“What I’m into is visual connection to what I’m taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It’s absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution — what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishize the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don’t get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant.”
Not quite. The iPhone has revolutionized Knight’s photography and he knows it. “I can wrap an image around a sphere, I can take out the black or white values of a picture. I couldn’t tell you how it works, but it thrills me.” But isn’t that a loss? As McCabe says: “We don’t engage with the camera any more. We don’t know how it works.”
“I don’t care about all that,” says Knight. What he’s engaged by is how photography has become truly democratic. “When I was a kid there was just one camera per family, if that. Now everybody has one and uses it all the time. That’s great.” But why? Knight has been researching images of punk bands lately. “There are hardly any images, and all of them are from on stage. Compare that with now — at a Kanye West gig you see a sea of cameras, and there’s a database of images. I think that’s fantastic — the new medium is much more democratic.”
But doesn’t incessant picture-taking, as psychologists argue, make us forget? “That’s old rubbish,” says Knight. “Like that old nonsense about how sitting too close to the TV will infuse you with x-rays. My dad went around a lot of the time shooting with a video camera when I was a kid. Now we have lots of great old home videos as a result. So what if someone stands in front of a Matisse and takes a picture to look at on the bus home? I think that’s great if they want to.”
But it’s hard for professional photographers not to feel threatened. “Staff photographers are an increasingly scarce commodity, thanks to aggressive cost-cutting by newspapers and magazines, and amateur photographers are exploiting technological advances to produce stunning images, often using no more than their mobile phones,” says Magda Rakita, a 37-year-old student at London’s University of the Arts and a professional photographer.
“But technological advances work to our advantage, too. They allow professional photographers to share our work quickly and widely, and tell stories in engaging, innovative ways. Think, for example, of multimedia productions, iPad applications or eBooks, as well as the ability to make work accessible through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The latter mediums can be hugely significant tools for photographers and storytellers working with marginalized groups who, until recently, would not have had the opportunity of participating in the wider discussion and challenging mainstream views.” But what about earning a living? She says: “Creating your audience is essential in a new financial model that increasingly relies on crowdfunding.”
In any case, established photographers don’t necessarily have to worry about the democratization of their medium. “I’ll survive in this profession because I have skills,” says Olmos. “I’m a storyteller in images; my compositions are better than most people’s. Just because you’ve got a microprocessor in your computer doesn’t make you a writer. And just because you’ve got an Instagram app on your phone [doesn’t make you] a great photographer.”