"10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011."
--Fortune magazine, 24 September 2012
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We live in revolutionary times. Disruptive technologies and new means of communication are transforming the visual universe in which we live. The changes are most apparent in our personal lives, but they have global implications in culture, economics, and politics. The signs are all around us -- from the ways in which we now create our sense of personal identity and present ourselves to the world (Facebook photos and Twitter avatars) to new forms of political organizing and activism (Tahrir Square).
The raw numbers alone are staggering. Fortune magazine reports that "10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011." "Ever" is a long time. In the history of photography, it stretches back nearly 175 years. The percentage of all photos ever made will be even higher in 2012.
It's no secret that the camera phone and social media (themselves dependent on digital image-making and the internet) are driving this transformation. Consider Instagram, the photo-sharing site that Facebook bought for a billion dollars last April. In the two years since its launch, it's attracted over 40 million users, who have posted over one billion photos and add five million more every day.
John Edwin Mason: Speed Week, 2011. Bonneville Salt Flats.
Instagram's numbers are stunning, but Facebook dwarfs its new acquisition. There are currently over 100 billion photos posted on that virtually inescapable social media site, and its roughly 850 million users upload 250 to 300 million additional images daily.
We can't know where all of this is taking us, but the role that camera phones and social media played during the upheavals in Iran, in 2009, and across North Africa, during the Arab Spring of 2011, already tells us that this transformation will have powerful consequences. So does the pressure that these innovations are placing traditional media outlets and photojournalists. Sure, photos of cute kittens and drunken twenty-year-olds dominate Facebook. But many of the millions of photos we make every day have deep personal and social significance.
We -- all of us -- are clearly going to need some help figuring all of this out. Happily, Photography Changes Everything, an important and often surprising collection of essays that has just been published by Aperture and the Smithsonian Institution, is ready to do just that.
Photography Changes Everything a sprawling book, and I'm going to sprawl right along with it. This review is divided into two parts. In Part One, I'll give you an overview of the book and discuss some of the quirkiest and most interesting essays.
In Part Two, I'm going to address the revolutionary times in which we live. The visual culture that we create and consume is changing radically. Photography Changes Everything reminds us that this isn't the first time that photography has propelled this sort of transformation. Some of the essays, in fact, describe the current upheaval as the second wave of photography's democratic revolution. (The first began over 100 years ago.) Other essays show how photography, as a truly democratic medium, is transforming the world today. [Update, 25 September 2012: I've just posted Part Two of the review. You can read it, here.]
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Photography Changes Everything might sprawl, but it sprawls with a purpose. Its aim is to encompass photography as a whole -- to wrap its arms around this massive, kaleidoscopic subject as never before. The nearly 80 authors of its short, thoughtful, fascinating essays aren't primarily concerned with photography's revolutionary potential. Instead, they're interested in the ways in which everyone from scientists and engineers to historians, anthropologists, social reformers, fashion designers, diplomats, poets, and pornographers have used photography to change things in large ways and small.
The essays argue convincingly that many of those of us who teach, think about, write about, and curate photography have been doing it wrong. As Merry A. Foresta says in his forward, we've treated photography as if it were “a picture-making form like... painting, drawing, even graffiti.” It's not.
The unfortunate result, according to Marvin Heiferman, the book's editor, has been that “the most sustained and promoted discourse about photography" has tended to focus only on "a specific category of images: those made as art, as well as the handful of vernacular images that managed to get upgraded to the status of art." (A glance at the books about photography on my shelves confirms that observation.) While this has had its benefits, it's also "created something of a roadblock” because photography isn't simply, or even mostly, an art.
Foresta points out that “most of the billions of pictures that are taken with cameras every year are made for purposes that have nothing to do with art. ...and their value is dependent on how well they serve a purpose that, more often than not, has nothing to do with photography itself." A true understanding of photography, then, would come "not from placing images into the realm of art but from examining them in their original locations and understanding their original purposes.”
The essays in Photography Changes Everything take up the call. Each addresses one of photography's diverse purposes and effects, in the belief that it's time to stop leaving photography out of its own story, as Geoffery Batchen would put it.
Nicholas Nixon: Untitled.
The book opens with its most challenging piece -- Robert Adams' discussion of beauty in the context of Nicholas Nixon’s photo of a calf. It's a fascinating read and a slightly disorienting one. At first glance or even third, I didn't see the beauty in this photo (below). It strikes me as far from pretty. The poor calf is captured in harsh light within an awkward composition.
But Adams isn't trying to convince me of the photo's beauty, he's trying to make me think. What I thought about were photos in which I see beauty where many other people would not -- Robert Frank's grit, Roy DeCarava's inky depths, Sally Mann's shadowy, searching self-portraits. I wouldn't call any of this photography pretty, but I do see it as powerful and extraordinarily moving. Adams, that is, prompted me to see that photography has changed my ideas about beauty. (He might even change my mind about the calf.)
Photography Changes Everything is full of surprises. I didn't expect to be mesmerized, for instance, by Kenneth G. Librecht's description of William A. Bentley's photographs of snowflakes or Jonathan A. Coddington's account of Bill Eberhard's struggle to photograph a spider web. But I was. Like virtually all of the essays in the book, they're little gems, wonderful to read and capable of opening windows on new worlds.
William A. Bentley: Snowflake study, 1890.
Bentley's beautifully iconic photos of snowflakes, which he began to publish in 1898, transformed our understanding of them. But who knew that they have also unwittingly deceived us? As Librecht writes, the photos "have influenced popular perceptions so thoroughly" that most people think that snowflakes are always tiny hexagonal jewels. In fact, many are little more than "misshapen globs of ice."
Coddington traces researchers' efforts to photograph spider webs, which are "purposely difficult to see." Early attempts, such as spritzing them with water, caused so much distortion that the photos were useless for scientific purposes. Eberhard's grandmother solved the problem in the mid-1960s, when she suggested dusting the webs with corn starch, which is "very light and reflects light beautifully." Ever since, photos have been essential for studying "the delicate and complex architecture" of spider webs.
Photographer unknown: [Spider web with cornstarch.]
Stewart Brand is one of several well chosen celebrity authors. His essay about his successful effort to popularize the color photographs of the Earth that Apollo 8 astronauts made in 1968 is terrific right from its opening lines:
“It was February 1966 and I was twenty-eight and was sitting on a gravelly roof in San Francisco’s North Beach. I had taken a mild dose of LSD on an otherwise boring afternoon and sat, wrapped in a blanket, gazing at the San Francisco skyline. ...I imagined going farther and farther into orbit and soon realized that the sight of the entire planet, seen at once, would be quite dramatic and would make a point that Buckminster Fuller was always ranting about: the people act as if the Earth is flat, when in reality it is spherical and extremely finite, and, until we learn to treat it as a finite thing, we will never get civilization right.”
Cover, Whole Earth Catalog, 1968.
The image of the Earth as seen from space has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine a time when no such photos existed. Once they did, Brand says, "they reframed everything. For the first time, humanity saw itself from outside." The photos changed our sense of ourselves and our planet, giving a boost to the emerging environmental movement (and adorning the cover of Brand's Whole Earth Catalog).
Other essays in Photography Changes Everything show how it's transformed our sense of glamour and celebrity, the way we see and consume the news, create families, understand history, go to war, shop, cook, and tell people who we are. And that's not an exhaustive list. The two- and three-page essays are a delight to read and are guaranteed to get you thinking. (Heiferman did a brilliant job recruiting contributors.) I wish that I could talk about more of them.
Instead, in Part Two, I'm going to turn to the essays that touch on the issue that interests me most at the moment -- the two waves of photography's democratic revolution.