Casualties of Progress

The following article is based on one originally published in On Landscape Magazine. It is my hope that readers who appreciate high-quality content, hand-picked by photography-savvy editors, and free of advertising, consider subscribing to independent, subscriber-supported publications of this kind.

Unfortunately what we call progress is nothing but the invasion of bipeds who do not rest until they have transformed everything into hideous quays with gas lamps—and, what is still worse, with electric illumination. What times we live in! ~Paul Cézanne

It seems odd that, at a time when photography is more popular and more widely practiced than ever, and on the heels of some of the greatest advances in photographic technology, some adamantly proclaim that photography is dead. More bizarre is that fact that we continue to see such baiting headlines despite the fact that similar proclamations were made many times in the past, often in times of marked increases in the popularity and ease of making photographs, and proven false time and again.

Clearly, in the minds of some, photography has lost some of its luster for a variety reasons—whether it is the ease and abundance of phone cameras or the proliferation of selfie-sticks; or because someone paid an egregious amount of money for a picture of a potato; or because someone tried to hype a common image of an oft-photographed view as an original masterpiece of fine art. To those perturbed by such things I suggest considering a simple question, which is this: why should these have any bearing on the way that you practice photography?

Sometimes, as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. In 1899, around the time when Kodak began mass-producing inexpensive and easy-to-use cameras, Alfred Stieglitz—the preeminent American photographer of his day—noticed a similar trend. He wrote, “the placing in the hands of the general public a means of making pictures with but little labor and requiring less knowledge has of necessity been followed by the production of millions of photographs. It is due to this fatal facility that photography as a picture-making medium has fallen into disrepute in so many quarters.”

But Stieglitz was a visionary who dedicated much of his life to the promotion of photography as an art form. He followed with this statement, which is as relevant today as it was when written almost 120 years ago: “Nothing could be farther from the truth than this, and in the photographic world to‐day there are recognized but three classes of photographers—the ignorant, the purely technical, and the artistic. To the pursuit, the first bring nothing but what is not desirable; the second, a purely technical education obtained after years of study; and the third bring the feeling and inspiration of the artist, to which is added afterward the purely technical knowledge. This class devote the best part of their lives to the work, and it is only after an intimate acquaintance with them and their productions that the casual observer comes to realize the fact that the ability to make a truly artistic photograph is not acquired offhand, but is the result of an artistic instinct coupled with years of labor.”

I doubt if Stieglitz, in his wildest dreams, could have predicted just how much more popular photography would become in the age of digital cameras, the Internet, and smart phones. Still, I believe that his analysis remains true: venerable photography has nothing to do with technology or popularity, and everything to do with feelings, inspiration, study, and hard work; as well as the photographer’s temperament and commitment to making meaningful work.

While photography is far from dead—and perhaps more alive today than ever—it undoubtedly has changed, at least in the ways it is most commonly practiced. The mainstream is not what it used to be, but then again when was it ever? Such is the nature of progress. Indeed, for all its benefits, the Internet also became a medium for narcissistic self-promotion; and fostered virtual photographic communities, some of which promote an atmosphere of competition and rancor that profoundly affects how people present and view photographs, and their motivations for creating them. Yet it remains true that each of us has a choice in how, and why, we practice our own photography. Regardless of the popularity of some locations or visual gimmicks; and regardless of those “influencers” who paint the world and photography as but an arena for marketing, competition, celebrity, and profiteering; each of us also has the freedom to break with the herd and to look inward for meaning; to study and explore; and to seek things, ideas, relationships and feelings worthy of creative expression.

Whether such expressions are created using a smart phone or a view camera or any other technology ultimately is of secondary importance, and in some cases of no importance at all. Certainly, some photographic devices are easier to use than others, and each has its own innate qualities, but the real challenges—and the most rewarding ones—for a creative photographer, are those that cannot be shortcut by technology of any sort.

No amount of automation can substitute for the work and time needed to evolve one’s visual vocabulary—to learn and to explore what can be expressed in an image. No computerized algorithm can replace the work needed in order to discover, to conceive, to invent, and to create work that is subjective and meaningful, nor the joys, reflections, and personal growth that ensue out of such pursuits. Making a properly focused, exposed, and processed image, using any technology, ultimately is a much smaller and less impressive feat in comparison.

It is often said that the camera is “just a tool,” but I believe that there is more to it than that. The camera’s greatest power is not in making easier the task of capturing an image, but in its ability to serve as not just a tool, but as an expressive tool—that is, a tool capable of giving tangible form to one’s inner thoughts and feelings; and in doing so also inspire one to think creatively, to conceive and to articulate meaningful intuitions.

When one simply opts to use the camera as a recording device for objective appearances, certainly he or she may produce images of great beauty and popularity, but it is doubtful that such creations will have the same depth and meaning, nor elicit the same pride and satisfaction that are found in truly creative work. Zen master D.T. Suzuki wrote, “When mountain-climbing is made too easy, the spiritual effect the mountain exercises vanishes into the air.” And likewise, in photography as in any creative pursuit, there is such a thing as too much ease.

Regrettably, what we often consider progress refers to advancement in such things as greater ease, greater automation, greater resolution, and other objective measures, rather than the quality of one’s subjective experience and the elevation of the spirit. And while these in themselves are not bad things by any means, they make it both possible and tempting to take shortcuts; to settle for lesser goals, such as popularity and trophy-hunting, at the expense of more profound accomplishments requiring a greater investment of time, work, study, reflection, and exploration.

It is not the death of photography that we should be worried about—photography is alive and thriving. We should be worried about the diminishing of life experiences—substituting virtual ones for direct encounters with the world; we should be worried about promoting the idea that ease and competition are adequate alternative for contemplation, self-examination, and creativity.

If we do not condemn such attitudes, evidence suggests that photography will continue to evolve toward more conformism, more competition, more narcissism, and more preoccupation with technical minutiae, to the detriment of inspiration, discovery, creativity, experience, study, and self-expression.

You may conclude that photography is dead if you allow your perception of it to be colored by the whims of social pundits, fashions, or sensational headlines; but you don’t have to. Ultimately, your photography is as alive as you are; as inspired as you are; as original as you are; and as creative as you are. Take your camera, whatever it may be, and go experience the world in person rather than through the (sometimes grotesquely distorted) filter of “social” media, and as you do so seek ways to express those things you find most worthy. Don’t allow the greatest joys to be found in wonder, beauty, and creative expression to become casualties of so-called progress.

Fond Memory

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4 thoughts on “Casualties of Progress

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  1. Guy, I have so enjoyed this and other articles you have written. What you said about seeing the world through the filter of social media strikes a bell. Nothing replaces getting out there with or without a camera for that matter and smelling the air, feeling the sun or the cold, listening to the sound of the river song. Taking time to contemplate how we fit into this universe, and then potentially bringing back a photo to share that embodies the spirit of the place.
    I think many of the greatest photographers are also great philosophers with and attunement to the natural world.

  2. Guy,

    Read, and read again.Riveting. Came away motivated to keep at my writing desk. You’ve raised the bar with your thought: “We should be worried about the diminishing of life experiences—substituting virtual ones for direct encounters with the world.”

    Gassho. Jim

  3. Thanks Guy for another thoughful article. We,humans,are so nostalgic creatures and prone to lament a so called golden era when, instead, we should rejoice of what powerful tools are put in our hands to help us create the fruit of our vision and imagination. There so much noise out there, don’t let it silence our inner voice.

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