Photography is the 'Folk Art' of the 21st century.

August 11, 2014  •  Leave a Comment
Photography is the 'Folk Art' of the 21st century. 
Charles Fisch © 2014
Camera images frame ideas by focusing on a detail of the universe.
They also extend memory and allow the sharing of experiences across space and time. 
Yet, all that the camera does is focus light through a hole and then create a stable image from it.
In essence, images made by cameras are mere documentation. 
X-ray machines are big cameras… 

A hundred years ago a photographer was a highly skilled professional. But today, "Point-and-Shoot" automatic cameras effortlessly reproduce what they see without the need for skills. We now have proof that even a monkey can do it. A macaque ran away with a man's camera and took hundreds of well focused pictures of himself before the camera was recovered. *

These cameras allow anyone to make a recognizable copy of something that already exists —or existed for an ephemeral moment. A majority of posts on social networking sites and photo-sharing sites seem to have used automatic cameras. Somehow, they remind me of Folk Art, or Naïve Art.

Folk Art is often distinguishable by a naïve deco-rative style that tries to illustrate things the way they are seen in nature, usually devoid of rules of perspective or proportion. These works portray rural or urban scenes with people doing familiar things —caricature copies of generally accepted reality of that era— using unsophisticated self-taught techniques in paint, clay, wood-carving, etc. William Kurelek and Grandma Moses come to mind for painting. But no doubt someone will correct me by pointing out that there are now University art programs teaching Naïve art as an academic discipline. "Faux Naïve"?

While point-and-shoot cameras usually depict perspective, the images they produce are Folk Art or Naïve Art —without style. The "selfie," the group shot, pets, kids, travel, fashion, sports, the shocking, political activism, and various cultural imitations of one another… These portrayals are the commonly accepted
day-to-day visual narratives of this era. Immortalizing them has a mostly utilitarian nature —memory, sharing and promotion. Like Folk Art, they are not meant to be
high art.

Point-and-shoot artists just want instant gratification without skill, effort or commitment. Yet some believe that the haphazard documentation of their environments using cell-phone shots decorated with automatic filters, actually compete with highly skilled professional artists' works. In today's climate of inclusiveness and celebrating the mundane, they fit perfectly. Hopefully, "Automatic Naive Art" will not become the new standard in aesthetics.

Before cameras became common, painters were saddled with the task of learning painstaking artistic skills to be able to reproduce three-dimensional reality in two-dimensional form using paint. After the camera became an acceptable tool of art, painters decided that the camera can do a more accurate job of reproducing or documenting recognizable reality. Thus, they freed themselves from artificial classical themes and idealized portraiture of wealthy people, in order to paint light, colour, emotions, ideas and abstraction with or without form. They started to explore their craft in a new way. Instead of trying to hide brushstrokes, the strokes and paint became a three-dimensional texture of the composition. The way they manipulated the materials became their unique fingerprint and trade-mark. The invention of a technology —the camera— revolutionized painting.

The camera allowed the creation of recognizable images without having to learn to paint. New pro-fessions and industries emerged. Automatic technologies further democratized image-making and the documentation of reality. Both initiated communications and political revolutions. 


Since Guttenberg, printing presses generated empires of influence through persuasion of the masses, but the affordable point-and-shoot camera and digital social media, in effect, put printing presses into the hands of amateurs. Automatic cameras gave average people a voice and a rewarding pastime that celebrated the pleasures of "creating" even with minimal skill. Cultural imperialism, old dogmas and oppressive ideologies are now being challenged as much by point-and-shoot cameras as by weapons. Of course some are better at it than others…

As new technologies emerge, previous ones tend to fade into history along with their inventors and expert users. They were necessary stepping-stones to the present, as the present is to the future.

For most of the 20th Century, printing of the black-and-white image onto paper was an integral part of photography. Limited image manipulations were made during the printing process. Today, the act of taking a picture is a separate operation from adjusting or creating a final image, and separate from printing —even as listed job descriptions.

Digital tools have greatly expanded the ability to manipulate images and to print them. We can now print incredibly detailed colour images with a variety of printers and permanent inks and onto diverse materials, including metals. We can also publish with light on digital screens that easily fit into the hand or barely cover the eye, or conversely are the size of buildings (Jumbotron) —and can be instantly streamed to the other side of the world. Holograms and 3-D printing are also a form of publishing photographic images. Of course, displaying one's work on a Jumbotron with perfect clarity does not make it art…

Painters re-evaluated their art-form with the invention of photographic technology. Now photographers need to re-evaluate their work to include the new technologies of image manipulation, printing and publishing. For example, "How will the work be displayed?" is an important question. The answer will be determined before the image is shot, by sensor size and resolution of the camera. If a small image is enlarged, it becomes more blurry as it increases in size. Professional photographers are faced with similar dilemmas daily. This idea may escape the point-and-shoot naïve artist, who is satisfied by an online digital album or 4x6 paper prints.

Art improves only through experimentation. Today, this is not even a choice, but a necessity as "legacy" (old) technology no longer works with the newest products. Just keeping up with software and hardware upgrades are costly and challenging. Yet one has to be aware of the concepts and names of the advancements, if only to get the quality of printing one wants. The technicians may be just pushing automated buttons as they were trained to do —without true understanding. But those who revel in the newness and integrate it into their work will benefit with a shift in their thinking and creative processes. We are so lucky to have free internet tutorials available for those who want to learn.

Although, there is no automated function for solid design principles and colour harmony. And, the use of technology devoid of ideas and meaning, creates meaningless expressions… Meaningful images are the most memorable.




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"There is no such
thing as perfection. 
Each step is a step
towards the next step."


Thankyou to my lovely,
smart sister Susan Fisch
for helping to edit my writings
in both English & French.
She does a great job.

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