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Monday, February 11, 2013

Sufficiently advanced technology 3

Sufficiently advanced technology*

I borrowed Don's camera to take pictures in the back yard. It not only took great shots but the darn thing puts the pictures' meta-data** all rolled into the jpg format. Camera model, date, time, place...more information than I am aware of myself, half the time. Isn't technology wonderful? No more working out "Well that must have been the Thursday before Easter..." or burning a digital date on the "film".

Only a few decades ago you would have needed a lot of money, time and an assistant to carry all the gear to get shots like that. Not to mention processing the "film". I am impressed with the advances in relatively cheap cameras, the software to use and manipulate images and the ease with which a total beginner like me can make pictures that are really quite pleasing.

I asked someone recently, "What is left for the professional photographer to do?"

The story goes like this: when I was young (about 100 years ago and far away) most families owned cameras and would take "snaps". Generally the father of the family did this. Then there was the process of taking the sealed film container out of the camera (some skill needed here) and to the "chemist's" for processing and printing (for some reason, many pharmacists seemed to do photographic processing, probably to do with inhaling dangerous chemicals.) Then everyone waited several weeks. The pictures were good quality (if they turned out) although expensive. There were also camera shops where you could get more expensive processing and better film, if people were interested. When colour film and processing came along, the price increase was so large that many resisted the change for a surprisingly long time.

There were many professional photographers. From the guys who would stand around at seaside resorts taking quick shots of passing holidaymakers, to the wedding album specialists, all the way to the professional photographic artists. There must have been many, many corner store-type processing labs and darkrooms. Mostly this was because the equipment was expensive and the training to use it properly was not that easy. If you were a serious enthusiast, you could buy the tanks, solutions, washing lines, enlargers and suchlike and do a reasonable job, but it took a long time to get good at it and it was tedious. Not for people like me who are into instant gratification.

When I was a teenager there came the mail-order photo "lab" - you sent your film away, and in 2-3 weeks colour prints came back and, they gave you a free replacement film! This impressed so many people so much that they didn't notice that the processing quality was low, the printing was poor and the results pretty awful. What mattered was that it was cheap; half the price of the colour film alternative. Now, 40 years later those pictures have turned a funny orangey colour, when 70 year-old black and white shots are unchanged. The processing and printing was largely automatic and centralized because the equipment was hugely expensive.

The corner store labs died. Some photographic stores went upscale, most closed down. When automatic processing machines became cheaper, some stores bought them and continued working, however the big box stores now built photo labs in their premises. There was still residual send-away processing from small shops in small towns, but the war of technology had reached the clipper-ship technological pinnacle of film: I take my film to a person who inserts it in a machine and a few minutes later out come the prints.

The professional photographers were now the wedding and portrait guys, news photographers, and the artists. Considerable training was still required to guarantee results - you had to capture the shot right there and know that it would work.

Then came digital cameras. Ten years later film has now died. People have moved to using lightweight, forgiving and cheap cameras. We put the pictures on a computer and up-load then to the " so-called cloud." This happens automatically with some 'smart' phones. We print them only if really needed.

The machines are doing the work now. It takes next to no knowledge or training to understand how to do this, especially in the context where many people have some computer access. And you see the results immediately. If it doesn't work, you do it again.

A gifted amateur can do a very decent job of taking wedding photos or family portraits. A professional will do better, but not so much that one is actually needed. The barrier to entry in this field is much lower. Most of this kind of photographer had better have a second source of income.

News photographers were probably next to go. In spite of the excesses of the so-called paparazzi, when the camera-phone is ubiquitous, the price paid for that unique shot is going to be lower, especially when the shot can be cleaned up using software. Enthusiastic amateurs are everywhere and the professional is out of a job. That is, completely apart from the threat that came from decline of print media where every newspaper used to have one or more photographers on staff.

What remains is the photograph as art. Most photographic artists have always struggled. Technology may lower the bar to the making of images and software manipulation does make it a lot easier to implement a vision, but the vision is still unique. We will get many more gifted photographic artists as a result.

Competition will make it harder for anyone to become a full-time artist and get paid, but the ones that make it will probably be better. And the globalization of media means that the maker of any brilliant image can become famous. Here are some artists I find interesting (no particular order):

* Arthur C. Clarke, English science fiction writer:  "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
** meta-data - information about a thing that contains information, that is, a photograph.

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