When we take a photograph there’s usually a dim awareness that the result might last forever. On the flipside we might immediately delete it, if we decide it is no good.
If we’re happy enough with it, we hope the passing of time will look kindly on an image. Photographs tend to get more interesting as they gradually become dated, when we can see things which serve to date an image because they are no more: when your Dad had hair, when there was a Woolworths on every high street, when Nottingham Forest were a dominant force in European football. We hope time will make good photos better, or at least more interesting. But if we can’t detect these things it can reduce their impact, make them weaker or boring, which is just as bad.
Time can weaken strong photographs. Working my way through a National Geographic photobook spanning much of the 20th Century and each continent of the globe, it’s surprising how dated, unremarkable and even a little boring a number of the images appear to me now, today, from my point in time of 2017. Clearly there is some remarkable work, but I would say those pictures are in a minority. Flicking through the book, it sort of… sorry – you feel apologetic even thinking it of such a prestigious title – but it sort of underwhelms.
You might have seen that type of photograph of an indigenous African tribe many times before. It is still being taken today, and, sorry, but much better: the detail more punchy and vivid, the colour more vibrant, the lighting more controlled and dynamic.
Places less touched by technology and western styles can seem stuck in time. If there’s nothing that distinguishes it as being of a certain time, there is no virtue in appearing dated, therefore it appears less remarkable. Older pictures tends to mean lower quality pictures.
But the time from which we view images is always significant. Modern readings may be shallow and undereducated if we have less appreciation of the limited equipment photographers were working with across the last century. It is simply easier to take good photographs today than it was in the past. Technological improvements in cameras and smartphones mean little is required of users over basic point and shoot skills, and you can quickly achieve nice results without any deep knowledge. This seems to have been the case for a long time, so it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always so straightforward.
[Read the Composed piece: old photographs and family histories]
As an avid photography consumer in the present, I’m used to seeing social feeds populated with high quality, high resolution images from around the world, and the best from across different eras. Thanks to platforms like Instagram and Twitter we have never been richer when it comes to on-tap consumption of high quality images from the archives of the largest and oldest news publishers and photo agencies.
We also see lavish, supremely high resolution television productions like Planet Earth and Blue Planet which show us breathtaking detail of previously uncharted territories, undocumented species and behaviours.
Such modern riches make us more demanding of older images, and harder to impress with a fairly standard picture of a giraffe. Maybe the resolution looks disagreeably grainy in the printed reproduction on the page; perhaps slow shutter work and motion blur feels sketchy, loose and unsatisfying by the crisp, pin-sharp standards of today.
There’s also the physical aesthetic to take into account when comparing old and new images. I would guess around 90% of pictures we see in a day are viewed on a flat screen: smartphone, laptop, desktop, television. There’s still a place for advertising boards, for newspapers and magazines, but the vast majority of our visual and textual consumption these days is digital.
When looking at a photobook, it’s possible to puzzle over an image thanks to the page fold towards the spine, which can distort and obscure key elements. This can radically change the viewing experience, for good and bad. Reading photobooks is not quite like viewing a framed image. Nor is it like viewing a picture on a screen, where our angle is generally fixed and flat, where a sudden notification popping up on the screen may distract you away in a second.
It’s hard to know how pictures will commonly be reproduced in future. On screens, or projected onto walls or within a new piece of wearable technology. What kind of fine aesthetic nuances could that present when it comes to properly surveying an image, or a series of images, we can never be sure.
We can only hope and trust our images will get more interesting as time goes by, even if only to ourselves. Future people will judge today’s pictures through their own lenses of time, and may be sniffy of our own lowly 2017 standards.
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