Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Katherine James on Cricinfo just said it didn't rain in Port Elizabeth on February 24th until after lunch
Alison Hendricks on Feline ephemera
A Cowardly Citizen on "In order to comply with Google's regulations ..."
Darren on The good done by the Apple Newton
Darren on Don't judge a new technology by its first stumbling steps
Michael Jennings on The good done by the Apple Newton
Brian Micklethwait on I think I may at last have found myself a sofa
Tatyana on I think I may at last have found myself a sofa
Katherine James on A new Morrisons is opening in Strutton Ground next Monday
Katherine James on 3D printed baby in the womb
Most recent entries
- Cricinfo just said it didn’t rain in Port Elizabeth on February 24th until after lunch
- Christopher Seaman on conducting
- Under Blackfriars Bridge
- Feline ephemera
- The good done by the Apple Newton
- 3D printed baby in the womb
- A new Morrisons is opening in Strutton Ground next Monday
- Ashes Lag recovery continues
- A Bitcoin vending machine and a Lego photographer (and a Lego Hawking)
- “In order to comply with Google’s regulations …”
- Blue wind
- Don’t judge a new technology by its first stumbling steps
- Me trying to tell Norman Foster and Richard Rogers apart
- I think I may at last have found myself a sofa
- The Met swoops on the Adams Family
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Category archive: Photography
Incoming from 6000, aware of my Feline Friday habit, about a 16th century plan to use cats and doves as weapons of war:
Asking for trouble, I’d say.
Thus encouraged on the cat front, I went looking for other weird stuff, in the cat category.
I found this, which is a camera decorated with a logo that is part Hello Kitty and part Playboy Bunny. Weird:
I guess the Kitty is wearing those big pretend rabbit ears.
And weirdest of all, beauty bloggers are decorating cat claws:
It seems that doing crazy things with cats is a permanent part of the human condition. Although to be fair, the excuse for the pink claws above is that they stop your cat from scratching the furniture. And I suppose making them brightly coloured means you can see at once if the cat is wearing them, or has managed to get rid of some of them.
In the latest manifestation of the original Friday ephemera, there are no cats. Not this time. But 6000 included the weaponised cat notion in an ephemeral collection of his own. His final ephemeron was an octopus photo. That also just about qualifies as feline, if you focus on the final three letters.
Incoming from Rob Fisher, about a Bitcoin vending machine in London. I wonder how that works. It would probably defeat me. There was no mention of this on Friday night, when Dominic Frisby spoke at my place about Bitcoin, or not that I heard.
Now that I am mentioning incoming from Rob Fisher, there was also earlier incoming from Rob Fisher about a Lego photographer, which sounds like someone merely photographing Lego. But it’s a lot sillier than that.
While saving the Lego Photographer I came across a photo I had saved in the same directory of a Lego Hawking, so here is that also, on the right there. I found this photo of Lego Hawking … somewhere on the internet. Google Lego Hawking and you’ll get many hits. Best to get all such nonsense blogged and forgotten, all in one go.
Mick Hartley’s latest little clutch of photos illustrates one of the things I particularly like about his photography, which is his relish of colour. He even points spells this out in the title of his posting. I have nothing against black and white photography, especially in the decades when it was that or nothing, and neither does Mick Hartley. But there is something rather fetishistic and fake-arty about how black and white photography continues to be worshipped, long after colour photography became easy to do.
Often colour is deeply embedded in the story that the picture tells, as in this photo. This is not one of Hartley’s own, but he constantly picks up great photos done by others on his radar (this one being number nine of these twelve):
No prizes for seeing why I particularly like that one.
But it’s not just the photography aspect that I like. I also like that the anonymity angle is also covered. I more and more tend to prefer anonymity in the pictures I take myself of other photographers, and post here. Often it happens because the camera covers the face of the photographer I am photoing.
I went rootling through my archives for a snap of someone whose face is partially hidden, and found this snap, of which I am very proud. Here, the anonymity job, albeit only partially, is done by a big pair of sunglasses.
I also like the colours in that photo. Snobbery about blackness and whiteness, and especially about blackness, also extends to what colour cameras ought to be, doesn’t it?
One of the things I did today was copy, from one TV hard disc to another, a documentary (fronted by Richard Hammond) about the D-Day fighting that took place on Omaha Beach.
One of the shots at the end of the programme looked a lot like this:
That is one of the photos at the bottom of this page.
I recall flying over the Normandy Beaches, on the way to the South of France. Later in the journey, I took snaps like this one, of the Millau Viaduct, but I don’t recall seeing anything like that cemetery.
There are some spectacular pictures now up at English Russia, taken from the air over the Russian Far East, i.e. Vladivostock and surrounding parts.
Here is a good one (scroll down at page 3 of the posting):
What’s good about that is that it shows how roads stop fires. On the right, fire! On the left, the other side of the road, no fire.
Other pictures in the set include several of two rather spectacular bridges in Vladivostock, of which this snap is my favourite (scroll down at page 2):
That is the bridge over the Golden Horn Bay. The other and bigger Vladivostock bridge joins Vladivoskock to Russkiy Island. See this Guardian report. This map, if you reduce its size and go north a bit, shows where both the bridges are.
Mick Hartley links to some pictures of people forming human sculptures. He chooses his favourite. I choose this one:
One of the speculations I offered in my recent talk about the impact of digital photography was that digital photography has greatly encouraged this kind of temporary art.
Recently I heard tell of some kind of performance art event where cameras were forbidden. My googling skills did not enable me to track down any report of such an event, but I am guessing that one of their motives was to avoid the creation of an object, which someone might later buy, and then (perhaps for a great deal more money) sell. And I further guess that the “artists” in question were being deliberately contrary, as artists typically like to be these days, and chose to do the daft, counter-intuitive thing. The obvious response to temporary art is to take pictures of it, to make it permanent. So, said the artists, let’s forbid that, and be different.
But most people who do something “creative” want some kind of record or product of their efforts, something to show for it. Literally, some thing, to show. And the fact that it is now so totally easy to create such things, such records, and communicate them far and wide to friends and family, real and virtual, must surely increase the attraction of doing such temporary art. Art, that is to say, that in the past would have been temporary, but which can now be made permanent. See also: painting, sand castles, ice sculptures.
As to what these particular people are communicating with their body assemblages, what it speaks to me of is the futility of life in the world now, for young people, educated, unemployable, unneeded, probably in debt.
Mick Hartley provides a horizontality opportunity:
That’s the view he saw, yesterday (unless I am much mistaken), from Alexandra Palace, one of the quite numerous sweet spots for photoing the Big Things of London.
That sky that I just sliced out was rather special yesterday. The air was clear. The sunshine, of which there was plenty, was bright. So, there were lots of those brightly lit things against a dark cloud background. And lots of contrasts between this photo and that photo of the same things. Lovely.
I think it just possible that I may have invented that clutch of blogging phrases involving the word “quota” - “quota post”, “quota photo”, or (my favourite, I think) ”quota quote”. I rather doubt it. More likely I invented such phrases simultaneously with several other bloggers. But, if I did invent this quota stuff, kudos to me. Either way, I do genuinely suspect that 6k at least caught this usage from me. This being because, like me at the moment (although not always), he (always) likes to stick up something every day. Despite him having a life, a job, a family, and other such peripheral blogging paraphernalia.
Often, it’s a quota photo. Like, for instance, this one, …:
I had been trying for a while to work out just what it was that I found so particularly appealing about this snap. What was it that I found so particularly … particular? Then, I got it. It looks to me, not so much like a real sea, as like a static, plasticated sea, as made by a really, really good maker of models.
The sea looks like it is made not of sea, but of solidified glue, or that see-through plastic stuff, called whatever it’s called. Throw a tiny ball bearing at this solid sea, and the ball bearing would just bounce off, with no splashing, and making the same noise it would make if bouncing off a table. The immobile sea would remain immobile, untouched, impervious.
The effect of a solid object rather than a regular sea is, I think, partly the result of the lighting. The effect is more like the way a lamp is reflected in a shiny table top than the way we usually see light on the sea.
But most of all, it looks somewhat weird because it’s a photograph. Photographs freeze moving objects into static objects, and sometimes this makes them look entirely different and unrealistic. A video of the sea would look sea-like. Videoed sea swallows ball-bearings, just like regular sea. Just not this sea, as seen and immobilised by 6k.
All this because 6k likes to have something up, often. And that’s the point of quota posting, for those of us who are suited to it. If you have reasonable taste, then the mere fact of starting doing a blog posting ensures not only that something will go up, but that, really quite often, something really quite good will go up. Like this photo, which I consider to be very good indeed. Often what takes the time, with blogging as with life, is not doing it, but getting round to doing it. The actual doing is often quickly done, and often very well done.
Some of my best blog postings have happened because I wanted to put up any old something, however bad, and it turned out really good.
To the right of this image is to be found the following verbiage:
The reasons for why East London has seen the flowering of street art are manifold. The post-industrial legacy of Shoreditch’s crumbling low-rise warehouses, not only provides an environment in which the artists and designers can do their work, but East London’s proximity to the City of London provides an economic source of support for the artists and designers; and finally Shoreditch with its building sites, old dilapidated warehouses provides a canvas upon which those artists can display their work and increase their commercial value.
Mostly revolutionary chic to pay the rent, I’d say. Which, on balance, I quite like, because it gets up the noses of the real revolutionaries.
Plus it gets up the noses of the Art Twats by being understandable and entertaining without them having to explain what it means.
More East End street art here. In fact, lots more, if you scroll back through the archives there.
Here are an extraordinarily large number of photos of the Airbus A380, showing off at a Russian air show.
Here is one of my favourites, in the photoing-planes-from-above-and-yet-also-from-the-ground genre, that the A380 so likes to encourage, when showing off at air shows, the point being that for such a big airplane, this is a bit surprising:
I could be wrong, but somehow I don’t think a slogan like that – “Own the sky” - would be used in the primmer, prissier West, now so much more environmentally hesitant about jet airplanes. Not environmentally hesitant enough to actually stop flying them and flying in them, you understand, but environmentally hesitant enough for everyone to pretend they feel bad about it.
I got a very similar shot of the A380 when it performed the same kind of dance routine at Farnborough, in the summer of 2010:
No mention of anyone owning the sky then, there.
Another difference you can see there - see planely, you might say - is the difference a better camera makes. Happily my 2010 camera is not the one I use now, which is rather better.
A few weeks ago my NumberOneDoublePlusGood Computer screen, a Samsung, conked out. I have a cheap (i.e. sixty quid) back-up screen, which I am now using, but I don’t like it. Worse, I don’t trust it. I fear that, because of how this screen behaves, that I may as a result be misediting photos, so to speak, making them the wrong colour or the wrong level of brightness.
So, does anyone reading this have any ideas about what sort of screen I should buy to replace this screen? I’m thinking, quite big, quite cheap, and good for photos in particular and for computer mucking about by an amateur in general. I’ve been out of this market for a year or two, and would love some guidance. What I am looking for is that sweet price/quality spot at the top end of cheap. The best piece of kit that you can get for not silly money. I am not interested in spending a thousand quid getting something even more wonderful than wonderful, just two hundred quid on something wonderful. Thoughts anyone?
That talk I gave at Christian Michel’s was really just a ragbag of different thoughts I have had over the last few years about digital photography and its effects and uses. One of the effects I speculated about - having already done so beforehand, here was that digital photography has encouraged temporary art, such as graffiti, ice sculpture, and the like, by rewarding it with a permanence and swankableness that would, pre digital photography, have been hard to contrive.
Yesterday, following one of David Thompson’s Friday Ephemera links to some bizarre hyper-realistic painted wood sculptures, I came across yet another variant on the theme of artistic temporariness, in the form of some particularly fine sandcastles, done by someone called Calvin Seibert:
I chose a sandcastle picture that included the sea in it, to emphasise the fact that this wonderful creation will very soon be swallowed up and turned back into beach. In King Canute’s time, that would have been that, but we now live in the post-Canute age. Waves can be stilled, and sandcastles can stand on beaches for ever.
Incoming from 6000:
Loving the more regular updates on this. It’s something I meant to send to you long ago, but I don’t think I ever did. Fascinating, amazing and rather unsettling photographs of apartments in Hong Kong. Wow.
(And yes, “density” is misspelled.)
Actually, I think I did clock this. Yes. But what the hell, no harm in clocking it again, because maybe you are clocking it for the first time.
And I agree. Wow:
So, that’s today’s more regular update sorted.
Time I took another look at the new Tate Modern extension. Just now, it would seem, it looks like this:
… and when finished, it will look something not totally unlike this, …:
... although with architecture, you never really know until the real thing finally manifests itself.
Here is what “designboom” says about how it will look:
approaching the museum from the river, the extension rises above the former power station, establishing a connection with the existing structure, without overpowering its iconic form. helping establish a strong architectural dialogue between the new and existing structures, the same base palette of bricks will be used, but implemented in a radical way; a perforated brick screen filters light inside the building, whilst simultaneously allowing the structure to gently glow at night.
Apologies for quoting something by morons who oppose capital letters. idiots. Capital letters are, I think, Really Useful, to Emphasis things.
And what’s with that “base pallette of bricks”? Why yes! The same evil bricks as were used for Tate Now Slightly Less Modern!
So, yeah, yeah, they think it will look nice when it’s finished. But my fear is that this will be a big new annex for Grant Gobbling Art Bureaucrats. Will I be able to go to the top of it, gaze out over London and take photographs, or will the GGABs be the only people allowed to do that?
in addition to doubling gallery space, the project will create a diverse collection of public areas, dedicated to reflection and contemplation. these expanses are spread throughout the design, linked by a circulation system which rises through the structure.
That sounds like a yes. There will be stairs and lifts, and I will be allowed to go up them, and then, when I have finished gazing, go down them again. When they say “circulation” they aren’t just talking about air. Or so I am hoping.
Time will tell. With architecture, you never know until it’s finished. And this is London, so it’s never really finished.
As I said in the previous post, my talk about digital photography at Christian Michel’s last night went well, in the sense of me feeling it went well, and it seeming to be well received. I occasionally put my sheets of paper down and extemporised upon some point I was making, but mostly, this was it. No links, no photos, no extras. (They may come later, I hope, but I promise nothing.) Just the bare text that I read out, complete with all the errors of grammar and spelling, of fact and interpretation, that may or may not be present:
I have given several talks in this 6/20 series, but until now this has been because I have had both questions and answers to offer to the assembled throng. I have had theses to present, clutches of facts to pass on.
This time I don’t know the answers. I merely want to know the answers. What is the impact of digital photography? What is it doing to us? Since fixing this subject matter with Christian I have made, I think, some progress in arriving at answers, but only some. Tonight I expect to make further progress.
Luckily, for my purposes, we have all been alive throughout the period of digital photography’s mass use, and have observed it in action, even if we may not always have wanted to. Has anyone here not taken a digital photo? Just as I thought. (It actually says that here. And this.)
I will start my remarks by quoting a remark made by an American whom I overheard about fifty years ago, on the Acropolis in Athens, the place where what is left of the Parthenon stands. I was there trying to do some sketching, a skill I never got any good at but spent a few years attempting. He was doing pictures with his seriously pre-digital camera. As soon as he had finished photoing, he wanted to leave, presumably to get to his next photoing place. But his family were enjoying the Acropolis in the morning sunshine. Said he to his family: “Come one, come on! We’ll look at it when we get home!”
This outburst captures a great deal about what people object to about digital photography, but it also reminds us that photography, by Everyman as opposed to by professionals, is nothing new. Digital photography is partly just the intensification of a process that has been in place in our culture for well over a century. But it is more than that.
Even setting the scale of the phenomenon aside, digital photography is different from the old sort. It was first applied to the real world by NASA, to solve the problem not so much of taking photographs, but of communicating them, from robot spaceships back to earth, without the vast additional expense of getting the robots to fly back home themselves, like World War 2 photo reconnaissance planes. Central to digital photography is that digital photographs are easy to communicate. It is no accident that digital photography has only now become ubiquitous in our culture with the arrival and mass success of the smartphone, which can, just like those first NASA digital space cameras, both take pictures and communicate them. When we speak of “digital photography”, what are the boundaries of the concept? The “digital” bit means that this is photography that goes beyond merely being photography in the sense experienced by that American on the Acropolis all those years ago. Digital photography, as computer insiders have long understood, is only a part of a bigger multi-media picture, and that was always the idea.
One of the ways I have prepared for this talk has simply been to talk with people, both friends and people I just happened recently to bump into. How do you use digital photography? What do you think its impact is?
In the answers I have so far garnered, a number of themes recurred.
Only a tiny few did not use digital photography at all. In one case, this was because he had suffered a particularly painful digital camera robbery, and he just couldn’t make himself resume the activity. All the others who refrained were old, little-rolls-of-film photography devotees. They loved this technology and consequently hated the successor technology that had destroyed the object of their love, in rather the same way that some devotees of vinyl gramophone records hate CDs. This was exceptional.
In all other cases, my respondents used digital cameras with enthusiasm, and often downright joy. They used them in some or all of the regular ways, to take holiday snaps, to take photos at weddings, family reunions, parties, and so on. But another recurring theme also asserted itself. This is the digital photography killer app, different for each person. Everyone does particular work, has particular hobbies, and in almost every case of such a personal angle on the world, digital photography was making a contribution, to their effectiveness or their pleasure or both.
A fine example is a killer app described to me by a gentleman at the previous 6/20 meeting, on the 6th of this month. He regretted being unable to attend tonight, but I will try to recall what he said, briefly but accurately. Basically, he is a butterfly fan. He likes to scrutinise the patterns on the wings of butterflies, which, to him, are of extraordinary beauty and interest. I am sure you can understand.
But he has a problem. Butterflies are notoriously unwilling to stay for any length of time in the same spot. Their wings will often repay long minutes and ever hours of attention, but your typical butterfly only hangs around for a few seconds and certainly cannot be relied upon to stay longer. No problem. Snap. He can then scrutinise the beautiful creature’s wings at his leisure. He can, you might say, look at it when he gets home.
It’s an aside, but I recall the days when butterfly “lovers” could only contemplate the objects of their devotion for any big length of time by killing them. They used to catch butterflies in nets, and pin them onto boards and keep vast collections of dead butterflies in trays with glass tops. I remember such gruesome collections, perpetrated by male relatives long dead, in my grandmother’s house when as a boy I visited her vast home. That the weapon of choice of an ever higher proportion of human hunters of animals – entirely so in the case of rare or endangered animals - is now the camera, rather than the rifle, is surely a step in the right direction for civilisation. Taken literally, my butterfly man’s use of digital photography to immobilise his butterflies was the very opposite of a killer app. It was a let them live app.
Other killer apps spring to mind. My own digital camera killer app, the app that got me started with digital photography, was contriving computer printable photographs of authors whose writings I was engaged in publishing, for the Libertarian Alliance. One of these authors was Christian, as I recall. About fifteen short years ago, using desktop computers to print photographs was as slow and unwieldy as using computers to display photographs on computer screens is easy now, but I was very happy about that. I could do it. All I needed was quite crude black and white pictures, which were not nearly as slow as better pictures would have been to play with, and anyway, all that slowness deterred the competition and made my products look far less domestic in origin than they really were. Later, I used and still use pictures of prominent libertarian personalities to spice up my blog postings, and to boost their prestige and raise their morale.
Intrinsic to digital photography is that digital photographs can be easily processes. This was also why NASA was so keen to develop this technology. Remember those videos of a hopeless image being slowly but miraculously transformed into a miraculous image. I used to muck about with my author photos to make them more photocopier-friendly. Many of my interviewees have talked about how they create images, rather than merely snap them.
Tonight I hope that I will hear of many more killer apps.
One of my favourite digital photography apps is the photographing of other information. An example of this was told to me by Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home, who works in computers, in some capacity or other. He and his colleagues, in the course of their collective deliberations, are in the habit of covering white boards with verbiage and diagrams and such, often including yellow stick-on notes with further cleverness. And, before the meeting adjourns, photos of all this cleverness are taken, for later pondering. Simon and his colleagues are definitely not the only ones behaving like this, and nor are they the only ones who photograph the resulting writing on the wall, so to speak, for later reflection. A merely temporary piece of scribbled brainstorming becomes as permanent as anyone wants it to be. To
Time was when the only people in the world using small cameras to photograph complicated verbiage and complicated diagrams were spies in movies, and presumably spies for real. And to anyone who says that photocopiers have been around for decades, I say, true, but good luck photocopying a vertical surface several yards wide. Digital cameras are actually now better than photocopiers were. Notice, however, that this was not nearly so true just a few years back, because cheap digital cameras couldn’t then handle the detail. Now, they can.
The more people tell me about their personal, particular, digital photography apps, and about the other apps they have heard about other people using, the more I think that digital photography is like literacy, something that is capable of contributing, always significantly and often crucially, to pretty much any project you care to think of. Of course it has to be done right, used intelligently. Any tool can be misused, applied stupidly or excessively. But seriously, is there any area of work or play to which a bit of shrewdly deployed digital photography can not now contribute?
The pleasure that people get from digital photography is obvious, and often highly visible. But the impact of digital photography on work is just as dramatic if not more so, which is one of the reasons I so like Simon’s photoed brainstorm boards. Where would internet selling be without digital photography? How many pictures are taken per day by the construction industry, to record progress, satisfactory or not? Think of all those Russian cars with their permanently active video cameras, ready to record accidents, and incidentally recording meteor strikes for the evening news.
As for the more conventional uses of digital cameras, to take snaps when on holiday or out of hours when on business trips, at weddings and at funerals and school reunions and at Christmas, well, hear this. Several people volunteered that, were they to suffer a computer calamity and lose all their data, the only losses that would really hurt – really, really hurt – would be the loss of their photo archives.
There were grumbles. Just now a big grumble about digital photography, if my recent conversations are anything to go by, concerns people using tablet cameras (a very recent arrival on the scene) to make bad video recordings of live events, thereby spoiling the view for everyone else. This does not mean that it is silly to photograph Big Ben using a tablet, as I myself have had the pleasure of photographing many people do. On the contrary, a tablet is a very sensible way to take photographs or make videos, because with such a big screen, you know, as never before, the kind of picture you are going to get. But yes, tablets can be used in a way that is annoying to others. More fundamentally, what is the point of going to an event, and then not experiencing it, on account of instead making a bad video of it?
More generally, the grumble is that digital photography does not so much record experience as postpone, diminish, and not infrequently utterly destroy it.
But such grumbles are not new. I would say that they are a consequence of the fact that technology is always now developing, which means that at any particular moment mistakes are going to be made. We are all familiar with the nouveau riche phenomenon, which is people who need to learn how to handle money in quantities they are not familiar with, and in particular not to spend it all. Constantly progressing technology gives rise to a similar effect. At any given technological moment there will be people overdoing it with this or that latest piece of kit. Just now tablet computers are being overused at public events. Suddenly people can record absolutely everything, and some do, excessively and inconsiderately, not even maximising their own pleasure let alone anyone else’s. In the eighties, you may recall, the complaints concerned mobile phones, being misused in trains by people shouting endless gushes of banality into them, concerning the progress of their train journeys, in a way that enraged other passengers. But people learned not to behave like this. The tablet wavers at concerts will likewise learn to mend their manners.
As for the claim that photography is an alternative to visual experience rather than an enhancement of it, my own personal experience has been the exact opposite. I have seen far more of London in the last decade than I would have done had there been no digital photography. And thanks to my photo archives I remember far more of what I have seen, with past photos often vividly triggering past visual memories that would otherwise have gone utterly. My most vivid visual recollection of 2013 was seeing, in the far distance, the first few giant cranes of London Gateway, London’s new container port now being constructed on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They reminded me of my first sighting of Chartres Cathedral from a similarly great distance, which I spied on one of my sketching expeditions in my teens. Had there been no digital photography, I would never have gone anywhere near London Gateway, let alone now have had such vivid mental (as well as digital) pictures of it. My experience is that digital photography is not a substitute for seeing things. It is an intensification of seeing things.
And as I often like to joke, my camera has better eyesight than I do. One of the most pleasurable moments of my photographic expeditions is when I get home, and fling my pictures up on my big home computer screen. I see all sorts of things in them that I did not see at the time, as perhaps my friend Simon sees in his photos of meetings notes. Just as the butterfly man does not have time to see everything he can later see in his photos, I do not have the eyesight to see what I later see in my photos. Ah, the joy of looking at them when I get home! And yes, I am a bit nouveau riche about digital photography myself. Guilty as charged. But far better to be nouveau riche than not riche at all!
It is because of all the varied pleasures to be had from digital photography that it has become such a mass enthusiasm. All mass enthusiasms give rise to grumbles and sneers, from people who accentuate the negative and prefer to ignore or take for granted the positive.
Some negatives, concerning the impact of digital photography and the new media in general on old school journalism have been much complained about, mostly by old school photographers and journalists. Daily news has been replaced by instant news. Boo. Many people prefer looking at each other’s bad photos instead of looking at good photos taken by the old school photographer complaining in his old school newspaper article. I will not spend time on these grumbles, if only because so many others have done nothing but write about such things. Suffice it to say that the news hasn’t ended. The means of communicating it has changed a lot lately, just as it always has.
One of the many plusses of digital photography is that, by supplying an endless stream of humdrum photos of humdrum people doing humdrum things all over the world, it corrects the impression given by the news that the rest of the world is a crazy place inhabited only by crazy people doing crazily newsworthy and disastrous things, all the time.
One of the bigger negatives associated with digital photography is surely surveillance, both by big organisations like governments and the owners of shopping centres and amusement parks and transport networks, and by individuals, just taking photos, moving or still, of friends or strangers, and then internetting them. And of course the latter activity, as Edward Snowden has now confirmed, feeds massively back into the former one. There was a recent 6/20 talk devoted entirely to this topic a few months back, just before it suddenly became a hot news story.
Surveillance has caught on in the rich world, I am convinced, because it really does do a lot of good, in deterring crime and in supplying evidence for prosecution in crimes that it fails to deter. It also, surely, really does diminish speedy and dangerous driving. The question is not whether there are any benefits to mass surveillance, but whether those benefits are worth the potentially horrible costs. It has been much discussed that Britain has the largest population of surveillance cameras in the world, per head of population being surveilled. I think that one reason for this is that in Britain we have (again: many of my libertarian friends will be disgusted by this claim) some of the – quite possibly the - most trusted public officials in the world. (If my libertarian friends would prefer “least distrusted”, I am happy to let them have that concession, but only that.) Trust in public officials everywhere is probably in decline, including in Britain, but in Britain it still remains very high. There is a lot of ruin in a civil service that started out genuinely civil. Thus, the costs in Britain of public surveillance are considered less burdensome than elsewhere, and the cameras escalate, both in number and in effectiveness.
The Guardian’s Laurie Penny agrees with me. Unlike me, Penny travels a lot to many other cities besides London, and she notes that London – especially London’s trains – are now remarkably free of graffiti, compared to other major cities, and in particular compared to the trains in other major cities. She gives surveillance cameras much of the credit for this. Which makes sense to me. Although, as usual, we have to say that just shoving up surveillance cameras and not paying any attention to their output is utterly insufficient. As with all other digital camera apps, surveillance cameras can be deployed both excessively and incompetently. Cameras only work if part of an effective (and uncorrupt) system of crime prosecution and prevention.
But what if the definition of crime gets expanded? What if British public officials are now becoming lest trustworthy so fast that the British public, now so supportive of surveillance cameras, later changes its mind?
And what else are all these surveillance cameras already deterring? Penny speculates that we have entered a new age of self-censorship, of stuffy social decorum, of watching what we say to anyhone, not unlike the one that was abandoned in the 1960s by the Beatles generation, i.e. mine. I think I agree about that also, although another big part of the reason for that is that the economy is not what it was. Would young people now fret about pictures of themselves behaving rowdily in the street, or for that matter at private parties where privately owned smartphones are hoovering up pictures and showing the worst of them to the whole world, if jobs for young people were as easy to come by as they were in the 1960s? Personally I don’t think such pictures are much of a reason to not employ someone, but they do make a fine excuse if you are looking for one.
Going back to that graffiti that Laurie Penny observes the lack of in London (and she is rather regretful), I think I observe another impact of digital photography on graffiti, at any rate in London. Yes, surveillance cameras may have diminished the quantity of low grade graffiti, the sort that is hardly better than dogs pissing on lamp-posts to mark their territory, and which is done – or feels as if it is done - to maximise annoyance to property owners, and urban dread in the minds of more sober and timid and elderly citizens like me. But at the top end of the graffiti food chain, at any rate to my eye, things have greatly improved. The quality of the best graffiti art is now dramatically better than it has ever been before, so much so that art galleries now fall over themselves to sign up street artists, instead of patronising the more usual sort of artists, who are now being left behind by their more populist competitors with their defiantly realistic and demagogicly communicative imagery.
Digital photography is definitely part of this story, in fact I think somewhere in my photo archives I have pictures to prove it, of street artists photoing their works in progress. Think about it. If you have just done an elaborate work of street art, in a place where you know from experience you are allowed to do it, and won’t be prosecuted for doing it, and you can immediately record an approximate likeness of it for posterity, that has to gain you more kudos and social media attention than if you couldn’t do that. Street art is all too temporary, replaced almost at once by more street art. A digital photo of a piece of street art is far more permanent. Does anyone here present think that digital photography means less high quality street art?
The weekend before last, there was another art event in London which surely also owed much to digital photography, which was a festival of ice sculpture. How demoralising it must be to sculpt a masterpiece, and then immediately watch it melt, in London’s demoralisingly moderate “winter” climate. How much more fun if you can photo it in all its temporary glory. That fact has resulted in a deluge of photos in recent years of such ice sculptures, and that results (it certainly did the weekend before last) in a whole new mob of people who have never seen such a thing before (because before, nobody in London bothered) assembling themselves to witness these miraculously kitchy objects. And to photo them with their cameras. I actually went to this ice sculpture exhibition, which was held in Docklands. I had hoped for a decent number of ice sculptures and a decent number of photographers, some of them the artists themselves, for me to photograph photoing them. Alas for my hopes. I only got as far as photoing the truly gigantic and (to me) totally offputting queue of people who had all had the same idea about where to go as me.
I’ll end this very soon. Melting sculptures and excessive crowds of people wanting to see them and to photo them may seem like a pretty downbeat conclusion to this talk, but actually it isn’t really my conclusion. That will come when I finally sort out in mind what that is. Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the process. Talking with people about how they use digital photography, and about what they think its impact has been and is and will be, as opposed to merely reading about this on the internet and musing about how I use digital photography myself, has also been, quite aside (I hope) from being somewhat informative, great fun. Asking someone how they use digital photography is a great conversation starter, I have found. And I intend to continue with my investigations.
If forced to offer a conclusion now, I think I would describe digital photography historically, by talking about how future historians might choose to describe the little episode of technological history that we happen to be living through. And I think, like me, that they will emphasise the multi-media nature of digital photography, the way that it operates in combination with other methods of information storage and communication. When will they date the beginning of this story? Perhaps a date they will mention is May 11th 1844, which was the day when the first Morse Code message was transmitted between two different cities, Washington and Baltimore.
Or, they may go back to the origins of the printing press, or even of literacy, or even of talking itself. I have already emphasised the way that digital photography, among many other things, adds a dose of turbo-charging to old fashioned writing, by photographing it. For this is a story with no very fixed moment of beginning, and as of now there is no end in sight. It is a story of the gradual and accelerating increase in the power of us humans to interact with our world, to remember things, and to communicate things. In almost no time, from the evolutionary point of view, we have gone from creatures who struggled to make noises that communicated different kinds of danger to the tribe, to creatures who may very soon be making elaborate objects simply by thinking about them and emitting telepathic waves to magic machines, telepathy being a word I used in the title of a recent blog posting about the kinds of things I would be talking about this evening. Future historians will talk of shared experience, and gaze at our absurdly flat photographs, perhaps on an antique “computer screen”, with the same impressed but slightly patronising amusement and bemusement that we now bestow upon stained glass windows.
But enough. Thanks for listening, and please tell me more.