What is the future of fine art photography in a digital age?

In the age of camera’s being truly ubiquitous due to inclusion in every “smart” phone, and the increasing popularity of viewing images on tablet devices, what is the future of fine art photography?

A 1962 photo by Lee Friedlander.

In a way, for the fine art photographer, using a phone’s camera is similar to the development of the small handheld 35mm Leica camera in the early Twenty First century: it represents freedom.  Unobtrusiveness and ease of use are the breakthroughs of both.  Before the Leica, photography was cumbersome and time consuming.  Usually, the only other option was a handheld 4×5” press camera that required manually setting the shutter before each shot and loading large film holders.  The shift to the diminutive Leica heralded a new type of photography and a new way of seeing as a result.  Gradually, new masters of the medium embraced the camera, including Garry Winnogrand, Robert Frank, Lee Friendlander, and many others.

But back to today, what changes in contemporary photography are due to the cell phone cameras?

Taken with Smart Phone, Steve Giovinco

How about the way images are viewed today and what impact that will have.  As photography books wane due to the expense and the general demise of publishing, most fine art images are displayed electronically.  Tablets seem an obvious choice.  Their backlit screens make nearly any image particularly enticing and beautiful.  How will this impact the creation of images?  Will there be less of a need for the luxurious prints of an Edward Weston, for example, since it will be hard to compete with the built in beauty of the screen?  And unlike the Leica’s small image size, presenting a cell phone image a table or computer results in little image degradation. In the days of the Leica, one had to be a master printer to get all the information out of the much smaller negative size when displaying work as a printed photograph.  In fact, it might be argued that there was very little need for extensive darkroom work before the advent of the Leica.

Finally, what happens after the picture is taken?  We seem to be entering a post-Photoshop era.  As the desktop shifts to the tablet, so to will there be a shift in how photography will be edited.  In the day of the Leica, as mentioned above, “post-production,” to use a contemporary term, could be very involved, and required more darkroom skills than in the past.  Now, because of the way photography is consumed on an electronic screen, there is less of a need for color retouching or editing.  In fact, that might be harder to do, as the computer desktop and high powered tools such as Photoshop become rarer.


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