Two recent events made me think about the future of image-making. First, I read a provocative article about the Internet’s effect on literacy among young people. Second, cousin Lou came to visit and showed me his new digital camera. OK, I don’t blame you if you fail to see the connection right off — I didn’t either. So read on…
Since the introduction of digital cameras to the consumer market, I have been fascinated to watch how the process of taking pictures has changed. What previously had been a private event — leaving aside Polaroids for the moment — has evolved into a public enterprise. Since the invention of photography, we photographers have always had a somewhat dualistic approach to our craft. On the one hand, we have successfully resisted any attempt to license or otherwise formally regulate our profession, thereby welcoming newcomers to our midst. But on the other, we created something akin to a cult, with revered high priests and priestesses, our own language, and elaborate initiation rituals — remember the first time you entered a darkroom or, for that matter, opened Photoshop? Thus, although the multitudes could take pictures, we preserved the distinction that we were “making” pictures.
Still a Solitary Act?
Until recently, the process of making a photograph was a solitary act. The photographer selected the subject, composed the shot, pushed the button, and then … after a certain amount of time, rarely less than an hour, the photographer would emerge from the darkroom, the processing lab, or the corner drugstore with the finished product, usually prints or slides. The best of these would then be shared with clients, family, or friends; published for the world to see; or placed in a shoebox and forgotten. But no matter what their ultimate purpose, photographs were tangible objects — you could reach out and touch them.
What about today? Even a casual observation of typical tourists reveals how much the process of photography has changed. Everyone gets in on the act. Photography is a group enterprise, and the resulting image is passed around for all to see. Notice that I said “image.” Of course, what gets passed around is the camera. The camera (or mobile phone) has become the photograph, the tangible object, the artifact. The images may be slices of time, as with traditional photographs, or they may join together to form a moving image, thanks to the video capability of today’s digital cameras. When I start each semester by asking my visual-communication students “What is a photograph?” I thought I knew the answer. Now I am not so sure. I’m also not sure I know what photography, as a creative enterprise, is today and will become in the future — which is one reason I generally use the term “image-making” in this column.
Here’s where cousin Lou comes in. I have been a professional photographer for more than 30 years; Lou is an amateur and has an engineer’s love of new toys. So when Lou and his wife, Debbie, recently came to visit, he couldn’t wait to show me his new Kodak point-and-shoot digital camera. Now, like other professional photographers I know, I have little interest in equipment per se. To me, a camera is a tool, perhaps like a hammer is for a carpenter. What matters to me is the finished product, not how it is achieved. So I rarely get excited about new technology — unless it allows me to create something new and exciting. Lou’s Kodak, in addition to all the usual bells and whistles (including high-definition video capability), has a feature that knocked my socks off — the ability to stitch together multiple images into a single seamless panorama.
I fell in love with this feature for two reasons. First, it overcomes the wide-angle limitation found in most digital cameras. Second, while playing around with the camera, Lou and I quickly figured out that we could put the same subject (i.e., me) in all three frames. In other words, in a single panoramic image, I could appear three times — left, center, and right. And I could be doing different things, looking different ways, or even wearing different clothes, in each shot — imagine the potential for weddings and portraits! Of course, this same effect can be achieved in Photoshop — I’m sure some of my students could figure it out in no time. What was remarkable to me was the collaborative process — we both shared equally in the image-making — and the fact that the final product, what we showed to our wives and friends, was the image displayed on the back of the camera. Not a print, but an electronic image on a screen.
The Internet is Changing the Way We…
Which brings me to the article, Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? , written by Motoko Rich and published July 27 in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. A link to the online version of the article was sent to all faculty by Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Science at the University of South Carolina.
The gist of the article is that the Internet is changing the way educators and others are thinking — and should think — about what constitutes literacy. For some, the Internet is a force for good, enticing young people to read and to actively engage with ideas, concepts, narratives, and arguments — rather than to passively absorb information and entertainment from television and movies. For others, the Internet is a force for evil, substituting a sporadic, unfocused, and sometimes unreliable source of knowledge and information for the tried-and-true stability and veracity of books, especially great ones. In other words, one camp is saying “But at least my kids are reading instead of watching TV,” whereas the other camp is saying “But what are they reading and does it have any value?”
As the article points out, we’ve heard this debate before — when television was invented. But whereas television is passive, reading on the Internet is interactive, which should, in theory, provide a more valuable form of mental stimulation. However, as the article goes on to say, national reading test scores for teens are declining even as the number of hours spent on the Internet by young people is rising.
What caught my eye, however, was this passage: “Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.” Wow! For the past several semesters, I’ve been asking my visual-communications students at the University of South Carolina to compare the amount of instruction they have received in textual analysis — how to interpret novels, short stories, plays, and poems — with the amount of instruction they have received in visual analysis — how to interpret photographs and videos. Most have received plenty of the former and hardly any of the latter. But consider that, on an average day, most people will encounter many more visual images than they will novels or poems. Should we be teaching visual literacy along with traditional literacy?
If, as my experience with cousin Lou suggests, image-making is becoming an increasingly democratic and collaborative medium, then what is its future as a trusted conveyor of important information? If everyone is an image-maker, and if the products are ephemeral — ones and zeros displayed on a small screen or cascading through cyberspace — will visual images lose their power to inform, astonish, amuse, or implore — especially on a mass-communication scale? Will they simply become appetizers (tasty but not very filling) at a buffet line frequented by an increasingly image-hungry public? If we want visual images to matter, perhaps we need to develop the same appreciation and understanding of them that we have traditionally reserved for books and other written texts.