Listening to Jeff Buckley, I’m gripped by an almost overpowering sadness and melancholia floods the room. As tears trickle down my cheeks, I realise I’m again crying. Not that I’m counting; but this is at least the second time in as many days. So, as I savour that haunting rendition of The Corpus Christi Carol. It’s not the bittersweet vocals bringing me down. It’s a much deeper sorrow; I realise I’m mourning the passing of an age.
Yesterday, I heard that very same hymn in very different circumstances, but its effects were the same. As the choir at St Bride’s, mesmerised the great and good gathered in remembrance, my eyes wandered around the building. Either the pollen count inside the church was unpleasantly extreme, or others were pierced by the same shards of emotional shrapnel that punctured the air. I’m not ashamed to say it; but as I wept, I could sense I was not alone.
Due to its proximity to Fleet Street, St Bride’s has long been regarded as the journalist’s church, and since journalists are not normally noted for such public outpourings of emotion perhaps, I was mistaken. Sadly, this was not the first time I’d been here to say goodbye to a friend and colleague, and I don’t expect it to be my last. However, there was something very out of the ordinary about the level of emotion I felt that day.
The expression “legend” is used far too freely, occasionally, such words are simply not enough to express the measure of a man. This is one of those occasions. Eamonn McCabe was a true Fleet Street superstar and giant in the world of photography; it is his life we are gathered here to celebrate today. Eamonn IS a legend. Not just a hugely talented sports photographer, but more than that; a photographer’s photographer and Picture Editor par excellence. I accept many of you reading this will not have heard of him and that’s to your loss. However, he helped change the way you look at news and sports photography.
I was lucky enough to work for Eamonn in the mid 90’s on the Picture Desk at the Guardian, and although we didn’t know it, in retrospect this was our last hurrah; a golden age for photojournalism and press photographers. Eamonn was the catalyst. A secret weapon drafted in by Peter Preston then Editor at Guardian. He gave up being a sports photographer to become a Picture Editor; parachuted into the position in an effort to win a circulation war with a brash new kid on the block – The Independent.
Well, they called it a war, but it’s a strange conflict that has no losers, in fact, both the reader and photography were left all better for such tilting at windmills, indeed some might say it was Fleet Street’s finest hour. Eamonn was my mentor and a role model. A man who cared passionately about photography and photographers and he passed that enthusiasm on to me.
Thanks to him I went on to become Picture Editor of both the Independent and Independent on Sunday, finally arriving here as Picture Editor at City A.M. whilst Eamonn went on to have yet another career as an acclaimed portrait photographer and TV photographic pundit. I like to think I’ve carried Eamonn’s values with me on my journalistic journey, but along the way, the industry we love suffered a series of seismic shifts.
The rise of the internet and the move to digital, plunging circulations, slashed budgets, increased costs, lower rates, and less work all mean that today, life as an editorial photographer is, more or less unsustainable as a career. Inevitably, new technology proved a disaster for a profession now forced to accept to the mantra of doing more with less.
So, if in PR spin, an explosion becomes a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” what gloss can you put on an industry that has suffered the same cataclysmic fate; albeit, much slower and much, much more painful. Thankfully, things can’t get much worse…
You guessed it – things just got worse. In the time since Eamonn’s death, the world seems to have gone bonkers, obsessed with all things AI and Chat Gpt-4. So, with such static, I don’t blame you if you missed the emergence of AI-image-generation technologies such as projects like Midjourney and DALL-E.
Copyright ⓒ Andy Blackmore
The final nail in the coffin was hammered home a few weeks ago when an AI-generated image won first prize at one of the world’s most prestigious photography competitions. Eamonn would have been apoplectic and whilst I don’t exactly know what he would have said, I do know that much of it would have been unprintable here. Now, I can almost hear you thinking, what on earth does this have to do with Street Photography? Just bear with me for a bit.
Perhaps it’s my heightened sense of emotion, but I feel myself drawn to the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller and his iconic yet prophetic “First They Came For The Communists” poem. You see, photography has a long history of being first in line when it comes to technological change. I long remember trying to warn my journalist colleagues whose trade focussed on words that the same digital doctrines and dogmas that were causing me such pain with redundancies for photographers and picture desks would soon be coming down the tracks towards them. Sadly, my warnings fell on deaf ears. Yet here we are, and Chat Gpt-4 is simply doing for writers and wordsmiths what digital imaging and the glib term “content creation” did for photographers.
Street photography is not immune to the impending AI crisis, and as I cry out my warning, yes, I feel like a Luddite (for I am), and yes, I want to burn those virtual looms – but with so much at stake who wouldn’t? Already, some artists and photographers are using the ability of artificial intelligence to mimic the aesthetics and style of human photographers to create what we would recognise as Street Photography – and you know what? They are frighteningly good; but before you look at such images it would do you good to digest this thought.
A long time ago, I, like so many teenagers of my time was enthralled by the sight of a virtual bat hitting a virtual ball. It was the 1970’s and the arcade game “Pong” was the zenith for computer gaming and graphics – fast forward to today and another teenager playing “Halo” in their bedroom and the pace of evolution is mind-blowing. Almost incomprehensible. So, before you dismiss AI, chew on this. As far as AI image creation goes, we are yet only at the “Pong” stage of its development, and already it’s scary. By the time we get to the “Halo” stage it’s going to be terrifying.
My fears run much deeper than AI simply winning a few Street Photography competitions or indeed just making it easier to “create” the perfect illusion of Street Photography. No, it’s much, much worse for the very concept of truth is at stake. Unless we start speaking out and try warning our colleagues across the board in all professions it will be too late. Before you know it, you will have become that last man standing. Niemöller’s poem come to life in dystopian nightmare. Imagine a world where you have waited days to capture that amazing street photograph – only to have it condemned as too good. Too perfect, so good that it “must” be the creation of AI with no one left to call bullshit on such claims. Kafkaesque: if nothing can be believed, then nothing is true. The truth condemned as nothing but an inconvenience.
So, back to Eamonn’s Service of Thanksgiving, and to employ a cliche, as we shuffled down the nave to the theme tune from Match of the Day, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. However, as I looked around, I realise now, that we marched like illustrious antiques; expendable echoes of the people we once were, proud, but dinosaurs, nonetheless.
Now, you may call me cynical but don’t ever call me stupid, for I’ve enough painful experience to know that harnessed by a desire to cut corners – at whatever cost. Left unchecked, the rise of AI machines eventually makes dinosaurs of us all. So, what I experienced at St Bride’s was a mass extinction event. Quite simply, the end of an era. And if that doesn’t make you weep, what on earth will?End