I just recently read an article on the New York Times website, and it made me think about something I was discussing with my students yesterday: How autofocus and automatic cameras were going to make professional photographers obsolete because everyone could rely on the camera to take sharp and well-exposed pictures. Happily, this has not done so, because the issues of content, composition, lighting, etc. that cannot be done automatically (yet!). A person still has to make creative decisions when the make a photograph, despite all the automatic features and functions that cameras have these days.
However, as is discussed in this article, by James Estrin, the idea of what makes a photograph successful has certainly changed, because of the new(ish) technology of “liking” an image, or giving an image a “+1”. By defining a “good” photograph the way we have via social media, we may have started to lose the idea of what actually constitutes a good photograph. And we certainly are not rewarding the photographers who take good pictures as much as we used to.
However, what I think this really shows is the, well, ignorance, or the carelessness of the general public as to what makes a good photograph. There’s nothing wrong with baby pictures or blurry pictures a cute child. But they’re probably not a “good” photograph. What we react to with that kind of photograph is the content, and the reaction is purely emotional, and usually does not take into account the photographer’s skill, the composition, or anything like that.
I liken it a lot to the success of certain movies that are, by all accounts, plain and simple crap, where as beautiful and thoughtful movies are resigned to small, short runs at indie art theaters and make almost no money. A perfect example are the scores of horrendous and poorly done slasher/horror films that have very little skill in them. I’m relatively young, but it’s been a long time since I saw a movie that came even close to the likes of Alien or Jaws.
Photography is no different. If we look at a photograph and simply judge what we like based upon the objects that are in the photograph, not the skill inherit in the photograph itself, we essential are, little by little, telling our society what we want; which is simple, crappy photos. We accept these images because they’re easy to make, and because our friends and relatives make them. We “like” them because of the simple emotional reaction we have to them, not thinking about whether or not they are a good photograph. The end result is that we make mundane and poorly-made photographs more popular in our media today than good photos. We don’t revere good photography like I remember as a kid, and I also think that most people don’t aspire to try and make better photographs.
It all comes down to rewards. It’s conditioning. By indiscriminately hitting the “like” button, in a vain attempt to like and be liked in our virtual society, we cheapen the entire idea of what a “good” photograph really is.
My favorite quote from the article above says it very nicely:
“A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel.”