We can't see the ideas for the illustrations. Our world is simply flooded with them.
--Editorial, Harper's magazine, 1911
...we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in on form or another... transitory images seen, unconsciously, in passing, from the corner of our eyes, flashing at us.... I don't know why the eye doesn't get calloused as your knees....
--Dorothea Lange, 1964
Photographers attending the Visa Pour l'Image festival... seem oblivious to the the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.
--James Estrin, 2012
It's déjà vu all over again.
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New York Times photographer and photo blogger James Estrin is a troubled man. When he eloquently expressed his anxieties about the upheavals that cameras phones and social media have created in photography, I tweeted words of praise. ("Tweeted words of praise" sounds silly even to me, but that's the world we live in.)
The more I think about it, however, the more convinced I am that he got one big thing exactly right and a couple of other things... Well, let's just say that he left me a bit perplexed. He's someone that I've come to respect deeply, as both a photographer and a writer.
John Edwin Mason, Instagram: Egg yolk house. Charlottesville, Virginia, 2012.
The big thing that he got right is revolution. We agree that we're in the midst of a revolution in photography brought on by the camera phone and social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, that allow camera phone images to be broadcast around the world almost instantaneously.
As Estrin puts it, because of the "iPhone and social media, the very meaning of what photographs are and how they function has changed radically in the last four years."
John Edwin Mason, Instragram: Randall Pharr, bass. Fellini's, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2012.
Of course, the idea that the camera phone and social media are transforming technologies isn't news. In Photography Changes Everything, a fine new collection of essays that I'm reading at the moment, Marvin Heiferman sums up the emerging conventional wisdom: "camera-equipped cell- and smart phones, and the images we make and distribute from them... are radically altering the form, content, transmission, and impact of camera images.”
So far, so good. Estrin and I (and Heiferman, too) are on the same page.
John Edwin Mason, Instagram: Window view, Amtrak Northeast Regional. Virginia, 2012.
But for Estrin, the proliferation of images and their easy transmission around the world is a problem -- a big one. As he sees it, the world's one billion camera phone photographers are recording everything they see as if every single thing were equally important -- "dinners, dogs, cute kids, sunsets and body parts...." The camera phone photo, he says, is "mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one's navel."
I don't honestly think that Estrin believes that, and I'm also willing to be that he'd rewrite it, if he could.
Sure, most of the photos that find their way onto Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are snapshots. But there's nothing new here. The vast majority of pictures that people made with their Brownies, in 1890, with their disposable cameras, in 1990, and with whatever they used to make happy snaps during the century in between. For most people, most of the time, photos of family and friends are anything but chintzy. (Someone else's family...? Yeah, very chintzy.)
It's also worth pointing out that Estrin's litany of "dinners, dogs, cute kids, sunsets and body parts" sounds a lot like the contents of the average issue of Life magazine in, say, 1950.
John Edwin Mason, Twitter Pic: Scene from student/faculty/staff protest and vigil during University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting after the ousting of President Teresa Sullivan. The Rotunda, 18-19 June 2012.
More fundamentally, there is no evidence -- none -- that people think that photos of sunsets and photos of body parts are equally important. Quite the contrary, people wielding camera phones -- people like you and me -- have demonstrated time and again that they understand the difference between amusing their friends and recording something of significance.
Fred Ritchin makes this point in Photography Changes Everything when he notes that "much of the important photojournalism of the last several years... has been done by amateurs" using camera phones and digital cameras. You only have to think about how many amateur photos and videos of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement (especially outside of New York City) ended up on television and on news websites. They were there because they were valuable sources of visual information -- sometimes the only sources.
John Edwin Mason, Twitter pic: Supporter of ousted University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan at protext rally. The Lawn, 24 June 2012.
News agencies recognize this fact and so, increasingly, do research libraries and archives. One of the most interesting initiatives along this line is the Egypt's 21st Century Revolution Photographs digital collection that's run by the Rare Books and Special Collections Digital Library at the American University in Cairo. This collection of photos made by amateur and professional photographers during Egypt's Arab Spring is already proving to be a tremendous resource for researchers.
As for the consequences of the camera phone/social media revolution, Estrin foresees "two possible effects on 'serious' photography." First, the "flowering of photographers leads to millions of people who are thinking more visually and whom we may be able to entice to become an audience for documentary and photojournalistic images." For the sake of my many friends who earn a living as photojournalists and documentary photographers, I hope he's right.
John Edwin Mason, Twitter pic: Teresa Sullivan after reinstatement as president of the University of Virginia. The Rotunda, 26 June 2012.
And I suspect he's not. The audience that he's talking about might grow a bit. But in the developed world, the audience for serious photography has remained relatively small, despite the large proportion of the population has been snapping away for over a century.
Estrin's second possible outcome is dire. He fears that because we are "bombarded with so much visual stimuli via the Web and social media" it will become "almost impossible" for the work of professional photographers "to rise above the flood of images." If you read the quotes that opened this post, you've already guessed where I'm going next.
Estrin ignores history. People -- smart, well-informed people -- have been expressing similar anxieties for over 100 years, and the sky hasn't fallen. (The examples that I cited can be multipled many times.) For at least a century, each generation has genuinely felt threatened by the proliferation of images and feared that nothing good could come of it. And each generation has been wrong.
George Eastman was no revolutionary, but he was responsible for two technologies that were every bit as disruptive as the camera phone and social media. The introduction of roll film, in 1888, and the inexpensive Kodak Brownie camera, a few years later, revolutionized photography. It took it out of the hands of professionals and wealthy or obsessed amateurs and gave it to The People. Seriously.
John Edwin Mason, Twitter pic: Charlottesville, Virginia, 2012.
For the first time, anyone who wanted to express themselves visually and had a buck to spare could do it. No longer did you need the talent to draw, sketch, or paint. No longer did you need to buy expensive, bulky camera equipment and learn how to use it. You never had to enter a darkroom or even know what went on in one. As Kodak promised its consumers, "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest." Anyone could make pictures, and millions did.
This was the first wave in the democratization of image-making. We're in the midst of the second.
Eastman's revolution had its casualties; professional portrait photographers were especially hard hit. But the consequences of this democratization were overwhelmingly good. For the first time, millions of ordinary people had the power to express and represent themselves in pictures.
It's likely that the results of this second wave of democratization, the wave that's being propelled by the camera phone and social media, will be just as positive. Already we're benefiting from the ability of amateur photographers to record noteworthy and sometimes profoundly important events.
As someone who's deeply engaged with Africa, I'm thrilled by the potential of the camera phone. There are already half a billion cell phone subscribers on the continent, 95% of whom have pay-as-you-go plans. Most Africans will never have a land line, skipping an entire generation of communications technology. In the same way, most will never own a device that only makes pictures.
Pay-as-you-go allows even the relatively poor to have a phone, and increasingly those phones have a camera. For most people, it's their first camera, their first opportunity to represent themselves in photos, rather than to being photographed largely by professional outsiders. Social media gives them the means of reaching a large and distant audience. I have no idea what the consequences of this will be, but I bet they'll be good, and it will be fun watching to find out. (By the way, what's true for Africa is true of much of the developing world.)
None of this is going to be seamless, of course. Inevitably, most amateur photos won't be very good. Social media can obscure as much as it reveals about current events. But at their best both already provide invaluable alternatives to old media.
Understandably, professional photographers worry about their place in this new media universe. Fred Ritchen sees a role for professionals "with deep understandings of specific cultures.... Their work will coexist with and contextualize the more on-the-spot work done by nonprofessional citizen journalists." He acknowledges, however, that what "needs to be worked out, though, is how professional photojournalists will be paid for their work, and what outlets they’ll find or will have to create in order to publish it.”
As Estrin rightly says, there's no going back. The second photographic revolution, the second wave of visual democratization are happening right now, ready or not. History suggests that it's going to be a bumpy, challenging ride that will eventually take us to places we can't even imgine.
* * *
A couple of sharp, pithy pieces by David Campbell discuss and historicize the anxiety that camera phones and social media have provoked among professional photographers and some critics, here and here.
A recent article in the British Journal of Photography highlights professional photographers who are embracing the second wave of visual democratization, rather than gnashing their teeth and rending their garments. It's a good read, which you'll find, here.
Finally, you really should get your hands on a copy of Photography Changes Everything. The 80 or so short, fascinating articles show the ways in which photography has affected nearly every aspect of our lives, from the study of snowflakes and spiders to how we shop, cook, make war, and remember personal and national history. I found it hard to put down. Your local independent bookseller will be happy to get you a copy.