Photography and Social Media: Is a photo still worth a thousand words or only 140 characters or less?

The old saying goes, A photograph is worth a thousand words. These days, with so much photography speaking for us on social media, how often is a photo still worth a thousand words, and when is it only worth 140 characters or less?

I was having a thought-provoking discussion with one of my photography apprentices the other day. Victoria is an emerging photographer with lots of talent and has grown into her own wonderful visual voice in the year I’ve been working with her. And one of my personal joys of answering her questions about the business and art of photography is that she constantly reminds me of what it felt like when I was just beginning to find my footing as a photographer. And that’s a very good thing for me to remember. Keeps me on my toes. Reminds me to keep learning myself.

Surrounding myself with young and even not so young photographers looking to improve their craft is one of the ways I find inspiration in my own photography. It’s good to feel their fresh hunger to make a compelling image. It’s something I try to remember whenever I have days where I’m just not feeling it. Once in a while, happily, not very often, the creative voice in my head goes silent and I find myself going back to basics to find the answer to a creative dilemma I’m having at the moment.

Victoria was reminding me of the basics when we were talking about a couple of photo projects she’s working on. She’s at the stage in her photography where she is past the point of mimicking what she has seen in the past from other photographers. She’s looking to create her own vision in her work now. I certainly don’t mean to say mimicking is a bad thing. It’s actually a very good thing for any artist starting out. The deconstruction of the work of someone who you admire and the process of recreating it on some level is one of the building blocks of learning any artistic craft.

We all have done it. I’ve mentioned in the past that an important part of my photography learning was pouring over giant coffee table photography books sitting for hours in the back of Barnes & Noble, hoping they wouldn’t kick me out as I studied the photographs of George Hurrell, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson, just to name a few. How did they light that? The composition they chose. The tonality. The negative space.

I would return home and practice on my friends or anyone who was generous enough to let me try to recreate what I had seen in those beautiful books I couldn’t actually afford to purchase at the time. Most of the time, the resulting photographs were pretty bad copies in all honesty. You could see what I was trying to do, but I needed a lot more practice.

But in that failure, the repeated failures for a long while, I started to mimic less. And that’s when I began to find my own photographic voice.

And now with social media, we are all, all of us, speaking more with images than ever before. Every Facebook or Instagram photo of a plate of food or a glass of wine that seem to make up so much of what we see in our timelines these days are really mimicking what we’ve seen before in advertisements and glossy foodie magazines. The world is now positively brimming with emerging photographers at every level, all repeating what we’ve seen in the past.

The filters that come standard with all of our photography apps allow everyone to make the various sunset photos and selfies look like what we have been taught good photography looks like. The filters make even the most mundane photos look “classic.” It’s also caused a bit of a filter rebellion with the #nofilter declaration I often see photographs tagged with these days.

I’m not completely besmirching the filter-fied world of contemporary smartphone photography. Who wouldn’t want their casual snapshots to take on the near gravitas of a photography master? In fact it’s almost a cop-out for the more established photographers to complain about how easy it is to make a photograph that is more compelling than our own early efforts as photographers. I distinctly remember the moment a few years ago, when I saw a friend of mine take a Hipstamatic photo at dinner one night that was quite simply beautiful.

“Wait… you just took that photo… with your phone?!”

What I felt was jealousy. And disbelief as I looked down at my own expensive DSLR camera sitting on the table and knowing that the photos I was taking of friends at the same dinner couldn’t compete style-wise without the usual time-consuming color correction, exposure correction, dodging and burning that I would do back at the studio in Photoshop. For hours. Not instantaneously… on my phone! It felt like… well… it felt like cheating.

But even using Photoshop to process our photography was looked at as a shortcut years ago by those of use who grew up processing our photographs in an actual darkroom. Hours of feeling our way around in the orange safe light darkness to carefully slide a single sheet of photo paper out of those thick black plastic sleeves and onto our enlargers. Knowing that each piece of paper cost at least a dollar, much more if you were using fancy paper, and any mistake in exposing the negative would go right into the garbage bin.

Even a few years ago, being able to process a photograph in Photoshop, and save it (!) and be able to print it out again and again if we wanted, instead of spending hours again, trying to duplicate what we just did on a second print, seemed like a miracle. And maybe a little like cheating too.

We’ve gone from the dark room, hands constantly smelling like chemicals, to working in Photoshop with the room lights actually on, to now, processing photos in our phones. It’s been an amazing photographic progression in the last few decades. And along with it comes the inevitable, “You kids today have no idea how lucky you are…”

And you know what. They don’t. But we didn’t either with our, at the time, modern cameras that could load a roll of negative with an astounding 36 potential images on it, instead of one heavy glass negative plate at a time in a view camera only a few decades earlier. But that’s the progression of life. And art.

Here’s a contact sheet of my first serious photography assignment, shot on 35mm film on my old Pentax K-1000 in 1984. I was covering the last day of a Chicago television institution for the Purdue University campus newspaper, The Chronicle. It was the taping of Bob Bell’s last day, after more than two decades as Bozo the Clown on WGN’s Bozo’s Circus. If you grew up in Chicago any time from the 1960s through the 80s, you know what I’m talking about.

Contact Sheet - Bozo's Circus - 1984

Contact Sheet – Bozo’s Circus – 1984

Which is why I love talking with new photographers about how they are learning their craft. About the photography becoming as prevalent as words in our popular culture, most specifically,with selfies and Instagram and Facebook. It’s become the dominant form of expression for most people. For everyone. Even those that wouldn’t even think of calling themselves photographers. It’s going to be fascinating to see what this era of photography will look like or what it will lead to 10 or 20 years from now. I’m sure we can’t even imagine.

Everyone is a photographer these days. Everyone has a camera with them at all times. Even the most cheap and non-smart phones have some sort of camera built-in. All over the world. It’s interesting to consider what that means. These phones are literally enabling revolutions.

Although I had television and filmmaking courses in college, from a photography standpoint I’m mostly self-taught. I worked on the university newspaper and spent countless hours in the darkroom learning how to develop my own film and make prints. I also had friends who were photographers that I could learn from and ask questions of, but most of my learning came from just making lots of photographs. Much the same way the millions of new photographers are learning to make photographs these days. But I believe photography, or any solitary artistic pursuit, is really such a personal one anyway, that it is possible to just learn by doing without formal training. But that takes a lot of doing!

Taking hundreds of photographs, even of the mundane, is always a good exercise for anyone wanting to become a photographer, figuring our where they want to take their vision. Sometimes these things help you figure out what you don’t want to be as a photographer as much as what you do want to be. I know when I was beginning to get serious about my work, I tried to shoot in so many different kinds of styles and genres, just to see what spoke to me. My images average or worse more often than not. But it also quickly showed me where I was succeeding in a way that pushed me to improve in the genres that spoke to me.

I initially thought my bad photos didn’t look as good as I wanted them to be because I wasn’t using the right film, or my camera was not a professional one or something like that. I couldn’t have been more wrong in thinking that was the issue. I just needed to learn how to really make a photograph.

I’m still learning. Learning to see. And I hope I never stop learning.

The nice thing about beginning to acquire the skills for any artistic craft is that eventually the technical aspects of it slowly move to the back of your head. Just as you don’t think about driving skills when you drive. “I must push down on the accelerator. I must get ready to put my foot on the brake because the light is red.” You just drive. You don’t think about how you’re doing it.

And once anyone learns how to make a technically good photograph, you can move on to the poetry and the art of it. The voice of your particular photograph that you make. That’s what separates a so-called snapshot from a real photograph that makes people pause their timelines for a few extra seconds to really admire it.

And another fascinating thing I’ve seen come full circle in the world of photography, due in no small part to the instant filters that have become so prevalent in much of the photography we see every day in social media, is the resurgence of the old-school film photography. It’s the next logical step in the evolution of casual photographers who decide to become curious about what all of these filters are actually mimicking.

Many experienced photographers never left it and now there is a “new” appreciation for that craft. And not even just using older film cameras, but going back even further to the process of shooting on Polaroid film or even the revival of wet plate photography.

One of the most brilliant photographers in Chicago, who I greatly admire, is Ted Preuss. His work is breathtaking and he is a master at using the painstakingly time-consuming processes that exemplify the art and craft of photography, not only using traditional film shooting and printing in his work, but also the gorgeous wet plate process. Take a moment and head over to his site. I’ll wait. It’s totally worth it.

Ted’s stunning and original work is sought after by collectors. And models that I know love to work with him because what he creates is truly art in every sense of the word. Every time someone uses a classic Instagram filter on their photo, it’s often because they are looking to approach something as wonderful as what Ted does with his traditional photographic craft. But a post processing filter can never replicate that. Not even close. It does however, illustrate what I’m talking about when I speak of the mimicry of timeless, artful photography. I am in awe of his photography work.

We have come full circle. What’s old is new again.

So no, not every photograph we come across today is worth a thousand words. Most of them are barely worth 140 characters or less. But not every blog post is Shakespeare either. Images have become the way we express ourselves in the modern world. Not entirely replacing words, but certainly strongly competing in that space of personal expression. We absolutely have to self-curate through a lot of mundane photography to discover the images that move us. But it’s also exciting that we all are  learning to speak in a language that everyone on the planet can understand. No borders. Nothing lost in translation. Art is a human language. And photography is the one dialect that we are all becoming more fluent in.

Maybe we don’t need a thousand words as much as we used to.

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