Darkness in the Photo Department

Extended sight The Chicago Sun-Times recently announced that it was laying off its entire photographic staff. Not long ago this would have been regarded as an almost incomprehensible decision for a credible journalistic enterprise, especially at one of the nation's larger newspapers. Now it seems like only a short-lived, below-the-fold feature. For people of a certain age who regard it as confirmation that an era has faded into the mists (and don't mind a little ink on their hands as they try organize pages through the jump), the mass photo firings are a temporal touchstone, even as it may mean little to the nation's youth. But the newspaper's actions reinforce just how much we have no idea what our culture is going to look like ten minutes from now.

Stepping back from the Sun-Times decision it's not particularly shocking to anybody who's followed trends in digital media. Sad, but not shocking. Everybody has a camera and everybody is snapping pictures. It therefore stands to reason that the value of all photographs must fall. It's simple supply and demand, right?

Yes and no.

Photographs as a commodity, regardless of their value, are no longer magical demonstrations of humanity's ability to freeze time. Yawwwn: these days everyone freezes time with a digital "click". The thrill is gone, baby.

But photographs as a means of capturing a moment, a feeling, an image of a place or idea so that it can be shared and pondered far and wide is still as powerful as cave paintings in primitive cultures. Photography as a collective activity is a talismanic wellspring about our beliefs and our fears, our pleasures and our sorrows. Photography is not about individual images anymore, for better or worse. It's a medium that's consumed in huge gulps, dozens of images in a sitting. It's our mode for distributing memory so that it fades less fast, our highway to insight about places and circumstances we might otherwise struggle to fully appreciate. But perhaps most relevant in the context of the Sun-Times's decision, photography is easy to do in a technical sense, suddenly a fully democratic expression, and it never used to be this way. There's one problem, though. The newspaper's staff weren't ordinary representatives of the democracy. They were comparative craft masters, and thus available for potential insights and acumen through an endlessly compelling art.

Has the ubiquity of photographic images completely reduced their value so that anybody with a camera is therefore equal of a professional photographer? Is professional photography, save for the most elite fashion and commercial photographers completely depreciated?

If the answer to any of that is "yes", then we must ask ourselves if all of the electronic arts -- there are many these days -- are therefore on a exponentially eroding value slope. Everybody now has the tools to do the impossible, at least compared to what you could do if you were alive in 1975.

Here's the circle I cannot square: if there's more to taking photos than just a point 'n click, but NOBODY CARES very much, do the merits of "philosophical quality" matter that much either?

Here's what I believe: even if in the hands of a joyful democratic majority, the potentials of photography to capture more than just random electronic signals is vast. Without pretension, photography pledges artistic, journalistic aspirations, fleeting moments of passion, a tension of muscles and breath and light as a photographer engages directly with the world.

I struggle with this intellectually, emotionally, personally, deeply. I cannot answer it in a way that I feel certain will win my case. I feel low. The Chicago Sun-Times has reduced its decision about staff photographers to a purely economic case, to money.

BUT OF COURSE THEY HAVE, you shout at the screen. (It's okay: let it all out.) As a business, that's their obligation. They're in it for the money in the first place.

Well, it may be their obligation, but it still causes me distress. This is serious business that goes way beyond business.

The blog this week began about photography, a discipline intent on finding inner truths, and it ended in a place decidedly in a different galaxy: money. That's why next week, we're going into battle. Next Monday, it's a grudge match: money versus everything else. Bring your camera. You're going to want to post a picture on your Facebook page.

--MS

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