The Magic Trick

A cropped version of The Magic Trick, Part 1, made in the mid-1990s.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a sentence. As I lay there a second sentence will come, then a third. Then I can sort of see the whole thing laid out like I’m on a boat and I’m looking out over the waves. One voice in my head tells me that it will be fine, I’ll remember it when I wake. A wiser voice tells me to write it down. Sometimes the iPad is near and I write in bed, sometimes I have to go to the office. And I write in a rush until I’m out, and then I go back to bed.

Today I came across one of these mid-sleep writings and I thought it might, despite its first-draft, unfinished nature, be interesting to share here with you, unedited save for corrections in spelling.

It takes the form of a series of claims about the nature of photography today and my response to those claims. Several additional claims are at the end, unanswered.

Photographs are no longer objects.

Yet museums and galleries have on display more photographs than ever before.

Sunday I saw Ansel Adams’ Surf Sequence, in person at the Cantor–plus two early images by Ansel that I had never seen before showing downhill snow skiers and the patterns they left in the snow. Also saw there was a nice selection of Helen Levitt’s work along with that of Wright Morris and John Gutmann. A few weeks earlier I attended a large show of photographs–made from wax paper negatives!–by John Beasley Greene at SFMOMA.

And it’s not just San Francisco. In Los Angeles, LACMA and the Getty almost always have a photography-based show (I saw a large Gordon Parks show at the Getty last summer and there is an exhibit there now centered on platinum photography.)

The Denver Art Museum has an entire floor dedicated to photography shows, the Cleveland Museum of Art is about to open an exhibit on contact sheets, while over at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City–a wonderful art museum that doesn’t display as much photography as it should–they recently closed a show on daguerreotypes of the Gold Rush and are soon opening one on Gordon Parks (Parks is in demand, it seems).

Way down in Texas the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has a historical survey of photography up on its walls and way up in Boston, the somewhat staid Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is about to open a show called “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera.” What camera, you ask? Why, it’s a 20×24 Polaroid!

And these shows are just at some of the major museums. There are plenty of smaller museums and galleries. And, of course, in New York you probably could not see all of the photographs on display even if that was your full-time occupation.

Almost all photographs are color now

This has been true for a very long time. I worked at a camera store in the mid to late 1980s and we sold far more color film than black and white, and 35mm color sales dwarfed black and white. I’d guess, at this time, this had already been true for a decade or more.

Now it’s just all in your face, literally, on that screen in front of you.

But even if we want to limit ourselves to serious photography have a second look at the museum shows I mentioned above. Most are entirely black and white, all but one of the others are dominated by black and white images.

Part of the problem is that hobbyists–critical to the ecosystem of supporting the kind of photography that attracts many black and white photography fans–are centered on color photography. Black and white photography–despite its continued importance–see museum shows, above–is an afterthought by camera manufacturers and software developers.

Digital files can be made in black and white at the time of shooting, baked into the JPEG, but why would you? With a raw file you can apply your Red 25 filter to that landscape after the fact, or maybe use the orange or a weak yellow. You can decide when you make the exposure or you can decide later. That’s very powerful, although it probably makes many photographers lazy. And so no one, perhaps save a few Leica shooters with a dedicated B&W body, shoot in black and white. And so manufacturers (with that one exception) don’t focus on black and white.

Software is a problem, too. I was a long-time Aperture user. Years back I sent an e-mail to Apple CEO Tim Cook pointing out that if I shot a raw file in black and white mode on my camera (that fact that I shot in in black and white seemed to show up in the file metadata plus the JPEG was black and white) why didn’t Aperture show me that raw file with a black and white “filter” over it, so I didn’t suddenly see my picture in color? I explained that seeing that black and white shot–black and white in my head–abruptly in color was harmful to keeping the image in my head untainted while I considered whether and how to print it. I wanted to keep that ability to change the filtration after the fact, oh yes! but I never want to see my black and white images in color, I wanted to keep their spirit pure, their monochromatic nature untainted (uncolored?) by the bright hues, those sparkly reds, greens, and blues.

Cook ignored my e-mail so I sent him another one a few months later. And then, every few months, re-made my suggestions until I had sent a total of four or five e-mails. Finally, Apple, in response to what may have been seen by them as a sort of harassment by me–canceled development of Aperture. I blame myself.

Is software any better with black and white now? Not that I have found.

And so hobbyists are not steered toward black and white, as they used to be (back then: color was too hard to do on your own, amateur photo labs sucked) but are given black and white only as a sort of anachronistic option.

Photographs, deep in their nature, aren’t black and white or color anymore. To be a black and white photograph in the digital realm the image needs to be converted to black and white. But heck, if you are going to do a conversion you can do all sorts of conversions, black and white just being one of many possibilities.

Expertise and specialized knowledge is not as important any more and may be declining in the amount of respect it receives.

Expertise and specialized knowledge do not garner the respect they used to garner, oh so true, but primarily because “expertise” is so easy to come by anymore. Want to make platinum prints? There’s a YouTube video for that and suppliers waiting to take your order. Focus stacking? Learn enough to roll in thirty minutes or less, learn enough to start your own Instagram account dedicated to insect photography in a week. Want to mimic a certain look of a certain photograph you saw somewhere online? Post that link in the right forum and you’ll have it all laid out for you in a few hours.

There are still people we would call experts. Take astrophotography. It seems everyone, anyone, can shoot amazing photographs of the Milky Way, even videos of the Milky Way, with the camera gliding in front of those trees oh so gracefully. You can, too–it’s just one B&H order away. But if you are really into astrophotography you will soon discover that some things are hard and some things are easy and although the easy things result in pretty and spectacular photographs–quite enough for most people–the hard things are hard indeed, requiring the expertise of scientists, of optical design, and usually requiring an astonishing amount of money.

Those experts, idols up on the pedestal, are still there but the pedestal just isn’t as high as it used to be and all of the others around the expert, looking up, don’t have to tilt their heads back as far as they used to.

Photographs are less true.

Yet so much more truth is available from photographs than ever before.

Photos are easily faked nowadays in ways that may be impossible to detect (and people online are easily, almost eagerly, duped, it seems) but there are also so many more photographs to draw upon. Look at the recent downing of the jetliner over Tehran. It seems the government wanted to hide the truth. You could imagine scenarios where it may have falsified facts, faked photos. And yet other sources of data, all the result of the digital revolution, worked against those efforts.

Take another example. A year or two ago my daughter was planning to go to South Africa to study baboons. She was to fly into Johannesburg and take a bus from Park Station. Did I flip through old New York Timeses or Life Magazines hoping to find an image of Park Station to see if it was safe, wondering if the images–whether individually faked or not– offered an accurate portrayal? Did I dig out my books by Sebastian Salgado, wondering if he had done work in Johannesburg? No, I googled and within minutes had grave concerns about sending my daughter through that station, seeing hundreds of images of what appeared to be a crime-ridden place (Bonus: a video “walkthrough” of the road to the station and local news accounts of South African police being attacked by gangs that controlled the station).

You can fake a photo but probably not for long. And this seems to be a concern more for journalism than the kind of “art” photography I do, the kind of photography that I normally talk about on this site. In my own work it’s all “faked” in one respect or another despite my best attempts to keep it as honest and true as I possibly can.

Vast numbers of people, including many former enthusiast/hobbyist photographers, are apparently happy enough with smartphones for what amounts to point-and-shoot photography.

That’s because iPhones are amazing. They have brought the magic back to photography for me. I’ve actually giggled–I’m fifty-four years old!–as I watched a Night Shot photo appear on my phone when I first purchased it. My heart rate actually increased when I was shooting during an artist residency in the Mojave Desert–I could feel it, my god–as the images from my tripod-mounted phone appeared on the screen, blackness all around me, glowing pixie dust on the screen.

I used to know, from a technical point of view, how photographs were made. When iPhones came I knew how the images were made–they were using techniques more or less what you could do on your own, though much more quickly and accurately. But the new phones crossed some sort of line in recent years, especially with the newest models. I don’t know what they are doing anymore. They are not just doing regular darkroom stuff, just way faster.

I’m no beginner. I know my way around a view camera and have a special place in my heart for the Pentax Digital spot meter with my hand made zone system sticker on it. My favorite camera ever, the one that was just me was the Hasselblad 500 C/M on a heavy Manfrotto (Bogen as it was called then) 3035 tripod. I made my own window screen drying racks for my toned prints, built, with the help of my brother, a seven-foot darkroom sink. I’m not afraid of inconvenience in the pursuit of excellence, not shy about expense or suffering to get the image I want to get.

But the new phones are magical. They are incredibly exciting, incredibly freeing. People should be happy enough with these phones, my god, and to dream of the future! Those who crave something else can look into that view camera–more and more film is available every year, it seems. There’s nothing stopping you.

“Real” (i.e., dedicated) cameras are starting to become a little like fine watches…relegated to connoisseurs but fundamentally unnecessary.
Is the popularity of photography in the culture as a whole also diminishing along with the camera business?
Is “photographer” becoming less of a meaningful identity in the public’s perception?
I see less personality and more anonymity in a lot of photography these days.

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