Photographs Are No Longer Things, They’re Experiences

Wired online: Raw File

November 15th, 2012Pete Brook, November 2012

To say that digital cameras have profoundly changed photography is both true and cliché. But few of the regurgitaters of the idea can tell you exactly how. Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo Agency, is one of those few.

He argues that the rise of digital changed the very nature of photography by moving it from a fixed image to a fluid one. The swift pace at which we create images is only matched by the pace at which we discard them and yet, paradoxically, we’ve never been more engaged with images. Photography is less about document or evidence and more about community and experience … and that’s not a bad thing.

This article is part of a series of interviews with movers and shakers in the photography industry.

“The way we relate to imagery is changing,” says Mayes, who thinks the pace of change is astonishing. Fortune magazine reported in September 2012 that “10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011.” That same month, Mark Zuckerberg said Instagram, just shy of two-years in existence, passed the 100 million users. Instagram users, who are signing up a rate of one per second, have taken over one billion images with the app. Such frenzied activity will account for some but not all of of the 250 million images uploaded to Facebook every day.

Mayes suggests that comparing this new fluid image to the old fixed image is like calling an automobile a horseless carriage. We’re trying to define the new in terms of the old to the detriment of understanding its potential and unique attributes. Wired sat down with Mayes to talk about connectedness, professional use of filter apps, facial recognition and monetizing Instagram. Why are we talking about cell phone photography?

Stephen Mayes (SM): I think cell phone photography marks the transforming moment.

The transition from analog to digital photography was a pivot point, but it is a pivot that wasn’t fully recognized in that working with these large DSLR cameras we’ve been able to mimic [analog] photography as we know it.

The cell phone is a pretty pure implementation of the digital phenomenon. How so?

SM: There are theoretical differences between analog and digital, but essentially it comes down to the fixed image and the fluid image. Analog photography is all about the fixed image to the point that fixing is part of the vocabulary. The image doesn’t exist until it is fixed. It can be multiplied, reproduced and put in different contexts but it is still a fixed image.

The digital image is entirely different; it is completely fluid. You think about dialing up the color balance on the camera, there’s no point at which the image is fixed. That fluidity cascades out from that point – issues of manipulation and adjustments are obvious and rife. More importantly than that, images now live in a digital environment. Given that an image is defined by its context it exists in a perpetually fluid environment in which the context is never fixed. Images’ meanings morph, move and can exist in multiple places and meanings at one time. Fred Ritchin, professor of photography and imaging at NYU describes it as “Quantum imagery.” Digital photography is anything and everything at any single moment; it has contradictory meanings all at once.

What the cell phone does is it takes all the attributes of digital and magnifies them. How did you arrive at that conclusion?

SM: The photographers of VII meet once a year to talk about business and it is always serious stuff. Last year, at a certain point, they started snapping each other with their cell phones and posting the images to Facebook. They were trying to make each other look silly and adding little jokes. The outside world shared the experience and it was all very amusing.

At the end of the session I said to them, “I’ve seen two things here that I’ve never seen before. It’s the first time I’ve seen you have fun with photography and laughing while you take pictures.” The second thing I said, “The images you were making weren’t documents; they weren’t for record. They were just a stream; just an experiential process.”

Part of the experience of being at that meeting was making and posting those images. Then, the second wave of comments would follow, then it is washed over and two days later it’s gone.

I saw really earnest documentary photographers who, had you put 35mm cameras in their hands, would’ve suddenly been about level horizons and juxtaposing foregrounds and backgrounds. None of that; this process was completely unselfconscious, fun and experiential. It had nothing to do with the photography that they usually make, to the point that they didn’t realize they were making pictures! Since then we’ve seen them apply the cell phone in serious photojournalism contexts – Ron Haviv in Libya for example.

The casual nature of making the image is transformative for the photographer and the photographed. Ron talks about when, in Libya, he chose not to take his cameras with him, he became invisible. All the fighters had cell phones too and were taking photos. Ron was just another person snapping away. Is cell phone photography a new genre? Does it have specific characteristics like “street photography” for example which we think of as a genre with specific attributes – Leicas, strong contrasts inlight and shadow and stolen moments?

SM: If you think about the number of photographs in the world, the number that is taken by photojournalists as documents is so small as to be insignificant. The cell phone image exists as part of a streaming process.

People aren’t using the cell phone to document a wedding [to make images] that in 30 years time they’ll pull out and show their grandchildren. It’s about posting it on social media for immediate reaction.

Peter DiCampo is working on a project called Everyday Africa. He’s looking at the positive and the upbeat. There’s the arguments that photography in Africa focuses on the negative so he’s challenging some of that with his work. He’s been living in Ghana for three years now so he’s rooted in Africa. Peter’s doing very interesting projects but they’re like other photojournalism from Africa – very defined and very sculpted.

In between projects, he’s running around making photographs of inconsequential moments for Everyday Africa – people putting nail polish on, people in elevators or people picking up a coffee. I’ve never been to Africa but I’ve seen a gazillion pictures of Africa. Looking at Peter’s images, I’m suddenly seeing Africa in a way I’d never appreciated it before.

We tend to understand technologies in terms of what went before – famously we referred to the automobile, at first, as the horseless carriage. We are going through this same process with the cell phone. We keep trying to contextualize it in the old medium and with old terms. A print exhibition brings the new image making back to the old methods of presentation.

Also, note how a lot of the visual filters are about nostalgia for the image. We’re embracing the cell phone, but desperately trying to link it to what we know, our histories and what is familiar.

Meanwhile, the object itself is taking us into completely different areas. The unselfconsciousness of it is key. While everyone is looking at aspects, the Instagram filter, whatever it might be, actually something bigger is happening behind our backs. And what is that “something bigger”?

SM: The way we relate to imagery is changing. Our new relationship is less about witness, evidence and document and much more about experience, sharing, moment and streaming. The cell phone is a harbinger for something hugely significant.

For example, the Japanese Tsunami was essentially documented by people experiencing the Tsunami. You had these incredibly graphic images of water coming up people’s leg as they scrambled to higher ground and you were in there in an extraordinary way. I haven’t seen those pictures reproduced much since. Since then, I have seen the professional photojournalists’ studies and interpretations. I’ve seen analysis. Donald Weber went in.

SM: And made some good work. James Nachtwey and plenty of people of note have done it. But theirs is a very different type of photography.

When I think of the Tsunami, I think of the images of water washing up around the [cell phone] photographers’ legs. That was very much an experiential thing – it wasn’t a live stream but it was as near as. The waters had barely subsided and I was viewing those images.

Similarly, of Syria. “Really, someone brought out their cell phone at this moment and brought me this close to the action?” We’re seeing images, again, not quite real time, but damn near it. Seeing them the day of. That closeness, that intimacy, that streaming nature of information; that’s a pivotal point when I talk about our changing relationship with the image, it is shifting our expectations of what we are looking at. Why are people so averse to cell phone imagery? Damon Winter’s on the New York Times’ front page? Why are they suspicious of the Lowy Lens or of Foreign Policy’s five-part The War In Hipstamatic series from Afghanistan?

SM: I think the panic is easing at the moment. I think it came about for several reasons.

Validity and the authenticity of any image is important. Do people believe what they’re looking at? I suspect that part of the reaction to the cell phone was partly, ‘We don’t know if we believe this. Can we trust this?’

Process is also very important, especially in journalism. Some of it didn’t seem quite proper; there’s a belief that photography should be self-conscious and about hard work. Cell phone photography is not perceived as a solid enough process.

Control is gone. The formal training of the professional photographer to control the equipment and to control the representation is gone. Users can frame an image and select from a few filters, but in terms of over-exposing, under-exposing, selective-focus and even, to an extent, the timing because there is that lag in pressing the button and the “shutter” sounding, control is gone! But, I’m sure improved levels of control will return over time.

Again, as with so many instances in photography, the technology is leading the application. Granted there have been examples of photographers saying, ‘I wish there was a gadget that …’ and then going out and building it. That’s happened plenty actually, but typically what has happened is the 35mm portable camera was produced and then that defined an aesthetic and an ease of access and all that followed (street photography). Then rotogravure (color gravure) in the magazines allowed people to shoot in color and that introduced a new element certainly in photojournalism. Next, digital, and then video. Technology has always taken us down these routes; always technology with commercial applications. But, currently there a very few commercial applications for cell phone imagery.

I’m seeing stuff on Facebook that 10 years ago would have been considered wacky and avant garde. Particularly I’m thinking about details. Traditionally, the image that you all took and the image that you all responded to was this very descriptive view of the landscape with the figure in it. Now I’m seeing details; an empty room, you know, with a metaphorical element; or a birthday candle. People are learning this rich visual language from seeing and then doing. We are all benefiting from it and then feeding it back into this cycle. Of course, this influences the professionals who are making images to fit into that communication channel. On trust. What does it take people to get past this suspicion of cell phone imagery?

SM: One of the things I notice and has always amused me in publishing terms, is that TIME magazine tells us they never manipulate pictures. I believe them. I’ve only once seen them manipulate a picture and that was a long time ago. And yet, the front cover is always manipulated beyond recognition. It is almost always a photo illustration and if it is a photograph it is retouched. When you ask TIME people about it they say, ‘Well, the cover’s different because it is not editorial; it is an advertisement of the magazine. And of course, it is a conceptual summary of what the magazine issue is about, so it’s not a representational image. Nobody has ever told that to the readership. Nobody’s ever ran a banner saying, “The front page is being presented to you because …” People have just learned that vernacular. People completely trust the authenticity of the images inside the news magazines; Stern,Newsweek etc. and they are completely unfazed by the fictionalized element on the cover. It is a convention that we’ve learned very quickly. It’s not so many years since there were scandals about manipulated covers; now it is routine. We’ve absorbed it.

On trust and credibility, it is key to educate ourselves about what we are looking at. I triangulate. I read a bit of information here and there I try to find it elsewhere to validate it. As we saw with Syria, you can fall into a trap. You can read information on 10 blogs but it is all coming from one source. Unless you really dig, it is hard to validate. In the main I think we are all learning that right degree of belief and skepticism in how we treat text and image online. We may be fooled, we may make stupid decisions but we are educating ourselves about what to trust and what not to trust.

It’s not something you can teach. Is the everyday person empowered by being able to share photos instantly.

SM: It used to be my complaint that our voices were being strangled by the gatekeepers who were Hearst, Murdoch and the usual suspects, but now we live in this more dangerous situation now where we have this perception of free speech and wide access to information, but actually the strangle hold has just been replaced by Google, Amazon, Apple. The filtering process is really profound.

We are increasingly finding that our image is being misrepresented, or represented on our behalf, and probably more than it was before because journalists used to be the gateway into magazines and distribution. Now, many of us are being represented and according to these gatekeepers, algorithms, processes. There’s no journalist asking permission to take your picture, there’s no advertiser asking to use their image. It’s insidious. The proliferation of our own pictures that we put out there voluntarily is then being co-opted, in a way that as private individuals we were never subject.

The example I came across of people monetizing Instagram is by people who developed a following, so they have wide readership, and then a few things can happen. They can be approached by brands to represent the brand. And sometimes they are approaching the brand and offering to introduce their following to the world. What is interesting in those examples, is that while the medium is photography, it is not photography that is being sold.

I think with Instagram and the other platforms there is this notion of telling stories. It is not just documenting fact. It’s what was I doing, why was I doing it. And these stories are fascinating and what gives these images their pull. It’s not just a beautiful picture or an interesting fact or an important issue, which is what traditional journalism and media was all about. But storytelling through Instagram is a disciplined activity, no? Big Instagrammers like Bex FinchFoster Huntington and Theron Humphrey throw out 3 or 4 visual vignettes each day. They’re very canny aesthetically; there’s no curveballs or outliers. Consistency and rhythm runs through their images. People are free to decide if they’re “good” photographs or not.

SM: There is a quote from Kevin Systrom, one of the founders of Instagram in the New York Times in 2011. “We set out to solve the main problem of taking pictures on the mobile phone which is that they’re often blurry and poorly controlled. We fixed that.” Amanda Petrusich at Buzzfeed likened Instagram to the “Auto-Tune of photography.” You can hit real bum notes and it tweaks it back into an aesthetic form. Why do we worry then about image, about filter?

SM: It has happened many times in the industry before – we are trying to carve out relevance for our profession. We’ve dedicated our lives to learning skills and things we believe. Suddenly, we’re wondering if they relevant any more and trying to justify and rationalize.

Should people pay journalists and photojournalists to do what they do? As long as someone wants credible information the role of the professional remains important, but the role changes in that professionals are no longer the eyewitness. Think of all those [photography compilation] books in the 20th century which were called “eye witness” or “the eyes of the world” or something similar. That’s no longer relevant when there are 4 billion cell phone eyes out there.

Professionals are valuable as commentators, interpreters, validators. We know what is happening in Syria but for sifting all the detail and taking a position on all of that, we still look to the professionals.

Last year, during the Arab Spring, it was the “good little guy” against the “big bad guy”. Simple. Now, we are seeing is a much more complex mix of bad little guys as well a good little guys. I am learning all the different computations from experts – people who are studying the form, researching it, being present and reporting back out. That’s not something I can put together from Facebook. I need someone to guide me through that very complex area.

We talked about the Tsunami earlier. What we have had from the professional photographers is not the immediate drama of the event but we’ve had a just as visceral, but more studied exploration of looking at the scale, in a way you can’t get on a cell phone. Cell phones don’t do scale. Cell phones do the individual and his or her experience. Professional photographers can take an overview and can introduce us to different elements looking at patterns, validating stories or recontextualising them. For now, there is a role for us.