Saturday, September 21, 2013

Time-to-market is the real magic of digital photography


In 1994 I got a new SLR camera (single lens reflex, a fancy one in other words) and went to Paris with Andy to use it. We stayed in Paul's place in Rue Vieille du Temple and went out separately every day to walk the streets and be photographers. I'd get through 3-4 rolls of black and white film a day, inspired by the photos of André Kertész. Andy was more of a Cartier-Bresson man.

Hanging around places like the Rue de Rivoli, the steps at Montmartre, the neighbourhood of Goutte d'Or, I would choose a composition with signage, buildings, and shadows and wait for people to walk through it. The juxtaposition of geometrical forms and human movement really turned me on. This was the height, the very acme of art. It's funny to think of it now, 19 years later, but at the time I lived for those street mise-en-scènes. Sometimes I surreptitiously photographed Parisians as they walked by, angling the camera up, shooting from the hip. I got busted for this once by a gendarme and was piously admonished. Mais monsieur le flic, it's a public street, I can photograph what I want. Not that I said that: in fact I faked an apology in French and went on my way. I'm an aesthete, not a revolutionary.

Flickr photo
FlickrAndré Kertész. Paris,1929.

Of course, I had no way to see what I had shot from day to day: I was 'shooting blind'. What I was doing was very hit-or-miss, mitigated by a lot of repetition ("bracketing", in the terminology), a lot of pressing a button and hoping something came of it. All I had to show at the end of each day's excursion was an extra couple of used rolls of FP4 in my bag and some stories to tell Andy in whatever bar we'd have a late one in. Not too late, though: Paul was a working C++ programmer and didn't need two Dubs waking him up as they fell in the door of his 3rd arrondissement apartment.

After about 5 days Andy flew home, and I took a train to Brussels to hang out with Gav. By the time I got home to Dublin and got around to developing the film it would have been about 2 weeks since Paris. That was just the film. It would have been another few days before I had an actual 10"x8" black and white print in my hands.

So, from the instant of capturing a decisive moment in Paris to actually being in a position of showing tangible evidence of that moment to a friend, a hell of a lot of moments would have passed, possibly two or three weeks' worth. This time delay is what I call the time-to-market of the photograph: the amount of time before you can show someone else - anyone - your photo. Their attention, their reaction, maybe even their wild approval, is the marketplace you want your goods to be at. And the longer the time-to-market, the less anyone is buying. For certain types of photograph anyway.


In 2013 I went to Dublin with Tina, Alex and Eoin. We stayed in Mum's place and went out most days to walk and take photographs. Standing on Killiney Hill, looking out over the bay, I took the photo above and had it on the market in seconds. The markets I'm interested in are the Australian one (where I live, and where the friends I want to be able to see my photo live) and Ireland (where I was, and where my family is). I had market feedback in the form of likes and comments within minutes, as I remember, as I should: it's a damn fine picture. Immediate social approval is magic. It's what we all want, and now we have the devices and networks to expedite it. It's interesting to think that that's effectively what a camera has become, a device to shower love and thumbs ups on its user.

And yet you could be forgiven for thinking that what really matters with consumer digital photography nowadays is a property called "the number of megapixels" because of the persistent marketing of that property. I have a largely unused digital camera with a higher number of megapixels (14) than the camera I almost always use instead, to wit, my HTC phone (8Mpx). Because who cares? The picture is only going to appear on a screen anyway, and it is infinitely more relevant to my, and apparently most other people's, photographic purposes to be able to transmit our photos over the net to other people (Flickr, Facebook, Instagram), to be automatically backed up (Dropbox, Google+), or just MMSed to friends.

This is all very obvious

once you know the answer. I remember reading "In Our Own Image", at the dawn of the digital photography revolution ('92), a book about the coming digital photography revolution, which places the (often undetectable) manipulation of photographs as the evil magic we need to watch out for. Granted, this book is more concerned with photojournalism than candid, facebook piss-up type of snaps. But I just don't think the fact that photographs can be easily manipulated matters nearly as much as the speed'n'ease of distribution of those photographs, the time-to-market. That's the sleight-of-hand we should be looking at. We're being misdirected by irrelevant stuff like megapixels and touch-ups.

Look at the photo again. It's among my finest snaps, and if for no other reason than this photograph I'm glad I had kids. But it's a couple of months old now. Knowing that it was taken seconds or minutes ago on the other side of the world, as it was once possible to do, is the magic. Imagine seeing it in Australia. The kids might still be there in that heather-scented moment, gazing out to the south as their shutterbug father told them to shut the fuck up and do. The shadow might still be pointing in the same direction into the corner of the frame. The same clouds drifting dreamily by. This, my friends, is the magic of digital photography. Megapixels are forever: real magic is fleeting.

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