Writing on photography

Now We Can Talk About the Death of Photography

When I write for this blog I’m too often concerned with everything I say being ‘right’. Sometimes it’s interesting just to take up an idea and see where it goes, meander with it through to a conclusion and then leave others to decide if that meander is interesting or not. A year ago I published a post here on the much hyped ‘death’ of photography. This piece was an attempt to refute the endless nay saying, the self-flagellating pessimism of photographers. Predictions of photography’s demise seems to occur more than ever now, paradoxically at a time when people have never been so interested in photography.

A year on and the death of photography is of course still a non-event (the death of photographers as a professional group is another matter). Saying that though, a year is a long time in a field prone to being so seismically effected by changes in technologies and trends. Since I wrote that post I have noticed a few things which hint at interesting, perhaps threatening directions for the medium. Early hints at a gradual move towards something some purists would certainly regard as a form of death, which is the end of photography as a physical practice.

Some context first. Digital photography is undeniably now the pre-eminent means of imaging. Despite the plaintive cries of ‘Film’s not dead’ it might just as well be. The use of film has diminished to such a minority of photographers (myself included) that we might as well consider it a piece of living history, akin to dressing up as a German soldier and talking with a put-on accent for the day. The fact is that to the vast, vast majority of people who use photography and look at photography day to day, it is an entirely digital medium.

The reasons for digital photography’s rise and rise are well charted, for the sake of brevity I’ll paraphrase them to matters of economics, and (more importantly for this conversation) matters of physical space. What made and still makes digital photography remarkable is the way it abstracted photography into something ephemeral and virtual. The image ceased to exist as an actual thing in the same way one might say the latent image on a piece of film exists. (Sure you could argue the digital image still exists, at the physical level of electrons, but for most people this is functionally non-existent)

Digital capture and storage freed photography from many of the physical processes which handicapped the medium and which made it difficult for camera technology to become as omnipotent as it is now. Still, even with this loss of physicality in terms of the produced image, digital photography depends on some of the essential physical processes that have always defined photography as a phenomena. Particularly the channelling and passage of light through a lens or aperture, and it’s focusing onto a sensitised surface to record the information carried by the light. Ephemeral image or not, photography remains for now a partially physical practice.

The logical next step is obviously to eliminate these remaining physical elements too. Then in effect not only will the photograph of tomorrow no longer exist, but nor will the camera which makes it. Ridiculous sounding, but also not. Media theorists have long discussed or anticipated the emergence of a form of photographic or otherwise documentary representation with no referent in the real world, certainly since the emergence of computer graphics in the latter half of the last century. Now though the technology is catching up sufficiently to see ideas and hypotheticals which have been circulating for decades finally come close to colliding with cold hard reality.

These thoughts became hard for me to resist recently while watching someone play a video game (these seem to be cropping up rather a lot on this blog) where the player is equipped with a camera phone and encouraged to take photographs of the beautiful rendered game world. So beautiful in fact that there are online groups entirely dedicated to sharing these images, which are often difficult to identify as ‘virtual’ images, particularly in an era when the compromised quality of camera phone images is so normal. An altogether more striking, real world came to me in reading that the furniture retailer Ikea has largely abandoned the use of traditional photography to sell its products, most of those pristine chairs and tables (included the entire image included at the top of this post) are 3D models, rendered to look like photographs. This has been going on since 2004.

Both examples still take human preparation and source material, including of course photographs of actual objects to provide textures and references for these renders, but the precedent is what’s interesting. And of course, it’s a big leap from a video game or a furniture catalogue to a world where photographs are routinely rendered rather than captured. But the demonstration that this is technically possible and commercially feasible is important. If photographers as a profession feel beleaguered now, it’s not hard to see a future where these technologies have progressed to a state where they upend much of our work entirely. In the same way that photography brought an end to the work of so many commercial painters in the nineteenth century, something similar could now be in the offing for photography.

The response of many reading this will be quite straightforward, that these examples aren’t photographs, they’re computer renderings, CGI, simulations, whatever. This is true, but also exactly part of the point I was making earlier in setting out the physical differences between the latent film and latent digital image. In the era of the digital image it hardly matters whether an image is a real photograph or not, if it looks the part it will be understood as one, as both the examples above demonstrate. Photography could slowly ‘die’ from the inside out without us ever even noticing.

If these trends towards photo realistic computer generated images continues it will mean that we will have to have to return to some of the interesting conversations about what these images mean for photography. To simply dismiss them as unreal will be inadequate response. Photography appears to be pushing at the margins of new territory, a world where it has been almost entirely abstracted out of reality, and has escaped the bonds of all the physical processes which once precisely defined what it meant ‘to photograph’. The idea of writing with light, so essential to the notion of how we define photography and it’s specific strengths and uses, is starting to give way.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography