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Category archive: Digital photographers
The pictures below were taken on April 16th 2004, in (on?) one of my regular snapping zones, Westminster Bridge, from which, then as now, you get great views of both Parliament and the Wheel, depending on which way you look.
Most of the things I was photoing then haven’t changed that much, but … I was just then starting to realise that my fellow digital photographers were an object worthy of my detailed and prolonged attention, which they have been ever since. That summer of 2004 was the moment when I first got seriously stuck into this category of photo. There are still lots of pictures of people just wandering around, being people. But, the photographers were just tarting to figure strongly in the archives. It took me a while to realise that the cameras mattered at least as much as the people using them, that aspect getting steadily easier as zoom got zoomier.
The privacy concerns associated with just shoving recognisable pictures of strangers up on the internet have only grown since then, but I reckon that pictures this old are not such a problem in that way. Recognisable pictures taken yesterday, that I tend not to do these days, or not so much. But pictures of people taken a decade ago, well, I’m more relaxed about that.
The little squares zoom in on the cameras. Click and get the original pictures as taken that afternoon, which would appear to have been exactly as sunny as today is.
Mostly silver rather than black, mostly much bulkier than the equivalent cameras look now. But of course there is one exception to all that. Picture 3.1 shows a kind of camera that looked then pretty much exactly as it looks now. Black. Shaped like an old school camera. These are the cameras that are actually just regular quite good digital cameras, but which enable you think of yourself as the beginnings of a Real Photographer. My kind of camera, in other words. Cameras in this category look now exactly as they looked then. Nothing has changed with those.
Except what they can do.
When I trawl through the archives, I keep coming across excellent snaps which for some reason I quite ignored at the time. Here is one such, taken in July 2007, on Westminster Bridge:
The Thing on her bag, the Wheel, is behind her. She is photoing Big Ben, unless I am much mistaken.
I think one reason photos like this one seem better now than when taken is because hiding the faces of my photographer subjects now seems more necessary than it used to.
The really good news is that the cameras in these old snaps are starting to look very old. Soon, they will be totally out of date, and at that point my Digital Photographers archive will become a wonder.
Incoming from Sam Bowman in the form of an email, dated March 6th, entitled “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism - an apologia”:
Thanks for mentioning my Libertarian Home talk on Samizdata. I look forward to seeing you tonight if you can make it.
“Tonight” was March 6th (Simon Gibbs introductory spiel about Sam and his talk here), when Sam gave his talk at the Rose and Crown. This is not yet available on video, but it presumably soon will be, because as always at these Libertarian Home Rose and Crown talks, a video camera was in action. On the right is a photo that Sam took of me and him with his mobile, after he had given his talk.
And thanks for coming on Monday!
That was an ASI event, about whether prison works. (Answer, with all kinds of reservations: yes.)
I typed out quite a long email to you but decided against it, because I figured none of it would be new to you.
Wrong. Now that my hair is mostly grey and I no longer say everything I am thinking, other libertarians seem to assume that I now know everything that there is to be known, and because I own lots of books that I have read everything that there is to be read, about libertarianism. None of this is true. I do not read and have not read nearly as much as I have time to read and have had time to read. I regret that Sam didn’t preserve this longer email.
Having said that, since it’s something we’re both interested in I thought I’d try to outline my position a bit more briefly:
Excellent. I asked Sam, quite a long time ago now, if he minded me recycling what follows in a posting, and maybe then sticking bits of it up at Samizdata. No, he said, post away. So here it is:
I still hate the term ‘social justice’ (Hayek did a real number on me), and philosophically I’m not on board with the Rawlsian view of ethics. My moral position is preference utilitarianism – that people getting what they want is what’s good. Having said that, practically I think that ethical consequentialists and believers in ‘social justice’ are in basically the same position: both think that improving the welfare of the poor is a high priority.
I think it makes sense to treat libertarianism as being about means, not ends. Most political positions claim that they’re good because they will make people’s lives easier, happier, etc. (There are some exceptions of course.) I think many people make the error of forgetting that the world is complex, so they assume that differences of opinion about politics must be down to differences of opinion about what sort of world we want.
People sometimes also try to waterproof their beliefs by attaching moral claims to empirical arguments – eg, a supporter of the minimum wage, presented with strong arguments that undermine their empirical claims, may fall back on the argument that it’s just indecent for people to earn below £x/hour, and a decent society should simply not allow that, consequences be damned. Of course we libertarians often do this too – presented with strong arguments in favour of the minimum wage we may fall back on the claim that it’s just wrong to interfere with private contracts between adults. I think there’s some merit to both these claims (much more so the latter, obviously) but they shouldn’t be treated as unbreakable absolutes. If they were, were the earlier, empirical arguments just rhetoric?
So you can boil my position down to this: if I was convinced that free markets and a high degree of individual liberty were not the best way of allowing people to get what they want, I wouldn’t support them. My libertarianism/liberalism is entirely contingent on empirical beliefs I have about the world.
I make explicit the fact that I’d be relaxed about redistribution of wealth from rich to poor if I thought it led to good outcomes, and indeed I think the libertarian empirical case is much stronger on regulation of people’s lives (in the broadest sense) and commerce than it is on wealth redistribution. I also think that it’s where we have the most original things to say.
How this makes me any different to people like Milton Friedman and FA Hayek I am not sure, given that both were also explicitly supportive of wealth/income redistribution. Of course, any consequentialist libertarian would have to concede that, at least in theory, they would be open to the idea of redistribution.
Some emails, rather like some comments, can have particular expressive merit. Because people are relaxed rather than mounted self-consciously on their official high horses, so to speak, they often communicate in this more informal circumstance with particular eloquence. So, my particular thanks to Sam for allowing me to publish this. More of his many thoughts here, although you may have to scroll your way past a huge photo of Sam in front of a brick wall. (Odd. Did anyone else have this problem?) I recommend doing this.
Last Wednesday, I was finally able to take advantage of the beautiful spring weather London has been enjoying for last week or so, and walked down Victoria Street to Parliament Square, and then across the river.
And the photography is well and truly back in business. There ought to be a nominated day, when photographers all gather to photograph the first grouse of the season. What would be the urban equivalent of that, I wonder?
I photographed other things besides photographers, but mostly I did photograph photographers:
Those are just little square bits from bigger pictures. Click to get the latter.
The fountain behind the lady photographer in 3.1 is the one in the garden of St Thomas’s Hospital, which doubles as the roof of a big car park.
Smart phones getting smarter all the time.
This time it’s another person whose name I am determined to stop getting wrong, who is called Christiana Hambro. For no intelligent reason that I can think of, I have been getting the Christiana bit of her name wrong. The good news is that I can’t now even remember what I used to say instead, because I have known for several hours, ever since I thought about doing it, what the rest of this posting is going to consist of, and because this posting is already doing the job of fixing Christiana’s correct Christian name, Christiana, in my head, even before I write the posting, never mind before I stick it up for others to read.
Christiana is the one on the left, of these two pictures:
And the one of the right is Christian. Christian Michel. I have never got Christian’s Christian name wrong. Putting these two people next to one another in my head has solved my Christiana Hambro problem.
Christian Michel will be speaking at my next Last Friday meeting, on March 28th. This is what he just emailed me about what he will be saying:
In August 1938, a rich and talented American journalist gathered 36 economists and philosophers in Paris, in what has become known after his name: the Lippmann Colloquium. The objective was nothing less than a refoundation of liberalism, under attack by Marxists and Fascists. Participants only agreed in their opposition to command economies. Mises remained attached to unfettered free markets. Röpke and Rüstow developed what became Ordoliberalism, still the official ideology in today’s Germany. Einaudi, future president of Italy, remained faithful to the social teachings of the Church. Hayek tried to federate all these currents in the Mont Pélerin Society, to the point of dilution. In America, neo-liberals merged into the neo-conservative movement, whilst in France, Michel Foucault, in his insightful Birth of Biopolitics, reclaimed it for libertarianism (which he espoused in his last works, to the horror of the Leftist establishment). Today, for the likes of Naomi Klein and George Monbiot, the term ‘neoliberalism’ is a word of abuse, whilst it was meant to characterize the very ‘third way’ they so eagerly embrace. In the talk, I will go over the debates within the liberal movement of the last 80 years, which all revolve around the definition of this neologism: neo-liberalism.
In my thankyou email back to him, I told Christian that this piece alone makes an illuminating read.
Which is a lot of the point of talks these days, now that we can all know about everything that is happening that we even might be attending. Yes, the small number of people who choose to squeeze themselves into my living room on the 28th will hear Christian’s talk, and very good and very detailed it will be, I am sure. They will learn lots that will not be learned by others. But meanwhile, many more will read the above spiel by Christian about his talk, and the ripples will spread out way beyond my living room. If just half the people on the Brian’s Fridays email list read the above piece, when I send it out in about a week’s time, many of them will learn quite a lot. I had no idea Michel Foucault ended up as a libertarian, until Christian started telling me about this.
I found the above picture of Christian Michel here. I probably could have dug up a picture of him taken by me, but image googling was easier, given the state of my photo-archives.
Christiana’s relevance to all this is that she is one of a number of free-market-stroke-libertarian activists who have been putting some organisational juice behind spreading these ideas to British students. She is based at the I(nstitute of) E(conomic) A(ffairs). I took that photo of Christiana at the Liberty League Freedom Forum 2013, which she helped to organise, and “helped” may well be a serious understatement.
I hope to organise a Brian’s Friday at which Christiana and/or one of her colleagues describe the outreach work they are doing at the IEA. In my opinion it is the biggest single piece of news about the spread of libertarian thinking in Britain. The British public continue to be indifferent to libertarian ideas, as is their habit with so many ideas. But the British student libertarian movement is now growing from insignificant to … significant, and it is to a great degree thanks to the work of people like Christiana.
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?
Yes, it’s another posting about photographing London’s Big Things from a high up place.
On July 27th of last year, I found myself at the top of Kings College, London, and a week later I posted a few of the photos I managed to take from that vantage point.
Many of the photos I took looked like this:
In other words, general, semi-panoramic views, just hoovering up whatever was there to be seen, to be looked at in more detail later.
But after taking that photo, I realised that this view included what looked like another very promising vantage point:
When I got home, I did some googling, and found out that this place must be the Radio Bar at the top of the ME Hotel. The ME Hotel is at the westerly spike of the Aldwych semi-circle, so to speak.
Here is another good picture of this place, and of the kind of views that may be had from it.
So, I had a go at visiting this soon after finding this out, in August, but there was a queue, and I am not good with queues. Queues mean waiting in the queue, and also mean that when you finally get there, there will be lots of people in the way of my photographing, and worse, that they may be in a hurry to get rid of you (especially if you are a photographers), rather than glad to see you. So, I decided to try it again when the weather was nice, but colder.
And recently, on January 25th, I did this. Me being me, I took lots of views, and lots of views with fellow digital photographers taking shots of the views:
I also cranked up the zoom, and took lots of views like this:
This Radio Bar is one of the very best places I know of to look out over London.
With views that touch the clouds and include Tower Bridge, the Shard, London Bridge, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern, Somerset House, Southbank, London Eye, Houses of Parliament, and the theatre district of Covent Garden, the rooftop bar at the ME London raises the bar on the enjoyment of social life whilst having a drink in the lounge.
Boastful but fair, although I think I marginally prefer, for the way it is laid out, One New Change. But the views from this new place are an order of magnitude better.
On January 25th, I purchased not just the one over-priced (actually a blazing bargain, given what I was really buying) drink, but, after I had finished taking snaps, another.
I returned to the ME Radio Bar just over a week ago, but … later.
Definitely my favourite recent photography related photo:
Pity about the car.
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.
Incoming from Simon Gibbs:
Near the mayors blob
And there was a photograph attached to this message, “sent from my Sony Xperia™ smartphone”:
On the left there, as we look at it, is the Mayor’s Blob that Simon mentions, near the Shard, and a building I am very familiar with, at any rate from the outside. In the middle, something new, which Simon knew I might be keen to check out. So, he photos it, and sends it to me.
Neither Simon nor I are asking anyone to think that this is a good photograph, in the technical sense. Don’t click on it, because it is quite big enough as is. Simon is probably a bit appalled that I am even showing it to anyone, even in the almost total privacy that is BrianMicklethwaitDotCom. But the photo suffices for its purpose, which is not to delight attenders at an art gallery (real or virtual), merely to provide me with information, should I be interested. (Although actually, this is the kind of thing you often do see in an art gallery nowadays, put there by an artist trying, as most artists must these days, to be contrary. “Good” photos are so twentieth century, my dears. Imagine the blurb, as written by this guy.)
I show this casual snap because it illustrates a typical use of digital photography, which is the communication of information, potentially in real time. Me being so hopelessly twentieth century in my uses of twenty-first century tech, I don’t know when he took this photo. It duly arrived on my desk, via my clunky old twentieth century desktop computer. Was it taken only seconds before Simon sent it to me? Perhaps he can tell us. But my point here is that he could have. And like him, I could have been as much on the move as he clearly was, while still as connected to the world as he was.
Here we see photography not as the nineteenth and then twentieth century mechanisation of oil painting, but as a twenty first century amplification of conversation. “Ooh, Brian might like to see that, snap. Hi Brian. Take a look at this.” Try doing that with a twentieth century phone. You could, in this case, after a fashion, but it wouldn’t be nearly so quick, definite and easy.
I am giving a talk on Monday evening at Christian Michel’s about The Impact of Digital Photography, and this is the kind of thing I will be talking about.
Digital photography was, or so I recall reading recently, invented by NASA, not so much to take photos, as to communicate photos, of other planets from robot cameras on space-ships, back to planet earth. Yes.
The logical mid-to-late twentieth century end-point of episodes like this, after you have thrown in a big dash of this sort of stuff, is (see above): telepathy.
I am rather ill and I am very tired, and I am in no mood to be writing prose of the sort anyone else - or for that matter even I – would want to read.
And here we come to one of the great advantages of these big photo collections that I like to do here from time to time. I don’t have to be a hundred percent to do it. I can do it, and do it entirely right, even if in no mood to write proper prose.
So here is the latest clutch of photos, this time of people using Big Flat Things, rather than anything resembling regular cameras, to take photos:
The first of these was taken in December of 2012, and the rest this year.
I have already written about Big Flat Things photography, so if you insist on verbiage, go here.
Here is recent confirmation of the map app effect, i.e. the replacement of paper maps by electric maps.
The pictures below were all taken on June 4th of this year. Soon after that date I picked out these nine snaps of digital photographers doing their things, with a view to showing them here, but I never got around to doing that. I made my selections without any particular thought of maps. So far as I can tell, I picked my winners on a variety of grounds, three of them, it would appear, because of interesting backgrounds, in particular the one (2.1) with the word VISIONS to be seen in the background, on the side of what looks like a TV van. My selection is also biased towards facial non-recognisability.
Here are eight of the nine I picked.
And here is the ninth.
Was that ratio a fair reflection of the ratio for the entire lot of photos I took that day? No. It was not. I took about 350 snaps, of which about third to a half were of digital photographers. That’s a lot. Number of maps being flaunted by photographers: one. That one. Otherwise, no maps to be seen. This does not of course mean that no other maps were being carried. But it is telling, I think.
Four of these snaps, by my calculation, feature pictures being taken with smartphones. I think I was a bit biased towards that also, but the fact that I had so many examples of that to pick out is likewise telling.
Goddaughter Two is in town. She was already spontaneously talking about this map thing, before she knew I had any interest in it. She and a friend are now being London tourists. They are seeing a few maps, but only a few.
Change is not just the new stuff. It’s the old stuff that you don’t see any more.
JUST BEFORE POSTING THIS: Goddaughter One’s dad dropped by. He was recently wondering about maps, his question being: How do I best tell fellow engineers, visiting London for a footbridge conference, where London’s best footbridges are to be found? Give them a paper map and mark the bridges on that map? No. Paper maps don’t sell any more. At all. Ergo, they are rapidly ceasing to make them. Answer: Given them electric map references. They get you to within ten yards of each bridge, no worries.
I’ve recently been doing a lot of trawling through old picture archives, and in the course of this I found a directory devoted to Digital Photographers Holding On To Their Maps.
So here is an enormous clutch of such photos, with the little squares below all homing in on the maps. Click to see the photographers in action, if you wish.
The photos you get by clicking are exactly as taken, but the little squares involved quite a lot of enhancement - brightening, contrasting, sharpening, etc. - the better to reveal their mapitude.
If you don’t wish to click on any of these map squares, fine, but at least reflect with me on how the age of maps, on paper, like this, is now drawing to a close. The above snaps were snapped between 2005 and 2007. I wonder how many such photographs I’d be able to take now. Next time I go out snapping snappers, I’ll make a point of trying to see if paper maps are still being carried by photographers.
My guess would be, yes, just a few. This would be because the keener you are on photography, the more likely you were to have had a nice camera before the smartphone thing kicked in, and the less likely you might be to get a brand new smartphone, to replace your regular, mapless old phone. So maps being held by people with regular cameras are still, I am guessing, around.
But, nobody taking photos with a smartphone will now be simultaneously waving a paper map. Such a person already has a map.
It’s surely worth me adding that I got my smartphone entirely for its map app. It’s lighter than an A-Z and much lighter than all the A-Zs you’d need if you travelled much, and also much nicer than google maps printouts from my computer, because my smartphone, crucially, tells me where I am. For me, a smartphone is a book of magic maps which also does occasional phone calls and textings, not the other way around.
Going back to the pictures above, it’s not just the map-flaunting that is now looking quaint. So do a lot of the cameras. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. A picture collection is like a well stocked wine cellar. It gets better with age.
My attention has been drawn to some excellent photos by Michal Nuniewicz.
I, of course, particularly like this one:
A classic, in the genre recently referred to here.
Sub-genre: group selfie. An important sub-classification, I think.
Like the space in an Elizabethan court masque that the performers left for the courtiers themselves to step forward and take part, today everyone needs to work out how to create a stage on which the constellation of divas formerly known as the audience will strike their own pose.
That’s to be found under this headline:
The Long View: Bob Dylan and the selfie: The world’s now a stage and we’re all performing
And under this photo:
Are yes, selfies. Says Sidwell, re this new word:
Even as I cling to my old-fashioned desire to take photographs of the things that I see, “selfie” – the new nickname for a photographic self-portrait – has been declared Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, following a 17,000 per cent increase in usage year-on-year.
I have been long been studying this phenomenon. We may not have had the word “selfie” in 2007, but there were already many, many people doing selfies:
That being one of my all time favourites from my selfies archive.
LATER: Incoming from Michael Jennings:
Taken, says Michael, on a ferry between Greece and Albania in July.