14 December 2013
This may sound a bit specialised and I know I’m a photo bore, but, bear with me, it’s might be worth it.
’The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an art form?’ runs the headline. Standing up this line is Antonio Olmos who says, ‘Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’
I think this is daft. It’s good lots more people are taking pictures because the more thoughtful among them will come to realise the greatness of Don McCullin – the democratisation of literacy has the same effect with Shakespeare and Keats.
But Olmos is not being half as daft as Nick Knight, a professional photographer who has taken to using an iPhone on his assignments.
‘What I’m into,’ he says, ‘is visual connection to what I’m taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It’s absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution – what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishise the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don’t get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant.’
To say you can produce great images with your iPhone is to say nothing. You can produce great images with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg or, as Robert Rauschenberg did, with a goat and a tyre. And no, of course, we, the audience, don’t have to worry about paintbrushes, but artists do. I’m pretty sure from Titian to Hockney they’ve gone for the best, not because they’re gadget neurotics but because they don’t want anything to get in the way. You can do more with good brushes. Equally, you can do more with good cameras. I can do everything – I think – the iPhone can do with my Leica ME and later, I hope, with a Nikon D800, plus a million other things. Of course, you don’t pursue resolution and sharpness for their own sake, it is just that, if you have them, you are freer.
The non-specialised point is the philistinism implicit in these arguments. I am not sure it is meaningful to talk of destroying an art form, though people do all the time. If the novel ‘died’ tomorrow would people stop telling stories? One may mourn, as I sometimes do, the passing of a technology – vinyl records or film – but music and photography haven’t died and, anyway, you can still get film and vinyl. And, note, despite dark forebodings in the 1840s, photography did not stop people painting. On the other hand it is certainly true that digital photography has engendered a manic pursuit of some kind of perfection that is, in itself, aesthetically meaningless and that this should be rejected. But McCullin and his peers can deal with that and show the way.
So, if you’re getting a camera for Christmas, make sure it the most expensive one the giver can afford, but don’t unbox it until you have had a go with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg.