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Opinion | A little button, The Mona Lisa and Kendrick Lamar
Photography's transition from magic to mundane
I hate my work almost as much as the industry. It feels every photo I take regresses my experience as a photographer. Every photo I take, and subsequently ask about, I hear the same response: “Hey, great photo!”
Wow. Thoughtful. Thank you. The photo is not good. Take away the depth of field, remove the editing and undo the cropping, what do you have left? An amateur-ass iPhone photo of my friend smiling. Not all that great, if you ask me.
That photo already exists. A thousand times over. All I managed to do was use my one-thousand-dollar camera, click the little button at the right time and take it into Photoshop to make it look pretty.
Think about it. If you, reading this, had the exact same equipment I do, and knew how to use it exactly the same as I do, you would walk away with the exact same lousy photo that I have. Sure, you can argue that the “knowing how to use it” is what gives me my “skill,” but you are wrong.
So what’s my point? Photography is an art, right? It has artistic merit, right?
Photography requires some degree of creativity.
Over the summer I worked in a studio and my task was simple. Wait for the subject to enter the frame, click the little button and the poser to my right will say if we need to do more button clicking or not. The camera settings were preset, and the shot was identical every time.
And you know what? That was a skilled trade. I made $12.50 per hour doing that job, pretty high compared to New Jersey’s minimum wage of $8.44. My other job that summer, lead camp counseling, netted me $10.44 per hour.
Let that sink in.
In one building, I clicked a little button for seven hours a day, and in the other I looked after the safety and enjoyment of 20 children, while organizing a “class” every day and mentoring new counselors.
Which do you think is more deserving of the higher wage?
But photography is an art, right? And surely there’s no such thing as “bad art,” right?
Well, again, not quite. Sure I believe photography is an art, but just like any other traditional art, it either takes years to master or you never do. Da Vinci didn’t wake up one day after a life time of stacking rocks and decide to paint the Mona Lisa. The man had a talent—and he honed that talent into a skill.
Photography is the same in the art department. Gordon Parks didn’t wake up one day after a lifetime of mechanic work and decide to become one of the most influential and impactful photographers of his day and ours. Parks produced photographic essays for Life Magazine portraying poor African Americans and the Civil Rights struggle in the 1940s. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen Parks’ work, even if you’ve never heard his name.
Does Kendrick Lamar sound more familiar? Well, his music videos tend to reference much of Parks’ work. I promise, look it up!
My point is—photography is an art. Photography still has the power to inspire, to agitate and most importantly to bring about change. But the artistic side of photography is dying in favor of the Instagram side of photography.
Nowadays, photographers don’t spend years honing their talent into a skill. They spend a thousand-dollars on a camera that’s slightly better than your thousand-dollar camera that also makes phone calls, throw up an alternate account on Instagram and start sending invoices.
Don’t get me wrong, I was once guilty of this too, but I like to think I’ve matured past this point. Additionally, Instagram does contain the occasional diamond-in-the-rough, and allows many talented (and skilled!) photographers get their name out there (@perry.sage and @austintroth, to name a couple).
But that rough sure is vast, and those diamonds sure are small. Don’t believe me? Check out how many people follow those two accounts. Miniscule compared to the big-name, big-budget, low-creativity photography accounts on Instagram.
Photography went from an art side-by-side with the traditional art we revere to a five-inch screen in our pockets. It went from a craft only those with a passion could master to a mundane task in a studio full of high school employees. Photographers went from mysterious magicians of technology to anybody with enough determination and patience to make a second Instagram account.
Photography has the power to start revolutions, but today it just seems like the Mona Lisa with a mustache drew on it in sharpie.