Blame Tony Northrup for the dire thought.
His (great) recent video analysing the downfall of so many camera / lens manufacturers leaves very little to the imagination. Going down, going down, now.
What happened to the digital dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.
Digital opened up avenues for exploration. And some adventurous manufacturers explored. Some actually brought really interesting ideas to the market. Sigma, Sony and Ricoh come to mind.
But innovation is diamond shaped and realist consolidation always follows creative divergence. And norm got the better of inventiveness. In photography, of all industries.
Much as in the automotive sector (check out Adrian’s post comparing the two worlds) those interesting ideas came packaged in weird and “wonderful” shapes that strayed too far from convention for their own good. When electric cars became the new Eldorado, most models introduced were so ugly it took a good look at a politician’s agenda to bring the design fiasco back into perspective. The same thing happened to some oddly shaped cameras (which is kinda worrying for the Zeiss ZX1, by the way).
And their performance priorities, at odds with rapidly coalescing market consensus, hit the final nail for them.
Because, yes, somehow, in a art-based industry, performance became the fulcrum on which success and undoing eventually hinged.
For what it’s worth, the photographs on this page were made using a second-hand Hasselblad camera that has the overall speed of fingernail growth (but is utterly brilliant in areas that actually relate to picture making). And a 45mm lens that’s not that optically fast either, come to think of it. I hope that doesn’t put anyone off reading the rest. Because now comes the link to photography-as-Art. And to mathematics, one of the ultimate artforms. And to farming in China, as a free bonus, because why not?
Performance-based marketing led every manufacturer with a death wish to basically pay huge lumps of money to shout out to a message-saturated audience : “Hey, we are introducing a camera that’s exactly the same as all the others on the market”. Because performance is so closely tied to internal components, they were basically shouting “Hey, Sony inside”, just like everyone else. And guess who became quite good at having Sony components inside? And who’s doing rather well in today’s deflating pudding of a market?
The irony, of course, is that so much of this performance (and more) can be achieved through the brute force computational photography abilities of the devices in our pockets. Oh, worry not, this is still in its infancy. It’s not quite there yet. It’s far, far, far, more convenient, but only 50% of the way there, when it comes to IQ. Give it a few years, though, and you may expect profuse, phone-induced, poultry roosting. Reaping what you sow, I guess?
Performance-base appreciation of gear has had far more interesting consequences than winner-takes-all market dynamics can capture, however.
The ever indispensable Ming Thein recently re-posted an article describing the influence of sensor format on rendering. Every photographer in the world interested in photography as a creative pursuit (yes, all 28 of us) should read this 10 times, 100 times. As many times as it takes to fully grasp the implication of what Ming is writing.
Many things and, most important of all, that all formats are interesting and useful for different things, which is distinctly at odds with what those hideous machine tests – spewing out metrics that have more in common with car radios than photographs – jabber on and on about. A pox upon both your houses, lab tests and tech metrics 😉
It’s not just photography, you know. Variety matters. Everywhere.
In China (and probably elsewhere) farmers are pollinating their trees manually because all the bees have been killed by intensive practises. That fact is similar to Tony’s Northrup excellent roundup of the photo market. It’s just a warning of things to come if we continue to kill off diversity.
I’ll miss fanboys. At least they root for different brands for very human reasons, much like football players supports different clubs. Nothing is worse than the single-metric approach that is performance-based evaluation of cameras.
Robert May, an Australian born scientist, made great contributions to theoretical ecology, putting into simple maths a model of the evolution in time of the number of existing species or individuals in a species. Very simple maths. Stuff most 10 year olds could do on a calculator.
In this work, the “richness” of one generation is linked to that of the previous via an equation containing both a damping factor (simulating competition for limited resources, for instance) and a fertility constant (which he called lambda) that plays a spectacular role:
In that sort of world, that most controversial of scientific phenomena becomes possible and useful: emergence. ie, the apparition of a mechanism that is not contingent on any preceding mechanisms or factors (cue Zarathustra).
Chaos Theory pioneer Mitchell Feingenbaum studied those equations, and others found everywhere in nature, and showed that a thriving, diverse world such as the one we are blessed to live in today walks a very narrow path between crystallized stagnation and nonsensical randomness. Move the constant too far to one side or to the other and it’s goodbye forever. Irreversibly so.
In the photo world, it’s not hard to imagine what chaos could look like. Just look at the grips and rear backs of most cameras today. Not totally chaotic, but, if you’ve used a 30 year-old film camera more than 2 seconds, you can see where I’m going with the analogy.
Emergence can be illustrated by the mirrorless revolution. Sony brought it to the mass market, but the concept emerged seemingly from nowhere and received huge traction, in spite of what Ricoh are now saying. No diversity, no mirrorless emergence. We’d all still be slapping slabs of glass about and perfecting damping techniques, whether we liked it or not.
As for stagnation, I invite you to view Tony’s conclusions and extrapolate a few years.
So, what’s the lambda constant of photography?
It seems to me that 30 years ago, we were shooting perfectly nice cameras and looking at 6×4 prints that ended up in shoe boxes. Today, we’re shooting cameras that are often perfectly nice, looking at 6×4 images on our screens that end up inside the silicon shoe boxes of cloud servers. What’s changed is mainly that we make more. Many, many, more.
Hmmm … full circle status quo?
And you can count on today’s incumbents to try their darndest to keep brand variety at the lowest possible setting, with the help of flaccid specialised media. We need variety.
To me, we now live in that strange old world where cameras used day-in-day-out, by people who get paid 10 large for a print, are deemed unfit for amateurs, based on a machine-led evaluation, because of a metric so utterly unrelated to creativity that it actually seems alien: speed. Screw speed!
But don’t! That’s just my bias speaking. What matters is variety.
For some, speed is both important and enabling. For others it’s fast glass. For others it’s slow, light glass. For others it’s sharp glass. For others it’s old, characterful glass. For others still, it’s tone subtlety. For others: robustness, weight, viewfinder clarity, WYSIWYGness, tactile pleasure, evocative power, price, size, noise … and any combination of a slew of other criteria that are completely unrelated to the currently dominant market forces but totally in line with personal desires, creativity and the etymological meaning of art: making personal stuff.
Art is the expression of human feelings and ideas through making stuff. By its very definition, art is exclusively about diversity. How gear is built, reviewed, and purchased should mirror this at all times.
If photography was art, surely we’d see diversity grow, not dwindle, right?
So, what if …
What if we gave our lambda constant the boost it so desperately needs, before all that’s left are one mirrorless brand and smartphones?
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I am going to (a) do my own thing, (b) ignore the pumph from the manufacturers and (c) wait & see what the outcome is.
Opinions are a dime a dozen. The world is awash with them. At the end of the day, they have no meaning whatsoever.
If the manufacturers go bust, that will be a serious problem. But the shutter clicks on the gear that I’ve got will see me out. So I am no longer fretting about that one. Younger people will, of course – how can you follow the mantra and “invest in glass, not the camera” if you’ve no idea what cameras you’ll be able to use it on? I shudder to think what my glass would cost at today’s market prices – and you’d be brave to spend that kind of cash in an uncertain world, not knowing if the camera brand of your choice will see you through! 🙂
On the other hand, I’ve no interest in cellphones for photography. Anyone who wants to use them for that is free to do so – it’s none of my business what anyone else chooses to do, and I couldn’t care less about it. I’ve see enough stuff on how great they are and what wonderful things they can do to be completely put off them, forever, as a photographic medium – AI can scream at someone else – there are technical issues that they will never be able to deal with, simply because of the limitations of their physical size, and the laws of physics. And I don’t care to be told they can simulate everything – I want to be in control, and someone else taking control away from me and telling me “this is what you will have – enjoy!” is like being ordered to enjoy boarding school food. It’s just another version of “pre-sets”, to replace the arduous chore of post processing your own photos. You only have to watch some of them taking selfies to realise what utter garbage a huge proportion of the photos taken by the – what? – 95%? – 99%? – using cellphones instead of cameras really are.
Sorry – that’s an amusement for someone else, not me.
PS – this is NOT the same argument as all those horse fanciers c. 1900 telling themselves that these automobiles are just a passing fad – it won’t last.
Hmm, I’m not that sure. And, to me, the artists of tomorrow will be those able to programs those AI to create. Interesting times to watch, for sure 😉
Very thought provoking article. What this did is really confirm/answer a couple of issues I’ve been wrestling with: Why am I so happy with gear that make me comfortable to work with, despite its age?, Why has my perceived success only grown quicker the more I make art I love instead of worrying about what others think?, Why am I not as fervent about the continual pixel and autofocus race as the other 95% of my photographer compatriots?
I’m going to sleep a lot better tonight curled up with my ‘ancient’ 5 year old sensors…..and 80 year old glass.
Thank you Michael. My guess is your 5 year old sensor and 80 year old glass keeps you much happier and healthier than those always hunting for the latest fad.
Art is part of our fabric. Once we have food and shelter, art is the next level of need. Technology isn’t. It’s just a diversion or, at best, a tool in service to our real needs. Those who seek it out for its own sake probably haven’t found their personal way yet. Keep on enjoying 🙂
Put me down as being totally apathetic about this. I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m at the point where I have probably accomplished just about as much as I’m ever going to accomplish in this life. I don’t even glance through so called photography magazines on the magazine racks anymore. In fact, I don’t even watch the news on TV except to get the local weather.
I hope people continue to enjoy photography but I doubt that anything they produce will be more than an iteration of something that has already been done years ago.
Most photography is plagiarism of one sort or another. I.E., landscape photography is plagiarism of a setting that already exists in nature. The photograph is not an original work of art. It is a copy of the original. Sometimes very well done and very pleasing, and sometimes not.
The only type of photographic image that I can think of that is really original and creative is still life photography which I’ll define as the photographer having developed an idea in his mind for an image that does not yet exist anywhere in nature. The photographer then gathers image material, creates a setting and arranges the material within the setting and photographs it. At the completion of this process the photographer has created on original photographic image regardless of the type of camera or lens used or quality of the finished product. It might or might be be perceived as art, but it is original.
Now go ahead and pile on. This rambling probably needs to be sorted out.
Hi Cliff, if you think about it, the famous photographers that animate auction rooms are doing exactly what you are describing. Not always in a studio. Someone like Gursky actively searches for locations indoors or outdoors that fit his project and worldview then spends months finding the right light, the right angle, fixing post processing … So they are making the photograph their own. All those guy’s photographs are self portraits, in a way. And when you think about it, it’s only that sort of very personal work that isn’t a copy of something else done before.
Quite an articulate and thought provoking article. Indeed, this part, where you point out that both “… creativity and art are hard …” and that “… spray and pray shooting …” that’s fueled by the “… quantitative substitutes offered by the industry …” subvert what you allude to in your question “… real work of trying harder?” isn’t given the opportunity to get a headwind. This, in reality, may lead to the possibility that a photographer’s motives and desires don’t produce drivers for positive outcomes – in sum, their endeavors and outputs don’t cut the mustard.
As a side, Cartier-Bresson’s statement “… Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important…” seems to add weight to aspects of your above article. By contrast, having good equipment has its place, but it doesn’t have to be the best that’s derived from the latest and greatest – a shift from focusing on the art of photography, is possibly the end result. That is, to be subservient to the new technical, whilst attempting to be creative at the same time, maybe in reality, akin to pursuing a mirage. Lastly, Edward Weston used a limited line of equipment, to develop and hone his artistic instinct as a photographer.
Hi Sean, thanks for the interesting reply. I agree entirely with you. Having good equipment is very important. I’m now using the best I have ever been able to afford and feel blessed every single day. All I’m saying is that the definition of “good” has to be more personal. Speed doesn’t matter to me whereas someone like our contributor Adrian shoots sports in dark places. So a high ISO high FPS camera makes total sense for me. I regret that very interesting companies such as Olympus have not been able to differentiate themselves better from their FF counterparts and tried to align with the whole ‘fast glass, fast camera, low light abilities’ zeitgeist when they had so much more to offer than FF in other areas.
Edward Weston … what a man … such talent can probably only be channeled in one way and he chose his. But what I find interesting is that his approach seemed to fit an era. There are other people using view cameras today but few seem to do so as naturally as he or Adams did. They were “of their time” so was their gear. Today, you could argue that Sally Mann has become a genius large format user and that many of the “deadpan” artists (Ruff, Struth, Becher, Gursky …) aslo use large format but I feel it is for different reasons and in support of a very different philosophy.
I guess that just proves that the same gear can serve multiple purposes, which is not very supportive of the main argument in my post 😀 😀 😀
It is obvious me that as with most things in our corporate World, money rules the roost.
More megapixels are a must etc!
This years camera will be ‘old hat’ next year..
Art, in all of its forms is subjective.
It’s our choice whether or not we like it.
If Ansel Adams was a camera, he would be considered as redundant!
“If Ansel Adams was a camera, he would be considered as redundant!”
Brilliant! 😀 😀
Thank you Nick. All very true.
I can’t condemn companies for wanting to make money, most of us do, but there has to be a better way to blend personal desire and corporate success. The current approach is obviously not going well for manufacturers.
Pascale you bastard, got me to start watching a T0ny N0rthrup video (spelt with zeros to avoid summoning the devil), did not bother to see it through. He is a guy who has profited from promoting the best-selling, more expensive, largest jack of all trades is the best (oversimplified but not quite unfair IMHO).
I basically stopped watching anything of his after his outrageously awful full-frame is twice as good as APSC video, basically he promoted the very thing you have just written against regarding technical metrics. He is in a position to know and do better.
I will disagree that we have less diversity of images now, what we have is a plague of copycat insta-famous images. See here https://www.instagram.com/celestebarber/?hl=en or here https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jun/30/the-model-world-of-instagram-parody-star-celeste-barber-in-pictures for an insta-parody account that proves that there is potential for life and hopefully evolution.
As for art; if you are worried whether something is or is not art, then you are not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. And yes we need more diversity in gear not higher specifications for the gear we have, some niche-ish cameras at lower prices would be a good start if you want to build a market beyond the older male demographic.
Ha ha ha. I hope it’s not that bad 😀
I don’t watch youtube much but Philippe sent me the link and I watched the final part of the video, which seemed to make a lot of sense.
Art / gear : as you can tell from your comment and others on this page, it’s both a complex and a very personal matter. My main point is that we should have tobe forced into one way on thinking and certainly not one that equates a greater shooting envelope with better photography.
Niche cameras are probably expensive but I’m pretty sure there’s a way of bringing some good ones to the market. Sony have the A7s series why couldn’t we have something with low ISO possibilities as well, something with real 16 bit colour and calibration … That would be a more interesting market segmentation than the upper / mid / lower range approach that unimaginative product marketers have given us for decades.
[Another one of my detestable long winded posts 🙂 )
So if Van Gogh could have paid for better brushes, he would have been rich and famous? How many times have I read articles by famous photographers, proclaiming that it’s not what you’re holding, it’s how you use it!
Even though it was taken on a second hand Kodak Box Brownie that I was given for my 10th birthday, and – by today’s standards – was blurry, I still think that one of the best photos I ever took was the very first one I ever took. Because I’d been staring at the subject matter of that photo for 10 years, ever since I was born – loving it and looking at it in every possible way, from every conceivable angle, under ever imaginable lighting conditions. And I knew from the moment I opened the parcel EXACTLY what I wanted to do. No AI – no AF – no IBIS – no exposure meter – no chance of chimping – just BANG, and the print was SOOC.
There is a strongly held view that photography is never art – that artists draw or paint, and photographers only make mechanical images. Well OK – but it’s still possible to do that, artistically, which is what we all strive for.
And a widely held view that what A is doing is as good as or better than whatever B is (or can!) do – which seems to be the rationalisation of the capabilities of a cellphone camera vs all the other contenders. (Try printing the competing images on A1). Frankly, when that argument dies down, I think it’ll all be “me happy, you happy” and no outright winners.
But art? Art, for me, is something that speaks to my soul. Something which exists as much in the 6th estate as in the here & now.
1 – chronologically my first true love – Michelangelo – a man with an extraordinary history – an extraordinary depth. Call me nuts if you like, but here it is – I’ve seen so many replicas of his “David”, and yes, they are all “nice”. I’ve only ever seen the original once – in l’Accademia, in Firenze (pardonnez-moi, je deteste étrangers changeant l’orthographe de mots d’autres langues) – and stood there for several hours. Every time I raised my eyes to look at it, or another part of it, I burst into tears. Because the real thing is somehow SO different from all the replicas. And it completely overwhelmed me.
2 – if I am at a concert, and the performers are particularly good – well, excellent, then – the muscles around my ears have convulsions. It’ quite spontaneous. Totally out of my control. And every time it happens, I know I am listening to something which – for me, at least – is as near to perfection as anything I can ever hope to experience. And every time it happens, people sitting behind me, not knowing what’s happening, start to snigger.
3 – I walked into a museum once – filled with exhibits – art, statues, whatever – and the INSTANT I came through the door, even though I didn’t have my distance glasses on, I could see “it” – Auguste Rodin’s “hand”. You could test me on that one with a thousand other objects, without any effect at all. But Rodin once again speaks to my soul.
Now none of that is for “everyone”. And maybe I’m just nuts. But that, my friends, is “art” – because that’s what I think art IS.
It could just as easily be a photo. Or a piece of architecture (landscape or building).
The one abiding, fundamental is that 6th estate effect – the WHAM, that hits my heart, when I see or feel or hear it. Without that, it’s merely “interesting”. “Nice”. “Well done”. Or not, perhaps.
As you talk about music again, allow me to mention two of my favourite piano recordings:
( I don’t play any instrument, but my parents played the piano, and I grew up with lots of old and modern “classical” music.)
Beethoven’s late piano sonatas in Elly Ney’s latest version from 1968 (when she was 86) – very personal recordings:
Schubert’s posth. piano sonatas with Rudolf Serkin, especially D.959:
( It is as if I hear Schubert reflect over his past life, and over what may still come.)
And – in case you’d like to rest you ears – something quite different:
( My reply on G. Moore in the previous post (#867) got unhooked somehow, but I guess you found it a couple of comments further down.)
– – –
[ Sculptures are too often shown in much too Iow resolution on the i-net,
but I found two that look OK,
by Christian Eriksson:
and by Axel Petersson (“Döderhultarn”):
To me, Art serves the purpose of opening up ones mind/feelings/perceptions/learning
to see and value life anew which is precious and short.
From a different set of imaginations/expressions/skills (than my current birdcage allows)
and transending the obvious – thus causing multiple sensations be it through Art such as Visual,
Music, Dance/Movement, Oratory, or printed Words or simply intimately being with Nature, (human nature included here),
always are a strong experience/inspiration.
Thus if a photograph does/causes some of the above, I will consider it Art. Nick Brandt Trilogy Books – oh yes indeed!
Tony N conjecture – we shall see.
Led Zeppelin; Here’s a different gender (Zepparella) take on it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH-_9cwdLug
Ps…really love your picture of the waves & cliffs – No 7 from both ends 😉 – great tonal representation
that reminds me of constancy & repetition, soft & hard and that we are washed by what we choose to
allow to influence us – it ferments over time!
Opening up our minds … maybe that’s why so many photographers focus on gear rather than art 😉 It’s much simpler to read specifications than to open our mind to new ideas. Far less scary, too.
Thanks for the Zepparella link 🙂 I’d never heard that!
Thank you for the kind comment. The one with the rocks and water seen from above is my personal fave on this page. Hiroshi Sugimoto used long exposures to blend air and water (sky and sea) in his seascapes. I did the opposite by using short exposures to blend water and stone (at least from a textural perspective). This one graduates to the printer 😉
Photography CAN be art.
The decisive factors are a) creation, b) emotional/intellectual reaction by viewer
Gear has nothing to do with it. Many years ago an artist friend of mine had to find a second job: Oil and canvas was his “gear” and so too at his new job – serial produced paintings. His task was to create the clouds in paintings. He made beautilful clouds! Was that art creation?
What we start to see are smartphone art exhibitions. Considering how many make pictures that way, you will find the most artistic creators in that group, not in traditional photography. We are simply outnumbered.
Today billions enjoy their photography taking trillions of pictures. Among them a few create images. Even fewer do art that causes emotional/intellectual reaction by viewers.
So, in 100 years, which photography from early 2000’s will be admired and regarded as art? Will people bother which gear? Will they bother about images that honor the 20th century masters?
My guess is they will honor images unique for our time.
(I know you will not like this and delete my post, but this is my present anyway :-))
LOL – thanks for those comments, Per – the only thing you need to delete is the final paragraph!
I’ve noticed over the decades** that if I go to an art gallery, there’s often only one “stand out” – one painting or drawing or sculpture or whatever’s on display – that makes me stop dead in my tracks, rooted to the spot, staring at it, and trying to absorb every last detail. Out of the thousands I’ve seen, very few have had that effect. Not to say the others were not “art” – but it does rather underline what you are saying, Per, about which images to admire.
** (I’ve given up saying “over the years” – takes too long to count them all, now!)
That’s a very interesting question, Per. Was that art creation? If it was personal, I guess my answer would be yes. But, more to the point, you are right, the two dimensions of creation and response are essential. To me, anything created from a very personal perspective can be qualified as art. But it takes a strong emotional response to be called good art. If it doesn’t create a bond, I don’t think it is very successful.
No, noone will care aout what gear was used to create a photograph in a century. They won’t even understand how that gear worked, just like most of us have no idea how ambrotype, cyanotypes, wet collodium, giclee (…) work today. You sum it up perfectly : all that matters is that the art is created and ellicits a response. The rest is irrelevant.
I wouldn’t dream of deleting your post !!!
A *good* read, thanks!
That the margins for a healthy “lambda” are very close was new to me – makes me wonder if lambda in our ecosystem might be somewhat self-regulating?
– – –
I especially like your # 6, 7 & 10 – not counting the vignette.
Interesting how the large space you have given the couples rather emphasizes their body language – perhaps it’s the simplicity of that space – in addition to building the images.
– – –
I think I want a little more lambda also in photography – perhaps not so much as in contemporary modern art.., 😉 . I don’t check I-gram or Flickr except very occasionally, but I peruse photo magazines now and then – usually with a.sigh following. Most photos, even the better, seem to have been pushed into this or that look so hard that any (natural) feeling was forgotten or lost underway -.and I’ve seen that for some years. I almost get the impression that form and physical content have become too important.
Or, perhaps, I haven’t yet learnt to read those styles (like one has to learn to listen to new music).
Thanks Kristian. I try to provide as much context as possible and make the couples simple elements in a scene tather than the dominant figures. Cheers
I’m still waiting to see the comment from your co-author Philippe! 🙂