Thoughts on Life, Art, Photography, Technology, Teaching and Travel…..

Has Photography Lost its Soul?

Photography has a rich and illustrious history and is a relatively new medium compared to other art forms.  I mean painting has been around for 0ver 30,000 years compared to photography’s relatively short history. Photography has also borrowed much of the visual language from painting and applied it for both composition and content translation purposes.

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 11.53.14 AM

I personally believe our true goal as photographers is visually translating external /internal references (landscape, nature, people, architecture) and metaphorically (symbolically and/or blatantly) translating our expressive/emotional response to our subject matter into a conceptual bridge (path) for deeper awareness and understanding of the world around us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. This can be accomplished realistically or in more abstract / conceptual ways.

Last week I spent 2 days reviewing photographic portfolios in Bratislava for the European Month of Photography and also have attended many photo exhibitions and opening during my travels in Eastern Europe over the past 2 years.

Anja Ronacher 2013, analog c-prints,

Anja Ronacher
2013, analog c-prints,

One thing that strikes me in looking at much of the photography being exhibited and shared in Eastern Europe is how devoid of emotion and soul much of it seems to be.  I must admit, I did see some great and unique work in Bratislava and Vienna recently, however a lot of it seems void of emotion and expressive content. Its as if there is an emotional disconnect or distance between the photographer and the subject being photographed.

Photo Sharing @ Portfolio Reviews in Bratislava

Photo Sharing @ Portfolio Reviews in Bratislava

The pictures are technically sound for the most part and have good composition and effective interrelationship of visual elements – however many of the pictures I’ve seen lately are a bit sterile, distant and cold. I have also noticed some underlying political connotations like this one below called resolution that seems to address tensions in the Middle East. Again…just an observation and not a judgement call. I’m not sure this series of printouts below is even photographic or is it art calling itself photography.


Resolution  exhibited at Fotok [2] Galerie

I’m not judging the quality or content of the images – just how they speak to me.  When I look at the work of great photographers from the past such as Stieglitz, Strand, Weston, Henri CartierBresson, Dorothea Lange, Jacques Henri Lartigue or even Man Ray, their work connects with me on multiple levels. This famous FSA photograph Migrant Mother by Lange is a good example of a photograph that has visual and emotional impact.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

There may be a sense of  hopelessness in the visual content like much of the FSA photographs for example, however these pictures are NOT devoid of emotion in any way.


However…when I view a series of totally black photographs or a yellow blob with no recognizable content whatsoever, I don’t relate or get anything from the work other than a hopeless, empty / detached feeling.  Again I’m not judging the black photographs, Xerox printouts or the pictures of stacks of cardboard boxes.  I’m just pointing out that there’s something distant and emotionally neutral about a lot of the photography I have been seeing lately.



I am curious as to the WHY behind this disconnect.  Is it the nature of the modern culture we live in? Is it the transitioning from a religious to a more secular society?  Is it a product of our digital age? Is it generational? After all I am a baby boomer and most of the photography I am talking about is made by much younger photographers and artists.

Photographs from a Travel Agency exhibited at Fotok [2] Galerie

Photographs from a Travel Agency exhibited at Fotok [2] Galerie

This post is just meant to start a conversation.  Any thoughts???

Comments welcomed and encouraged.


18 comments on “Has Photography Lost its Soul?

  1. Joseph Whichard
    November 13, 2013

    I totally get where you’re coming from. One of the reasons I enjoy photography is that it tells the story and expresses emotion of moments or stopping a memory in time. When photography does not show any emotion, tell any kind of story, or isn’t creating anything visually interesting. I cannot connect to it either. I think digital photography has somewhat cheapened the art form to a certain degree. Sometimes thinking outside the box just doesn’t work, or as you said leaves you feeling no attachment to an image.

  2. Angelina Reese
    November 13, 2013

    I’m totally in agreement with you. I don’t profess to be an expert on these things, but as an art lover and photographer I don’t see much photography that moves me. The images may be technically perfect, pretty or interesting, but, as you said, they have no soul. So many images out there on the internet, in magazines, etc., that are just ordinary. I hope I didn’t just sound like a snob. 😮

  3. Patrick Keough
    November 13, 2013

    Thanks for your honest thoughts and comments to this post. I am just wondering as to the WHY behind this trend. Joe…you mentioned digital photography has cheapened the photographic art form to a degree. I think this is a good and valid point. We used to scrutinize our potential subject matter before making pictures and now it is so incredibly easy to make thousands of photos without going to the trouble of developing the film. This may well be a factor. I look forward to more photographers weighing in on this.

  4. Henry James Stindt
    November 13, 2013

    Have the photographs lost their soul or has the photographer and/or their culture lost its soul? The European (especially Eastern European) experience and therefor their culture/identity is very different from ours in North America. However, I do believe we need to take a hard look at our images, and see if they are still expressing what is in our hearts, as well, as our mind. We need our heart and intellect to be working harmoniously in order for our imagery to have true meaning. This melding is what I believe to be the authentic source of creativity. Journey on friends!

  5. Stefan
    November 14, 2013

    Very interesting point… is really photography loosing it’s soul or is the photographer loosing it? Technical great pictures with no message speaks about the photographer, isn’t it? I think it has in part to do with the digital photography, but it’s just a very little part, most of it I do think has to do with society and media… we are more and more involved in material/superficial things that try to keep our eyes/soul out of the small things that really matter and usually those small things are the ones with the message, the ones that can get the viewer connected with the feelings of the picture or the ones left by the photographer, I think most of people is loosing their sensibility to see the world, to see those great small things that really matters, to admire the real beauty among us… we all as photographers want to capture the world viewed trough our own eyes… but if we can’t make a photography to express by itself… were our eyes looking at the really important things or were we looking to just superficial things?
    I believe in the statement said by Dorothea Lange “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”… from this perspective, digital photography isn’t the real issue… but what the modern “photographers” is looking as “important” and that, IMHO is a society issue… We really need to realize when we have lost our path to get back to it.

    • Henry James Stindt
      November 15, 2013

      Very well said. I think then, the real question is what is true Seeing? Real seeing not superficial scanning. Most of us are walking around in state of unconsciousness; the camera allows us to penetrate the mental haze. But only if we work at it – we still have to become conscious and deliberate. This is what training the photographic Eye is about.

      • Patrick Keough
        November 16, 2013

        Good point Henry! The camera is an amazing and powerful tool for penetrating deeper into all types of subject matter – even the most mundane and commonplace. Great photographers develop a very sensitive and acute EYE and see (translate) external reality on multiple levels. Artists and photographers make their best work when they are totally aware and present to the moment.

  6. Patrick Keough
    November 14, 2013

    Great comments (observations) from Henry and Stefan! I appreciate your thoughts on this issue. Henry…you stated “We need our heart and intellect to be working harmoniously in order for our imagery to have true meaning. This melding is what I believe to be the authentic source of creativity. ” I agree with this point! So maybe there is a disconnect between some contemporary photographers and their subject matter and the society they are living in. I also agree with your points Stefan. This observation especially “we are more and more involved in material/superficial things that try to keep our eyes/soul out of the small things that really matter and usually those small things are the ones with the message, the ones that can get the viewer connected with the feelings of the picture or the ones left by the photographer, I think most of people is loosing their sensibility to see the world, to see those great small things that really matters,…” I think we are seeing some of the same issues in art being made at this time. We have more and more communication tools (cell phones, IPads, Laptops) than ever before, however these new and powerful tools seem to be keeping us from truly SEEING, FEELING and translating (capturing) the world around us photographically. I look forward to reading more comments on this post.

  7. Angelina Reese
    November 15, 2013

    It doesn’t help that so many of us are disconnected from nature. After all, you must feed your soul in order to have one.

  8. jrharries
    November 17, 2013

    I love this question – so important for our times, I think. And I also really like the comments made by Henry and Stefan about the photographer’s soul. But doesn’t it go wider than that? Photographers don’t operate in a vacuum any more than do artists, writers, academics or even businessmen. So if there is an issue of soul for photographers, then it must be part of a wider issue of soul in western society.
    This draws me back to Patrick’s defining statement – “I personally believe our true goal as photographers is ………. deeper awareness and understanding of the world around us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.” One word, in particular, stands out – “believe”. I think the reason why we see so little “soul” in our society, is that the west has become a belief-free-zone. I am not talking about religion here, but something that is arguably deeper; the belief that there is meaning in being and in living; that there is value in questioning and trying to reach for better understanding and humanity.
    This lack of belief in anything deeper means that nothing gets seen except as a flat, two dimensional landscape, the axes of which may be termed, “pain or pleasure”, “gain or loss”, “master or slave”. It also means that everyone’s attention is reduced to a trading value that measures success in money and popularity. And if photography is only pursued with those goals in mind then it will quickly lose its soul to technical innovation and cleverness. The really frightening thing is that if we don’t start to question and resist this trend, then it is quite possible that we will all lose our souls, simply because we have been persuaded that we haven’t got one.
    And here is the rub – we are already half-way there. Already, in most circles, the idea of soul is treated as no more than an abstract – a trick of thinking that is not based in any objective reality. Well, of course, if that is right, then our little musings here have no real meaning either, and we might as well surrender ourselves to the pleasure and pain of life as we find it, unquestioned. My honest response to that is that that idea is bollocks. Everything has soul, but you got to know what to look for, and how.
    Patrick’s question and all our responses indicate that we each have ways of doing that, but probably not as effective and complete as we would like. It would be interesting to hear from more people about how we do see soul in works of art and life. Patrick – maybe you could ask that question in another blog – “how do you see soul in art and life?”

  9. jrharries
    November 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on Walkabouts and wonders and commented:
    I met Patrick Keough on a street-corner in Vienna when we were both lost looking for a photographic exhibition. Later on, after we had found the exhibition he mentioned this blog – enjoy!

  10. Henry James Stindt
    November 18, 2013

    Soulutions anyone? Great conversation, let’s continue.

  11. Patrick Keough
    November 18, 2013

    Yes excellent conversation Henry! Please post this link out so we can get more folks in the discussion. I will respond to James after more people weigh in. I am now in Prague and need to see some sights.

    • Henry James Stindt
      November 18, 2013

      Have done on FB – let’s all expand this vibrant inquiry; share it friends.

  12. Patrick Keough
    November 18, 2013

    Contemporary art is losing it too! Click Here for Detail….

  13. Pingback: Is Photography Really Dying? | KeO BLoG

  14. Maurice Webb
    January 15, 2014

    I think what we’re seeing is the dawn of a new movement. A reflection of the world as seen through the eyes of a generation who experience the world in bytes and perceive life in shades of binary.

    Andy Warhol, while managing to succeed despite this fact, may have also been keenly ahead of his time in the way he saw the world. How advertising and art were becoming interchangeable. And his “15 minutes of fame” quote is eerily prophetic within the context of the rise of social media such as Twitter.

    Great works exist. It goes without saying that there are painstakingly rendered works that record the unwritten narrative of our species. But no one has time for those. Who can be impressed by Bouguereau? When Hollywood makes perfect renditions of life that walk and talk and make jokes about our fears of commitment?

    I think we’re seeing, for the first time in history, disposable art. Images have become post-scarcity. I’m not sure creators view their work anymore in terms of the commitment required to produce a great piece or even emotional impact.
    Rather I think we’re seeing a focus on whether a thing is consumable, exciting or marketable.

    Art from creators who lack a certain, meaningful kind of passion produced for a population who tone-deaf to the language of images.

    Above, jrharries noted, “So if there is an issue of soul for photographers, then it must be part of a wider issue of soul in western society.”

    I agree, and I believe this is the heart of the matter. Everywhere in society we see not only a disconnect in Art, but in the very meaning of truth human experience. The language of politicians is rife with euphemisms for atrocities. “Surgical Strikes” really mean mass murder. “Homeland Security” really means the power and agency of the Federal Government.

    I give credence to a dozen lies just to make it through lunch, and by bedtime, I’ve told myself a dozen more.

    As a species, we’re living in a Golden Age. Life expectancy is at an all-time high along with literacy. While poverty is down along with crime, at least in the developed world. For the most part, the world is at peace. Except the U.S. who is almost always at War.

    “The Hunger Games” is one of the biggest grossing films of all time. Yet moviegoers are oblivious to the meaning of “panem et circenses” calling to mind the well-worn image of Nero playing the fiddle, while Congress takes the essential meaning of liberty and puts the whole thing to torch.

    They’re joined by the TSA who physically abuse people everday. Law abiding citizens are subject to illegal search and seizures, which are amoral and unconstitutional. Yet somehow the Supreme Court, decided that these unlawful searches and seizures are perfectly A- OK.

    This is the Judicial Branch equivalent of a conversation between parent and child wherein the child asks, “Why do I have to give you some of my Halloween Candy? Its mine.” And parents answers, “Because I said so.”

    They called an orange a frog. They took the wrought iron bulwark of Aristotle’s Law of Identity, and turn it into a ten cent balloon animal.

    We are being gaslighted, as a culture. I think deep down we’re aware of it. We’re just so disconnected, so gorged on lies and half-truths and platitudes, our collective logic torn to shreds by buzzwords and catchphrases, or emotional anguish and turmoil soothed by drugs and food and sex and palliatives that our collective emotional experience if it were rendered would look more like the flat line of an EKG and less like the whimsical work of Jackson Pollock.

    We engage in Doublethink survive this Mediapocalypse™ and uphold the Social Contract while being victims of it. Deep down we know what’s real and right and true, and worse yet, we know that something is wrong.

    But we have bills to pay. And student loans. And friends we love and family who depend on us so we. We switch off. Dissociate. And we switch on when we get home to our families. On and off. Zeroes and ones. Binary.

    1984 has long since gone.

    And the opiate, there’s always an opiate, is that Big Brother isn’t a violent mugger, but more like a friendly pusher. The Homeland will make you feel great. Will protect you, make all the hard choices so you don’t have to. All you have to do is sign the social contract. There’s a price of course. Nothing is free. I fear future generations will understand the dreadful reality of that statement.

    Even our approach to education is confused and lacks identity. We claim to want productive people, educated people. But we teach with a model based on imperatives and penalties for non-compliance. Where instead we could identify and nurture nascent passions.

    School is supposed to provide an education, but instead provides indoctrination. Rejecting the truth of your own understanding is tough. It takes a lot of training to switch off your mind and allow another to impose their will on your reality.

    By age eighteen, most people will have had thirteen years of that training.

    It’s late, and I love to write. So I could go on and on about various elephants in various rooms, but I think I’ve belabored the point enough.

    Good night everyone. Time to sleep 🙂

  15. Pingback: Society for Photographic Education Conference Presentation – Is Photography Dying | KeO BLoG

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2013 by in Keough Journal, Photography, Travel and tagged , , , .
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