Where Next for Photography and the Photographer?

Archivo base

I recently read three articles that when considered as a whole led me to ask myself the question that constitutes the title of this post. One was an article addressing artificial intelligence and photography, the second was on the evolution of digital media and the third addressed the need for designers to keep up with new technologies. Three separate articles that appeared on three very different online publications; one on a branded site, one on a WordPress based site and the other on the New York Times website.

It is I believe easy for those engaged with photography to see it as solely that. As an art form, a profession, a medium that has as its sole purpose the creation of photographic still images to be shared and seen in the context of being a photograph. That may mean within a book, an exhibition, online, within a portfolio in fact anywhere you see photographs as a final outcome. But and perhaps this is a big but and a major hurdle for many photographers to overcome, photography has not stopped at being a photograph, it has moved on and left photographers as one of the creators of the photographic image, not the ‘only’ creators.  Perhaps I should stop using the description ‘photography’ at this point and instead start to refer to what I am describing as the digital visual image.

Camera advancement is no longer dictated by sensor and lens improvement or the traditional camera manufacturers and it is the smartphone manufacturers who are leading the way with AI camera technology. You may have read about the work undertaken by both Apple and Google in creating intelligent management systems for your images but it is Contemporary AI that is leading the way in how we capture images. The use of ‘AI Chips’ – a generic but inaccurate term for the dedicated processors used by different manufactures – added to the central processing units (CPU’s) in our phones, tablets and laptops allow them to make many small calculations very quickly. These chips consist of a a number of graphics processing units (GPUs) that were originally designed to render video game graphics, that just like photography require many imaging decisions to be made both quickly and accurately. If you want to read more about the technological advancements of AI and the in-phone camera then I recommend this article https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/31/18203363/ai-artificial-intelligence-photography-google-photos-apple-huawei. But I want to concentrate not on the capture but on the use of the digital image and the role of the photographer.

The second article I read concerned the recent redundancies within the digital publishing industry, where there have been over 1,000 employees laid off at BuzzFeed, AOL, Mic, Yahoo, ViceMedia and the HuffPost over the past weeks and months. Companies born of the digital media revolution and run by people who claimed to understand the future of the publishing landscape. But whilst these digital pioneers have been forced to take measures to ensure their financial viability traditional titles in the US such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The New York Times have seen growth as they respond to the habits of their increasingly digitally oriented readers. The old have taken from the new to redefine their business models with some success. This has not been a simple process, with budgets being cut and redundancies being a part of departmental re-structures. But recent reports seem to indicate that their may be a future for these publishing behemoths that have changed to survive.

The final article appeared on the Adobe Blog and focused on Moore’s Law, that states that overall processing power for computers doubles every two years and a recent McKinsey report focusing on more than 300 businesses that had embraced design and had as a result created 32 percent more revenue and 56 percent more shareholder returns than their rival competitors, over a five-year period. It went on to explain how two designers believed that it was important to stay aware of technological developments within their creative practices and to be able to integrate these into their client offerings. 

In the article* the writer Linn Vizard spoke with Mihn Dao, a designer at the world’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) research lab, building AI-driven products for organizations. Dao commented that, “When I was consulting last year, most of the questions I got asked were around things like smart recommendations, algorithms, and AI. It’s very typical for people to expect product designers to be able to answer questions on these topics and be able to design solutions with these in mind.” He went on to add “It’s about having enough understanding to vouch for what this technology enables for the end user, and why it matters to the experience. You don’t need full technical knowledge.”

It seems to me that their is a conversation going on in all three of these articles which directly impact on photography and photographers that the photographer is not engaged with; a creative implementation dialogue that we need to be engaged with and yet one which many photographers are openly dismissing. After all, “It’s not ‘photography’!” Is it? Well, yes, I think it is and I also think we ignore it at our peril. How many photographers are finding out about computational photography, looking where there visual narrative transferable skills could take them, exploring convergent creative practices as a potential home for their skills and abilities? Not many I know or speak to for sure.

Interestingly, one of the least read articles I have written on this site has been on computational photography https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2018/05/29/ok-computer-computational-photography-is-here-to-stay/ I wonder if this article will be similarly overlooked.

Traditional publishing outlets for the photographic image are facing tough times and despite the success of some titles to respond to new revenue based challenges those tough times are creating a devastating impact on the commissioned photographic community. Stock photography has devalued itself and is under threat from a myriad of App based start-ups. In the same article on the Adobe Blog, Dao identifies the reality of AI technologies upon traditional practices “We also need to think about other types of impact; for example, is this a product that could displace people from their jobs due to automation. If so, we need to be aware of that and we have a responsibility to support our clients to plan for and anticipate that.” It is interesting that he suggests planning and anticipating job loss rather than preventing such an impact of his own work.

A fundamental aspect of any photographer’s practice has to be a sense of enquiry and inquiry. A desire to explore and learn, and yet that sense does not seem to be evident concerning the medium itself and the potential to move with its technological development into new fields of professional application. Photographic skills and visual storytelling abilities are valuable transferable skills if you are aware of how and where they can be transferred to. I am not saying that the role of the photographer is dead but I am saying that it can now be something other than its traditional dictionary definition.

In a 1982 article titled Past Perfect:The Relevance of the History of Photography to Contemporary Artists, Bill Jay observed that “Every photographer is Janus, the two-headed Roman god, who could not look forward without looking back.” Perhaps, today it could be that looking backwards is preventing many photographers from looking at the present, that in turn will deny their employed photographic future.


Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay has been screened across the UK and the US in 2018 and will be screened in the US and Canada in 2019.

© Grant Scott 2019

Image: Icon vector created by freepik – www.freepik.com

1 comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: