Photography since 9/11

“Our sense of the world is now ruled and shaped by images…” ~ Susan Sontag, 2003

So much about our world has changed since September 11th 2001.  Not only have world events transformed our sense of security and our place in the world, but also our understanding of ourselves has been changed by the proliferation of digital cameras since 2002 when cell phone cameras were first introduced in the United States.

Photography since 9/11 has become a vigilant effort to keep tabs on loved ones in a hopeless effort to feel safe again.  Over 200,000 images are uploaded to Facebook every minute and it is estimated that more than 880 billion photos a year were made by the end of 2014.  To photograph and to share images has become as natural as speaking and in many cases has reduced the use of written communication in our culture to a short text message or tweet.

Automatic Responses
With the ease of use of modern camera technology, the requirement of conscious and reflective thought about the making of an image has been dramatically reduced for the average photographer.  Whereas one can react automatically with a shout of joy and anger, now a person can snap a photo and document each instance of their existence with a digital cell phone camera and share it publicly with almost no delay.  This technology has led to the emergence of the Selfie and the concept that we are all actors in our scripted life adventure.

Much about contemporary technology is so sophisticated but simple to operate that users are unaware of how these tools are shaping our behavior.  Knowledge and cultural identity is transferred through mimicry or emulation and photography is perhaps the most ubiquitous and powerful means for dissemination through its precise reproduction of actions, emotions, and ideas.

A World Before Drive Thru

Can you imagine the world before fast food drive through windows or drive up espresso stands let alone a world without television and smartphones?  Even the simple technology of yellow lines and painted arrows direct our behavior and serve our addiction for more and more of everything.  We now walk around with hand held devices that record and transmits images, texts, and audio within a global social media network in real time.

The industrial revolution created cities and leisure time, and the technological revolution has only increased our capacity and appetite for entertainment and social engagement. The majority of people no longer accept what they see naturally as being adequate.  To attend a concert or sporting event is to spend time divided between looking at massive video displays that provide instant replay or live views of the action from vantage points very different from our own.  We operate in a screen-based landscape of hyper reality where we no longer question the computer graphic overlays that are often defining what we are looking at for us.

However the camera employs predetermined algorithms and imaging processes that impact the appearance of each image and ultimately can influence our perception of the world and the meanings we apply to it.  Human perception and camera perception are very different and yet in a world full of photographic images our understanding and interpretation of the world is becoming increasingly based upon a technological version of seeing.

Engineered Seeing

For most practitioners of photography all creative decisions are routinely predetermined by the engineered automatic settings of both camera exposure and post-production processing of luminance, hue, and saturation.   Digital technology has created an expectation that we will automatically enhance an image through digital retouching that removes and replaces content and alters the look and feel of an image through filter effects.  We are no longer innocent or unaware of the camera.  Surveillance cameras photograph urban dwellers hundreds if not thousands of times each day and whenever we see a camera pointed at us we automatically adjust our posture and expression and ask the photographer to remove blemishes and at least 10 pounds in Photoshop! Modern digital photography reflects the perfection that we aspire towards in our mind as compared to harsher reality presented in analog film based photography that is more limited to presenting us what was actually present in front of the lens at the moment of exposure.

In contemporary lexicon we would describe the film camera era as “photography 1.0” and the digital era of photography as “photography 2.0”.  In each generation of the medium the pendulum of technology moved from an origin where the process was inherently difficult and the intellectual and economic requirements to overcome those barriers significant, to the point where photography was automated, simplified, and became popularized to the masses with a reduction in skill and reflective thought necessary to produce something “photographic”.

In the short time between 1839 and 1897 we saw photography transformed from alchemy and craft to the establishment of Kodak and their slogan, “You push the shutter and we do the rest!

The same can be said about the digital era, which started far before most are even aware.  Over thirty years ago digital photography required massively large and expensive equipment and a technological expertise of an engineer.  Scitex drum scanners and desktop publishing spurred the growth and development of tools and cameras that costs far too much for the amateur to afford.  Digital imaging happened at a snails pace of one image at a time as compared to the batch processing of thousands of images from a single photo shoot.

The Illusion of Truth In Culture

Published photojournalism maintained an appearance of truth until scandals emerged about the altering of magazine covers like the 1982 issue of National Geographic where a pyramid was moved closer to another to fit the vertical layout and the overt manipulation of the Time magazine cover that featured O.J. Simpson.  It was just then that we became aware of this new medium.

In the beginning of digital photography, to achieve these alternate realities required tremendous education and technical expertise.  Now jobs that once required highly trained technicians are now done on cell phone and tablet computers.   After 2001 the rate of development of new digital camera technology expanded, prices dropped and we became increasingly aware of terms like Moore’s law, upgrades, and Cyber Monday.

One megapixel became two over night, which became six, twelve, sixteen, and thirty-six, and now there are cell phones advertising over 40 megapixels!  More resolution, more photos, more people seeing our photos has changed how we view public and private behavior.

The twentieth century began with a belief that film based photography was simply the transmission of facts which led towards an instrumentalism utility that was shaped by social documentary photography and contemporary photojournalism.  During the depression it was photography by Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, and Louis Hine that greatly shaped public policy and the development of social welfare programs in the United States.  Photography and cinema inspired support for World War II and dissent for Vietnam.

 Disillusionment and deconstruction of the medium occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century as we entered into the postmodern era that exposed the persuasive qualities of images and their role in cultivating popular culture and ideology.

Artist like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Robert Rauschenberg presented photographic imagery as a language by which culture was being defined through advertising mass media.  In the era of social media photography has only become more massive.

Everything We Think We Know

The popularity of photography makes sense when we consider that 80% of what we perceive and think we know is directly related to eyesight. Evolution of culture has been closely tied to scientific discovery which itself is based upon experimentation and observation.   

Fashion photography has always described and even invented popular culture.  In the film It Happened One Night Clark Gable was filmed undressing without an undershirt because he couldn’t pull it over his head without messing up his hair.  The popularity of the movie led to a serious decline in undershirt sales.  Manufacturers complained to Hollywood and in his next film he wore a tank top undershirt, which spurred growth in sales of that type garment as men sought to emulate the leading man and reenact his effect in their own relationships!   It was a powerful indicator of how photography impacts social behavior and economics.

Interestingly enough much of our understanding about the power of photography emerged as a study of propaganda and through the writings of Soviet Filmmakers Andre Bazin and Dziga Vertov as well as European literary critics Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.  MIT professor Noam Chomsky states in a presentation titled, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream?,

“American business community was also very impressed with the propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on.

     So what do you do? It’s going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller’s image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War.”

The Ontology of Photographs

Whereas portrait photography attempts to fix an identity, advertising photography attempts to constantly change it.  Against a backdrop of social unrest and the demise of colonialism during the 1950’s and 1960’s the ontology and epistemology of the photographic medium became an important discussion topic  in academic circles related to psychology, political science, marketing, and public relations and new programs of media and cultural studies.   The result of this discourse has been a well defined understanding of the linguistic and rhetorical qualities of photography based upon selectivity, framing, vantage point, editing and sequencing of images, and the context of publication.

Advertising and Journalism applied the “reality effect” of photography to shape public attitudes and ultimately their actions within poltical and economic arenas. In one arena the photograph was perceived as a “truth” document that could be used as evidence in a court of law and in the other arena the photographic image was used as a tool for manipulation that played to our fantasies and told us our life would become better if only we purchased the product that was being endorsed.  So strong was the effect of photography on consumer behavior, companies began working with television and movie productions and paying them large sums of money for product placement within the storyline.  We can all remember the spectacle related to when the James Bond character switched to driving BMW cars.

The advertising and entertainment industry drove the development of new digital photographic technology.  By 1995 the FBI was conducting research into how to determine whether or not a photograph was digitally altered.  I sat through a presentation by an agent who stated that using less than $10,000 worth of equipment a digitally altered photograph could be made without any discernible trace.  Of course this was based upon going back out to a film stock via an film recorder.  That technology is obsolete now, but it certainly triggered further debate over what this new digital media was about.  By 2008 understanding of digital photography as we increasingly migrated towards virtual communities on the Internet and being entertained by CGI graphics in our home theaters.  A new wave of image making added new vocabulary such as avatar, green screen, HDR, mashup, and remix.

History repeats itself, but often in new and interesting ways.  Digital image making was new while also remaining the same.  Digital photography at the fringe has been an expansion of 20th century collage and tableaux art forms.  Tapestries and oil painted masterpieces are remade into photographic realism that disguises and hides even the brushstrokes or fingerprints of the image-maker and subversively become perceived as real or close enough to suspend our disbelief.

Alchemy and Enlightenment

It is often posited that photography, whose theories date back to the ancient Greeks, was a dark art that could not have been developed and practiced prior the age of enlightenment and the movement towards a secular society and scientific reasoning.  Film photography, as we know it, emerged from the Victorian era and accompanied the industrial revolution. Digital photography has accompanied a technological revolution in telecommunications and IT.  Each period of innovation has created disruption in economies and an eruption in public discourse about values, identities, and a vision for the future with even greater tools for defining that vision with photographic realism.  The camera plays a role in that process by providing a means for expression that both affirms and questions the “reality” of now.

With these powerful tools available to us, the world easily becomes at once a Utopia or Dystopia depending on how you see it and represent it.  During the last 150 years we came to understand the power of photography to inform, persuade, and inspire.  Mathew Brady’s portraits of Abraham Lincoln contributed significantly to his election and our contemporary definition of presidential gravitas.

Images Are More Powerful Than Words In Shaping Culture

In the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates we saw the impact of the photographic image on the outcome as those who listened on the radio thought that Nixon was the clear winner of that debate, but the much larger television audience thought that the youthful appearing Kennedy was the clear winner and were largely unaware of his frail physical condition.

Political scientist point to that historic event as being the last time a candidate would pause for thoughtful reflection and candid responses and the ushering in of a new era of politics with scripted sound bites and a voracious appetite for the money necessary to publish photographic imagery to the masses.  Image replaced text and the average sound bite of a candidate shrunk from 90 seconds in 1972 to 7 seconds by 1992 just as billboards became compressed down to iconic images of celebrities and logos accompanied by the slogan “Just Do It!”

As the newness of the 21st century wears off in its second decade, and the lingering impact of 20th century modernist optimism and postmodernist pessimism seek to find an equilibrium in a present time that acknowledges the complexity of the world that must encompass both simultaneously, I believe this is an important moment to explore image making, technology, and culture through a didactic discourse such as what is being presented here at Eidos Artworks.

This is not a new.  Literary and Artistic journals have historically provided great insight and the opportunity to pause and reflect that enlarges our creative potential.  For example there was Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly publication Camera Works that was first published in 1903 in and ended in 1917.  After World War II straight photography by the photographers of the f/64 group such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams emerged and was championed by a new quarterly journal Aperture began with the Minor White serving as its first editor in 1952.  With the support of Aperture and Edward Steichens Family of Man exhibition photography gained acceptance as an art form worthy of museums and galleries.

A New Renaissance And  The Need For A New Journal of Art and Culture

It is my supposition that there is once more a need for a new journal about art and its relationship to technology and culture. Photography is part of what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff describes as a 21st century renaissance where there is a “renegotiation of old ideas to reach a new consensus.”  There is a rich history of film-based photography that is worthy of being explored again within the new context of contemporary digital imaging.  The ethos of this publication can be described by the word from Ghana Sankofa, which means to reach back to the past and bring it into the present for the benefit of the future.

The intent of this journal is to increase awareness and literacy about photographic imagery and its impact on popular culture and to deepen the level of appreciation for the medium and its ability to powerfully move us individually.

More than this, the goal of Eidos is to build a bridge between the public personas presented in our imagery and the interior being of our feelings, beliefs, and ideas.  I want to cultivate a wisdom around the use of technology by rediscovering photography through a fusion of the past and present together, and engaging in dialog not just about images but also about the things in our life that move us to make photographs.

As technology becomes more automated and easier to operate, and images become easier to publish and receive volumes of instant feedback through “likes” or other click button rating systems, we are subconsciously cultivating a consensus on what is desirable, and what we are willing or supposed to look at and think about as a society.

Everyday is now a photo contest where we submit our photos to social media and look repeatedly throughout the day to see what our response from the judges is.  The problem with photo contests is that they tend to create an expectation of a standard that competitors have to aim towards in their compositions.  These become the recipes for composing winning images such as the Rule of Thirds and S-Curve leading lines, Rhythm, and Simplicity that also tend to lead to the homogenization of imagery as the photographer begins searching out these desirable “pretty” images.  Too often, instead of becoming a better artist, the majority of photographers become more like a journeyman musician who is content to play covers of popular music rather than risk writing and creating their own unique style.

Popularity Effect On  Art and Culture

I think it is important to remember that impressionism started out with harsh criticism because the artist we have come to revere like Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne were willing to ignore the conventional art world and go out on their own.  I think it is also wonderful to note that it was the photographer Nadar who hosted their first exhibition in his studio.

Without taking the time to think about the images we make I think the intimate and poetic moments of our daily existence risk becoming ignored in favor of a photographic safari that searches for the illusive exotic and sublime.  Blue highway signs guide the hunter to vista viewpoints that are the shooting ranges for the hobbyist using short and long focal length lenses that are like semiautomatic handguns and rifles.  There is even a whole industry for travel and photographic guide services that will set up the same photos we have seen in National Geographic for a fee.  I believe it is important to keep in mind the questions that Dorthea Lange asked of every photograph, “Is this my world? If not what does it have to do with my world?” when viewing and editing photographs.  In part that is what I want to explore in the pages of Eidos.

The creation of this publication comes after having spent more than 25 years working professionally as a photographer and educator.  My professional photography career began in 1989 when I had the opportunity to spend a year working with a ballet company creating photographs.  I learned very quickly that the choreographer Christopher Aponte knew more about photography than I did even though I had the technical knowledge and degrees on my resume.  From him I learned the importance of aesthetics and the need for technology to act in service to artistic human expression. From that time on I have been seeking to understand the medium of photography from an artistic, intellectual and applied perspective.  I have been uniquely situated to participate in the height of the film era as well as the development of the digital era that has transformed and redefined photography. Along the way I have come to meet and know some of the most brilliant practitioners of photography and filmmaking that are both well known and obscure and have had the privilege of traveling extensively pursuing my craft and career with passion.  It is only after this many years in photography and teaching that I feel I have something worthwhile to say and to share with you in a new publication.

Within the pages of Eidos I seek to connect ideas that are my own as well as others and to create a community where connoisseurs of photography can come together to celebrate the medium and its 21st century renaissance.   Each issue will present a variety of visual portfolios, articles and essays that are literary as well academic and supported by references and additional online multimedia content including video profiles of featured artists as well as links to the abundant resources available for inspiration.

Eidos is not just another photography publication, but is the convergence of words and images in a variety of media ranging from the printed journal or EPUB version as well as online websites and social media pages where a live exchange of dialog can occur with reader submissions of images and comments.

Whether you are making photographs with a point and shoot camera or an 8×10 wooden view camera I want to nurture ideas about each that will stimulate new creativity and support your enjoyment of photography and the value it brings to your life.

I hope you will enjoy this publication and choose to participate with me in an ongoing conversation about something we both love, which is photography.    Thank you for being here!

Ira W. Gardner Jr.

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