How our attachment to past makes us overlook new trends and talent in photography

Apr 6, 2017

Lars Mensel

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How our attachment to past makes us overlook new trends and talent in photography

Apr 6, 2017

Lars Mensel

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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There’s a very succinct analogy by Marshall McLuhan, summing up our society’s focus on the past:

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

McLuhan was referring to technology, but his observation works just as well in the context of modern-day photography: Even as technology reshapes it, we can’t seem to stop looking longingly into the past.

The history of photography might be too vivid

Don’t get me wrong: You’ll still arrive somewhere if you’re walking backwards. But doing so means that you won’t register all that happens along the way.

Despite its (relatively) short history, photography is full of iconic figures and stories. Artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson don’t just tower over the genre, they have become trademark names in popular culture as well. Even fringe figures like Vivian Maier – unknown during her lifetime – now light up the public imagination. Part of the reason why photography is such an exciting medium is that it begets great stories that are, by definition, visual.

And yet: These stories might just be too great. They’re so engrossing that they distract us from looking at photography with fresh eyes. Each time we consider photography, we’re looking into its history, think of the legendary photographers that shaped it, and we dream up images in black and white.

It’s a tendency that makes us see all new photography as a derivate: We pigeonhole the work of emerging photographers into categories, calling their work reminiscent of that of the legends. We readily file away their work under distinct labels. And we educate photographers by showing them the works of the legends, by laying out categories like “Street Photography” in front of them.

Photography has become such an iconic activity that we’re constantly emulating what already happened – rather than continuing its story.

Technology moves faster than our taste

Seeing the present through the lens of history is great for drawing lessons, but it also constricts creativity. A photo may have been shot on the streets, but that doesn’t mean all photos taken there are of the same nature, or that street photography accurately describes it. Doing so amounts to telling a talent that their work is nothing new, it means emulating what happened before rather than encouraging them to pursue their own vision.

am guilty like anyone else – using a film emulator on my camera to conform to the fashionable retro look.

The reminiscence extends to the very treatment of photos themselves. The most popular contemporary style is the vintage optic, as pioneered by Instagram and Hipstamatic. Rooted firmly in the past, this style has become the new normal with its faded colors and added grain showing up everywhere.

It seems that technology moves too fast for our own taste: In comparison to the photos of the past, the sharp and precise digital imagery modern cameras produce seem to be lacking character. And so we imbue them with a sense of authenticity through vintage filters, creating a mashup of old and new that’s neither there nor quite here.

Taste is obviously subjective and there’s nothing wrong with vintage optics. But it goes to show how our taste is under the spell of a bygone era: While photo engineers crank out new technology for more life-like photos, we edit the imperfections back in. Our very idea of what makes a beautiful photograph is anchored in the past, even though the present gives us plenty to explore.

And that’s what bothers me the most about walking backwards: The switch from analog to digital may have happened in technology, but it hasn’t happened in our heads. We consider “a photograph” just the same as we did during the age of slides and paper prints.

Digital has made photos easier to take and deal with. But we haven’t come to terms with the real advantage the digital revolution has given us: It has severed the link between a photograph and a rigid form.

Labels don’t describe ambition

Digital lets us redefine what a photo is: It can be an infinite canvas of stitched imagery, allowing 3D immersion. It can be animated and repeated. It can be round, ephemeral, personal.

Display forms haven’t kept step with these ideas. A photo is still artificially siloed from video, even though the lines have begun to blur. Is a gif a video? Is a stop-motion film a photograph? It doesn’t matter, because these labels don’t describe the ambition of photography.

Today, photography has become an omnipresent tool for capturing reality and to apply meaning to it. It’s more important to recognize that than to try and put it into its historical context. Because seeing photography in terms of its use rather than its format allows us to finally look forward: At the people redefining photography through their work.

About the Author

Lars Mensel is a writer, photographer, and the editor of the EyeEm Blog. You can see more of his work on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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One response to “How our attachment to past makes us overlook new trends and talent in photography”

  1. Quasi Annonymous Avatar
    Quasi Annonymous

    Vintage treatment of photos was in now way pioneered by Instagram or Hipstamatic. They just made it formulaic and accessible to a broader audience who then proceed to make it trite. gifs, true videos, panormamas, photospheres, etc. etc. also have been around for several years. It seems to me in this article you are under the impression you are the one on top of things when in reality you are late to the game. Things did, in fact happen before Apple and Apple related apps tried to claim innovations. In reality the vast majority, if not all of the filter apps are just a making a look accessible to people who can’t do it from scratch. They are a cake mix compared to a chef who creates a recipe.

    You are the one trying to figure out if a gif is a video. You are the one putting things into silos. In my experience most people don’t seem to care. Why do YOU feel the need to label? Sounds like you think you are very original and someone recently told you that you aren’t. Go ask anybody on the street who Cartier-Bresson is or Weegee or even Galen Rowell are. They won’t know. They don’t compare to old stuff because they don’t know or care about the history of photography.