As essential as the desire to create, is the innate desire to experiment with our creations: to use playfulness, technology, or artistry to make something entirely new and unique.
The technological advances in photographic imagery are improving quality at an exponential rate, yet it’s not megapixels alone that create the experimentation, it’s what is done with them. Take the RED EPIC, a cinema camera the size of a Hasselblad, capable of capturing up to 120 frames per second, each frame at 14MP. With its capability to make the distinction in quality between still and moving images negligible, it is hard to say if a photographer’s main challenge, capturing the decisive moment, is even relevant anymore. In other advancements, the Lytro “Light Field” camera – currently in development – captures the entire field of light around the subject, allowing the shot to be re-focused in post-production. The question becomes, as skill with a camera loses its importance in the field of photography, how will these technical shifts awaken creativity in the new craftsmen?
In contrast to the technological advances, some are exploring the re-invention of old technologies. Playfulness is in full-swing as photography enters an analogue renaissance, brought on by both the pre-digital photographers who will never let go of the chemical smell on their fingers as well as the young photographers who embrace film with the same enthusiasm as they do vintage clothing. The re-vitalisation and re-branding of Lomography has helped in no small part, creating a culture of cool around cameras with crappy lenses and burnt out light and candy colours. Meanwhile, the rescue of Polaroid instant film through the efforts of The Impossible Project can be seen as a massive collective declaration of love for a print medium on the verge of extinction. The value of Polaroid’s instant film disappeared with the introduction of playback on digital cameras, yet it is the playfulness of the product, the tactile magic of holding a developing print in your hand, which makes it a medium that people aren’t finished exploring. Not yet.
The mass availability of equipment creating technically perfect imagery has a lot of artists turning the other direction, towards the less sterile, more idiosyncratic aesthetic. While flaws in photos used to be symbols of the naturally imperfect photographic process (dust or scratches, light leaks and vignetting, for example), now “flaws” are manufactured into the process, calculated into the imaging for a sense of style and atmosphere. The use of film borders on digital images is an homage to the history of photography, but will perhaps ironically lose its meaning to viewers, as the population who grew up with film is no longer around to understand why it’s there.
The artistry behind the medium will continue to be experimented with: blurred action dreamscapes, under-saturated melancholy, double-exposed complications. Yet photographic artists will gain more freedom, as they let go of assumptions which are tied to certain methods or technologies, and are able to experiment with artistry alone in mind. Although there are divides, between those whose approach to creativity is to do it “in-camera” (e.g. Stephen Gill), and those whose post-processing transforms “taking pictures” into “making pictures,” (e.g. David LaChapelle) it all stems from the desire to show the world not as it is, but how the artist sees it.
By using other methods of capturing forms of light, for example Kenji Hirasawa’s use of a thermographic camera, photography can expand our vision of the world to include a layer of reality unseen by the naked human eye. In this way, the presence of a photographer is not merely a recorder of events open to witness by bystanders, but an interpreter of alternative realities.
Modern photography does not even necessarily require the presence of the artist at the scene of the photo. Massive amounts of online photography have created a new mode of expression through so-called “found photography.” Working as curators to find gems among mountains of imagery, Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman have both created bodies of work around collections of Google Street View photos, just as Erik Kessels has charmed us with his nostalgic collections.
The goal of creating unique works of art also generates creative thinking, in the face of mass repetition prints, enabled by common availability of digital devices and high quality printers. Yet, the history of photography is in creating an individual image, and some photographers return to this pursuit. Adam Fuss, for example, creates unique works often on a 1:1 scale by mechanical constructions that could only be called cameras by loose definition. The rarity implicit in the photos created in his process is a further rarity in modern photography.
Indeed, that is one of the side effects of having photography elevated to ubiquity: experimentation isn’t limited to the esoteric expertise of individual chemists and artists. Instead, by making the process part of the experimentation, others can benefit by using the tools created for them by others.
The paradox of these experiments is that, in many cases, they also lead to limited control over the resulting photograph. In a somewhat similar way as Polaroid did before, the popular phone app Hipstamatic allows photographers to outsource some of the creative process to software and chance. While those who make use of these tools might aim for accidental treasures, their growing presence makes others fear for the end of photography-as-art. Ultimately, it will be up to the individual photographer to decide the extent of their connection with photography as a craft.
Regardless of an individual’s approach, the widespread democracy of the medium represents a challenge for artists to constantly evolve, and grow, and push the medium in new ways, whether through technology, playfulness or artistry. With more working hands, it may become more difficult to produce something truly unique, but it also means that more hands are working towards creating more possibilities, and more roads to explore.