The Graying Of Traditional Photography And Why Everything Is Getting Re-Invented In A Form We Don’t Understand By Kirk Tuck

The Graying Of Traditional Photography And Why Everything Is Getting Re-Invented In A Form We Don't Understand

On the last day of the PhotoPlus Expo I finally got why the camera industry has hit the wall and may never come back again in the same way. The folks who love cameras for the sake of cameras, and all the nostalgic feelings they evoke of Life Magazine, National Geographic, 1980′s fashion and 1990′s celebrity portraiture, and other iconic showcases that made us sit up and really look at photography, are graying, getting old and steadily shrinking in numbers.

I can profile the average camera buyer in the U.S. right now without looking at the numbers. The people driving the market are predominately over 50 years old and at least 90% of them are men. We’re the ones who are driving the romantic re-entanglement with faux rangefinder styles. We’re the ones at whom the retro design of the OMD series camera are aimed. We’re the ones who remember when battleship Nikons and Canons were actually needed to get great shots and we’re the ones who believe in the primacy of the still image as a wonderful means of communication and even art. But we’re a small part of the consumer economy now and we’re walking one path while the generations that are coming behind us are walking another path. And it’s one we’re willfully trying not to understand because we never want to admit that what we thought of as the “golden age of photography” is coming to an end as surely as the kingdom of Middle Earth fades away in the last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is not to say that photography is dying. Or that the generations coming behind us are doomed to failure and despair; far from it. They are living the golden age of photography from their perspective, and their heroes in the field are names we don’t even know. This is a generation that values a personal vision that arrives as quickly as a phone call and has a much shorter half life than the one we experienced for our work, but then again, what doesn’t move faster these days?

As I photographed in the booth for Samsung I looked out at the waves of people who were exploring the various products on the showroom floor and I became aware that most of them were well over 50 years old and the elders were carrying their big Nikons and Canons as badges of honor and with a smug attitude that their equipment choice was the one that would persevere through the ages.

But the very thing that makes a ruling party or a ruling generation is the same thing that will kill its paradigm. Our version of the market is almost a completely closed loop. At this Expo we worshipped at the altar of the same basic roster of speakers and presenters who’ve been speaking and presenting for the last ten years. We’ve closed the loop and the choice offered to younger photographers is to sit and listen to people old enough to be their grandmothers or grandfathers wax on about how we used to do it in the old days or to not come at all.

When I listen to lectures about how the market has changed what I hear from my generation is how to take the tools we programmed ourselves to love and try to apply them to our ideas of what might be popular with end users today. So we buy D4′s and 1DSmkIV’s to shoot video on giant Red Rock Micro rigs and we rush to buy Zeiss cinema lenses because we want the control and the idea of ultimate quality in our offerings while the stuff that the current generation is thinking about is more concerned with intimacy, immediacy and verisimilitude rather than “production value.” To the new generations the idea of veracity and authenticity always trumps metrics of low noise or high resolution. And that need for perfection is our disconnection from the creative process, not theirs.

Our generation’s fight with digital, early on, was to tame the high noise, the weird colors, the slow buffers and the old technology which saddled us with wildly inaccurate and tiny viewfinders and batteries that barely lasted through a sneeze. We pride ourselves on the mastery but the market moved on and now those parameters are taken for granted. Like turning on a television and assuming it will work. We are still staring at the technical landscape which rigidly disconnects us from the emotional interface of the craft. If we don’t jump that shark then we’re relegated to being like the photographer who makes those precious black and white landscapes which utilize every ounce of his PhotoShop skills but  which, in the end, become works that are devoid of any emotional context. In fact, they are just endless revisions of work that Ansel Adams did better, and with more soul, fifty years ago. Technique as schtick. Mastery for mastery’s sake with no hook to pull in a new generation. Of course we like technically difficult work. It was hard for us to master all the processes a decade ago. Now it’s a canned commodity, a pervasive reality, and what the market of smart and wired in kids are looking for is an emotional connection with their images that goes beyond the mechanical construct.

It’s no longer enough to get something in focus, well exposed and color correct. It’s no longer good enough to fix all the “flaws” in Photoshop. What the important audience wants now is the narrative, the story, the “why” and not the “how.” The love, not the schematic.

So, what does this mean for the camera industry? It means that incremental improvements in quality no longer mean shit to a huge and restless younger market. They don’t care if the image is 99% perfect if the content is exhilarating and captivating. No one cared if the Hobbit was available at 48 fps as long as the story was strong in 24 fps. No one cares if a landscape is perfect if there’s a reason for the image of a landscape to exist. No one cares if a model is perfect if the model is beguiling.

My generation has long been fixated on “getting it right” and that presumes that our point of view is the one that is objectively right. But it’s always been true that “your focus determines your reality.”

What it really means for the camera industry is that the tools they offer the new generation must be more intuitively integrated and less about “ultimate.” In this world a powerful camera that’s small enough and light enough to go with you anywhere (phone or small camera) trumps the huge camera that may generate better billboards but the quality of which is irrelevant for web use and social media. The accessible camera trumps the one that needs a sherpa for transport and a banker for acquisition.

I look at the video industry and I see our generation drawn toward the ultimate production cameras. Cameras like the Red Epic or the Alexa. But I see the next generation making more intimate and compelling work with GH3′s and Canon 5D2′s and 3′s. Or even cameras with less pedigrees. The cheaper cameras mean that today’s younger film makers can pull the trigger on projects now instead of waiting for all the right stuff to line up. Cheaper good cameras mean more projects get made. More experience gets logged. More storytelling gets done. My generation is busy testing the “aspirational” cameras to see just how perfect perfect can be. And we’re loosing ground day by day to a generation that realizes that everyone must “seize the day” in order to do their art while it’s fresh.

If I ran the one of the big camera companies I would forget the traditional practitioners and rush headlong toward the youth culture with offerings that allowed them to get to work now with the budgets they have. Ready to do a video project? Can’t afford a Red One or even a big Canon? How about a $600 Panasonic G6 and some cheap lenses? Ready to go out and shoot landscapes? Will a Nikon D800 really knock everyone’s socks off compared to an Olympus OMD when you look at the images side by side on the web? No? Well, that’s the litmus test. It’s no longer the 16×20 gallery print because we don’t support physical galleries any more.

So, there we were at the trade show and the majority of the attendees were guys wearing their photo jackets with a camera bag over one shoulder and a big “iron” on a strap over the other shoulder. And they had their most impressive lenses attached. And they walked through the crowd with pride because they were packing cool gear. And the pecking order of the old-cognescenti was: film Leica’s, then digital Leica M’s, followed by Mamiya 6 or 7 rangefinders, followed by Fuji Pro-1′s, followed by big, pro Nikons or Canons and so on. While the few young people there zipped through the exhibits and took notes of interesting products with their phones.

The next generations aren’t adapting to “hybrid photography” they invented it in a very natural way. We’re the ones trying to label the intersection of video and stills and the co-opt it. But we keep overlaying our own preconditions to the genre.

If we understand that our focus determines our reality then we can try to change our focus and better understand where photography is headed, outside the parameters of our own little, private club. And that understanding will help us swim back into the  current of current of photographic culture instead of swimming against the tide trying to get back to a place to which we can really never return.

Yes, some people will still use “ultimate” cameras to create “ultimately sharp and detailed” landscapes, cityscapes and artsy assemblages but their audiences will be constrained to other groups of aging practitioners. Art is a moving target. To understand the target requires a constant re-computation of the factors involved.

It’s a hoary stereotype but we need to look to the music industry. The delivery systems have changed profoundly and the music along with it. We can cling to Stan Getz and The Girl from Ipanema  but we certainly won’t connect with the current market. I’m not saying we need to love hip hop or Daft Punk but we need to understand where the market is now. It’s wonderful that you enjoy waltz music or polkas but if you want to swim in current culture you probably won’t find those genres conducive to gaining general acceptance.

Cameras are and will get smaller and lighter. The lenses will get smaller and lighter and easier to carry around. The gear will get easier and easier to use. And why shouldn’t it? The gear will get more and more connected. Maybe the cameras don’t need to master the entire internet on their own but it will get easier and easier to move images from camera to phone or camera to tablet. And why shouldn’t it get easier? Making the process harder for the sake of artisanal martyrdom doesn’t move the art along its way. And why should it?

Where is photography going? Where it always gone. It’s going along for the ride with popular culture. It’s the traditionalists that feel a sense of loss but the sense of loss is from the constant evolution of tastes and styles. If you look at photo history you’ll see generational warfare at every junction. Resistance to smaller camera formats! Resistance to color film! Resistant to SLR cameras! Resistance to automation!

And in the art you see Robert Frank as the foil to the arch perfectionism of Group 64. You see William Klein as the antidote to the preciousness of Elliott Porter. You see Guy Bourdin as the antithetical anti hero to Snowdon and Scuvallo. Each move forward was contentious and cathartic. Just as Josef Koudelka was the revolutionary to Walker Evans.

The camera market is in the doldrums now because it is conflicted. Go with the aging money? Or go with the maturing new markets? Go with a shrinking but loyal market or blaze a new trail based on new cultural parameters? The spoils will go to the companies that get it right.

What do I see as “must haves” for the industry to resonate with the new markets?

Cameras must be smaller, lighter and more accessible. 

 

Cameras need to work with less nit picky intervention on the part of the operators.

 

Whole systems must be smaller, lighter and more financially accessible.

 

Cameras should be interconnected with phones and tablets in an almost mindless way.

Cameras must no longer be precious and coveted. They need to be more like phones. A commodity that gets replaced as new stuff comes out with feature sets more conducive to the mission.

Apple has it just right. Make things that are simple to own and simple to use. Make menus easier and not harder. Eliminate the need to make unnecessary decisions. Make design more important and ultimacy less important. Change the focus of consumers in order to own the markets.

Is my advice any good? Naw. I’m as trapped into my generation as anyone else. But I do know that the first step to freedom is to throw off the resistance to change. You’ll never change the momentum of the overall market but you can always change your own focus. And then you may open new doors of perception that allow you to do your own work….but in a new way. Like a bridge.

Continue to tell your story. But make sure you are delivering it in a way that people will be able to understand. Change is inevitable and fighting it is the first step to failure.

For a while my markets drove me back into full frame cameras. But those markets have changed so much that it no longer seems to matter. Now I’m just looking for cameras that are fun and easy to embrace. They all take good enough images now. Ultimate quality is now taking a back seat to intimacy and immediacy. A big camera is no longer a prerequisite for a place at the table.

Edit: go see what Michael Reichmann has to say about all this: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/pdn_photoplus_2013.shtml

Edit: Just read this at the NYTimes and found it …. familiar: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131027&_r=0

(EZ reader translation for people who have forgotten how to read long stuff….

All cameras now good. Technical Mastery not as important as in year’s past. Old guys love technical mastery. New guys like making different style images and don’t care about image perfection. Aesthetic pendulum swings from perfect to emotive. Some camera makers evolve. Some not.  Cameras getting smaller and easier to use. Old styles of shooting fading. New styles emerging. Good time to be a photographer. Change is inevitable. Change is good for young people. Change harder for some old people. Kirk is happy and now goes off swimming. May toss all old gear and just get better phone. short enough?

About The Author

Kirk Tuck is a professional photographer for a few decades and the writer of best selling photography books.

He loves shooting portraits of people, and have shot both CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies as well as men and women who work with their hands.

Kirk writes an excellent blog called The Visual Science Lab which I highly recommend. This post was originally published here.

  • jalanlee

    AMEN! It was always about the story – but somehow the gear became the story, and the storytellers became a bunch of snobs who look down on anyone who doesn’t have $10,000 of gear.

  • Doc Pixel

    The absolute “word-for-word” perfect essay on the state of the industry today! Thank you for putting into “words” my thoughts exactly… and finally…

    WORD! :)

  • JustAThought

    Judging by your essay, I have to be 50+, since I’m extremly picky about sharpness, I love manual film cameras (ZenitB, Polaroid, Minolta, etc) and I don’t ever use neither instagram nor even my cellphone’s camera. (I’m 18 years old).
    However, what makes a true photographer is not the device he is using, or wheater sharpness or image quality is important to him, but rather the chill of shooting, the feeling when you press the shutter to capture emotions.
    These generations are not so different as you may think, at least when we talk about photographers shooting for the sake of art.

  • BobD

    One thing everyone forgets is that there is no real living to be made with photography these days. The industry is now making money off of the wannabes. Portfolio reviews, festivals, consultants all geared toward making money off people’s dreams and not their work. It isn’t sustainable and will soon collapse in on itself.

  • jim jackson

    I gave one of my interns an old book that I used to learn photography with. We discussed it a while later and he said that he found most of it “unnecessary”. All of pedantry drove him nuts. He knows what a usable histogram looks like. He knows what each adjustment in Photoshop and Lightroom will do. He doesn’t need to know the technical and exposure theories that predate digital. And, from what I can see in his quite excellent portfolio, he is right. He knows what he is doing.

    It is a different world. Sometimes we all have to be reminded of that.

  • Rosaria Lopez

    Very poetic and very condescending to all age groups. What the heck are you smoking, Tuck? Photography and the visual arts are more alive now than ever. One doesn’t need heavy iron to make a good picture. 5 or 95, one can create an emotional image with a with a toy camera if they have it in themselves. If you wrote as many “best selling photography books” as you so shamelessly promoted in your Bio you would know this. It was never about the equipment, it is the eye of the image creator that makes for good photography. Neigh Sayers like this author thought Polaroid was going to replace heavy iron…It didn’t. Here we are 70 years later with the same argument yet again that digital technology in phones and tablets is going to take over the world…It won’t. In a little while we’ll see the next piece of “hipster hardware” and our grand children will be having yet again this same argument.

    Technology has removed the barriers and encumbrances of making technically perfect images, something unfortunately rampant when I look at a sharp and excellently lit close up of a french fry somebody is having for lunch or some doe-eyed emo’s selfie.

  • Fouda

    Basically: Quality performance & output is being given up for relevance & connection/intimacy, and thus tools that facilitate that

    I wholeheartedly agree; you feel that especially when you notice the difference between trying to sell photo service to industry professionals like editors & marketing managers, and when you try to circulate it with regular people in your network

    Your article would truly make all the sense it can once you take into account the different segments photography targets then vs now;

    Then it was almost strictly commercial (fashion, editorial, photo journo) or artistic demand and the currency was strictly money

    Now it’s demand by regular, non-photo savvy people, and the currency is more towards “attention” [on social media] first THEN money

    Music as an example is perfect for this :)

  • Gregóire Baudin

    Sorry to hear that you are such an old “racist” kind of guy. It’s what i call “Lost in time”. In your own time world. That’s why old people are so boring and sad. Because all the things they had done, they don’t do anymore, saying that “No, it’s not like the old days”. That’s bull! Things reinvent themselves, you do that. It’s unstopabble. Ask a doctor who has more than 60, if he prefer the 80′s as a doctor, the “Hell no” he will say. But he will always be nostalgic about the time, though. But you guys have that “no!, In my time it was better”, the truth is that you get through some experiences, then you find something wonderful, then it changes or you lost it, whatever. And finally you try once, to no sucess, try twice and ‘what the hell’ my time was better. But you forget how HARD it was until you had it actually done, or good at it, or the technique, or to attract that blonde girl to your apartment, etc. Don’t be such and old pig spirit. Be young. Try new things. Once, twice, until you get it, and then again you will say 20 years from now, ‘that was THE time’. If you don’t, then i’m sorry but you will still say that the 80′s, 90′s, were the best time, and do nothing because the world ‘it’s no good anymore’. Good are now. Always do something different, reinvent it. If you don’t then you will grow old, and die without knowing what ‘good’ is, just what it was.

    • marcopolopugs

      wrong. Film images are beautiful and rich in a way that digital is not ..yet. The image looks “thin” on the paper or it has that digital look. It lacks a certain rich, smooth look of analogue. Unless you have a very expensive say, $30,000.00 Hasselblad or digital back for a medium format camera you are not going to get a great, fine art image..and unless you master the tools of photoshop and learn how to get the film to look like a film image then you will be the person who is like you..content with the look of digital and veering further and further away from what real photography looks like. That we have lost this is tragic.

  • Kay

    As someone who’s lying in between the worlds of the old analogs and the digital natives its nice to hear another perspective. The world of digital cameras, Internet and cellphones happened when I was hitting university so I didn’t grow up on it, but I learned about it when I was still pretty maleable.

    While in some ways I feel like I have the best of both worlds its also a really confusing place to be sometimes. I definitely have one foot in both worlds without really having a firm grasp on either. I’ve got a nice Canon DSLR, but I keep feeling nervous that I’m missing the mirrorless boat. On the other side I just got a medium format TLR.

    Well, no matter what they invent or where the market goes there’ll always be people playing with the old stuff and others rushing out for the newest thing. The important part is to enjoy yourself and say something with your images.

  • T

    TROLLS TROLLS TROLLS SO MANY TROLLS.
    I am 23 and actually appreciated this, I did not find this condescending, he is simply saying times are a changing. While he is not 100% correct on everything (my opinion though), (I still value high quality and more manual cameras) it’s true there is a shift. This is an opinion peace so everyone please refrain from reading into it like a factual peace and thus getting all up in arms.
    Cool your jets internet.
    -T

  • Matthew Wagg

    I love Kirk Tuck, I’ve been following him for years. Not only is he an excellent and adroit writer but a great photographer as well.

  • John

    As a graying grandfather, I couldn’t agree with you more! Hence, I’m in love with my Fujifilm X100S. OK, so it’s a retro style but it’s small, light weight, and takes fantastic photos — with my help, of course! Just like you said it should be

  • Eli Velvel

    “So we buy D4′s and 1DSmkIV’s to shoot video on giant Red Rock Micro rigs”

    1DSmkIV? Proofreading, a lost art itself.

  • Sal

    Each man and woman to their opinion.

    I personally believe that if you are happy in your craft then you shouldn’t care about other people’s opinions. After all, the people who feel like they’re doing it for the right reason do it for themselves.

    Do whatever the hell makes you happy with whatever you have. Camera phone or Hasselblad. Don’t much matter.

    • marcopolopugs

      I’d love a film Hassleblad especially the older ones and I would also love their 30,000.00 digital

  • marcopolopugs

    You obviously have spent little time (or perhaps it was too long ago) in museums and fine art galleries really looking at what a great photograph is. Perhaps you are too steeped in commercial photography and not fine art photography. Your babble that “It’s no longer the 16×20 gallery print because we don’t support physical galleries any more” is an awful, ignorant and untrue piece of babble. (Just came from a huge art fair where we saw photographs going for bewten 10,000.00 and up to one quarter of a million..Yes, there are collectors of photography. Possibly not where you are. The greatest images are shot on film…serious fine art shooters still use film and because y’all jumped on digital, darkrooms closed and these fine art photographers cannot find anyone great to print their images and now scan their film to print. There is nothing more beautiful than a darkroom printed image ..color or black & white. The labs that employed these Master Printers went digital and those fine printers lost their professions..It is a very sad story. Here in NYC one of the finest and most famous color darkroom mural printers..he and his department was slowly squeezed out by the owner of the lab who went whole hog for digital. It’s a really bad sad story that needs to be told. Also, film died because the industry (Kodak, Ilford, Fuji) not only did not market their film products well, in fact they failed at this.. but they also could not seem to produce a low ISO film that would capture detail in shadow and retain sharpness and exposure in low light, with fine grain. Film cannot come close to digital in low light situations unless one is on a tripod and that is entirely impractical for many, many situations. So while digital is remarkable, still, there is nothing like film and then, all the beautiful types of papers that used to be available..Ilford had at least 50 black & white papers. Fuji Flex was gorgeous..is it still around? One of the most beautiful type of prints were R prints created by the “R” process wherein you could could make a print directly from a E-6 chrome. Duggal had the R print machine many years ago and got rid of it. Fuji crystal archive paper for the R type was required. I have approximately 250 R prints and they are, after 20 years, as lustrous and beautiful as the first day. Digital is really not photography. It is “digital imaging”..something very different. A lot of it is quick and dirty, and that then becomes a hit and miss image that can be endless tweaked in post production..Yuck. Dr5 Lab whose proprietor, the brilliant David Wood, who can take any negative black & white film and create a stunning positive/chrome image with beautiful tonal range still processes film for his picky clients.(Recall Agfa Scala? a beautiful,versatile black & white chrome film..Dr5 still processes it if ..you are lucky enough to have some rolls in your freezer)) The act of looking at a black and white chrome on a lightbox cannot be described..these are stunning and easily archived to boot.. For serious fine art work, most still shoot with film on medium format or large format cameras. There is a richness to a film that digital is still struggling to achieve in the final print. Sounds like you sold out to the new “quick and dirty- shot post- production crowd.” How sad. Get thee to a museum soon and reawaken your eye for real photography done by the great masters who, yes, lugged around all that interesting and scientific equipment including the much maligned and hated TRIPOD, which, when you come down to it ..if you want a great picture use a tripod.. You have forgotten these things, sir. And, all these young people actually have great reverence and respect and awe for film cameras and film shooters by the way. Also, who walks around trade shows with their gear hung all over them showing off? A great photographer would not do that…