I saw this advertisement in the window of a shop on Tottenham Court Road, and took a photograph of it.
Annoyed by the blandness of this as a statement – Shooting great pictures has never been so easy – and, in a similar way to my question about minimal aesthetics, I have a question about photography.
Immediate aside: It’s hard to write this without sounding anti-technology. I am not – really, I’m not; (photography, pretty obviously, is technological in toto); I’m not even anti-digital (not completely).
I believe, however, that there’s an intensity of attention that is forced upon an artist by a lack of technology, or lack of easy and helpful and well-designed technology. And that, if there isn’t that deprivation of ease, there can’t be that intensity.
(This might be a.k.a. ‘the uses of adversity’, or what Yeats had as ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’.)
I tried to put this in my own way in a review of the book Reality Hunger: ‘There are no short-cuts to the sublime, because the sublime is the thing that is reached without short-cuts.’
The Olympus PEN ad, it seems to me, is suggesting shortcuts to the sublime (as, a little later in this, will Instagram).
To my question:
Let’s say we give a great photographer a smartphone that takes pictures (I avoid naming a brand), and send them to Trafalgar Square in London at noon on a bright, sunny summer day, and say, ‘Take a great photo, now.’
Would that person, the great photographer, be able to do so? Would the easy technology of the phone allow her to do it?
First, this is not about the pressure of the moment. It’s not saying, you have to perform now. I’m assuming that the imaginary photographer is at the height of their powers, in a good mood, healthy, and not going to be phased by being asked to do what they do.
Second, this is not about a paucity of subject matter within Trafalgar Square. I’ve only chosen it because you probably have a visual image of it easily available to you. I could have said Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Pyramids in Egypt.
And we’re leaving out that a great photographer might like or need to choose the means by which they make their art. Just as a painter might have difficulties when not using a particular selection of brushes or a particular brand of paint. (This may be a major issue.) But instead we’re saying, if you’d given Cartier Bresson a Box Brownie, he’d have been able to come up with something but it wouldn’t necessarily have been great. (As I understand it, Cartier Bresson’s entire art depended on the technological development of the easily portable, fast exposure camera. The ‘decisive moment’ is what follows on from the Leica and fast film.)
What if you could give, say, Sally Mann a phone with a camera and ten minutes with it in Trafalgar Square, this afternoon?
Would she take a photograph as great as this?
I think not.
There are lots of reasons. But the main one is that the means trivialise the image. I am fed up of looking at the insta-patina of Instagram. It makes all things look equally great. It’s a shortcut to the sublime.
We have all heard the statistics about the rate of image-creation. Out of all these photographs being taken, I don’t believe that accidental masterpieces are happening. Not in massively increased numbers. Well…
This is a photograph I took. I am not even sure I meant to take it – perhaps my eye was not looking at the screen. It’s good, one of the best photographs I’ve taken, but I don’t think it’s a great photograph.
I was out trick or treating with my sons, and one of their best friends. But would I have taken the photo quite the way I did if I hadn’t seen Diane Arbus’s ‘Untitled’ series? Or would I be posting it?
Here, by contrast, is something I took to prove a point. It’s something that passed through instagram (and hence, isn’t allowed to be cut and pasteable).
My argument on this, why great photographs don’t just happen randomly to anyone who happens to be pointing a camera or phone towards something and pressing the button, is that a photographer isn’t just one shot, they’re a trajectory becoming an aesthetic.
Any random person pointing a camera in any random direction will not take a great photograph. They will not have put in the hours of thought and effort that are required in order to develop an aesthetic that can then come out in a series of images – images that other wielders of cameras would not have considered worthwhile, or would have considered too obvious, or would not have had the technical skill to bring about.
I will give one example – one my favourite photographers: Josef Sudek. He took photographs of Prague for many years; it took him many years to take great photographs of Prague. Many of these, when they arrived, were taken with a panoramic camera. As I understand it, Sudek had a very particular constraint on him, when he took these particular images: because he only had one arm, we was unable to reload his camera whilst out and about. This meant that, for each photograph, he had to set out from his studio, find the location, decide when to click, then return to his studio if he wished to reload and go out to take another image.
This is a restraint, a pain in the arse. But also, I believe, it gives Sudek’s images some of their importance. He couldn’t – as with the digital ‘Shooting great pictures has never been so easy’ technology – take as many photographs as his memory card could hold. Instead, he had to justify to himself the physical labour required for making each shot – by making each shot as wonderful as he could.
William Eggleston, according to the documentary The Colourful Mr Eggleston, self-imposes as similar (though not so extreme) restraint: ‘I do have a personal discipline, of only taking one picture of one thing. Not two.’ But, clearly, Eggleston can take rolls and rolls of images during a single stroll, if he so wishes.
To what extent, though, is this the equivalent of a relationship between a sea voyage and a sea cruise. Aren’t self-imposed restraints always going to be touristic? (Even having your arm amputated and using the same camera as Sudek would count as this.) And, if so, doesn’t taking great images – like making any great art – become harder and harder exactly by virtue of becoming easier and easier.
Isn’t the Olympus PEN slogan really saying the exact opposite of what it’s saying?