Is Photography Dead?

Is Photography Dead?

If what we read on the internet is to be believed (and who doesn’t believe everything they read on the Internet?) film is definitely not dead. But for a debate which has been raging for well over a decade, I can’t help but wonder whether the wrong question is being posed. Is it not photography itself, rather than film, which has been dying a slow death in front of our very eyes? 

As a professional photographer, making a living from the photographs I capture, I have a vested interest in the healthy continuation of the industry. And so, by way of a perfect procrastination tool to avoid editing the backlog of photographs I have accumulated, I decided to try and argue both sides of this (not so) hotly debate and see if I could find the answer.

Photography is absolutely dead, technology killed it.

Like a relic of the 20th Century, did photography die with the Milennium?

Photography died the moment a camera lens found it's way onto a cell phone, and overnight everyone in the entire world became a photographer. 

For over a hundred years, photography provided a creative outlet for generations of artists to capture the heights of human achievement and the depths of human depravity; the wonders of the natural world and the tragedy of global decay. Photographers were the visual story tellers of the 20th Century. But in the 21st century, photography as an art form has been diluted to the point of almost complete mediocracy. Today, visual art seems to extend no further than applying a filter to yet another “selfie”, shared on whichever social platform has achieved critical mass on the day (only to be replaced tomorrow). 

In many ways, this decline began with the onset of digital photography. The rapid advancement of technology allowed anyone, with even the most basic entry-level digital camera, to achieve results previously the exclusive preserve of the professional photographer, simply by switching their camera to automatic mode. Where before, a correctly exposed image required technical knowledge, photographic skill and creative vision in equal measure, today onboard computers have assumed responsibility for exposing 99% of all photographs captured in the digital age. 

That photography has largely been reduced to the art of point-and-shoot is evidenced by the demise of the photojournalist. Where once dedicated and skilled photographers would tell the story of world events, through the photographs they captured, today many newspapers around the world have laid off their entire team of staff photographers. Citizen Journalists (aka readers encouraged to submit their photographs for free) have taken their place. Decades of photojournalistic tradition reduced to something anyone with a cell phone can do. Henri Cartier-Bresson must be turning in his grave at the thought of what we have done to his noble art. 

Photography may have enjoyed a proud heritage throughout the 20th century, but now photography is dead, and it was technology that killed it. 

Dead? No way. If anything, the golden age of photography has only just begun.

The scenes remain the same, we just have to seek out new ways to capture them.

Of course photography isn’t dead. If anything what we are witnessing is just the start of a grand revival of the art. Technology has put a camera, of one description or another, into the hands of more people than ever. The collective output of which has seen an explosion of creativity, the likes of which we have never experienced before. Every day people from all walks of life are creating incredible images, documenting the world around them in every conceivable way. 

Of course there are millions of photographs being created, and shared online every day, which could be viewed as mundane and uninspiring. But hasn’t that always been the case? The creative elite of every generation of has always, by definition, sat ahead of the masses who followed. The difference is now the sheer number of photographers who make up those masses are driving the new elite to ever higher levels of creativity, forcing them to be better. Surely we all benefit as a result? 

Moreover, it has never been a better time to become a photographer. The Internet has proved itself the greatest learning tool ever. The wealth of video guides, tutorials, and other photography education available online is staggering, allowing people who might otherwise never had the time or opportunity to become photographers, to learn at their own pace. Any barriers to entry into the world of photography, which may previously have existed, have now all but completely been obliterated, thanks to technology. 

I can’t help but wonder whether some of the doom and gloom talk on the future of photography is actually fuelled more by the fear of change than the reality of the art form. Without question photography is changing and we are all having to adapt as a result. But not every photographer wants to adapt. Many are content to remain strictly within their comfort zone, the warm fluffy place where they feel safe and in control. That might mean never straying too far from a particular style or genre, or maintaining a narrow-minded view on what photography is, refusing to accept a camera-phone as valid for photography purposes. But as photographers, should’t we constantly be challenging ourselves to step out of our comfort zone? To try new things and extend our range? 

In my time, I have seen many completely uninspiring, repetitive images produced by photographers claiming 50 years of professional experience, and I have seen mind-blowing creativity from 15 years olds with nothing more than an Instagram account and sense of flair. As a creative art, photography has always had far more to do with the person behind the lens than the equipment they are using. This is as valid now as it has every been. 

Photography isn’t dead, the fun is only just starting, and I am pretty sure if Henri Cartier-Bresson were here today, he would be shooting with a camera-phone! 

The Jury’s Decision.

So there you have it, my thoughts on this (hypothetically) great photographic debate. In truth, I am not sure how successfully I have argued both sides of the debate, as I actually believe we have never had it so good. The ease of travel, the availability of cameras, the opportunity to reach a global audience thanks to the Internet, all of these have contributed, in my opinion, to this being one of the most exciting times in history to be a photographer. 

But those are just my thoughts. What about yours? Is photography alive and kicking, or dying on it’s feet?

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Previous comments

I'd agree with your statement. It seems that many with a DSLR feel that they are capable of shooting weddings.
Me? I don't want to get into that. Photography is a creative release that I enjoy. I would decline a request from a family member or friend to shoot a wedding since I don't own EF 2.8L zoom lenses or a flash (right now); I'd also want a second DSLR so I wouldn't have to swap lenses. I'd have to rent that gear and oh, they're probably wanting it for free. I'd tell them to hire a professional.

Ricky Perrone's picture

I'll agree with the second argument. Photographs that may have previously been seen as high art are now in some instances just look mundane. Photojournalism is a field I would not want to be going into right now, I see that dying although personally I see extreme value in having talented people in the field rather than a reporter or bystander with a telephone. I think theres been major evolution and creativity in photography in the past few years, the bar has been raised, talent and creativity are still valued and recognized. The trick is getting seen.

Ryan Lester's picture

Times are changing. Everyone just has to keep up with the intense change in the market. Look at how much of a loss Kodak has taken from not keeping up with the progression of photography.

Eduardo Francés's picture

Great article thanks for sharing it!

Photographers tend to be a bit dramatic and like to "kill" things...

Remember when people said the Sony A mount was dead? (Even Sony users were killing it)
Remember when people said that film was dead? (Ilford seems to be doing fine)

These are two examples of how over dramatic people in the net can be.

Photography has shape shifted itself, no doubt about it, but photography has been evolving, pro photography isn't what it used to be in the times of Daguerrotypes as an example.

Now small business are struggling, however any kind of small businesses in general are struggling, we are the loudest perhaps in our complaints, are these complaints a portrait of our inhability to adapt to these changes??? maybe and this should be a point were people has to start to analyze the way they are doing their stuff.

Michael Rapp's picture

Nice provocative write- up, but this "The- World- is- Black- or- White" tone of the article rubs me the wrong way a bit.
A lot of things have changed for sure, the most important one being the separation line between amateurs and pros has elevated A LOT.
(not getting into a discussion of what constitutes a "pro" vs "amateur", for this instance allow me to use "pro" as "charging honest money for photographc work" vs. "Shot by Uncle Bob").
To separate your wheat from the chaff nowadays your work really needs to stand out. By todays standard.
Also, the gear side: the entry level price tag for pro or semi- pro gear has dropped dramaticallly.
Today, nearly everybody is able to afford gear to shoot professional images.
That is, just by looking at the images!
A canon rebel, a nifty fifty and a reflector can produce a very decent portrait that can live up to almost any standard.
Of course, if you put it side by side with an identical image shot with a 5d IV and an 85mm f/1.4, you get to see a difference.
But what if there isn't a gear- heavy reference image? Right, the rebel image takes the cake and everybody loves it!
Another part of the whole picture is the gear chain: photographic improvement by means of better gear.
Camera manufacturers gone mass marketing their gear, gazillions of review sites praising new and better equipment (and this very site is not fully without blame as I am not immune to GAS, either) are doing their part in painting the picture that your picture suck because of inferior equipment.
As an amateur, your day job may pay for all the extra gear and your marriage my survive it, too, but a working pro needs to figure in the extra cash to cough up for all the new gear.
Don't get me wrong, there are certain areas that really do need heavy duty gear, sports and wild life photography are named only as examples. And if you're doing commercial shoots with art directors or coorperate headshots, you simply are expected to show up with suitcases worth of gear.
But, in all honesty: Did the client really buy that portrait because it was shot with an 85 f/1,2 lens instead of an f/1.8, which costs only a fraction? Would a client be able to tell?
Case in point: Cartier- Bresson: I still have to find an image of his which is tack sharp. But still, his images mezmerize us, more than 75 years after they were being shot.

Paul Choy's picture

You raise a number of fair points, Michael.

Of course there is only so much which can be covered in a 1000 word piece but yes, I accept the black and white nature of the article.

I think it is fair to say "photography" is very much alive and well. But "professional photography"? That is another matter.

Jay Rusovich's picture

I just ran across this article, and while a bit late chiming in, I'd still like to throw in my two cents. First, the question of whether or not photography is dead is largely rhetorical: Of course it's not dead. In fact, quite the contrary. However, if the question is whether or not the profession of photography is dead, I'd say yes...for the most part. Without getting into a lot of history, suffice to say that professional photographers were once like professional rock guitarists: Rare and highly prized. At one time we were all rock stars. Our covers littered the shelves of bookstores and airports the world over. Our day rates were well into the thousands and our contracts were often into 7 figures. We knew how to do something few others attempted and our clients respected that. Then something happened: Digital. Once this technology seeped into our collective consciousness, clients began to see that anything was possible, post production, so it became less and less necessary for them to hire the best talent when problems could be easily corrected. Rates went down the tubes, and adding insult to injury, online image sites began popping up all over the place selling images for 25 dollars a pop. So much for making a great living as a photographer. Fortunately for me, I saw this coming well in advance enough to invest my income into commercial real estate ... rather than sports cars and jaunts to Vegas. My partners and I then flipped our properties after holding them for almost 15 years and I was able to comfortably retire. I stopped shooting for years, published two books and traveled a lot. Then I got back into photography for the sheer love of it, while being faced with the stark reality that what I had anticipated had indeed come to pass. The digital revolution was running at full throttle. So I signed on with a fine art agent who staged solo exhibitions be for me throughout the United States, and often I was in group exhibitions with a bevy of talented artists and photographers from around the world. But rarely did anything sell. A few prints here and there was about it. Undeterred, I had a full studio built into part of my home in Houston and started doing fine art portraiture. Lots of celebrities and sometimes a gardener from down the street. But I could never charge for any of my studio services because the small amount I would have had to assess would have been embarrassing, frankly. So I decided to just give away my services in exchange for the sheer pleasure of shooting. The only exception to this is when I am hired specifically for a location portrait, or called out of town. Then it's a flat rate plus my expenses. But I have to say I never advertise any of this because I'm content to shoot at my home -- often in a bathrobe. lol. Of the people I knew back in the day, just a few are left: Mark Seliger, Annie Leibovitz and a few others with magazine contracts that go back decades. So, when young people ask me whether or not photography is a viable profession, I'm honest with them and just say "No." While the big bucks still exist [Leibovitz purportedly still has a 2 million a year contract], I'd recommend getting a business degree and going from there. Of course, some people still win the lottery, so when Leibovitz dies you can take her job. Good luck getting the 2 mil, though. On a final note, for those who still stick by the old adage that you have to embrace the change and find new and more innovative inroads to make a good living in the industry, just tell that to musicians who have to play small roadhouses because no one will buy a complete album. I'm not bummed out about any of this. It was photography that paved the waty for where i am today. But let's get real about the true state of the industry. I could go on...

Hi Jay, your spot on bud well said.

Robert Bernardara's picture

I don't understand. So, everyone has a camera in their cell phone. That doesn't make them photographers any more than a hammer makes everyone a woodworker. The art form is still here and it always will be. I think it's great that anyone and everyone can have some form of self expression using pretty decent camera tech in phones. This doesn't supplant professional work. So now we are gong to have people with cell phones snapping wedding pics? Perhaps, but I can't imagine them looking anything like the work that professionals do unless a pro is using the phone with extensive edits afterwards.

I think it's insensitive for people to treat this topic of old school photography/photographers passe. Some people have invested their whole professional life in this world, only to have it treated like yesterday's news with the advent of digital, email, and social media. And while progress is inevitable, we still have to show respect for those who came before us.

I'm in my 40's and started in the early 90's. I remember going to the camera shops and getting rolls developed. Then I remember when the whole drug store photography section hit it's stride. But most of all, I remember those who came before me. Those middle aged guys who lugged tons of equipment with them, wore a shirt, tie, slacks, and provided awesome pics that they would develop by hand. I learned from them.

I WILL say it's nice that the retro/hipster groups are keeping that alive. It's in pockets, but it still is here.

Photography as a hobby is growing everyday. I know some professionals are threatened by this but this could potentialy be an untapped market. What about teaching hobbyists how to better at their hobby as your business. From teaching casual photographers who just want to take better snapshots on their smartphones to impress their handful of friends to more serious hobbyists who want to be able to show off to their local camera club or local amateur photo competitions. Some of them have no desire to go pro just want to learn more and improve on a hobby. This may be a shift professionals may need to think about when it comes to new avenues for business. Is it the same as making money with the photos you make? No but if you enjoy teaching then this could be a viable channel.