How Art became a victim of the Digital Age


Every artist secretly wants to continue doing what they love doing, and in doing so, they also hope to have the funds to continue this endeavor. 
I find it difficult to call myself an artist these days. Though never poor of talent but never rich enough to conquer the inevitable challenges of a chosen path. Everywhere I go these days, people talk of art for art sake, and how they have been robbed of their creation thanks to the digital world we live in. Take for example, Prince, who died recently and absolutely refuse to let people use his music unless it was paid for in some way. Or for that matter, artist photographers who are routinely called photoshop hacks because nothing they do is ever good enough for an audience fed on a steady stream of fake digital photos. 

What about the aging artist continue to struggle to get their work noticed, not that they are not any good but have yet to be discovered by social media. Then there are the craftsmen, who do what they do because of skill and technique and will never attain the merits of being an artist. 

Photography is no different. Photographic art sells, but for that you need to be a desktop artist and not one operating a digital camera. 

It's hard to justify the worth of a picture these days if it is shot in digital. I remember a time when being a photographer was a hardskill that had to be applied creatively. You need to know about the various types of film, how to develop it in a darkroom and how to print and dodge it with a enlarger. The chemicals were different, color negs, positive film, b/w and let's not forget about the type of paper used in the darkroom printing process. If a client want to blow up a picture to poster wall size, they come back to you and you have to find a good lab to do that. This was craftsmanship at its finest. 

Photographers were artist in the time of analogue film. They were admired and respected. The craftsmen of the photo trade also existed of course but they were not in high demand. These were the journeymen of the industry. Photographers who mastered the art of analog photography only developed those one of a kind prints. It wasn't something you'd find off a line printer because developing it on print also took a certain kind of skill. 
Today, the darkroom is a computer and the art is the digital filters you can dial in through Instagram or a camera app that works on your iPhone. 

Then the Internet came Along....

Digital is the way to go. There is nothing more to learn beyond processing it on a computer, which you must own of course, and with the right software...available free online if you know where to find it. What's more mobile apps offer you the chance to dial in those enhancements to photos with minimum skill. Want a sepia effect? Just ante up on that in-app purchase if you don't already have it. Digital has leveled the playing field so anyone with a smartphone can be a photographer. Even Steve McCurry, an ambassador of sorts for photojournalism declared he is no longer a photojournalist but a visual story teller. He switched places and got a whole lot of flak for this

Digital Photography is a non skill judging from the low expectations of both clients and photographers. If you try to explain the complex digital procedures during a shoot, they will laugh at you. Got a problem? The use Photoshop to solve it. For this, you need to be skilled in Photoshop....and talent hasn't got anything to do with it. It is a matter of skill on how you brush in or brush out a subject. You need to illuminate a certain area of a picture, you just dial in the overexposed in photoshop. You become a keyboard jockey once you learn all the hot keys needed to perform this on the fly. 

Lighting is very easy to learn these days with the instant results you get from digital filters and enhancements. Got a studio with strobes? Even simpler! Shoot each frame and compare the lighting exposure. It takes a fraction of a second for a frame to be shot and if you can't get it right after 3 shots, you got to be autistic. It was different in the days of analog. Even after taking exposure readings, you had to bracket the frame (three shots) to be safe. There is no fall back if exposure is wrong.

For years, Kodak and Fujifilm had to teach people how to use their film, and even held seminars for professional photographers. I attended them in my time and that's when the manual cameras were going out of fashion. People switched to all automatic film cameras but thanks to the film stocks, you could never be sure you have a hit or miss because Kodachrome behaved differently than negative film. So it was back to manual controls. I started to appreciate photography because it was complicated and knew that if I picked it up, it would go well with my writing. Yes, I started writing for newspapers and magazines using a manual know the sort that had actual physical keys which hammered a thin film of ink ribbon to paper. With a film camera in my bag, I was a photojournalist as well. How times have changed now that everything you want to do can be performed from the comfort of a Starbucks cafe with free WIFI and your smartphone. Everything you write or photograph can be up in social media in a matter of minutes. 

How Digital Killed the Analog Star

Did I shoot using Kodachrome? Yes I did. It was a bitch to learn to use but I picked it up after countless failures. Each time I got a package in the mail (you had to send it overseas for developing), my fingers could not contain the excitement as the postman rung the door bell to tell me I had mail.

Kodachrome was a hidden art that few photographers would learn to use in their lifetime. Casual photographers would never turn to Kodachrome as learning it was a trial by fire. You see, there are no sample shots you can look at or metadata to refer to. Each time you took a shot, you jot down the exposure data. The scene had to be remembered in your head as when your Kodachrome slides came back, you had to remember why it didn't turn out the way you remembered it. That was how difficult it was but you could pick that up if you spent time learning about film stocks and its nuances.

These days everything in photography has to do with economics and there is nothing Nikon and Canon can do to change that. First, I have been shooting for over 20 years, on film, instant and now digital, worked with some of the best photographers in the world and now seen how photography has taken on new meaning with digital thrown in.

Economics is what determines the success of any type of technology and for digital, the same is true for users who buy into those thousand dollar equipment in the hope of making it professionally.

It ain't easy making a living with digital equipment. Think of the investment, then think of the returns and you know why digital has been a difficult value point. Nikon and Canon want you to spend more money on equipment, buy more lenses, upgrade to new camera bodies every 12 to 18 months. 

Rapid Growth before a Decline

Digital DSLRs saw rapid growth from 2006 onwards, before tapering off in 2011, the trend now is to headed south, thanks largely to mobile smartphones.

I must say that I don't use a DSLR to shoot anymore. There is no reason to as I don't shoot professionally for anyone. Even when I do, I try to capture everything on a mobile device. Why? Coz it's a hobby. I turn down request to shoot because the pay is far too little and I am not in the mood to compete with people who flash around hefty DSLRs. Besides, taking a good photo is not difficult. If you know how to position your camera in view of the scene before you, you'd get a picture. It is not rocket science. Digital makes it real easy for you to get an idiot proof instant result that you can share with the world on Instagram.

DSLRs are great to have. Good to use if you find paying clients but these days, the only paying clients are those in wedding, commercial events or products and news. Even photojournalism doesn't pay enough to warrant you to take up a hefty insurance tab from Lloyds of London and going out to a war zone to make money shooting images. It's much cheaper for the news agencies to hire the locals from the war zone. Pay them peanuts too.

Does the world remember the last conflict photojournalist who fell in the line of duty? No. The world at large doesn't much give two hoots about who died photographing a war because digital images are apparently worthless beyond a use by date. Those who have died in Syria, Iraq, Libya....will be forgotten.

Digital pictures are passed around like a cheap hooker and after constant use as memes, would you even pay to enter an art gallery to see the real picture from the one you find on the web?

Would I have given two hoots about a photographer who gets beheaded on a YouTube video? Nope. I really have no business to care. People die all the time and I hope it was worth your entertainment because the real pictures from a war zone isn't worth much these days.

Pictures are Sold as Royalty Free

Yes, I have sold my pictures online. All of them are royalty free. Rights managed photos don't sell well because, well, they are expensive. 

These days, people rarely buy photos which are rights managed for print advertising. And I have pointed this out before when competing brands sometimes stumble on the same image and these gets used in a newspaper advert....both at the same time. 

Turn to the internet, and you would be inundated with offers to royalty free stock image libraries that sell loads of photos for one flat price. 

Crowd sourcing single use photos are now popular. A brand name yogurt company can now do away with a dedicated photo shoot with a commercial photography when they dangle an offer to the crowd sourcing community to produce a picture they can use online and in print. The cost? maybe in the region of 300 to 500 USD. WTF? A commercial photographer would charge 4 times as much to produce that same photo. Now you see the difference?

And if you have good skills on photoshop, you can make those royalty free images even better by removing the background brand names on the city streets and replacing them with less obvious signs. This is what you need to do to sell a five dollar royalty free stock photo. 

The Future is in Limited Prints

Digital photos are retouched, it's like a model whose had a ton of plastic surgery done on her. Film photos can be digitally scanned and enhanced, but you can still buy the real thing, a print from an analog negative. That's the real deal. No hocus pocus with Photoshop.

Iconic photo prints from analog film are going to be collectables one day. Just like the ones that was used to shoot Steve Jobs for the book. Both pictures featured in the book were taken on analog film. So who gets the last laugh? Certainly not the digital photographer.

Today, people keep photo albums on Flickr and Google Photos. No one even prints photos anymore. I have a family album which I pieced together and this is for those who wish to remember me when I am gone. But for the rest of you on digital, your digital account dies with you. Forgotten as though cobwebs had obscured your digital account. I don't even have digital photos of my best friend who died seven years ago, just a memory of his email address. And if a friend had a Facebook account, his profile will be put in cold storage if left inactive for more than a year. The memory of the dead will not stay alive on Facebook.

An iconic analog print photo signed and autographed will be an investment. That is art. It increases in value over time. The other stuff shot on digital, not so. 

Photography has evolved into the fast food business—and anyone can learn to make a burger from scratch at McDonalds. Make of that what you will....