Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ten Thousand Words?

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph

January 2011

On Christmas Day The New York Times published The Year in Pictures 2010. To say they were remarkable, eloquent and breathtaking would not be an exaggeration. On the same day the San Francisco Chronicle published an article reporting that Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the last lab in the world processing Kodachrome color film, will discontinue its service at the end of the year.

Also reported was "The Last Kodachrome Photograph Show." The photographer Pat Willard, who will have four Kodachrome photographs in the show, refuses to use Ektachrome film and will revert to black and white.

My wife Roz Joseph, also a professional photographer, has refused to go digital and has given up taking pictures, leaving some thousands of color slides and prints in her collection.

With page after page of color photographs in the paper, especially in the Sunday Magazine, it is shocking that the Times has announced it is dramatically reducing (believe it?) the publishing of photographs starting the first of 2011, in an effort to bring back some of the ten thousand words that even one picture represents.

Words will continue to appear in the paper for those intrepid readers who wish to go beyond the captivating images brought to bear by a host of talented shutterbugs.

So what's going on? It is the development of the digital camera that may be behind the return of the printed word. Rapid technological advance of the camera from the days of the old Graphlex encumbered by its outlandish flash, has transformed photography to today's convenient digital devices which not only do away with film, but which, with alarming alacrity, backed by the extraordinary manipulations afforded by Photo Shop, produce frightfully gorgeous results, such as raising a model's awkward eyebrow and putting a sports car on the top of Mount Everest.

I am a victim as well as a beneficiary of this ease of producing good color renditions heretofore requiring the most careful attention to format and subject, and without the need of utilizing painstaking studio work aided by brilliantly creative lighting.

In a recent three week trip to Portugal, one of the world's most photogenic countries, I shot, without any particularly professional ability, over 700 not bad photographs with a pocket sized digital camera I bought for less than two hundred and fifty dollars. Gone were the heavy, expensive Nikons and their array of lenses with there countless boxes of transparency film, to shoot dozens of guesswork slides that I could show to no one without a projector and a dinosaur of a screen, while they dozed off in boredom. Furthermore, each of those friends and relatives, with their digital cameras could now produce rather excellent pictures, making my own unnecessary.
I must say I have taken some pretty good pictures myself in the past, have gotten some awards, and have been the subject of photographs by some excellent pros, such as the one shown here by the renowned travel photographer Carl Purcell, who had led the safari trip to Kenya that my wife and I took twenty-five years ago. Because of his talented eye he was able to make a snapshot look thought out, and it proved good enough to be published in newspapers across the United States and abroad, demonstrating that you don't need a digital camera to do a great job.

In my early career in advertising I learned to respect the agency's art directors and photographers whose now ancient equipment could produce outstanding work. Who read my words of copy that I labored over?

So it's actually the quality of the photography these days that is behind The New York Times possible thoughts about questioning the proverbial statement that a picture is worth ten thousand words. And the word may be spreading. Amazon is back to selling books. With Kindle, your average consumer is reading more, and turning from the thrall of the image.

Sports, travel, advertising, arts and leisure, Sunday styles, even The Week in Review, have been dependent on the photograph to grab the attention that only a glaring headline used to produce.

If the Times ever does cut back its photography, will you miss the ease of all those amazing pictures to tell you their story? Will it try to make you want to know more with the word?

"Taking photographs," writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, "has set up a chronic voyeuristic reaction to the world which levels the meaning of all events."

Will I lose my former love of the photograph? Is it too seductive, too easy to relate to? Has it become too time consuming to think? Too difficult to ignore? Will I miss the words?

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1 comment:

a-bird-called-raven said...

Timely post, Elliott! I recently read that every 20 minutes, 2.72 MILLION photos are uploaded to Facebook. Wow! That certainly supports the already well-known fact that virtually all people are taking lots of pictures these days. And, while the artistic merit of these "mass-produced" photos is indeed questionable, one can't deny these now ubiquitous amateur photographers are beginning to enhance our lives in perhaps unintended ways. Thankfully, there appear to be ways that all those zillions of seemingly low-quality images can be put to a greater use. For example, with sophisticated image analysis algorithms and the fact that many digital cameras are embedding location information within the actual image files, projects like Photosynth are trying to take advantage of that information to "stitch together our world." Here is a very interesting TED Talk you might want to watch on the subject.

It is sad in some ways to see the last nails go into film's coffin. However, I still find a high-quality photo stands out (perhaps now even more-so than ever) when viewed against the sea of mediocre snapshots out there. While some of the traditional uses of photography may seem to be disappearing, I anticipate we will continue to see a host of new and unexpected uses, including artistic ones!

Evolve or get left behind!

-- Peter