Taylor Davidson · Why does real photography matter?

The impact of selfies and computational photography on professional photography today.
by Taylor Davidson · 10 Nov 2015

On October 26 I participated in a fireside chat about “Real Photography” at the DMLA’s annual conference. [1] Ostensibly about “what new technologies are doing for photography”, it became a place and a time for everyone - not just the panelists, but the entire room - to talk about anything happening at the intersection of photography and technology. [2]

One lesson: any conversation today that starts out about “real photography” inevitably turns into a debate about selfies.

Should that be a surprise?

What do we take pictures of? We take pictures of what interests us. Put a camera into a billion people’s hands every moment of every day, and shouldn’t we expect a half-billion pictures of ourselves? What else could we see all day that’s always there and always interesting to us? Like it or hate it, good or bad, windows into our souls or representations of how we want to be seen, it’s “real” nonetheless. [3]

Debating about selfies is besides the point, however. Defining “real photography” is inescapably hard, there’s no single reality. Context shapes everything. As much as many have perceived photography as the objective record, it’s always thrived as a subjective interpretation. The photographer matters. Viewpoint matters. Context matters. Ten photographers take ten portraits of the same person at the same time, and what do you get? Ten portraits, ten viewpoints, ten interpretations. The people behind the camera matter as much, or more, than the people in front.

The debate about what’s “real” matters because what moves people moves dollars. Photos that connect with us and move us on some level - emotionally, intellectually - can influence the decisions we make, so it’s important for brands to pay attention to and figure out the kinds of images that move people. The photos that brands use in their materials communicates an incredible amount about their products, their company, their approach, their promise to users and customers, and as we’ve become increasingly visually literate, the bars for what constitutes good visual communication has raised. Stock photos can stand out now - sometimes for being an obvious stock photo, sometimes for just being awful - and they stand out for being out of place from the rest of the visual images we see everyday scrolling by under our fingers.

Stephen Mayes described the the relationship between stock and culture in January 2014:

The impact of stock is hugely undervalued, even by those of us who work in the industry. Stock imagery is designed to reflect social values so that it can be a vehicle for commercial communication. But actually the production of stock imagery is a circular process that both reflects culture and also shapes it. It’s inevitable that the values we express become reinforced through the massive distribution of our work; our imagery seeps into every pore of society and our messages slowly push the boundaries of how society views itself. This can be as small as showing a new hairstyle, or as significant as representing racial minorities in authority positions or same-sex couples bringing up kids. What we say is absorbed effortlessly into people’s consciousness and the world moves a little bit every time.

That’s why the debate about selfies and what is “real” photography matters. Stock is both a representation of and an influence on culture, and as our interpretation of what constitutes a “real photograph” changes, what can be successful as a stock image changes as well. If pictures of us taking pictures of ourselves is what moves us at the moment, then the business of photography, advertising, brands, and media has to pay attention to that.

* * *

A couple of years ago I wrote about the future of adtech:

If you want to figure out the future of adtech, figure out where consumer technology is going.

The rationale is that we determine the nature of the ads we see by where we direct our attention. Our likes, favorites, hearts, posts, clicks, and purchases determine how an advertiser should best interact with us, and as the nature of our attention and interaction shift, it’s important for advertisers to shift with us.

The biggest lesson of the rise of the selfie is that “photographers” no longer control what’s real, everyone does. The cultural acceptance - no, celebration - of people taking photos of ourselves is our vote for what’s important to us. And it’s important for media, advertisers, marketers, publishers, and yes, photographers, to pay attention to what people want, because what people click on shapes the flow of billions of dollars.

Advertising has always been used to influence and shape people’s actions. If an image that features a group of happy people taking a selfie performs better than an image of a group of people around an office table, why shouldn’t the brand use the image of a selfie? Take a look at how many new ads feature people taking selfies. The recognition and leveraging of what’s popular today has already happened.

But remember that while times have changed, this is temporary too. Technology shapes the opportunity space for photography, and technology will continue to evolve, creating new opportunities for new photographers and damaging the positioning of established photographers that can’t change with the times. This isn’t new; the masters of any craft are always upset when the craft moves on. Imagine how the daguerreotype masters felt when people no longer wanted daguerreotypes.

The game today is in the flow. The opportunity today is defined by the endless feed of images that pass under the glass beneath our fingers, and today’s successful photographers are very aware of what the flow demands - a constant stream of images that communicate something, move us, inspire us, comfort us, touch us in some way, fleeting or deeply.

How many times have you seen a product you liked, or saw someone share an image of a product, started following the brand on Instagram et.al., and then bought something later?

Photographers are making money from posting images on platforms - thousands of dollars across multiple platforms - and it’s opened up the scope for being a professional photographer to a new set of people. Quality of imagery matters, but so does distribution and engagement, and quality isn’t the only thing that determines reach and interaction. Because of that, “what it takes to succeed as a photographer” isn’t what it used to be. But of course, what it took to succeed as a photographer wasn’t the same thing 25 years ago or 50 years ago either.

* * *

But the impact of technology on photography isn’t just the platforms we use, it’s also altering the nature of the artifact that we call a photograph. As much as technology is helping us make better images - higher resolution, better low-light performance, better stabilization, etc. - it’s also helping us make better and different photos. Once photos are digital bits and connected to the network, the idea of a “straight photograph” is challenged. As Stephen notes about the nature of the photograph changing to digital data,

… culture will move with it whether photographers choose to follow or not.

Consider how software has changed the camera:

When you reduce the camera to one app of many and one sensor of many, connected to all those other apps and sensors, you start creating really interesting ways to change the substance of its images. For example, today’s iPhone has sensors to detect moisture, ambient light, proximity, motion (the accelerometer), and orientation (the gyroscope), and maybe soon, atmosphere sensors. Paired with connectivity technology (cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth, iBeacon, NFC, etc.) and access to a network of information, the “camera” of today isn’t just an image sensor and a lens, but the combination of all these sensors and apps connected through constantly evolving operating systems. We’ve started to use these technologies to add contextual and structured data to photos, at time of capture or after: locations, faces, scenes, for example. But what happens when we use ambient information and other apps as inputs to the photographic process? The image sensor isn’t the only sensor that the camera of tomorrow will use.

The connected camera has changed, and will continue to change, what “real” photography means to us. How will we interpret the ambient data around an image? Will an image with geo data be more “real” than one without? Will an image that has deeper contextual data a link away be more real or valuable than a non-connected image? Will an image that can be read and understood and broken down by scenic or facial recognition be more “real” than one that cannot? Will an inert photograph have the same impact as a connected image in the future?

Look at new photo apps today. Beme, Instagram’s Boomerang, VSCO’s DSCO, all of the photo, animated GIF, and video apps that combine audio, music, text, and geo / time context: they are altering what a visual record means and does. Are they creating photographs? Perhaps these digital creations aren’t photographs using our traditional definition, but perhaps they are using tomorrow’s definition.

As the technology we use to make images changes, the way we make, use, interpret, and value images changes. What’s “real” today may not be “real” tomorrow; the debate over what’s “real photography” is less interesting when comparing today to the past, but more interesting when we try to define what “real” means today. And that’s why photographers have to pay attention to culture, technology, and yes, even selfies.

  1. Thank you to our moderator, Stephen Mayes, and fellow panelists Paul Melcher, Anna Dickson of Google, and Severin Matusek of EyeEm, and the DMLA organizers for bringing this together in an innovative format and style. Panels are hard to do right, but this was done right. ↩︎

  2. … a subject I’ve written abaout since 2007. Here’s the archives. I’d start with the relatively recent Software is Eating the Camera. ↩︎

  3. On the subject of reality and photography, Paul Melcher wrote Where does photography lie? ↩︎