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

Society for Photographic Education Conference Presentation – Is Photography Dying

OR….Has the Selfie Stick Replaced the Tripod


I am giving a presentation at the upcoming Society for Photographic Education Regional Conference this coming November and before my talk would like to get some feedback about my topic from fellow photo educators, photographs and would be photographers.

Photography is still in its embryonic stage compared to other art forms like sculpture, architecture and painting. The art of painting goes back 40,000 + years. Northern Baroque artists like Jan Vermeer used the camera obscura to enhance the realism in their paintings and the great Renaissance artist and innovator Leonardo Da Vinci conceptualized the first camera and made drawings of a camera obscura device in his journals.

The camera principle goes back all the way to the ancient  Chinese philosopher Mo Ti and Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid who described a pinhole camera in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

The first patent for a photographic device goes back to 1839 when the Daguerreotype was officially invented. In its short history this medium has experienced many transformation. It has tried to emulate painting in its early days and then broke away from painting striving to find its own identity as a medium unto itself thanks to Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Stand and the photographers that broke away from Pictorialism.  

Many of the compositional and lighting techniques used in photography come out of the art of painting. Techniques of lighting and posing are directly connected to great Renaissance and Baroque painters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt. Rembrandt lighting for example is used in professional portraiture to this day.

Photography has evolved from being the step-child of painting to becoming a unique and dynamic art form unto itself. The digital revolution has taken photography to a whole new technically sophisticated level and made this medium the most viable and relevant (in my view) of them all as we move forward in the 21st century.

However with that said with cell phone cameras being in the hands of just about everyone on the planet, I wonder if the medium is beginning to lose its heart and soul as far as expressive and intellectual content is concerned.

So it was said…Painting was Dead!

It is interesting to note that soon after the invention of the daguerreotype French history painter Paul Delaroche supposedly declared that PAINTING WAS DEAD! In some ways I suppose it was the beginning of the end for the art of painting – at least as a mode for representing external reality.

Photography does this so much better, faster and cheaper. Some artists in the late 1800’s were very intimidated by this new innovation called photography, yet some like Delacroix saw it as a new and powerful tool to help them make better paintings.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.07.42 PM

From the Daguerreotype is Invented PBS

“Upon seeing his first daguerreotype, the painter Paul Delaroche declared, “From today painting is dead,” and Samuel F. B. Morse, an accomplished painter as well as the inventor of the telegraph, apparently agreed. Morse happened to be in Paris just as the daguerreotype craze was blooming, and he arranged to meet Daguerre on March 2 and 9 of 1839. Looking through a microscope at Daguerre’s plates, he was amazed to be able to read every letter of a street sign. It was, he said, “Rembrandt perfected.” (In one of fate’s cruel twists, Daguerre’s Diorama was burning to the ground even as this meeting was going on.)”

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.03.58 AM

As most students of photo history know….early on photographers like the Pictorialists tried to make photographs that emulated painting. These timeless photographs were taken with soft focus, used genre themes and tended to be painterly.

Gertrude Kasebier

One thing is certain…once photography was accepted in the mainstream of society we start to notice painters (Impressionists especially) breaking away from pure realism and exploring more expressive, conceptual and abstract realms in their art.

Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin – Day of the God

It seems weird to me that 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) and truly connecting with the world around us photographically.

According to Stuart Jeffries article in The Guardian, “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.”

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 you aren’t a great photographer.”

So my question to you all is…..Is Photography Dying?

I’ve heard many times from my commercial photography colleagues. Professional photographers are finding it more difficult to compete and get viable photography jobs because so many potential clients now believe they can “do it themselves” or have friends take the pictures with their digital cameras and IPhones.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 11.58.03 AMIt seems photography is turning itself inward instead of outward as to the primary reasons behind the capturing of images.  You can’t go anywhere without seeing people pulling out selfie sticks and taking pictures of themselves in front of famous attractions, museums, parks and special events like weddings and reunions.

So I am wondering if photography is losing its soul?

Cardboard Boxes – Photo Exhibition in Vienna 2014

One thing that strikes me in looking at much of the photography being exhibited and shared in Eastern Europe for example 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. It seems there’s an emotional disconnect or distance between the photographer and the subject being photographed in contemporary photography. Again…this is my personal observation.

Resolution exhibited at Fotok [2] Galerie – Vienna

Many pictures I suppose are technically sound  – however many of the images I’ve seen exhibited lately are sterile, distant and cold.

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 intellectually and emotionally. These photographers were exploring a wide range of issues and infused their photographs with empathy, emotion and passion for their subjects.

  This famous FSA photograph Migrant Mother by Lange is a good example of a photograph that has visual and emotional impact, in addition to having universal appeal.

Anja Ronacher 2013, analog c-prints, Vienna

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 see the selfie stick approach to image making in much the same way.  Just empty superficial pictures for the most part.

Ok…who am I to say they are superficial because to the couple standing in front of the Mona Lisa taking that selfie stick photo, I suppose it means something important to them.  I do wonder if they actually experienced the painting itself or just the act of photographing themselves in front of it.

“The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” – Ansel Adams

So I pose some questions for all you photographers out there.

  1. Is photography evolving or devolving as a medium?

2. Are cell phone cameras contributing to the demise of photography or just the next phase of its evolution as a creative medium?

3. Is professional photography still a viable career choice considering how more and more people have the basic equipment to take photographs and are choosing not to hire professionals?

4. Is photography losing its soul?

5. Where do you see photography 10 – 20 years from now?

Please post comments directly on the blog post!  All comments are welcome.


11 comments on “Society for Photographic Education Conference Presentation – Is Photography Dying

  1. Noodles
    September 18, 2015

    First Pat brilliant topic! #1 everything is evolving or its disappearing, which photography is not! #2 in general it’s a fad, cell phones in hands of artist can be creative! # 3 not being pro my thought is its cyclic and will always be niche for creative to discover. #4 How can you lose soul? #5 Just hope to be around to see! Hope to see video on talk? Peace out man!

    • Patrick Keough
      September 19, 2015

      Thanks for your comments. I do agree that cell phone photography can be very creative and expressive, its just that I’m starting to believe that once we left the analogue age and transitioned to digital imaging technology something intangible started to become missing in the photographic process. When you consider what the great photographers from the past like Stieglitz, Weston and Adams had to go through to capture their images compared to now, you just have to wonder if some of that preconceptualization / subject scrutiny may be left to the wayside. I don’t know….there is a missing link to all this and that is why I am looking for feedback on this topic. I tend to be a little bias due to coming out of the analogue (dinosaur) age. 🙂

      • Noodles
        September 19, 2015

        Yes and in the day painters had to make own paint and tints. Something has been lost sure, but I believe future creativity in photography will be in use of and designing of new software. Old school is great, but future can be too.

      • Angelina Reese
        September 19, 2015

        I’m no expert, but I think the missing link is the print. Translating a digital image into a masterfully done print on beautiful paper that you can hold in your hands is how you keep the art and soul of photography intact.

  2. Keith Powell
    September 18, 2015

    I believe the first question should hypothesize to the degree at which photography and it’s constant evolving state as a past, present and future evolving phenomenon. Daguerre brought forward the concept of the daguerreotype. With its process becoming known to Delaroche, he instantaneously thought, PAINTING has died today! Since the invention of the daguerreotype…We should all ask ourselves, if paintings remained paintings, wouldn’t we all want a new genre, technique or idea to engulf in? Especially as the years come and go and we still have just paintings to project self-imaging or a more personal piece for display. Photography is both evolving and devolving at the same time in my close examination of the medium in an artistic perspective. As you included in your terminology, suggesting the recent visuals you’ve seen, didn’t peak your interest like the great photographers who stood before the integrated artists of our current time of photographs.

    “I see the selfie stick approach to image making in much the same way. Just empty superficial pictures for the most part.” If we crave for the underpinnings of the great photographers before this generation, it will appear artificial and fake to the eyes of someone who can only perceive the greatness behind the display of the Mona Lisa painting. You’re comment can relate to a home cooked meal versus a takeout/store bought perception of the image. When I glance at the couple, I see them capturing a photographic piece to signify, yes I’ve been here and I’ve seen this magnificent artwork. In gathering photographs for keepsakes and memorabilia of these occurrences.

    Cell phones cameras are credited to the evolution of photography as a creative medium. Daguerre released the daguerreotype as a new creative medium, even though Delaroche postulated that it’s causing the heartfelt death of painting during the time period of its arrival to the public. If cell phone cameras are charged with the demise of photography as a whole, wasn’t Daguerre responsible for the demise of paintings? Especially when Delaroche was seriously committed to his comment about the “daguerreotypes”.

    I can really agree to photography is losing its soul. Mainly due to the fact of technological advances which expresses from a time frame of the 1800’s to the early 2000’s of the present day of photograph’s. With this thought in mind, everything which encompasses are well-being is slowing losing its soul, so to speak.

  3. Patrick Keough
    September 19, 2015

    Keith, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and observations on this topic. Art has evolved since our prehistoric ancestors painted beasts on the walls of caves and photography, even though it is still a relatively new medium has also evolved and reinvented itself many times in a very short period of time. I mean its only been around since the early 1800’s compared to 40,000 years for painting. Since you are a student of photo history you’re aware of the time, toil and effort that went into making those first photographs from the camera obscura. Daguerreotypes were all the rage and then Calotypes, Wet Plate to Dry Plate, Kodak film was then introduced – you press the button and we do the rest, then smaller hand held cameras and faster sharper lenses. I guess my main point in this essay is concerning what I perceive to be the lack of emotional/intellectual depth in a great deal of digital photography. It’s interesting to note that many serious photographers are going back to film. When we shot with film we couldn’t check the viewing screen on the back of the camera after every shot. We had to rely on skills that we gained by learning about exposure, depth of field, shutter speed and composition. Most of these skills were learned by trial and error. We had to go to the darkroom and process the film, make a contact sheet and then evaluate our images and pick out the best ones and print them. It took time, patience and practice. Yes I agree Keith…I believe photography is both evolving and devolving and it continues to reinvent itself so I suppose we can’t place the template of the past approach to photography on the present. I may be romanticizing the old school traditional methods when comparing them to the digital aesthetic. I mean we don’t even make many prints anymore – me included. We view pictures on mobile phones and computer screens. So much detail and expressive content is lost when viewing pictures this way.

  4. Hannah LeBlanc
    September 20, 2015

    I found this piece really interesting because I am constantly wondering what has become of photography. I have loved taking pictures before I even knew what a camera was and seeing how things have changed in the past few years has left me thinking about what the future of photography will look like. Learning about the history and the accomplishments made in this field are nothing less than astounding and the only “big invention” lately is the selfie stick and that’s nothing to be proud of in my eyes. Photography has been about capturing the moment and preserving a piece of time and now it seems that society has turned it into a contest. Who can take the best selfie? Who can take the best picture of their dinner? Who’s beach scene picture has the more attractive person or the most money displayed? It shouldn’t be about showing the glamorously fake lives of today’s “internet stars”, I feel like photography is meant for so much more than that. Sites like Instagram and SnapChat have contributed to this shift in photography, and although they allow us to connect with people from all over the world and shows us so many places and things we may not be able to experience ourselves, that’s all photography seems to be now. Everybody with a smart phone is a photographer and nine of ten pictures you see are edited, covered with filters, and only show what the poster wants you to see. I recently saw a small article on the original pictures taken by people versus the images they post and I thought it was hilarious. It’s all about cropping out the negative and showing the pretty parts. Photography used to be about showing the truth, showing what people don’t idolize and admire, and showing life for what it really is. I don’t think photography is dying, I do, however, believe that people are choosing to overlook the important images because looking at a model posing in front of a world wonder is more exciting than seeing a picture of the aftermath of war or a beaten and broken child asking for help in a third world country. The shift in photography comes along with the shift of relevance in today’s society and not many people seem to care about what really matters. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your views and if I can find the link to the article I recently read on cropped images I’ll gladly share!!

    • Patrick Keough
      September 21, 2015

      Thanks for this very thoughtful and detailed reply to my blog essay Hannah! You really hit on some key variables and have given me more food for thought on this subject. There is no doubt social media has played a big role in most peoples approach to photography. It’s only been a recent phenomena that image making capabilities are now in the hands of just about everyone – not just a professional group of photographers. I spend 7 months in photography school in the military and then continued my photographic studies in Graduate school. I learned all about various types of camera formats, how to develop film, printing techniques, composition, portfolio development, commercial photography, photojournalism, alternative processes, etc. There really is a lot to learn when it comes to serious photography, yet it seems a lot of that education and training is disregarded by a great many people in this day and age. Now is this a bad thing or a good thing or just part of the evolution of the medium. There is no doubt the medium of photography is evolving and morphing into a variety of new communication tools like posting images on FB and Instagram. The loss of the print itself is another issue that should be considered in this debate. Most photographs are now viewed on computer and cell phone screens instead of holding / viewing a real print. The viewing experience is also different and I think can dilute / devalue the image itself in some cases. Yes…good point about how photographs used to be considered truthful visual documents however with Photoshop, Gimp and Lightroom photos can be manipulated in a variety of ways and can be very deceiving. No…photography is not dying – its just expanding and evolving as our global cultures evolve reflecting the concerns, beliefs and agendas of those individuals making photographs. I’m already changing my initial views on this topic thanks to the really great and thoughtful feedback I am getting on this blog post.

  5. Justine Long
    September 20, 2015

    I think that cell phones and other devices have taken over. You have a cell phone and an all in one tool in the palm of your hand. That being said there is still a need for photographers you want that beautiful image from only the lens of a camera can give you. There is that certainty that you will have a beautiful shot that will last a lifetime. Is photography losing it’s soul? It might be and then again it might not be. You can look at in two ways. Some people like the old fashion way of taking pictures and others choose the modern way by using cell phones or tablets. Either way we are still enjoying our pictures whether the old way or the new way. A picture is a picture no matter how you take it. But I would like to say that the quality of a camera you can not compare the two. That is my opinion that photography will never lose its soul.

  6. Edward Clark
    September 20, 2015

    Evolving. I believe that capturing images has finally been given to the masses. The internet today is full of the types of images that the average person takes. This is represented in the selfie. The scene is no longer as important as the idea that we were part of the scene. But I believe we are on the verge of seeing another medium take the place of the quick iPhone snapshot. Video. More and more we are seeing videos on the internet. According to the statistics on the YouTube press page “YouTube has over a billion users – almost one-third of all people on the internet”. The same YouTube webpage listed on 8/31/2015 that “300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute”. While I know that many of those hours are cat videos, opinions, educational and everything in between. I am seeing that the still image no longer satisfies. Consumers are interested in the moving record. Even in the news we are hearing more and more about police and body cameras. And what has created this swell of interest in police video but personal video by consumers of police events. I am at a loss as to where this is heading. I surmise that as videos become easier to manipulate we will see more heavily edited videos. However, I firmly believe that the thoughtful photograph will remain an art form. No amount of trickery can substitute for careful equipment manipulation. Yes, we can modify the digital image and produce another work entirely. But this leaves photography and becomes a means to an end. There is no doubt that digital photography has altered the landscape. I for one have benefited greatly from the change. It has allowed me to rapidly expand my skill and help me capture the image I desire. Where with film I was too lazy and by the time my film was developed I forgot the conditions that created it. The cost of pressing the shutter is no longer a concern. Today I take hundreds of pictures where I would have taken a single bracketed set. Digital has been a great blessing for me. With digital I have sat in the backyard with my camera and a few cheap eBay lenses and taken groups of pictures. Then switched the lens and taken them again. Then, again with different exposures. I am taking better pictures than ever before and I think getting better with time. No, I think that digital photography has brought more people to the party. Good, bad or otherwise they are creating images. Some will benefit from the new process. Some will not know the difference. A few will progress beyond the snapshot and gain an interest in the fundamentals. Some more will even try and manipulate those fundamentals. Fewer still will master those fundamentals and learn to craft the image. The skilled photographer is still a skill and they will remain an artist. When I start seeing family portraits hung over the couch taken with someones iPad I’ll start to worry. And as for me, I’m not so sure that I want my wedding pictures taken with a cell phone either.

  7. Dawn Surratt
    October 17, 2015

    Hi Patrick!
    Hope you are well and it’s such a pleasure to “visit” with you and chew on some always thoughtful considerations in our world of photography. As an “old school” photographer who learned film in the dark ages, I am constantly torn by guilt about shooting digitally. When I shoot digitally, I struggle with thoughts that I am “cheating” and taking the easy way out. Does this kill the joy of photography for me? Perhaps, yes in some ways. When I am shooting for a client and there are a million other people shooting great images with their phones do I die a little inside? Yes. It has definitely been a journey of reflection for me to truly dig in and decide what being a photographer is all about for me personally. I don’t know if you read the magazine “Don’t Take Pictures”, but in Issue #5 (the current fall edition), the Editor, Kat Kiernan has written a thoughtful essay on the medium of photography. You can check it out on the website: if you’d like to check it out.
    As always, it’s a pleasure to catch up with you and hope to see you on Ocracoke sometime in the future!
    Be well,
    Dawn (Hanna) Surratt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: