From its inception, photography was a marriage between human and machine. The lens and the light-tight box allowed us to capture the light we saw in the wild. First we made life easier by using a mechanical shutter to expose the sensitised plate to light; this meant we didn’t need to uncover and re-cover the lens ourselves. Later, we subordinated responsibility for focus and exposure to the machine, and later still, during the rise of digital imaging, we gave the camera the role of darkroom too. At what point is the human no longer necessary? When does the machine assume the role of eye and brain?
The fundamental parameters for taking a photo are where you stand and when you press the button. Even at this early stage in the evolution of remote imaging and computational photography, these are no longer purely human concerns. Phone cameras can ‘see’ when everyone is smiling and has their eyes open, then shoot the picture without human interference. Human-assisted camera placement is under assault from opposite directions — from AI advances and from visual precedent. There are consumer drones that automagically track you as you run, cycle or surf; and in an e-commerce studio, where there’s no requirement for creativity or human agency the tripod is practically bolted to the floor to ensure day-to-day consistency. What is to stop these flying eyes moving from the surf zone to the war zone? Do you need a photographer to trip the shutter when the catalogue model serves pose after pose with metronomic precision? The machine always made the image, but soon it will be able carry itself to the scene and choose what and when to shoot. What role does the human eye, mind and heart have in this future?
Photography differs from every other artistic medium because it deals solely in completed works of art. It is a binary process — first there’s no image, then there’s a recorded image. (This elides the complexities of developing film or processing RAW files, but both of these processes start with an atomic image.) Unlike a painter who creates a painting in discrete stages, brushstroke by brushstroke; the photographer creates artwork after artwork, literally at the touch of a button. Rather than a practice of gradual addition and subtraction, photography is the art of collection and selection. And so, the trait that separates great photographers from good photographers is not technical mastery, it’s good taste.
This isn’t ‘good taste’ in the sense of an Elephant’s Breath accent wall in your study or never wearing brown in town. Rather it is good taste as a catalyst for your idiosyncratic style. It’s seeing a good picture and realising that it isn’t ‘your’ picture. It’s the ability to recognise one of ‘your’ pictures, but not to let this limit you. You have the discernment required to produce a coherent body of work, but enough adventurous spirit not to become your own tribute act. There are photographers who barely touch the camera, Steven Meisel and Gregory Crewdson come to mind, who nonetheless have a very strong aesthetic. They work more like the cinematographers who leave everything to their camera operators in order to maintain enough distance to control the visual direction of a film, without getting lost in the particularities of the focus or framing of a specific shot.
Is this mode of working the way through the thicket of automation? I hope not. I love the tool/body connection that camera handling gives me and I would miss the physicality of organising elements in the frame by moving my body through space. To me, many-handed imagemaking often results in ‘dead’ images, even with a strong authorial vision at the helm — you see the scale, the polish and frankly the budget in the picture, but not the connection between creator and subject.
This sense of connection is the second essential ingredient in good photography. It is not enough to just point a camera at the subject and press the button; what is required is a level of attention that borders on love, in order to create the connection required for an incisive image. Photography is also set apart from other visual arts in that it is impossible to make images without a direct relationship with your subject. You can’t sit in your studio and will pictures into existence, manifesting them from imagination via the skill of your hands like a sculptor or painter. This is particularly apparent when photographing people. A chunk of the difficulty of portraiture lies in making the subject as comfortable or uncomfortable as is necessary, so that they reveal a captivating aspect of themselves to the camera. Whether this hidden aspect is more ‘authentic’ (yuck) than than someone’s usual appearance is a subject for another day, but this apparent vulnerability and openness is the source of many famous portraits power cf. Migrant Mother, Arbus’s boy with hand grenade and McCullin’s shellshocked soldier.
I hope that photographers can tread a line between using incredible tools that can transform our abilities and an annihilation of authorship created by unfettered automation. We have to define image quality along human dimensions — better to compete on taste and connection, than technical perfection. A future where I do nothing but curate drone imagery or position the limbs of CGI celebrities seems rather bleak to me.
The Pillar by Stephen Gill For this project Gill used a camera trap, focussed on a post in a Swedish field. Seasons change, birds come and go, and despite his absence at the moment of capture, the series has his finger prints all over it. Both weirder and more beautiful than it sounds.
No Man’s Land by Mishka Henner Portraits of prostitutes taken as they wait for clients on the backroads of the Spanish and Italian countryside. All the images were taken by Henner using Google Streetview.
Two riffs on the Windows 95 start up sound (composed by Brian Eno!):
Slowed down 23x resulting in a slice of eerie and glacial ambient that wouldn’t be out of place in Eno’s later work
The Windows 95 start up sound but OpenAI Jukebox attempts to continue the song. Trent Reznor better watch out, because this particular neural net is coming for his livelihood
Also, an example of a less famous, though equally beautiful, Brian Eno piece: Neroli (Thinking Music Part IV) The composer perfectly describes the record: “to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it.”
What would this look like if it were easy?