“It’s really weird,” says Antonio Olmos. “Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.”
I’d asked the 50-year-old, award-winning, London-based Mexican photographer what he thinks is going to happen to the medium after a week in which it has come more unflatteringly into focus than ever before. This was the week in which the most reproduced photograph was a photograph of someone (Helle Thorning-Schmidt) taking a photograph (a selfie of the Danish prime minister with David Cameron and Barack Obama) at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. It was an image that seemed to typify the narcissistic nature of smartphone photography.
But here’s the twist. That photograph of a trio of politicians was captured by Agence France Presse photographer Roberto Schmidt using a digital SLR camera and a huge 600mm lens, and press photographers hardly ever use iPhones. But should they? Today the chief victims of the camera phone are makers of point-and-shoot cameras. Only two years ago Annie Leibovitz helped put the nails in the coffin of such middle-market cameras by saying that the iPhone was the “snapshot camera of today.” But tomorrow? Maybe camera phone functionality will become so superb that all you losers who spent four- and five-figure sums on digital SLRs will be overcome with buyers’ remorse and press snappers will be shooting with the same cameras as the rest of us.
This was also the week in which psychologists argued there is a “photo-taking impairment effect.” That means if we take a photo of something we’re less likely to remember it than if we’d looked at it with our eyes. “When people rely on technology to remember for them,” argued psychologist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in Connecticut, “counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.”
We’re used to the complaint that we’re taking pictures rather than living in the moment, and that makes us experientially poorer. But Henkel’s study seems to go further, suggesting we don’t even remember the stuff we take pictures of, making the snap-happy nature of modern photography doubly mindless.
“People taking photographs of their food in a restaurant instead of eating it,” says Olmos. “People taking photographs of the Mona Lisa instead of looking at it. I think the iPhone is taking people away from their experiences.”
CASUALTIES OF PROGRESS
But what does Olmos mean by saying photography is dying? He argues that in the 1850s the rise of photography made many painters, who had previously made nice livings from painting family portraits, redundant. Now it’s the turn of professional photographers to join the scrap heap. “Photographers are getting destroyed by the rise of iPhones. The photographers who used to make ￡1,000 [NT$48,306] for a weekend taking wedding pictures are the ones facing the squeeze. Increasingly we don’t need photographers — we can do just as well ourselves.”
But doesn’t that mean that some photographers are becoming obsolete, rather than that photography itself is dying? Isn’t what we’re witnessing a revolution in photography, thanks to digital technology, that makes it more democratic? “In one sense yes. I used to be sent on assignment to Iraq, Afghanistan and to photograph the Intifada — partly because there weren’t any local photographers. Now thanks to digital technology, there are locals taking images at least as good as I can.