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A Photographic Revolution In the Air

Alfred Stieglitz - PICRYL Public Domain Search
Alfred Stieglitz, photographic pioneer

I’m reading a biography of the legendary photographer, Alfred Stieglitz by Dorothy Norman. I’m finding it a fascinating read, how he challenged rules. When he was young and played sports, he often wanted to change the rules of the game. In his photography and his life, he wanted to not “hit the target, but hit the center of the target.” That kind of passion inspires me. To not do something good enough, but extraordinarily.

Photography is on the cusp of something big. A monumental change is coming.

To many, it may feel like photography has become so ubiquitous that it has become somewhat meaningless, worthless, yet there will always be a need for art from artists. Just like I promote printing of photographs, there’s a movement, a revolution afoot, to celebrate the photographers who step outside of the mainstream: the typical image-maker using their pocket phone and Instagram to show their friends where they are for a glance and a swipe–and making real work, printing actual photographs.

There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air

Bob Dylan, Tangled Up In Blue

The revolution doesn’t involve the phone shooters who will continue to happily share their world instantly on small screens, (maybe we should rename them picture sharers), but the photographers who are making long-term tangible work. This isn’t disparaging to the phone shooters as not everyone wants to work as a photographer or cares about making photographs that last.

I define photography as having made a photograph, a physical work of art. Curated from all the frames that could have been printed, one chosen to print and frame. What good is writing a song that you never perform for people? What good is a photograph that doesn’t get printed and exist on a wall, whether at a gallery or simply in a friend’s dining room? (Again, unless you’re a picture sharer with the phone, that’s fine but that’s different. For the majority of people, there is no long-term life expectation of their images. They are made for immediate viewing only. They aren’t pursuing photography as art.)

Perhaps the revolution involves large exhibition prints for gallery or museum shows. Maybe it involves quality prints that just aren’t possible once you expand a phone photo past a 4″ screen.

There have been many posts about how a phone can match the quality of a top of the line DSLR or film camera, but they leave out “only at low resolution viewing, like on small digital devices”. Bring those images up to a significant print size, and does the phone image hold up or fall apart? It’s apparent that the phone image was never made for a large display, the type of art print worthy of a gallery, the quality chosen to document important work, the kind that is bought by art collectors.

Plus there’s the psychological difference. If you go to make portraits for a photo project, a larger camera instills a sense of quality and professionalism which causes the subject to respond differently than if you walk in with a phone. Same is true if you walked in with a Holga or Diana plastic toy camera or even a 4×5 or 8×10 view camera, the camera changes the perception of the project’s importance.

Stieglitz wasn’t willing to accept the status quo. He challenged what was and asked what could be. He moved art photography forward at a time when photography had very little value. Sort of like today.

In 1897, he was instrumental in promoting art photography and helping it become respected through his involvement with The Camera Club of New York, and exhibiting work in his NYC gallery, 291.

I, too, challenge photographers wherever I go to print their photographs. To mount exhibitions. To frame and display their work. To make a difference, make great art–actual photographs and create work that can be exhibited, framed and bought as artwork. Today sure, but also in the future.

There’s a changing tide that’s starting where young people are embracing film photography–albeit in small numbers but still significant and growing numbers–because they want something less fleeting than digital images, pictures that can have lasting value beyond phones, clouds, backup drives and computer screens. There are universities reinstalling darkrooms and adding film photography classes due to student demand.

I call it a revolution. There’s something coming that’s going to change the way photography is perceived. Where we are at now isn’t where we will be in 10 years.

Right now, camera sales are down. Like when photography began, just the pros and a few serious hobbyists had the expensive equipment to make photographs. Only the wealthy could afford to make photographs with large-format equipment in the days before George Eastman started selling the Kodak Brownie, which was essentially the smartphone of the day.

1910 Kodak Camera Ad ~ Let the Children Kodak, Vintage Radio, Camera, TV Ads  | Camera ads, Vintage camera, Kodak camera

The “Kodak” ushered in ubiquity in photography in every person’s hand–man, woman or child. Everyone predicted serious photography’s demise.

But though the Kodak was commonplace, it didn’t diminish photography. Nowadays the pros and serious hobbyists are still upgrading equipment and making the effort to carry a kit to have more choices to make better photographs than what is possible with a phone.

The revolution has begun, but it’s difficult for many to see with such a quantity of phone images being made that are constantly entering our lives. So many digital phone snaps being emailed and texted and sent to us via social media that it feels like that is all there is, no actual photos exist. The perception is photography is now only on our phones, a colossal quantity of pictures. But that’s fueled by our own addiction to the devices. By our willingness to spend our lives online.

Because there is very little printing of those phone photos, I predict like those early Kodak Brownie photographs, they won’t last. But the ones from the Rolleiflex portraitist of today, the 4×5 landscape photographer, the 35mm documentary shooter, or the Sony digital photographer, those photographs will have an impact.

In time.

Time makes photographs more valuable. Would Vivian Maier or Fred Herzog or Saul Leiter have been considered such masters if they had been discovered in their time? We can’t misjudge the element of time to add value to an artist’s work.

Garry Winogrand was said to have pulled another street photographer aside and said, “Whatever photo you make today, make it the best you can, it only gets better as it ages.”

It’s true. The photographs being made by the photographers of today are going to go far. The ones willing to carry a camera. To shoot film or high-resolution digital images, make photographic prints, initiate projects, exhibit their work. They will be seen as the modern pioneers–the new Maiers, Herzogs, Leiters, Winogrands, and Egglestons–and an inspiration to a new generation of photo amateurs in the future who will deride making images just for small screens and also take up the art of creating actual photographs, which is when camera sales will rise once again.

To forego the Brownie for the Speed Graphic. To embrace the higher quality image despite its making being more work.

It may not seem it to the casual shooter, but I see it at gallery shows, and other places where exhibitions are happening. I see the attendance at the “A New York Minute” street photography show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, full of viewers not interested in viewing on a screen but on a gallery wall. People coming to see hand-printed black and white silver-halide prints. To experience photography.

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A change is coming. It’s a revolution in the air.

People wanting to consume photography who are not willing to settle for “fast food” but wanting a gourmet meal made from scratch. Mirroring the slow food movement, not desiring the quickest and easiest, but something a bit better quality even if it takes a bit longer to make.

Like the record industry embracing its resurgence.

Like the film photography industry seeing an increase in demand for film stocks, and the re-release of formerly discontinued films.

There’s a revolution happening. And it’s easily missed, obscured by the ubiquitous presence of the Kodak Brownie photos of today, the phone snaps all around us. But happening it is.

Photographs are being made by photographers building strong bodies of work. With purpose. With direction. On a daily basis pounding the pavement or taking to the land. With an eye for quality and deliverability. Working to make photographs for a future audience who will appreciate the work.

It takes a revolutionary to see the future need to photograph the things today that aren’t nostalgic–old cars, rusty buildings, cute diners. It takes a visionary to see how to document today’s world in a way that works for tomorrow’s exhibitions. To create photographs of the strong and weak, the beautiful and the ugly.

The Robert Franks making documentary photos of America today. The Garry Winogrands creating street photographs that will be embraced in just a short time. The Diane Arbuses photographing those on society’s fringes today. The William Egglestons making art portraits.

The revolution has begun. A few are a part of it, more than you would think, and more are joining it, but it is happening. It is strengthening. And it welcomes all newcomers. Their work will be celebrated.

Just not today.

The revolution that’s here is making photographs for tomorrow’s viewers, and setting the stage for the photographers whose names will be ubiquitous with photography then.

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