museum of American History.


“Most of the billions of pictures that are made with cameras every year are made for purposes that have nothing to do with art. They are made for quite specific reasons, some exalted and some mundane, and their value is dependent on how well they serve a purpose that, more often than not, has nothing to do with photography itself.  Scientists, engineers, sociologists, historians, advertising agencies, and fashion designers use photographs to prove a point, influence behavior, interpret human nature, or to preserve a moment in time. Their pictures end up in discipline-specific archives, where they await rediscovery and reinterpretation by subsequent generations. “

This striking passage, at once the plainest common sense, and still yet charged with something of the impact of a revelation, comes from the introduction of Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman,  a book published this year ( 2013 ) as a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution and Aperture.  It is the printed outcome of something called the Smithsonian Photography Initiative which I, as a Londoner, have missed in its other forms.  Yet I see and concur with the point immediately.  For all the self-serving hoo-ha whipped up by press agents of interested companies like Sotheby’s or Magnum or the larger galleries or a certain number of publishers, and for all the ponderous and yet not very ambitious weight of our undergraduate teaching programmes, photography is not really, in the end, mainly controlled by photographers, nor mainly consumed by people interested in the photographic aspects of any question that it touches.  This is a salutary enough thought that it ought to be engraved in scrolled poker work on every hard-drive.

There is a recurring trope in the cycle campaigning business which goes something like this:  in the UK, you have to be a Cyclist.  Just daily to get to your place of work, you have to wear high-visibility clothing and a helmet and take your life actively in your hands every time you ride your bike.  You have, in other words, consciously to think of yourself as a cyclist to get by. In the Netherlands, and perhaps in Sweden, in places where cycling is taken for granted and properly catered for by the state, nobody particularly thinks of themselves as a cyclist just for riding a bike to the shops or to work, because absolutely everybody does it, young or old, in whatever clothes they were wearing before they got on the bike.   “You use a washing machine,” cycle campaigners are prone to ask, “Don’t you? Yet you don’t think of yourself as an activist on behalf of their use or call yourself a washing machinist.”

The parallel is clear. We’re all camera operators, now.  We all have, as is pointed out every day, a camera in our pockets, on the mobile phone.  The volume of pictures taken is terrifying.  We don’t need call ourselves photographers merely for taking pictures.

I don’t think even getting paid for making photographs qualifies a person as a photographer any more. I assume that it is a normal part of the job of estate agents to make those photographs of the properties they tell fibs about, and perhaps even with a twitch of the mouse to swish away the lurking power stations or Chinese take-away kitchens that might reduce their value.  I see traffic wardens in London making photographs as a quite routine part of their own duties.  While there is more than one volume on my shelves with a title along the lines of  “A Bit of Law for Photographers”, I almost never see the opposite: a bit of photography for lawyers.  No doubt there are such things; sections in criminology textbooks, maybe.  But the overriding impression is that we are all camera operators, now. We don’t need lessons in pictures.

Note that I refrain from saying we are all photographers.  I make the distinction. If you think you’re a photographer, you’re probably making some claim to distinguish yourself from the herd.

In the art-photography business, the worry about this has been visible for a number of years.  If everybody is a camera-operator – and worse, if the particular art fashion of the moment is for conspicuously vernacular-looking photographs à la Ryan McGinley or Roe Etheridge, why, it gets increasingly awkward to justify the high price ticket. That’s why art photographers have been so assiduously cooking up paraphotographic value for so long.  At its crudest, this means simply blowing the prints up so large that the production cost itself demonstrates one’s earnestness.  Spend half a thousand pounds getting a print enlarged, and you must be a serious fellow, no?  Well, no. A lot of giant prints look very ordinary indeed if blown back down to normal sizes – it’s a problem very noticeable when big things from the gallery are reduced for a catalogue or a magazine or to go online.  Can be quite embarrassing to a grandiose artist to realize that his stuff is going to have to hold its own next to a lot of demotic little pictures.  The giant print racket is nearing its end, I think.  Pretentious crap is pretentious crap even at eight foot tall, often worse.

Beyond size, of course, there is the industry in bullshit-prose about the art.  It’s not restricted to photographs, this one, but if you can keep the arcane curator-speak branding with the pictures as much as possible – online as well on the walls, then they automatically look …distinguished (if that’s the word) by the association.  Again, that racket is wearing thin.  Same for all those presentational manias like Diasec or dry-mounting on aluminium.  I had a conversation some time ago on a Eurostar with Lisa Creagh, the marketing director of Metro Imaging, and she pointed out what I certainly hadn’t registered, that these are techniques originally from the sign-making industry.  How long before art photographers are wrapping their pictures around the backs of buses or across the sides of lorries using technologies now well-developed in trade but which haven’t yet had their art accolade?  It used to be (before the lock-down of the imagination that has taken place in commercial photography) that commercial pictures at billboard size were often well worth looking at;  there’s nothing intrinsically absurd about artists taking over that forum for their own purposes.

Photography is the only medium whose history is a continuous boom.  It continues to expand into new fields and take them over, unhindered by the regular announcements of its doom. But those who describe themselves specially as photographers (or ‘artists using photography’, ho-hum) had better look out.  It looks as though they are caretakers of and practitioners in something that is heading the other way.  It may well be that photography as a deliberate, self-consciously separate practice will become a museum art-form about as vibrant and relevant to the world as etching or calligraphy, even as photograph-using itself continues its phenomenal expansion.  We need a new vocabulary to deal with this.  There’s the phenomenal use of pictures, and there’s photography as a self-conscious practice.  They aren’t congruent anymore.

Camera-use (or picture use) does indeed change everything.  The title of the book is ambitious, but not wrong. In a number of short passages, professionals explain how photography has affected their businesses.  In almost all cases, they make clear that photography is not incidental or marginal to what they do.  Photography tends to act virally, appearing in each new domain often in a quite restricted role, fulfilling a function.  But that grows until whole specialities now revolve around the application of photography within fields which used to get along quite well without it. “In ophthalmology, “ writes Michael P. Kelly,  “You can’t treat what you can’t see.  When ophthalmic photography went from being documentary to being diagnostic it changed the practice of ophthalmology and subsequently saved the vision of millions of people worldwide.”  And it’s not just in specific slots in our society that photography has come to dominate: it’s everywhere.  A good essay by the film-maker John Waters includes the line ”Today, if you’re outside your house, you’re in a movie, whether you like it or not.”

The Smithsonian, as many-headed a hydra as there is in the museum business, was the ideal host.  As the editor noticed, photography is held and used in the Smithsonian in departments from Anthropology to Zoology.

Anthurus Borealis by George F. Atkinson, 1905.Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium

Anthurus Borealis by George F. Atkinson, 1905.
Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium

One mildly silly essay acknowledges the contribution of early twentieth century field guides to the spread of mushroom collecting. “Mushrooms stay where they grow or are put,” writes Nancy Smith Weber, “A welcome attribute for photographers.”  As though photographers hadn’t found solutions to problems substantially more taxing than that.

Bob Rogers, Robert & Boat, August 1956.

Bob Rogers, Robert & Boat, August 1956.

A funny essay by Bob Rogers describes how his father accelerated his immigrant’s experience in America: “In 1956, in the summer of my eighth year… we passed a house where a small boat on a trailer was parked in the driveway… “Wouldn’t it be great to have one?”, I asked. “Here,” he said, handing me the camera in its brown leather case.  He started to walk over to the boat.  I was very upset.  It was not our boat; it was trespassing. We would get into trouble.  He dismissed my concerns…He propped himself up against the gunwale of the boat in the manner of nineteenth century photos of gentlemen in top hats resting their elbows on a pile of classic books they never read, stacked spines out, on a short, stage-prop Greek column.” “ Take my picture”, he said. … In this spirit he would regularly pose me with tennis-playing acquaintances, racket in hand by the net, looking uncomfortable on a court dedicated to a game I was never taught to play; holding golf-clubs I had no idea how to use; on the backs of polo ponies I couldn’t ride… At the time I had no idea why he wanted such pictures. He never wanted to own a boat.”

There are serious essays and slight ones, all very short.  Predictably, and happily, the quality varies from one to the next, keeping the reader awake and alert to the occasional lapse into muddled thinking or special pleading.  It adds up very well to what it says on the can:  Photography does indeed really seem to change everything.

But there’s just one thing.  There are a few photographers in the book, beavering away among the host of camera operators.  And nowhere, nowhere at all, does any of the nearly eighty essayists suggest that photographers change everything.  None of them even suggests that photographers change anything.  The operation of cameras does, photographers don’t.  There’s a thought.

7 thoughts on “Photography Changes Everything

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  3. This is a great post. I’ve already got the book and am thoroughly enjoying it. And this is a very thoughtful response to it. There’s too little critical analysis of this sort, and we need more of it if we’re to make some sense, even if briefly, of the shifting terrain of ‘photography’. More power to your ‘pen’ sir. Thanks.

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  6. Great piece, Francis. Utterly agree with you. We’ve had our differences about photos – specifically modern Beaton prints (!), but it seems we actually share many similar opinions. Pop into my new gallery one day. Giles

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