Iconic Photos – Why They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Any More

Posted on November 4, 2012


The Million Monkey Problem

My boss is quite a photographer, and even has a degree in graphic design.  So at lunch the other day, where I consider it bad form to discuss work, I asked him about photography. He said some thing very interesting. He said “digital photography has allowed the average person to take better photos.” Before that he contends it took somewhat of an expert, or at least informed, photographer to get a good shot.

Well, there is a lot in  those 11 words. First, while I shoot film, and not digital, I believe the product is independent of the medium. This is largely because I feel getting a “good photo” in-camera, and post processing it to get a better finished product are  required steps no matter what process you use, but that one is not the substitute for the other. I think that differentiation is crucial:  you post-process to bring things closer to your vision –  not as a substitute for lack of it. I responded, “That’s untrue, if you have blocked shadows and blown highlights, it doesn’t matter what you are shooting, there are  some things you just cannot fix in Photoshop. In fact I see  just as many, in fact more, bad photos than I ever have.” Although I do concur that before Photoshop you needed to be a PhD in chemistry  to post process color photos, when post-processing wasn’t a option a lot of people managed to get great shots in-camera.

He went on to clarify. He feels a “good photo” is a salable photo, that you can put into a stock agency and sell. He maintains that there are so many good stock photos out there now that stock photography has been completely devalued, and that this proves his point that there are more high quality images out there. Well, I buy stock photos, and I concur there are a lot of good ones out there, very heavily post-processed, mostly studio, very often compositions. I use them on websites all of the time to give a concrete image for an abstract idea. But I’m not sure that makes the point he is trying to make. Does the “average photographer” have a studio, Photoshop, and the wherewithal to use them to the level a professional graphic designer such as himself would?  Are they art? I certainly never hope to find myself taking a picture wondering if I can sell it. I’d probably find myself photographing urinals or such. (Although Stieglitz  and Marcel DuChamp made it work in 1917, and San Francisco MOMA has an entire urinal display, I contend the emperor is naked.)

A photo of one of the most famous pieces of art in the last century, taken by one of its seminal photographers. Is the photograph art? Is the urinal? Recursive art questions make my head hurt.

I also note that of the several thousand images I’ve looked at in the last month or so, across several different stock agencies, that I see the same photographers remarketing similar photos under different names. You can tell precisely because even in that market their individual styles are completely identifiable.  That is, there are a lot more photos out there, but I’m not sure there are that many more photographers producing them. At least not in the categories I peruse. And, I’m pretty sure the photographer spent hours on the photo below in Photoshop, but did not take 2,000 random images and find she had captured a rare paper avalanche. No, this is still a conscious product by a consummate professional. There is no luck here. In other words, these people are not “average” photographers.

I bought the rights to this photo for my site PaperEaters.com for ~$3

We can skip the whole argument of whether post processing dilutes the artistic image. In fact, the Zone system maintains that post-processing is in fact part of the artistic vision. (One reason I don’t shoot digital is that I don’t have those digital post-processing skills, I barely have the prerequisite darkroom skills.) Which brought me to my next point: photography is about knowing what you want your final vision to be, again the medium is not important here. You need good mechanical skills, a good eye, timing/patience for the light, the right subject, etc…very little of which can be fixed in Photoshop. This is why the masters were, well, masters, and we still see their photos everywhere. Very little good art comes from luck. I was in Europe for 10 days, including 5 days a 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites. I took ~80 B&W shots and got maybe 8 photos I’m willing to print. The rest might be nice if I could go back and wait for the light. If’ I’d had the courage of my convictions, I could’ve gotten them all on a single roll of 10. Sorry to break it to you. Learn your basics. Have a vision.

I’ll say it again: B&W film is HDR.

He went on to disagree, saying that he can send his 12-year old to  a car show, have him take 2,000 photos, and then post process them to remove unattractive people from the background, etc.  (Which I honestly wish I could do. Do you know how long I wait as car shows for the masses to clear…)  Maybe, but that isn’t an average photographer. That is an expert post-processor. We were siting in Red Robin. I pointed to the many iconic B&W New York City vintage photos (took a while to get all of those adjectives in order, I can tell you) decorating the walls. “The thing,” I said, “that differentiates a good finished photograph from a poor photograph is control of the tonal range. You simply couldn’t get a single one of these shots digitally without HDR. There is still a place in photography to understand the fundamental tool, the camera, before you go into post processing. Even though these are cheap reproductions many times removed from the original negatives, they largely have captured that aspect.” This shot below contains both dark shadow and bright sunlight. Digital can’t do this. (The bridge runs roughly east-west so this image was probably taken just before noon facing west, if I had to guess by the shadows. I can’t tell you how many digital pictures from my recent European trip I threw out in these conditions.)

It also took  a whole lotta balls to carry a view camera up that bridge, probably to get this in a single shot, as view cameras are a one-shot deal.   They do not use roll film. I wouldn’t want to be changing film plates under a dark cloth up there. Good art probably requires a lot of forethought and often a little risk. That’s one of the elements of being iconic: only one person was ever going to be in that place in that time, and it wasn’t random. It’s not like he just happened to be lugging lugging his  Apple 8x10i view camera up the George Washington Bridge and snapped off the shot. Photoshop ain’t gonna help you none with that, neither.

However we do fundamentally agree on one thing for different reasons:  the devaluation of the art. The problem I see with the democratization of photography isn’t that it has improved the average photograph, but rather that it has resulted in so many mediocre photographs that people are too saturated or too ignorant to appreciate it when they see true photographic art – no matter how it was produced.  Whereas a few photographers used to make a high percentage of iconic images, a million monkeys are turning out damn few.  I mean what is Instagram, but a place to make bad photos worse, and it sold for how many billion?  Of course you could say the same about writing, too. Maybe I can make my billions by designing Instagram for text…

I don’t think there were 2000 takes here

By the way, all of the images used in this blog I either bought rights to or they are out of copyright,  which is why you see so many versions of them around. One interesting thing I ran across were just how many images you can find of a particular print. So, in any formula for a “good” image  you also have to take the final medium into account. I have a book of Adams’ prints that is so blocked it looks like it was made on a ditto machine. You know one of those old fashioned hand-cranked ones with the purple ink? Oh, actually you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Anyway, check out some of the different treatments of the same print here. Certainly not all of these variations are masterpieces.

Grab your vision; go be iconic.