Photography will never be the same

Selfie trio, þingvellir, Iceland (2015)

Selfie trio, þingvellir, Iceland (2015)

Over the last ten years it’s been hard not to be stunned by what’s happened to photography. Near my home is a billboard that’s pretty much owned by Apple. Recently it’s often been showing a simple black and white photo, credited to the current iPhone.

To say that the smart phone market has shaken up traditional camera manufacturers would be an understatement. Consumers who used to lust after SLRs or fancy point-and-shoots have fallen in with another bedfellow, one that not only takes good photos but also handles email, social media, and makes phone calls.

I appreciate the smart phone – it’s a remarkable piece of technology. In terms of its camera, even a mid-range phone has some capabilities that high end professional cameras lack. With research and patents funded by a huge market, smart phones are advancing quickly, creating a new sort of pocket camera capable of miraculous exploits.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not being facetious.

There’s been a lot of angst in the photo industry, and it’s no surprise. Dumb companies like Kodak have gone from being enormous cash cows to receivership (and back, in the case of Kodak). Others have faked results, and still others are struggling to redefine themselves in a market that changes from quarter to quarter. Competition among smart phone designers, funded by lavish r&d budgets, pushes rapid advances in hardware and software. It seems pretty safe to say that not only has the photo industry permanently changed, but also that in short order there will be fewer companies selling dedicated, single function cameras.

Where this all leads is an interesting question. A phone camera, with its pea-sized lens fronting a miniature sensor, is pretty much the definition of convenience and portability for almost everyone. What could be better than this pocketable, sexy small object?

But hidden in the glitz are a few weaknesses too. Small size is an advantage, but a problem too. Though high-powered brains are competing to improve the smart phone’s miniature lens and small sensor with each generation, the photos they produce still lag behind their larger brothers. Not only that but the photo industry has woken up to an existential battle and now, finally, it’s working hard to improve. Stay tuned, what’s going to happen is anyone’s guess.

Posted in Photography, Technology

Fretting about Uber

I bought a shiny new camera last week. It weighs 180 grams, about a half the weight of my old Leica M4. For 29 years the Leica snuggled happily under my shoulder. Since 2002 – when I gave up using it – I’ve had a mottled succession of computer-cameras, their lifetimes proportional to their cost and the associated guilt factor in replacing them. My feelings towards them has been a shrug – grateful for what they do but indifferent to the cameras themselves.

It’s different with this new camera. It’s small and it does a lot. It costs about the same as a mid-level phone, and includes apps that connect to various social networks. It doesn’t exactly think for you, but it certainly tries.

I’ve been having a bit of high-level identity crises as a photographer for the last couple of years. It’s pretty understandable really. Making a photograph has gone from being a fairly complicated endeavour connoting a certain level of skill to something that the average cell phone does quite well (unaided). What that means is that the pool of capable photographers has gone from a relatively small number to a few billion. I’m not sure of the number, but it’s big. It’s no wonder that I feel a little insecure.

Actually, I think that insecurity started in the 1990s. It wasn’t that everyone could make pictures easily then, but rather that work-for-hire agreements started showing up as part of doing business in the photography world. I had been earning a living as a photographer from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, and work-for-hire was a new arrangement. The bottom line was that a freelancer, such as a photographer, suddenly got designated as an “employee” of a company and the company henceforth owned whatever you produced for them. It was a good deal for the company, and a crappy deal for the photographer. Also there was the rise of “stock agencies” – libraries of images that were either under corporate ownership or corporate management, and basically bypassed meaningful compensation for the photographer who created them.

In basic terms, artists were not getting paid reasonably and the supply of images was ballooning to where, for a small fee, a buyer could get a picture that replaced what previously was a job for the freelancer. In that transition period not only were freelancers getting screwed, but they were also getting replaced.

Enter Napster. Sort of the grandfather of torrenting, Napster made it possible for copyrighted music to be “shared” with no compensation to the artist at all. Suddenly it didn’t matter if you were the Berlin Philharmonic or a garage band in Santa Barbara – your music was no longer under your control and you could confidently look forward to a future of cold-water flats and low-end gigs if being a musician was a high priority to you.

Ditto for photographers. Suddenly (in the early 2000s) photos of mine started showing up in the oddest of places. A portrait that I did of a couple of friends popped up unannounced in Europe illustrating a medical journal article on chemotherapy, where one of my friend’s relatives saw it and called in tears sure that something terrible was going on. Well meaning people pushed the limits of what was (is) called “fair use” to include just about anything. The number of photographers making a living, which had never been a bed of roses, got fewer and the challenges got harder. People who were stubborn and highly talented ended falling down the chain, going from being able to work on challenging projects requiring active minds to mind-numbing work servicing low-margin accounts.

Montreal, like a lot of cities, has been hearing a lot of noise recently over Uber. I keep on booting the Uber app and looking at in in my phone. It’s cool, with all those cute Packman-esque cars cruising around. The truth is that I’ve only ordered a cab in this city a couple of times and then always by (voice) phone, but I keep on cycling through these imaginary scenarios where I’m in another city, say New York or Mexico City, and with a single screen tap a driver shows up to ferry me to some destination. In Mexico City, especially, that’s an enticing prospect. Choose the wrong cab there and you can get treated to an extended ride sandwiched between two thugs making ATM-draining stops. In that context Uber looks like an attractive safety-policy. To be balanced, it’s fair to say, by smashed windshields and the violent opposition of the traditional taxi drivers who are more than a little upset at being replaced, and the same in Montreal.

To me, all the angst over Uber sounds quite familiar, and I’m not really sure how deep my sympathies go. I felt like I got screwed a long time ago, so why should I get all excited about taxi drivers?

But that doesn’t necessarily help with the identity crises. There’s a general theory that as the supply increases, the perceived value goes down. I can easily go to IKEA and buy what looks like a fairly good rendition of a Paul Strand hand-pulled gravure photo for what – maybe $20 for a pack of three. Why should someone plunk down more than that for some image that I’ve made? It’s a good question, and that’s been ominously answered in the art market that’s broken into two segments – one where art is “worth” crazy-high valuations and the other where it’s worth, well, not so much.

But getting back to my new camera. I used to buy huge, expensive professional cameras until it dawned on me that actually the Leica had worked a whole lot better and facilitated what I liked doing – making pictures – much more successfully than the latest multi-thousand dollar behemoth that darkened the sky and stopped all conversation as soon as it appeared in the room. To say nothing about causing arthritic shoulders from carrying it around. So the consumerism of the latest fancy gadget – part of what sucks money away from people feeling like they can afford to buy art – is also being fed by me. It also does a pretty good job of replacing my skill sets for a few bucks. But, in this case, something funny has happened. This camera, a small fraction of what “pro” models cost, is actually similar to the Leica and so it’s like things have come back in a circle to where pictures are actually fun to create again and an opaque hunk of metal isn’t becoming a barrier wall to where I’m trying to go.

It has been almost two decades getting there…

Posted in Artists, Photography, Technology

Un moment commun

Marie visited a few days ago with her photos place-marked into How Many Roads? Not so many minutes after we started going over them we were laughing so hard we were almost crying. Our parents must have been so proud of us! Here she writes:

Nice corn, Marie.

Marie in her Québec garden, circa 1971

Pourquoi ai-je été aussi touchée en voyant les photos de Jonathan?
Elles m’ont ramenées directement vers les miennes de la même époque . J’ai eu un irrepressible besoin de fouiller dans mes vielles boîtes pour les retrouver, les comparer, les jumeler…
C’est un moment commun… même si c’est de part et d’autre de la frontière.
Avoir 20 ans dans les années 70, membre d’une cohorte très importante de jeunes en rupture avec un système politique et économique…la contre-culture!
Nous nous distinguions dramatiquement de nos parents qui avaient vécu la crise et la guerre, nous étions plus insouciants, plus libres, plus créatifs, prêts à prendre plus de risques…
Que sont nos amis devenus…que nous avions de si près tenus…et tant aimés… comme dans la complainte de Ruteboeuf
Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait de nos rêves… comme le chantait si justement Sylvain Lelièvre…
How many roads…
On se retrouve aujourd’hui…peut-être moins nombreux…plusieurs ont déserté vers un confort trop douillet…
Mais le désir d’un monde plus juste ne s’éteint pas


Posted in Québec
Tags: ,

Where there’s a crowd there’s a photo

Detail of street crowd, Mexico City, 2014 (click through for full photo)

Detail of street crowd, Mexico City, 2014 (click through for full photo)

I’ve always liked photographs of crowds. Cameras are great at recording a lot of detail quickly and for me they give a way of studying the people, and seeing how I do (or don’t) fit in. I remember when I first came to Quebec I took so many pictures of people on the street, just trying to understand about my new home. Unfortunately, one of the things I came to understand is that you don’t generally do that here! But it did help me to feel a connection and start to find my place.

New Haven Green looking south towards Federal Courthouse, March 1968

New Haven Green looking south towards Federal Courthouse, March 1968

Photos age well too. A picture taken now looks like, well, now. But a picture taken more than four decades ago records something that’s gone. That can be precious if it’s of one person. When the photo is of a lot of people it gives a feeling of the time, the place, and customs.

These are (mostly) Yale students, on the New Haven Green. It was one of the early large East Coast demonstrations against the Vietnam War and as such was covered by the international media and watched closely – by both friend and foe.

Posted in Mexico, Photography, Social Documentary
Tags: , ,

Minor White

South Pomfret, Vermont, 1970

South Pomfret, Vermont, 1970

From Fall, 1970 through the following June I was a student of Minor White’s. Though I was chronologically an undergraduate he placed me in his graduate program. It’s people from that class that you see in the circle above.

If history is written by victors it also contains a good measure of current social mores. I was pleased to be sent a link to this recent essay by Susan Stamberg. White died almost thirty years ago. The essay has candor and judgement in its measurement of the man, who I knew only in the context of school and a few extended workshops. But I think there is a poignancy in this photo that’s correct.

I’m also attached to the photo for a personal reason. If you look closely there is a hill hiding in the background fog. It is a small ski area in Vermont called “Suicide-Six”, which was the local ski hill when I was young. So seeing it always makes me smile.

Posted in Artists, Woodstock

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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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