These days sure seem like a golden age of photography, don’t they? All these slim iPhones and stout digital SLRs sporting near-infinite memories and built-in photo processing, with first Flickr and Facebook and now Instagram and Snapchat giving more and more practised photographers a place to display more and more pictures.
Can anyone deny that digital photography embodies the now-universal hobby of self-expression, even a new consciousness – an all-visual lingua franca to better display the deepest meanings of human existence?
Except that it doesn’t. If my recent experience as a judge in an international photography competition is any evidence, our jones for digital photography is – with rare exceptions – a form of neurotic masturbation, fuelled by an unstoppable sense of technological entitlement.
I fear for organizations such as the Chicago Sun-Times, which last month laid off all of its camera pros in favour of cheaper, crowd-sourced iPhonography. They will get what they pay for.
This spring, I was an adjudicator of the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival photography competition. This week, my three fellow judges – all professional photographers and curators – and I announced that we couldn’t find a winner, and won’t be awarding a prize for the first time in 18 years. There isn’t even a runner-up.
The contest required photographers to submit striking and well-composed images to tell a visual story, a photo essay, about wildlife or wilderness – important subjects on our climate-challenged Earth. The gold standard for photo essays was established by Life magazine in the 1950s, and is sustained to this day by National Geographic and what is left of agencies such as the famous Magnum Photos collective.
We saw more than 500 entries. Not one of them did the job. The interesting question is why. Human beings have taken an estimated 3.5 trillion photographs since the first snapshot, of a Paris street, appeared in 1838. As many as 20 per cent were uploaded in the past two years. Why are most of them so forgettable?
Lost in digital translation
Our jury gazed upon any number of beautiful images: astonishing pictures of the aurora borealis, climbers in Peru, mountains in China, of bears and bobcats and birds both here and abroad. We saw technically brilliant photographs, superbly (or, more often, overly) Photoshopped. But none of them managed to tell the simplest of stories.
A story is a cohesive account of events in which something is at stake – a beginning, middle and end tied together with characters, scenes and details (long shots, mid-shots, closeups) that lead to a climax and resolution (or not).
Even the entries that were remotely in the neighbourhood of telling a story – and most were hopelessly lost – were edited incomprehensibly. (Not experimentally. Incomprehensibly.) In other words, the best photographic sequences taken by amateur and professional wilderness photographers alike had no perceptible story, and therefore no significance.
Conrad Habing, one of my co-judges, a former fine-art photographer who has since turned to painting, dubbed it “an incredible surge in mediocrity.” The entrants “were trying to make up for a lack of vision with a bag of tricks” – vision being “a point of view that says something about yourself.”
Another judge, Craig Richards – an internationally exhibited photographer, and the curator of photography at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies – was even blunter: “People take photographs because they can, not because they should.”
Like Mary Ellen Mark, the renowned New York documentary photographer who has shot everyone from Don Ameche to Lou Reed, Mr. Richards still shoots on black-and-white film. “When I’m shooting film, I have a finite number of images,” he said. “And I really have to think about what I’m shooting. And this is where I think we’re going: People no longer have to think.”
He put it down to the habits created by TV and other fetch-all technology: “Instead of looking at something, we’d rather sit down and have it entertain us.”