Apr 28, 2006

The photographer without a camera and other curiosities from the future

'You press the button, we’ll do the rest.’ A slogan that enshrined Kodak’s promise to photographers in the late nineteenth century. More than a hundred years later, neither Kodak nor the inheritors of its legacy have been able to deliver on that promise. Photography still remains a tightrope walk involving unfathomable technique, crafty art, lots of hard work and much heartache. And a disconcerting majority of camera buyers continue to languish in the quicksand of mediocrity.

Despite the many advances in camera technology, the promise of simplifying photography to a simple press of a button has remained an unattainable holy grail. But I suspect not for long. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world (and probably even to itself), a humble site designed for sharing pictures is already delivering on Kodak’s promise. And in the process, it might also end up redefining what the very act of shooting a picture means.

But as usual, I am steaming ahead of myself. Let me rewind and start at the beginning.

Though I have been shooting pictures for years, most of my output has been very forgettable. Except for a few images where luck lent a helping hand. Worse still, thanks to life and laziness, I got around to shooting only a fraction of the number of pictures I wanted to. Therefore, my skills hardly got the constant honing they needed. I replaced 3 cameras – each with a more advanced one - but I continued to remain the mediocre photographer I always was.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a photo-sharing site called Flickr.com. The unique thing about this rather addictive site was that it made the entire process of sharing pictures an infectious and communal experience. And I mean sharing not just with people you know, but also with complete strangers from around the world.

But that’s just one side of the story. While Flickr enables you to share your pictures with the world, it simultaneously also enables the world to share its pictures with you. Imagine being able to view over 2.5 million photostreams (Flickr term for subscriber’s photo collections) sitting right at your desktop! The sheer expanse of pictures available for viewing is simply breathtaking. And in the true spirit of a gregarious community, Flickr encourages browsers to leave behind comments on other people’s pictures or even mark a photograph as a favourite simply by clicking on a button.

Of course, not everything is picture perfect. Flickr has its share of mediocre and downright bad pictures – in fact, they make up the overwhelming majority of the pictures you will find. But embedded within these overflowing streams of trash are very many photographic gems and masterpieces. By now a confirmed Flickr addict, I compulsively navigated from one photostream to another, frowning disapproval on pictures that fell short and rewarding a select few of them with the mouse salute – clicking a button to save them as favorites.

This is when things got really interesting. As my collection of favorites swelled, I found myself handling it with the very same attention and care that I directed towards my own photostream. It took very little physical effort to mark a photo as favourite, but to me the act carried as much investment as clicking a picture with my own camera. I started thinking about the broad themes that ran through this motley collection of pictures and how they reflected both the subjects and style of my choice.

In time, I found a shift in my photographic eye – for the better. I got more critical of the pictures I was viewing – and my confidence in my ability to differentiate the good from the ordinary began to soar. I even periodically reviewed my favourites folder, to weed out pictures that seemed good to begin with but now didn’t quite make the cut. Hey, wait a minute. People usually do that with their own portfolios. So, does that say anything about my favourites folder?

A common adage in photography goes, ‘Photographers don’t make photographs. Light makes photographs; photographers merely capture them.’ This recognizes the fundamental truth that the photographer as an artist is actually a mere recorder patiently waiting as millions of images (in a hi-speed continuous video sequence called sight) flit by him every day. Using the apparatus of a camera, he chooses to freeze a few images out of these which, in the words of Hentri Cartier-Bresson, puts “in the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.”

And as I sit every day in front of my computer viewing millions of images flitting by and capturing a handful of them with the press of a button, am I doing anything different?

Like any photographer you and I know, I too am a mere recorder patiently waiting as an ever-flowing multitude of images marched past me – only to freeze and rescue a select few. If anything had changed, it was the apparatus I was using. I had, in fact, found the ultimate camera upgrade – one that would gather and present to me a selected shortlist of pre-processed images on every conceivable subject. And when I was satisfied with what I saw in the viewfinder, all I had to do was simply press a button. And the picture was taken.

Flickr, to me, had delivered on Kodak’s promise. And also imparted a valuable lesson on the upheavals and contradictions the online world will unleash in the future to come – for eg. the photographer without a camera. It has also convinced me that looking at the future with present-tinted glasses will only misguide us – and catch us unguarded when new paradigms cast on us their disruptive spell.

As far as my photography goes, I am only too pleased with the progress I am making. And as I fire up my browser every morning I know that a century old advertising slogan can now be resurrected, albeit with a minor change.

“We’ve done the rest, you just press the button. Flickr.”
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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