The camera is dead. No, I don’t really believe that statement, but let us continue with this sentiment as a “thought experiment”. To be clear, I am not talking about the long-proclaimed death of the compact camera. Surely that corpse is buried and rotting. I mean all self-contained cameras. The Leica M is dead. The Hasselblad, Fuji X (all nine thousand of them), Sony RX, A9, even the Ricoh GR and the Canon 5D – they’re all dead. Now, you might be expecting me to also claim that photography is dead too. That’s another article, although I think photography is very much alive and well insofar as people are making photographs. Indeed, our world has never been as photographed as it is today. We live a visually-choked existence. Everyone’s a photographer, whether they claim the label or not. No, what I’m asserting here is that there is no point to the self-contained camera anymore. They are still selling, like hot cakes, in fact, but that is not a testament to their need, only their demand. People are buying cameras to fill an emotional need, not a technical one. Today, billboard size images can be made with an iPhone – in fact, billboards are made in this way. Magazine spreads, family portraits, gallery prints, even movies are all shot with iPhones and similar pocketable “multitaskers” otherwise known as “not cameras”.
There’s little that entertains me more than listening to a photographer try and justify why they need a twelve thousand dollar camera to photograph a woman waiting at a bus stop. “But I also do portrait work”, they say. I say, Terry Richardson has been photographing fashion magazines spreads with a 35mm compact for decades. Who’s making more money, them or him? And, he didn’t have to mortgage his camera.
Let’s examine this from another perspective. Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand all shot with a 35mm Leica M. Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton often used Hasselblads. None of these photographers produced images with these tools that they could not have achieved with an iPhone. The merely used the technology of their day. The technology of our day, however, is different. We can fit into our jeans pocket as much capability as these high-end tools of decades gone by. Some of you have already left to write me hate mail. For those that remain, remember, I don’t really believe what I’m saying, not completely. We’re just conducting a thought experiment. So relax. But seriously, think about what you can produce with an iPhone and what you can produce with a Hasselblad 500 when it comes to human perception. That is, I’m not interested in pixel peeping for our purposes here. Pixel peeping is for nerds. No one in his or her right mind consumes photography in this way. On the printed page, viewed with the human eye, one can make images with an iPhone to rival just about any camera. Our human eyes and their perceptive abilities are limited. Furthermore, they are limited in a way that simply cannot distinguish, unaided, the advances now being made in digital photography. It’s all academics. HCB’s Leica M was the iPhone of the early 20th century. This is not a radical statement. Many others have made this claim. And, If we accept that claim, what more need be said?
The camera is dead. Who cares? Not me, certainly, I don’t intend to ever waste twelve big ones on a Hasselblad. But the camera is claiming multiple victims. It is not content to die a solitary death. Artistic vision is dying too. People are too consumed by digging around in Sony’s sub-sub-sub menus to “see” what they are actually photographing. Photographic vision is not so much a product of “seeing” in the moment, as it has traditionally been, as it is “finding” something among the burst mode treasury of banality on your flash card. Put differently, we photograph everything and then decide what we might claim as a photograph. A weird way to effect creativity if you ask me.
Being freed up by the simplicity of the modern toolkit should allow photographers to concentrate on their vision and creativity. The death of the camera should mean the birth of a new era in photography – an era of creative freedom available to virtually everyone and anyone. But the camera will not die easily. It has tricked would-be photographers into believing that they cannot do without it. They must have the latest and greatest or they simply cannot make their best photographs. Put another way, far too many photographers go to bed and dream of their next camera, rather than of their next photograph. Free yourself; allow the camera to die its natural death.