Confusing Tools With Talent And Craft

Comparison Of Chicago Sun-Times & Chicago Tribune Stanley Cup Photos
Comparison Of Chicago Sun-Times & Chicago Tribune Stanley Cup Photos


Everyone in the photography community knows about the uproar that followed in the wake of the firing of the Chicago Sun-Times staff photographers and the subsequent "classes" given to staff reporters on the use of iPhones. A few weeks after the layoffs, a comparison between the lead photo about the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory on the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times went viral. A friend emailed that comparison to me and it prompted me to rant a bit about a fundamental change I've noticed in photography. This week a few blog posts floating through my news feeds have inspired me to reexamine my rant  in this blog.

The medium of photography has always confused the tool with the actual talent and craft. Every photographer has a story about showing a favorite photo and getting the question, "what kind of camera did you use?" The leap of logic is that the photographer didn't take the picture, the camera did. In the iPhone era it's become prevalent to take this same notion in a bizarre new direction. Since it's the camera that really takes the picture and since that picture just has to be good enough for display on the web, just show people how to use an iPhone and you've got Photography and Photographers. Note, it's not about showing people how to SEE. This bizarro-world mindset has become so common that the very institutions that should be leading the medium forward are actively defining the craft in terms of a tool of lowest common denominator. Who needs DSLRs and the photojournalists who know how to use them? iPhone snaps are good enough for the web so all we need are the people who have iPhones. The limitations of the mass-market device are driving the state of the art.

Look At This Instagram Parody From College Humor
In this parody video (Look At This Instagram) the line "Then my phone went and made it art" line is particularly salient.

We're in an unprecedented age when, as a culture, we're actively and willingly regressing on image quality. We have tools--incredibly advanced DSLRs and fine optics--that can take sharp, clear photos and motion clips at higher resolutions and bit rates than ever before. We can do more with those images and vids than ever before, yet collectively the "it's good enough for the web" and "it's fine for YouTube" mentality is becoming a prevalent.

Instagrammers are precisely placed for their
Instagrammers are precisely placed for their "creative collaboration" for a recent Lexus ad

At the same time photographic creativity is being equated with the application of grungy Instagram filters as a recent Lexus ad shows. The Instagrammers who were invited to participate in this "creative collaboration" were precisely placed by the Lexus team who had preplanned the composition of, literally, every single frame in what is essentially a stop-motion commercial. There was even a sign on the set admonishing the Instagrammers "Do Not Mess With The Crop Instagram Will Crop For You". I love Instagram (you can follow me if you'd like), but I don't think the app is the pinnacle of  photographic creativity.

Instagrammers were instructed
Instagrammers were instructed "Do Not Mess With The Crop"

And don't get me wrong, I LOVE my iPhone and I shoot photos with it and share them on Instagram all the time , but it hasn't relegated my 5D and my quiver of lenses to the closet. The iPhone is always with me which is great for snaps, as a camera of last resort and as a photography sketch pad. The iPhone shouldn't define photography, though. At the Chicago Sun-Times, I believe they've confused the tool with the craftsman. The insidious thing is that more and more people have the same confusion. Knowing how to use a camera, whether it's a modern DSLR or an iPhone equipped with Instagram, is a step to being a photographer. It's not the end of that journey.



    Great point, thank you! As a multi decade serious hobyist, I sometimes put up 4x6s of my photos at work; wildlife, landscapes, macros, other countries. People that comment usually say one of two things – what kind of camera do you have or who sent the post cards. Guess it’s a compliment!?! Thanks for bringing up the subject!

    I agree Christopher ~ fasten your seatbelts and take a ride on the paradigm shift again. In short, what used to be phrased as better, faster & cheaper is now changing to Cheaper, Faster & Better – in that order. Problem is, the trickle down effect always takes place (re: Tribune) and lo and behold – now we have employees being let go and/or replaced and an education system that is practically no longer needed (“Is a college education really needed for this?”). We know the new smart phones are advancing photographically – they have to in order to meet the demands of a corporate and share holder environment – but sadly, to what expense – both financially and humanly?

    Nice article and I think a lot of this is coming from the younger generations that just don’t seem to appreciate the skill and time involved in taking photos that go beyond snapshots. If their iPhone’s aren’t enough, they can just grab a higher quality photo off the web. Surveys show that they have a very different concept of “theft” when it comes to intellectual property. I’m 36, so I don’t say this as an old man afraid of change, but I think Marissa Mayer said it best with her blissfully ignorant comment that, “there is no such thing really as professional photographers”.

    I loved this article, since just a few days ago I was writing something similar about how smarter devices are making dumber users. When this is applied to a non-creative task (like washing the dishes), I can see the advantages of ease and technology. But when applied to an eminently creative endeavor, all transmission of responsibility from the photographer to the device ends up in total failure.

    In 1943, Ansel Adams said: “I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term – meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster”.

    Maybe he had a dream of Instamatix?

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