Monday, July 10, 2006

Broken Eggs, or Omelets?

Having perused various photography discussion forums it becomes evident that photography, as a broad field of image making, is becoming more fragmented and categorized. This fragmentation becomes manifested as diverse areas of specialization, genres of particular and unique fields of endeavor, often enhanced by specialist discussion forums.

We see examples of this in fora dedicated to specialized or peculiar cameras: pinhole, DIY (Do It Yourself), rangefinders, medium format, large format, ultra-large format, toy, subminiature format, folding, antique, plate, 35mm; specialized photographic processes: digital, analog, black and white, color, enlargements, contact prints, Polaroid, infrared, alternative processes (gum oil, cyanotype, gum bichromate, carbro, wet plate collodion, daguerreotype, salted paper, albumen, bromoil, collotype, platinum, palladium, Van Dyke, etc.); specialized usage modes: landscape, documentary/street, portrait, glamour, still-life, sports, weddings and events, photojournalism, advertising, snapshot, fine art, etc.

Some would argue that this breaking apart of photography into numerous specialized fields implies a process of fragmentation that is evidence of the decline of the medium. This argument is reinforced by the numerous and often tiresome "flame wars" that erupt over the issue of digital verses analog, for instance.

As an aside, it must be mentioned that discussions of digital verses analog are not necessarily intrinsically useless arguments; the problem arises when people unschooled in the finer points of media studies attempt to insert opinion for fact, or simply speak on subjects of which they have little or no practical experience.

In an attempt to gain further understanding, I would like now to compare the current state of photographic media with the marketing end of the automotive industry. In the year 1930, a person who desired to purchase an automobile had few choices. The choices were usually a Ford model A, and one could choose any color car as long as that color was black.

Contrast this with the current state of the automotive industry. Not only are there other brands to choose from besides Ford, but there is a virtually uncountable assortment of various models and styles and colors to choose from. The industry has also stratified the model selections into large-scale categories, such as "Sport Utility Vehicle", or "Mini-Van", or "Subcompact", or "Mini-SUV".

The automotive industry is not only a mature, post-industrial phenomenon, but it has succeeded, despite its problems, to infiltrate the very fabric of western culture. The individual in American culture is more dependant than ever before on the culture of the automobile as a vital necessity for engagement in activities essential to a successful lifestyle. The stratification of models and features illustrates, not the decline of the industry, but its very success.

And so it is, I believe, with the photography field. Our society is awash in image making, and new tools and usage models for image making appear almost daily. We have witnessed, over the last forty years, the decline of the photo-pictorial magazine spread, but this has only been a displacement. What has taken its place has been the rise of television imagery, and now internet-based imagery, all of which is essentially photographic in nature. New tools, such as cell-phone cameras, make possible photographic image capture and distribution at a pace unparalleled in history.

The division of photography into specialist fields of interest therefore represents, not the fracturization and decline of a medium, but rather the enculturation of the medium into the very fabric of contemporary life. We have become an image-making culture. No longer does a person have to pick up a camera and take on the mantle of photographer in order to create photographic images; the ability to create images is now embedded in the commonly used, everyday devices at hand, such that image making, and image sharing, has become second nature. Image and culture have become one.

We are the eye of the public eye.~


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