The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming — Three Dot Lounge for Photography, September 2, 2015

Stephen Mayes has written an essay The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming in the August 25, 2015 issue of Time magazine. The basic premise of the essay is that photography has changed so much in the last few years it’s no longer photography, and so we have to start calling it something else.

His argument is frankly almost inhoherent and is so muddled it’s hard to figure out how to really rebut this, but let me try (for another take on responding to it check out John Nack).

I’m old enough to remember when Yosemite had the firefall, the Ahwahnee had a golf course (seriously. Look it up. I played it as a kid) and Mirror Lake was a lake, and to keep it natural and pristine and as it was supposed to be, they installe mud sluices and occasionally brought in heavy equipment to dredge it — in the name of keeping it natural. Eventually saner minds took over and got over the idea that “natural” involved freezing it in time and they’ve been letting the lake slowly turn into the meadow it always wanted to be and was destined to be, until man looked upon it and decided that what they was what it always had to be.

Mayes view of photography seems similar; he’s got a specific worldview of what a “straight (aka ‘real’) photograph” is, and all this digital stuff is messing that up by causing things to change, and because of that, what’s happening now and what’s going to happen as these changes continue won’t really be photography; at least, not as he chooses to define it.

The flaw in this logic is immense. As Nack pointed out, photography has always been a craft and art driven by technology, and that technology has always been changing and improving and/or mutating the results.

Just in my time in photography I can think of a number of points where we could have stopped and declared the end of “straight photography” much as Mayes is declaring it now. When I was young and naive, photography was about handloading Tri-X, manual cameras and long hours sucking in the fumes of the high school dark room. If you weren’t developing your own film, it wasn’t considered “serious” photography, it was the stuff familes took at Disneyland (using Kodacolor) and left off at the drug store. Almost no images in newspapers were color — and what most people saw about photos regularly was black and white. Overtime, color took over and black and white got shoved into a niche it’s never quite crawled out of again.

Speaking of color, for a long, long time, serious photographers and pros used Kodachrome, and then Fuji came out with Velvia, and if you were around at the time, you probably remember the fights over that film and its much more vivid saturation. There were those that proclaimed it a sin against true photography, while others adopted and used it with enthusiasm — in retrospect, sometimes to excess. But if you look at photography today, the vibrant color and saturation of Velvia has won out over the more muted tonalities and restrained colors of Kodachrome.

I wonder what Galen Rowell would think of the declaration that this is the end of “serious photography” — or Ansel Adams, or Ed Weston. Why is the end of “serious photography” now, and not with the invention of the SLR instead of the view camera? Or the view camera instead of wet colloidon plates (which replaced daguerrotypes) or when they were replaced by dry gelatin?

The point is this: photography has been in constant technological change for over 150 years, and if you took a photography anywhere along that timeline and showed them what photography was capable of 30 years later, it would be both very familiar and completely new to them — and then they’d be likely to mug you for the gear and take it home with them.

So by definition any argument that “things are changing now and so what I know and love is dead” is a failed one, and it fails by its ignorance or (or willful refusal to include) the history of the field.

Seventeen year old me loved the technical aspects of hauling around Tri-X and then coaxing good images out of it with hours in the darkroom, but to be honest, today me looks back at those days (and the fumes) and looks at the kind of images even a basic point and shoot or iPhone gets people images that pros 25 years ago would have killed for.

The fact is that photography has and continues to change, but that change is a continuum going back a century and a half and more. It’s been made accessible to the common person and released from the confines of the technical guild hall, which is a problem only if your self-worth or source of income requires it to be locked up and controlled by that guild.

Photography has been in this ever-growing renaissance for 30 or more years now, and is reaching a fascinating crescendo, and to me, the issue isn’t that it’s changed so much that we sohuldn’t be calling it photography, but instead the fascinating of wondering what the field will be like in 30 years — and hoping to be around to see what that is.

My final thought to Mayes is that the thing he is complaining about isn’t about digital photography or the digital darkroom, because those are just the latest steps in a journey that the field has been taking for well over a century. If you don’t understand that, you should be studying the field, not writing essays about it.

Myself, I love the changes and improvements and possibilities,a dn I choose not to complain about those or worry about what they mean to the future, but to embrace them and try to make the future happen.

Thoughts on the Sony A7RII

The A7RII is out, and so the reviews are pouring in. Most of the reviews are in the really positive to “oh, wow” range, such as one at Lensrentals or DxOMark’s 98 score.

I think Marco Arment’s take on the camera nicely summarizes what I think the typical user of this camera will think: he loves it. It takes great pictures.

But as you read through the reviews, you can find an undercurrnt of, I don’t know, mild discontent. As if people are trying to find reasons to not love the camera. It has a common scent to me, that of a newly released product that was the subject of massive anticipation and hype, and people without even realizing it trying to convince themselves that it doesn’t live up to the hype. People who’ve followed Apple product releases over the decade will be very familiar with that reaction.

Ming Thein published his take on the camera, rightly flagging it as less review and more reaction. It is, I think, one of the outlier pieces on the camera and he frames it early on by adding the phrase “Fanboys should stop reading now. There are uncomfortable truths contained within this post” to it.

And despite that setup, it’s not a particularly negative review. He’s found muddiness in the shadows (which may actually be something that can/will be tweaked in Adobe Camera Raw, something similar to what we saw with first gen raw processing of the Fuji sensor there), and some texture noise.

And mostly, I think, there’s something about that camera that just doesn’t click with him, and his writing implies they are similar to issues he had with the previous generation Sony A7R. I really recommend you read his piece on the camera, I think it puts it into perspective wonderfully and his arguments and thoughts are well reasoned and carefully made.

I think the real point he made is this: some cameras and some platforms just click with some people and not with others. it’s pretty clear Sony doesn’t fully click with him. I’d looked at some of the mirrorless micro 4/3 units and prints over time and didn’t see anything that made me even remotely want to change from Canon — until I got my hands on the Fuji sensor, and the first images out of that camera just blew me away and I fell in love with the results. There’s nothing remotely objective or technical about that, for all I can talk about the purity of the greens and the detail and texture in the images what really mattered was I just loved how the camera felt in my hands and the images that came out of it looked the way I always wanted my Canon images to look.

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer has talked about this, and I think he’s absolutely right. Without saying we should ignore the technical aspects of the camera, I don’t judge a camera by its DxOMark and I don’t make buying decisions based on what DPReview says. To me, it’s ultimately how the image looks on my wall after I’ve printed it out at 11×17. If a camera can make an image that I love printing at that size and want to live with every day, and if that camera is comfortable in my hand and I can make it do what I need without wasting time or losing shots fighting with it, then to me, that’s the camera I want.

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About Three Dot Lounge for Photography

Three Dot Lounge for Photography is an email newsletter that collects interesting things that catch my attention having to do improving your craft with a camera and in the digital darkroom.

Three Dot Lounge is written and produced by Chuq Von Rospach, a bird and landscape photography based out of Silicon Valley who enjoys exploring the western united states in search of his next favorite image.

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