Sunday, June 20, 2010

Overexposure

“If everybody knows everything, then nothing means anything. Everything’s a cliché. That’s why a stopped making art,” the “Artist” laments in Eric Bogosian’s performance-art piece, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.”

In this digital age where everybody has access to perhaps all the knowledge the human race has accumulated, digitally stored as a series of ones and zeroes on hard drives and scattered out there all over the world wide web, everybody seems to know everything, or at least a lot of us act like we do.

In the realm of art, what does this mean?

The digital revolution has greatly affected one form of expression in particular – photography. Once the exclusive domain of those who have got the so-called “eye” and have access to the proper equipment, is now an open arena with everyone who has access to anything that can freeze life on frames at four megapixels or higher become self-proclaimed “photographers.” Well, it does literally mean someone who photographs, and since digital single lens reflex cameras have become cheaper, and since for peanuts any China-made phone now comes with a high-resolution camera, more and more people have become photographers. On the one hand, there’s a lot of good in this. Since there are a lot more people peering behind viewfinders and clicking away, more of life’s moments are captured, saved, printed or at least uploaded online for anyone to experience. No need to worry about the cost of film, developing the film, and printing the photographs. Flash, or SD or CF cards that can store thousands and thousands of high-resolution images have become cheaper.

In the early days of digital photography, it seemed like the new medium will take a while to replace film, it remained as toys to be played with by hobbyists and not serious pieces of equipment for professional practitioners. A couple of years later, as digital storage became more and more efficient with larger data being accommodated in much smaller gadgets, the digital format slowly caught up. But large format film made its last stand for a while since 6,7, or even 8-megapixel digital cameras still couldn’t match the quality of images taken with a large format film camera. And then in the blink of an eye, digital photography breached the 10-megapixel mark and has now all but totally doomed the film format to near-extinction.

Back in the days of film photography, photographers, seasoned and neophytes alike, composed each frame more meticulously, much more carefully, for in a regular roll of 35mm film, you only have 36 frames. And until you have that roll developed and printed, you don’t know if you had that picture right, and so you carefully measure the light and adjust aperture and shutter speed more cautiously. Now? Your CF card can hold thousands of high-resolution images, so you click away – and immediately, it’s there on that tiny frame behind your camera called the LCD screen, so you know if you took a good picture or not, and you instantly make the necessary adjustments until you get it right. It’s so easy it starts being taken for granted.

And now, everybody’s a photographer. And in the world of professional photography, one downside to this is, as the law of supply and demand dictates, when supply outnumber demand, the value of goods go down. It is almost impossible these days to make a living being a professional photographer. There’s just too many of them out there competing for a slice of that limited pie. Clients these days don’t go searching for the best photographer, faced with a smorgasbord of clickers, they now search for the lowest bidder. The competition gets tougher, and just like when all those shawarma joints started sprouting all over the country, each one lowered its price to attract more customers and eventually, they drove each other out of business. That’s almost what is happening now – photographers can hardly make a living out of their craft, there’s just too many of them out there, good ones, bad ones, real ones and wannabes and the sad thing is, people can hardly tell the difference.

And the other downside: just like most mass-produced thingamajigs, quality suffers. And there you have it: more and more photographers and photographs but less and less worthwhile photographers and photographs. There’s so many of them they start being taken for granted. And that’s the worst of it all – being taken for granted.

As a quote from that Disney flick, The Incredibles, goes: “and when everybody’s special? Guess what, nobody really is.”

And when everybody’s an artist? Guess what, nobody really is.

“And that’s why I stopped making art,” as one of the characters in Eric Bogosian’s play said.

No comments: