I see photography as one of the most democratic mediums of the contemporary world... since the advent of Kodak and the Brownie camera, photography has been a potential medium of the masses. Quite untrained, I was able, with a little direction, to use the medium to express my view of the country and world I inhabited. ...I thought I could record images of my familiar world, as well as the attempts to change the socially engineered world of the time, and this intuitive attempt was largely proved correct with time.
--South African photographer Cedric Nunn, in conversation with Sean Jacobs, 2011.
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In Part One of this review, I said that Photography Changes Everything, the new collection of short, pithy essays that's just been published by Aperture and Smithsonian, has the potential to transform the way we think and write about photography. Rather than concentrating on fine art and documentary photography, as is usually the case in serious studies of the subject, the book challenges us to see photography as the sprawling, kaleidoscopic thing that it is.
Most photography has nothing to do with art or documentary work. Instead everyone from scientists and engineers to soldiers, anthropologists, social reformers, fashion designers, diplomats, poets, and pornographers have used photography as a tool of their trade. Almost all of us also use it to shape and preserve our sense of ourselves, families and communities. To understand photography as a whole, we need to see it through the eyes of everyone who makes and uses it. That's precisely what the book's nearly 80 quirky, thoughtful essays do.
In Part Two, I take up one of the most important threads that runs through many of the essays and relate it to the revolution in visual communication that we're experiencing right now. The thread is photography's democratic promise. The revolution is the massive increase in number of photographs we make and in the ways we distribute and consume them.
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The visual revolution that we're experiencing is about far more than numbers, but the raw statistics themselves are staggering, as Steven Hoffenberg's essay in Photography Changes Everything makes clear. In the late 1990s, when the use of film cameras was at its historical height, about 80 billion photos were made each year. That's a lot -- nearly a roll of film for every man, woman, and child on earth. In 2011, however, we made five times as many photos -- over 400 billion -- with camera phones alone and almost as many photos with conventional digital cameras.
Given figures like those, it's no surprise that Fortune magazine estimates that "10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011."
Philippe Kahn: (Very) first camera phone photograph, 1997. [You can read about this photo, here.]
The revolution isn't just about making pictures, it's about displaying and distributing them as well. Our photos are public documents in ways that they simply couldn't have been when they were unique 4x6 prints. Most of our photos are digital files, not physical objects, and they can been seen by unlimited numbers of people, anywhere, who have a cell phone or computer that's connected to the internet. This is especially true when we share our photos through social media, such as Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, and, of course, Facebook, which dominates the scene. According to the best estimates, Facebook hosts over 100 billion photographs, and its 845 million users upload an additional 250 to 300 million every day.
This transformation in the way that we make and see photos would be worth thinking about even if it didn't have deep social, economic, and political consequences. But it does. You only have to consider the struggles of the Eastman Kodak corporation, the declining revenues and readership of newspapers, and the role that social media and camera phone photos and video played during the Arab Spring of 2011 to know that we're in the midst of profound changes.
As I suggested in Part One, we can't know where this is taking us. The worst place to view a revolution is from the inside. But with the help of Photography Changes Everything, we can gain some perspective and make some educated guesses.
The first thing to note is that we've been here before. We're in the midst of the second wave of photography's democratic revolution in visual expression, as Hoffenberg puts it in his essay. During the first wave, which began 120 years ago, photography became a democratic medium. Now, in the second, democratization is being extended so greatly that it amounts to a qualitative change, not just a quantitative one.
The first wave made photography a democratic medium in at least two senses. Most obviously it made photography something that virtually anyone can do. It also established photography as a tool in the fight for democratic rights.
National Portrait Gallery: George Eastman, 1890.
George Eastman doesn't look like much of a revolutionary. And, in truth, he wasn't interested in transforming the economic and political structure of American society. He was an inventor and a businessman, not a rebel. But, ironically (given the current difficulties of the company he founded), he was responsible for the initial democratization photography. It became a hobby that almost anybody could pursue, rather than being the preserve of professionals and wealthy (or obsessive) amateurs.
Eastman's revolution came in two stages, as Hoffenberg shows. In 1888, he separated making the complicated and expensive process of using bulky view cameras, developing glass-plate negatives, and producing prints from the act of taking a photo. He correctly believed that, given the right camera, anyone could take a picture. That camera was his Kodak, which came pre-loaded with his newly introduced roll film. All the owner had to do was point the camera and press the shutter button. Once all the film was exposed, the owner sent the entire camera back to Kodak, since processing and printing still required special skills. Prints and a reloaded camera arrived by return mail.
Kodak advertisement, circa 1888.
Because the camera was still relatively expensive (as was processing the film), owning and using a Kodak required a comfortable income. Eastman fully democratized photography in 1900, when Kodak introduced the Brownie, a one-dollar camera that took perfectly acceptable pictures.
For the first time, ordinary men and women (and boys and girls) had the means to express themselves visually in ways that were as meaningful to others as to themselves. Hoffenberg puts it this way:
For most of human existence, methods of visually representing the world were the province of a select few individuals. From cavemen... to the Dutch Old Masters, the creation of visual images was typically practiced only by those who possessed an acute eye for observation, in addition to refined manual dexterity and sufficient time on their hands to put charcoal and ochre to rock, or oil paint to canvas.
Thanks to George Eastman, the accidental revolutionary, people could picture themselves, their families, and their communities and represent them to the world, rather than always being represented by others.
Unidentified Photographer: Two Women Hugging Seated on Left Side of Car with Maryland 1951 License Plate.
Lonnie Bunch takes up some of these themes in his essay on photography in the African-American community in the early to mid-twentieth century. He shows that photography allowed black people to preserve family memories and promote community cohesiveness. At the same time, African Americans used photography to address white America, saying, in effect, "We're not who you think we are. We see ourselves differently." Bunch concludes that "even if you were poor there was something about photography that made it a weapon in the struggle for racial justice."
Addison Scurlock: YWCA Camp for Girls Highland Beach, MD, 1930.
Bunch's essay introduces the second sense in which photography has been a democratic medium -- a instrument and weapon in the fight for democratic rights. In this essay, the African-American community's use of photography as a weapon is largely implicit. People like those he discusses were concerned first and foremost with the documenting the special moments and history of their families and communities and with the way that they themselves were seen by outsiders. They didn't use photography to directly confront racism and segregation. On the other hand, the civil rights activists who appear in Maurice Berger's essay most certainly did.
Berger shows that civil rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s had a sophisticated understanding of the role that photography could play in the movement. This was especially true of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC}, which produced its own photos and commissioned The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, the first book of civil rights photography. Like other civil rights groups, it cultivated teams of professional "movement photographers" who created "images that celebrated black life and achievements" and served "as instruments of motivation or persuasion." The photographs, which circulated widely in newspapers and magazines, played a vital role in transforming racial injustice into an issue that white Americans could no longer ignore.
The Movement, 1964. Cover photograph by Danny Lyon.
The stories that Bunch and Berger tell are by no means unique to the African-American community. The first wave of democratization allowed people to use photography in similar ways in many other times and places. One example is on view right now at New York's International Center for Photography. The exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is, among other things, an extended examination of the role that photos played in the democratization of South Africa.
Photography's second wave of democratization extends and deepens the advances of the first wave. Photography, thanks to the camera phone and social media, is now accessible to people who couldn't afford even the most inexpensive film and digital cameras and and who, in any case, would have had no means of getting their photos seen outside of their communities. The impact is greatest in the developing world.
As Hoffenberg points out, "mobile phones leapfrogged over wired telephone infrastructure in emerging market countries, and embedded camera technology piggybacked onto the greater mobile phone phenomenon worldwide." To put it another way, many people in the developing world can now make photographs, but the vast majority don't own, and never will own, a device that's only a camera.
Karthick Ramalingam: Looking, 2009.
In Africa, for instance, is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. It's estimated that there will be about 735 million mobile phone subscribers by the end of 2012, giving the continent a 65% penetration rate -- that is, 65 out of every 100 people will have some form of mobile connectivity. Most will connect via inexpensive and readily available pay-as-you-go plans. A significant number of these subscribers will own camera phones, and the percentage is rising quickly.
In wealthy countries, it's now hard to find a phone that doesn't have a built-in camera, and that's increasingly the case everywhere. Here's another staggering number. According to Hoffenberg, "the number of camera phones that have been produced now exceeds the total number of film cameras and digital cameras ever made in the entire history of photography."
Africans, of course, use their camera phones to take the sorts of photos that everyone else does. Most are simply snapshots that are matter only to a small circle of family and friends. But some are much more significant.
Camera phones, for instance, are changing the nature political activism. The New Yorker reports that during recent election in Liberia, "people [took] pictures documenting vote fraud or intimidation with their mobile phones and sent text messages about possible improprieties." The historical significance of the amateur cell phone photos and videos that were made during the Arab Spring -- as activism and as citizen journalism -- is widely recognized. The American University in Cairo, for example, has established an online archive where photos (and many other sorts of documentation) are already available to researchers.
Sophie Kahn: Sophie (subject of the world's first camera phone photograph) taking a picture of her father (the man who made that photograph -- see above), 2007.
None of these changes would have been possible if digitization hadn't transformed the very nature of the photograph. As Marvin Heiferman's essay notes, a photo made with film was almost always a physical object. It was a print in an album, on a wall, or in somebody's hand, or it was an illustration in a magazine, newspaper, or book. (Sometimes, of course, it was a projected slide.) Because it was a tangible thing, viewers almost always had to be in its presence to see it. (Sometimes they showed up on TV or in movies.) The vast majority -- especially snapshots -- were unique objects. Because they were unique and tangible, they were private. We assumed that they would be seen by a small, close circle of relatives and acquaintances.
The photos that we make with digital cameras and camera phones could hardly be more different. The overwhelming majority will never have a physical existence. They'll never be printed and will forever remain digital files. Because they're digital files, they can be easily and endlessly reproduced. Most photographs we make are now things we see on computer screens and on our phones and rarely anywhere else.
They're also public documents. We happily post them on Flickr, Twiter, Instagram, and Facebook for all the world (potentially) to see. If we want family members and friends in distant places to see our photos, it isn't easy to keep our photos private even when we want to, as anyone who has grappled with Facebook's privacy settings knows first-hand.
It's hard to overstate the immensity of these changes. As recently as 2007, Stephen Shore devoted a chapter of the revised edition of his classic book, The Nature of Photographs, to a meditation on the print -- "an object" that has "its own life in the world," a thing of substance and weight that can be preserved "in a shoebox or in a museum."
(Yes, of course, some people still use film and make prints. But they're a tiny minority of the people who make photographs.)
Vermeer: The Selfie.
All of this has generated a lot of anxiety among people who earn their living making photos. And it should. The first wave of photography's democratization put many studio and portrait photographers out of work as people began to produce their own family photos. The second wave has decimated the ranks photojournalists and put the survivors under considerable pressure from citizen journalists.
Writing in Photography Changes Everything, Fred Ritchin says that things aren't likely to go back to where they were. The current transformations in the way news images are made and distributed "are likely to become permanent." He does see a role for professional photographers, however. Those with "deep understandings of specific cultures.... will coexist with and contextualize the more on-the-spot work done by nonprofessional citizen journalists." The problem that needs to be solved, he admits,"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."
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In many ways, Photography Changes Everything is a celebration of the ways in which photography has transformed the world, in large ways and small. But we all know that photography has been used for purposes that are anything but democratic, as some -- but too few -- of the essays in this book make clear. All too often, the camera has been used for the surveillance and repression of the masses, not their liberation.
If there's anything missing from this book, it's a serious consideration of photography as an anti-democratic force. Examples aren't hard to come by. An parallel exhibition to Rise and Fall of Apartheid, for instance, would show the ways that the South African government used photography as a tool of oppression and how fine art photography and ethno-photography often reinforced the culture of white supremacy. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial oppression in the United States produced a vast archive of photos of African Americans being lynched.
In our own time, authoritarian regimes use photography for surveillance of dissenters at the same time that they try to quash its democratic potential. Corporations and democratically elected governments are also adept at using photography to persuade and to project power, as the writers on the website BagNews document so well.
The technologies of camera phones and social media have their downsides, too. Last week, the Guardian published "Creepshots and Revenge Porn: How Paparazzi Culture Affects Women", an article about the ways in which young women "are increasingly becoming victims of voyeurism in our internet age." Over the weekend, the New York Times showed, in "Power, Pollution and the Internet", that the data centers that host, among other things, the Instagrams, Flickrs, Twitters, and Facebooks of the world "consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner." "Worldwide," the paper reported, "the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.... Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load...."
Photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world. It shouldn't come as a surprise that it's been a force for good and for evil. It may be too early to assess its full historical significance, but I'm willing to bet that most of us would give it -- at the very least -- a provisional thumbs-up.
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