Grandpa, what did it mean to “take a picture”?

Among the most convincing “What will 2009 be remembered for?” ideas I’ve seen is Jason Kottke’s notion that this is the year we heard the death knell of traditional still photography. Esquire magazine broke new ground in May by capturing a high-definition cover image of Megan Fox without using a still camera at all: instead of having her cavort en maillot while a photographer activated a motor drive a couple thousand times, they shot the whole sequence with a high-definition video camera and selected the most appealing compositions from the resulting footage. When you imagine the editing process, you realize that there’s no clear qualitative distinction between taking two frames a second and taking 24. We’ve stepped forward into a world where “video” is capable of image quality as good as “still photography” was just a few years ago—allowing photographers to capture the crucial moment at leisure, after the shoot, instead of with their fingers in real time.

Of course, saying it “allows” them to do things a certain way doesn’t mean they’ll like it, because it “allows” everyone else to do it that way too. Ask a newspaper columnist how he much has enjoyed having his medium demoticized; it drives down the price something awful. The new “moving photography”, as it becomes available to the consumer, will be seen to de-privilege the mystical gift of perfect timing that was once perceived to distinguish a Cartier-Bresson or a Winogrand from the herd. (Though that argument becomes hard to sustain when you find out just how many exposures Winogrand, for one, took–more than he had time to scrutinize editorially, and maybe more than anyone ever will have time for. It seems likely that he regarded the shutter of his Leica as a mechanical impediment he would have been happy to see superseded.)

In short, cheap hi-def video seems poised to make editorial judgment (and being in the right place at the right time) scarce relative to content-generation, which is exactly what the web did to nonfiction writers. On the other hand, cameras aren’t totally Moorean. The price of chips and memory will continue to approach zero; glass, not so much.




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Grandpa, what did it mean to “take a picture”?

  1. You had Feschuk at "Megan"

    • Actually, he had me at "knell." Made me think of that lady from Gimme a Break.

  2. We landscape photographers find your prediction baseless in the context of a large segment of photography. Shooting 30 frames per second will not increase the quality of our final selected output.

    Now if you were to say that 2009 marked the death of film still photography, with the demise of Kodachrome, you would be largely regarded as correct. But of course that's not your job.

    • Whoa-ho! Colby, you've been slapped down by the landscape photography community and what – you're just going to TAKE that??

      • He makes an excellent point to which I could possibly formulate an apt rejoinder, if only the topic of landscape photography didn't make me fall asleep at the keybvksmmskdpzppzzzzzzzzz

    • I agree. Also a landscape and floral photographer, I don't believe that there is a replacement of my medium in video. There are other forms of art to be found there for certain but nature photo's will remain in the realm of still photography.

  3. Kinda off topic but not entirely. I was watching tv last night with missus and she made me watch ad about new camcorder. I don't remember brand but ad claimed they had filmed the commercial using new camcorder. If that is accurate than digital technology has gotten much better over the past couple of years because it looked like professional equipment had been used, it wasn't herky jerky and images were sharp.

    • I can hear Stéphane Dion muttering "Now you tell me!"

    • I think the ad in question is actually for a still camera (a digital single lens reflex) with HD video capabilities. On a high-def screen, picture quality is lower than for professional video equipment, but on a CRT, it's just as good. At any rate, there's no denying the convergence between video cameras and still cameras.

  4. I don't think the price of chips is approaching zero, there will always be a manufacturing and materials cost that is well above zero, perhaps the cost of making a Nike shoe, whatever that is.

  5. I dunno, I think it was better when photographers had to put some thought into the image beforehand.

    • I suspect most photographers will continue to focus on framing and taking that one perfect shot, luckily, because that's the fun part. People don't usually enjoy sorting through ten thousand frames to find the two that look any good. It's composition and setting up the shot and seeing the result of it that makes photography appealing to meticulous idiots like me.

      I think Cosh's thesis was missing an essential word: "professional", as in 2009 might be the year professional photography dies out. That high-volume stuff where you're shooting a sporting event or some celebrity for three hours and you need to get as many frames as possible as quickly as possible? That'll probably go all video really quickly. But people who take pictures for love of it, or landscape photographers like Logician up there, will probably stick with cameras for a while yet.

      • But arguably it was the displacement of the utilitarian value of painting by photography that really launched painting as a form of creative expression. I bet this superceding of digital photography by video photography (well, they're both digital, but you know what I mean) will relaunch analogue photography.

    • I'm reminded of Yosef Karsh's famous picture of Churchill.

      Standing in front of Churchill, Karsh casually pulled the cigar from the lips of Churchill and walked back toward his camera. As he walked he clicked his remote and captured the "cross and indignant" look on Churchill's face.

      Sometimes the best photographs are the result of happy accidents, rather than careful deliberation.

        • I'm really not sure. Who knows, maybe Karsh carefully planned the whole thing. Still, he was able to capture Churchill's essence in a spontaneous and unguarded moment, which is what separates good photos from great photos.

          • agree fully CR. perhaps I am giving Karsh more credit then he might deserve and just like the notion of Karsh shrewdly provoking Winnie by removing the cigar and capturing the essential, as you say, sour reaction.

        • I think that was a case of planned spontaneity. He planned the action to get a moment of honest emotion from Churchill.

      • I'm reminded by your comment, of Churchill's quote: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

        Individuals like Churchill and Karsh are from a bygone era. Lives and moments no longer seem so mythic, or proclaimed.

  6. Oh Colby, ye of little faith who believes our techno-overlords aren't working very hard on lensless cameras. That's far from the only development allowing us to use less glass and cheaper glass to do a good job: I believe Olympus now incorporates info about their lenses chromatic aberration characteristics in their raw-development software, so they can correct typical CA artifacts using silicon instead of silica. Er.

    There's several other optical tricks being tested in the lab right now. You're quite right that still photography is changing rapidly, and will probably lose out to videography as a capture system, but I think you're underestimating how weird and unrecognizable high-end image-capture devices will be starting about 5 years from now.

  7. 2009: the year Google Streetview came to Canada.

    It's great! I've been able to check out my good friend Winston Smith's new house. We lost contact. Twenty five years does seem like a long time.

    Or, well…

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