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Talking to young artists about the future of photography

This morning I had the pleasure of talking to a couple dozen art students at Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. Although it's a part of the Dallas ISD public school system, "BTW HSPVA" (for short) is a rare school: students have to audition for admission. And with only about 900 students total, it's one of the smallest public high schools in the system. Small, but there's a lot of talent there!

Anyway, I was there to talk to young art students about photography. It's an almost absurd challenge, because nearly everything I know about the art and craft and especially the business of photography is rapidly becoming obsolete. Of course, being me, I managed to talk for 45 minutes without difficulty, and while I'm not sure how all the students felt, I would have enjoyed staying for another 45.

I talked a little about how I'd started photography in high school myself and stuck with photography through college and beyond. I talked a little about working in the darkroom. I made the point that, back then, photography that went beyond snapshots simply wasn't possible for people who didn't have certain skills: you had to know how to read a light meter to set exposure, how it helped to know what to do in a darkroom, etc. Of course, some of that's not entirely true. Cartier-Bresson famously had no interest in the darkroom and a lot of professional photographers — I would guess it was the majority of them — handed their film over to someone else for processing. And especially after autofocus and auto exposure became common features of cameras, it was in theory just as possible for an amateur to take a good or even great photo back in, say, the 1980s, with a film camera, as it is today with a digital camera.

But the fact remains that the amateurs did not take over the field of photography in the 1980s or 1990s. I think digital photography was revolutionary because it eliminated — or seemed to eliminate — the risks involved in photography. First, with digital photography, taking photos because basically cost-free, because you didn't have to pay by the photo for film and processing. Equally important, with digital digital cameras, the risk of taking a bad shot disappeared. Shooting with film, at least if you were a professional and absolutely had to get the shot, well, you had to know what you were doing, so you could shoot with confidence. After all, you weren't going to find out until later whether your shots were properly exposed and in focus (or well composed, etc). But with digital, you could shoot without thinking, take a look, and shoot again if your first shot stunk. If cameras worked exactly as they do now but didn't allow you to see your photo instantly on the review screen, I don't think the world of photography would have changed the way it has.

A handful of the students I was talking to were photographers, and the rest of them were painters, sculptors. One young lady is a printmaker, making linoleum cut prints, something I did in high school and college for years and really enjoyed. I suggested to the photographers that studying a traditional art technique like drawing would help them with their photography. I suggested (more tentatively) that photography might help the other artists, too, by helping think hard about looking and seeing.

But my focus was on the uncertainty of the future of photography as a career. It's the youngest of the great art forms and the field of photography has been in nearly constant flux for almost 200 years; and it's now undergoing an upheaval. I don't know what the future will be. I do know that it will be made by photographers like these young students I spoke to today. It's not a great time to be in the business of photography, but it is a tremendously exciting time to be taking photographs.


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