As From This Day Photography Is Dead

Archive: written under pseudonym, fake publication, published in PhotoForum newsletter 1995

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Taken from XYZ magazine, April 1995, the following article is part of a speech given by Dr Lynley Forber at the Californian Institute of Learning in February 1995.

“It seems to be confirmed – photography’s days are numbered. And I think well within our lifetime we will see the demise, after 152 years, of this art form, at least as we understand it now.

Physically, several important items make this demise imminent; several of the raw materials are rapidly becoming scarce or highly expensive (one often implies the other) – the silver used in almost all black and white photography, and the rapid rise in the cost of paper are just two of the most significant. Oil, which is used as the basis of several components in colour chemistry, and in the film base of both black and white, and colour films, while at a low right now, is destined to rise in price in the next 50 years unless major new oil-fields are soon discovered.
Also the almost complete domination of colour in the snapshot market, makes the use of black and white the domain of classic documentary and landscape photographers, and a dwindling commercial area. All of these factors are weighed by manufacturers in decisions in future directions.

On the technological side, digital image systems are well advanced now, and the computational power of many home machines is enough to display and manipulate high resolution images. The main limitations here are the size of storage media, and the band width needed for digital transmission of images. These are both areas which are already receiving huge input in research, and so only a few years should suffice before we have the ability to store hundreds of photographic quality images on a standard hard drive and to send or receive these images down phone, ISDN, or cable TV lines. With rapid advancement in network technology and Internet, we will be able to scan through images stored in many parts of the world in the same way we flip the pages of a photo album What about the front end? The camera? Sure, the resolution of digital cameras is poor, at least in those that cost less than $20,000. But here again the market is moving rapidly. The standards have been set and the patents already filed, and the market is primed for introduction of high quality digital image capture devices aimed at the consumer. I hesitate to call these cameras, and I believe so will the advertisers. There will be no need for glass or plastic lenses. The thing will not even look like a camera. It will have functions that could not even be considered by analogue camera designers – no matter how much microelectronics they squeeze into their packages.

The media, the largest consumer of imagery, has been moving to digital methods for probably 10 years now. For them, it is concerns of speed of delivery, (and cost) above all. We have already got pixel rates high enough for media photographers to be using digital cameras, and within 5 years, pixel rate will deliver as standard, images at the quality of 25 ASA film on a 120 roll. But more, capture technology will make ASA less important, with low light CCD managing 1/125 sec in moonlight.

And I think this is the crux of my case for the demise of photography. Kodak and Fuji and the rest are ready to redefine all the terms of photography, and with them, the concepts. People will not think of a single fixed image any more, although they may still exist. Digital allows the complete transformation of gathered information, visual, auditory or textual. It also allows for the combining of these. We will come to see visual information connected with sounds, animated graphics, and texts (I exclude touch and smell, as no one has yet conquered these senses reliably and remotely, but it would be foolish not to expect to see them in use at some time in the future). In fact we will not be able to distinguish if the information is primarily visual, sound based, or textual. There will be no need to, because this information clump will have a new name (and it is not for me to name that, leave it to the advertisers and PR companies) and a definition of its own. The very notion of the image is under attack now. We will expect as the norm, images with embedded text such as captions, background details or historical information. Or with sounds (voice overs, or actual sound from a news event). But the primacy of the image will be gone. Moreover, control of this information will be up to us. For example, Blind people would filter the image part, as being useless to them. There will be a hierarchy of information levels and content, that the individual could choose to receive or not. This idea can already be seen happening in a rudimentary way, with the self-designed online newspapers which are being implemented. Here one selects the areas one is interested in and the paper-builder software creates a paper with only what you want to read.

On the Fine Art front, there has been a steady decline in the use of the fine photographic print, with the Starn Brothers being only two of many artists laying this notion to rest, with their explorations of the nature of the medium of photography, above the content. As with painting, when the medium itself was explored, there came a crisis.
Painting has (it could be argued) survived, but this crisis for photography, what with the previous factors I’ve mentioned, I believe could be the last.

I see an ideological move away from “images” towards information as a whole, where the hermetically sealed image will be no more. I’m still not sure whether we are ready for it; whether it’s a good thing, but it really does mean photography as we know it is approaching its end.”

Lynley Forber

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