24 November 2010

Too Many Cameras

I never carry a camera. I used to boast that I didn’t need to, because whenever I was somewhere a picture needed to be taken, there was always a competent photographer at my side to take it. I was married to a first-class amateur for seven years, and a lot of my sightseeing in the world’s picturesque and interesting places has been in professional association with the incomparable Dominic Sansoni. On wilderness outings in Sri Lanka, too, I have always been able to leave the photo-catching in the practised, unobtrusive hands of others. This has left me free to do what is incumbent on me as a writer: experience the moment with all five of my senses, not just one, recording it holistically and subjectively rather than objectively and in detail – later to write about it and perhaps, if the Muse wills, bring to it some perspective or insight that could never be caught on camera.

Real photographers can't spell
In those days, I was always happy to have a photographer by my side. To state the obvious, photographs are useful – for recording events of significance, briefly returning to life the revenants of fond or fervent emotion, acting as a spur or corrective to memory, or conclusively settling an argument. Such things are, or can be, important. But this, of course, was in the days before PhotoShop. Nowadays, photographs, and by extension photographers, cannot be trusted. It may be argued that this unreliability, never perfect in the days of film no matter how the retouchers laboured, may at last have brought the photographer’s art to maturity, for the mission of all artists is to tell the truth by lying. However, it isn’t the new untrustworthiness of photographs that has brought me to resent photography and abhor photographers in general (though there are a few, including the aforementioned, whom I still respect and admire). No, it was the thing which made the trompe l’oeil of PhotoShop possible in the first place, and turned the act of taking a photograph, formerly a considered action requiring time and thought, into a perverse reflex, a nervous tic, a pathological symptom. It was the replacement of film by digital image capture as a recording medium.

Yes, I know you can do wonderful things with digital cameras. The pictures they take are now almost as good as the ones taken by film cameras – better, for all I know, since technology marches on and I have had better things to do than pay attention. Moreover, these pictures, being recorded merely as bits of information, can be stored, transferred, processed, manipulated and reproduced in their millions with the greatest of ease. The revolution has been total. Hardly anyone, barring a few specialists, purists and fanatics, uses film nowadays. An entire industry – photo processing and printing – has crumbled to dust, and the shops (‘studios’ in Ceylon patois) that used to engage in it have vanished from the high streets of the world. Not that I miss them, particularly; I don’t suppose anyone does, apart from the poor saps who made a living out of them. It isn’t nostalgia that makes me mourn the disappearance of film, it’s the offensive ubiquity of photography and photographers that digital technology has made possible. When Sting made that comment about ‘too many cameras and not enough food’ thirty years ago in Driven to Tears, he was really complaining about something else; digital photography was in its infancy back then. But the remark acquired greater pungency after its advent: there are many, many more cameras today than there were in 1980, and as for the food – we’re it, and they’re fighting over us.

Kalpitiya sunset by reformed former
shutterbug. Yes, it's a great shot.
I remember vividly the day I came to hate digital cameras. It was in Kalpitiya, where I had just arrived at the end of a long and fatiguing day’s journey with a group of friends. We were in two cars; I was driving one, and was first to arrive at our destination, a big bungalow overlooking the lagoon. It was a few minutes before sunset, and as I stepped out of the car, the sight took my breath away. Long shadows advanced towards me across a sloping garden overgrown with thigh-high, shimmering illuk grass; at the foot of the garden, beyond a tangled hedge of bat-emitting mangroves, Kalpitiya lagoon reflected the fiery orange-gold effulgence of the sky. The sun was a few degrees above the horizon. My travelling companion had disappeared into the house to make certain arrangements, so I was left to myself to enjoy this feast of a sunset. But then, as the sun dipped lower and blushed redder, I heard the sound of our second vehicle approaching. And in a minute, there they were, my well-loved friends, falling out of the vehicle in their eagerness to ‘catch’ – appropriate word! – the sunset: to capture it with their lenses and imprison it in the lightless virtual dungeons of their memory chips, to kidnap it from me and all the rest of the living world that stood or crouched or lay or flew about us in that golden moment, to ruin it for all time with their clacking shutters, their noisy blundering back and forth across my field of view to find the best ‘angle’, their stagy exclamations and pose-striking. All I can say is, I hope they got good pictures, because all that was left of that particular sunset, at that particular place and time, was their bloody pictures. As if a mere picture could ever compare with a real sunset.

In the days of film, the chances of this kind of thing happening to you would have been low, unless you happened to be sharing some well-trodden beauty spot with a pack of Japanese tourists. Film cost money, you see, and you didn’t want to waste it. You took thought before you took a photograph. With the advent of digital image capture, this economic disincentive has vanished. It now costs as much to take a thousand photos as it does to take one, so people do. Everybody is doing it. And – let’s be fair – everybody is probably a slightly better photographer as a result, because practice always makes for improvement, even if it does not always make perfect. But this is of no consequence, because the high tide that lifts all boats also lifts the bar, so to speak, and no relative eminence is gained by anybody. Instead, what has occurred is a kind of creative inflation, in which the currency of the image has become devalued.

A better photographer than he looks,
not that he looks bad
In the years since that distressing event at Kalpitiya, everyone, it seems to me, has become a photographer. Nearly every young person with creative pretensions carries a camera these days, and many of them plan, sooner or later, to make a living out of the pictures it takes. The poor fools have forgotten the basic economic law of supply and demand. When taking pictures is as easy as raising a camera to your snout and pushing a button, pictures become as common as dirt, and about as valuable. This is something I can vouch for at first hand, because I work in a media-related business that uses both stock and commissioned photography. We simply aren’t willing to pay as much as we used to for good images, and sometimes we aren’t willing to pay at all, because there’s so much usable stuff available out there for nothing. The glut of photographs, of available photography, is putting the professional photographer out of business. Why bother with them and their inconvenient, expensive demands, when photography has become commoditized?

As for me, I remain a lover of good photographs, which I believe have nothing to do with the subject of the picture and everything to do with the person taking them. There will always be those who bring something unique and worth having to the art of photography. The present ubiquity of shutterbuggers will not significantly increase their number, however. Nature, or providence, or chance or what have you, doles out talent with a parsimonious hand. I know a handful of young photographers with genuine talent; one of them was among the posse who so annoyed me at Kalpitiya (and has since returned to that location with exquisite results), another is this guy. Both of them are currently engaged in discovering how hard it is to make any kind of living at photography nowadays, even when you have genuine ability – and neither of them seems to have yet mastered the essential trick of getting out of the way of their own pictures. Still, they’re well ahead of the pack. My advice to them is: go out and murder as many shutterbuggers as possible. In doing so you will revive the market for quality professional photography, and you will also make one cantankerous old scribbler very, very happy.


  1. A picture is worth a thousand words

  2. Your blog is the equivalent of about half a photo.


  4. Writing in his column on language in the New York Times (April 7, 1996), William Safire revealed that the "ancient Chinese proverb" (one picture is worth a thousand words) had actually been coined by a New York advertising man named Fred R. Barnard. Safire credited this discovery to Burton Stevenson, who had found the earliest use of the phrase in an ad that ran in the December 8, 1921, edition of Printer's Ink, and had cited it as such in the Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Famous Phrases. Barnard originally attributed his line to a Japanese philosopher. The next time he ran an ad in Printer's Ink (March 10, 1927), Barnard called it a Chinese proverb and illustrated it with Chinese lettering copied from a restaurant menu. Safire ends his little essay with this puckish rejoinder: "As Diogenes used to say, one original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings." Here's the link to Safire's column: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/07/magazine/on-language-worth-a-thousand-words.html
    Here is Fred R. Barnard's original ad (Printer's Ink, December 8, 1921): http://www2.cs.uregina.ca/~hepting/research/web/words/21.gif
    And here is Barnard's second ad Printer's Ink (March 10, 1927): http://www2.cs.uregina.ca/~hepting/research/web/words/27.gif

  5. Couldn't agree with you more and yes, it does seem that real photographers can't spell. Even the best of them.

  6. If you would prefer not to get anonymous comments on your blog, please make it clear and you will get no more from me.

  7. @Anonymous: comment away and welcome.

  8. Things are different now. What you’re saying here applies to so many things these days – graphic design, music, art in general. There is a glut of creativity. Is this a bad thing?

    No, and then, yes.

    Now anyone and everyone with a program simple enough for them to understand and then use can create whatever they want and need whenever they want it and need it - for themselves.

    And it shows.

    It affects not only photographers and the studios they depended on, it significantly changes the situation for all working graphic designers, musicians... almost everything short of potters, weavers, sculptors, and chefs. You can even paint digitally these days.

    The cream will have to work just that much harder to rise to the top I suppose. Trying to reach people who can recognize the cream, then make them want to take the time to find it and pay for it – that’s the problem now. But hasn’t that always been the case?

    So, I agree – but what can we do but adapt to change?

    It’s never been possible to force people to stop and smell the roses (or, just shut up and look at the sky already...)

    The only thing you can do is get out of the car faster and put some distance between you and the herd.

  9. Next time travel alone or be choosier as to who you travel with. Serious photographers are thoughtful, keep quiet and just take pictures, quietly.

    This is more a gripe than an objective commentary. Its odd that just one photographer is favoured - which makes this pretty subjective.

    There have always been bad photographs and worse, bad photographers. And will always be. Just learn to avoid them. No need to state the obvious. You know what they say - if you have nothing nice to say just don't say it. Or to put it another way - if you have nothing new to say - keep quiet.

    This gripe is no better than another bad snap.

  10. Of course this is a gripe, it's Richard Simon's blog.

    Funnily enough the photographers mentioned in this post use Photoshop quite extensively. Timothy more than the rest.

  11. The only good photograph has a tit in it....Ashley

    In this day of digital photography, capturing the picture is anybody's forte. Embellishing it is where the mastery lies.

    My predictions for the future - experiencing a sunset would be painful. Watching birds fly would be in a dream. Being in unspoilt nature a pipe dream. That's when we'll appreciate all random photographers who have amassed millions of terrabytes of pictures so that when we need to see a vision or a bird in flight all we do is prompt the process and either holograms or fixed image displays would turn to the sight we choose. Still or motion, maybe the only way us humans would retain our sanity.

    I am of the variety Richard lothes, having no eye for the subject and a far from good camera, my motivation for taking pictures is an itchy finger. I have no remorse taking a zillion pictures plonked right in front of a meditating siddhartha, of his quivering nostril, all because an ant is crawling his way inside.

  12. A couple of points:

    @af: As the post makes clear, I do not object the use of PhotoShop or other image manipulation techniques. The industry I work in uses them all the time. I am talking about something very different.

    @Nancy: yes, music has suffered even worse than photography from the 'digital devaluation'. When every consumer can carry 40,000 songs around in a matchbox, the relationships between the musician and music, and between music and the listener, are ruined. It is so bad that people are coming to forget what music actually is.

    Expect a blog post on this soon--perhaps next.

    @Anonymous--'travel with serious photographers': for reasons that should be clear to the meanest intelligence, this is not always possible. Besides, the places I go to often have people in them--members of the public, you know?--and they often have cameras.

  13. So true Richard Simon. I have had this conversation many times before. While reading the part about how film used to be so expensive I remember how when we were in school, Kanya and I were so careful not to waste it, and hope and pray that when the pictures finally came back they would be good.

  14. Hmm...I remember many pleasant visits to the Thompson Lanka studio. Where I saw how the photos of local actresses were touched up - by airbrushing. So pictures have been telling fibs long before the digital age - mainly due to the efforts of various professionals.

    True, old-fashioned and expensive film meant that you had to be careful unless you had pots of money. It also meant you didn't find out that you had the camera strap or Aunty Bessie in front of the lens until after the event (irrespective of whether it was a wedding or the rather unlikely sighting of a Dodo). Plus, even if you don't mess up your shots there was always the chance of someone else doing it for you - like the developers or postal service / courier.

    Let's not forget the various toxic chemicals used in the film process (like cyanide compounds) - not very green. Or that colour prints have a life of around 10-30 years before they start fading.

    As for amateur vs professional - beauty often lies in the eye of the beholder. For what many consider to be a nice photo is dismissed as 'too chocolate box' by professionals (whose own offerings are equally liable to be derided as 'arty-farty').

    The more photos there are the more chance of information and detail being captured - which is useful for historians, modellers and air crash investigators...to name a few.

    I would agree that people trying to record a moment or a scene are in danger of actually missing out elements of what they are witnessing (particularly holidaymakers with camcorders).

    Did you know all these facts? [with apologies to Nestle - well, not really]

  15. @Anonymous ('Did you know all these facts'):
    Hi, DM. Very glad you could drop by. For my views on image manipulation, see my response to 'af'.

    From the viewpoint of a future historian, a glut of information may be as bad as a paucity. Pity the poor scholars who will have to trawl through oceans of emails, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates in the awful future.

    Keep in touch, my friend.