The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. I)

The End of the Age of Photography (Part One)

Many years ago I was being driven along central park west in a NYC Taxi and talking with Robert Frank whom I sat beside. When I spoke of using words with photography, texts, as part of what were then called “photography books”, Robert said, “well, then that’s the end of it.” . The year was 1969, and it was “not the end of it.” As a young photographer, deep into a career of making picture books, with texts, I couldn’t help but feel that Frank’s comment smacked a bit of kicking out the ladder. After all, the work of Frank that had stunned the world was a virtually wordless portrait of America, done with a Leica and a couple lenses.1

Thirty six years have passed since that conversation in a taxi cab, and as I sit here
at the east end of Long Island, watching my fishing boat “the Nanook” bob and dip at its moorings, pounded by strong southwest winds, I wonder if I am recreating Frank’s error with what I am now writing.

I first began to make pictures seriously in 1960. At that time, photography appeared to me as a new art. Prior to around the middle of the 19th century, photography did not exist. In 1960, in historical terms, the 19th century seemed just around the corner. My own grandfather, who I lived with, had been born in 1871. I knew enough about Art to know that great, perhaps unsurpassed achievements in sculpture went back to the Ancient Greeks. Great paintings has been made since the Renaissance. (In fact the Romans and Greeks also left great works in painting, though I think I was ignorant of it at the time.) But photography? Photography was new. Here was a field whose great practitioners I could count on my fingers, or at least count. Frank himself, who was recognized then as having made a single enormous achievement in the field had published his book a mere six years before I was holding it in my hand. I could go out and buy one, an original of both the French and American editions for, I think they were about seven dollars each. And the other stars in the firmament of realistic photography? Gene Smith, still alive, still photographing: I recall when he got beaten into near blindness working on a story about “pollution” a word that meant little to me at the time, the early 1970’s. Walker Evans, also still alive, whose brilliant accomplishments were done in the late 1930’s, much of the work done in a couple years. Cartier-Bresson, then going back in time, Hine, Atget, O’Sullivan, Mathew Brady, none of the people or what they did seemed that long ago. And before them, nothing. The process of photography was invented in Chalon-sur-Soane, France, in 1842. I was born exactly one hundred years later in Queens.

In the apartment that I grew up in, at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Park Lane South, in Kew Gardens, Queens, my father Ernst, a doctor and an immigrant, kept a small darkroom in a closet at the end of the hall. He had been making pictures since he was a teenager across the ocean, in Germany. Like most photographers he pictured most of the things around him and then using paper photo corners, preserved his small silver prints in photo albums. These pictures include what he saw when he leaned out the window of his bedroom in his village, from the third floor above the shop that was owned by his father, Eugene Lyon. And what Ernst saw as a teenager leaning out of his apartment, is what we see today when we look at his little album prints. Below him and down the street was a photography store with a large “Agfa” sign hanging out onto Keiser Strasse, a street that even more distant relatives, that lived in the same building left written accounts of having seen Napoleon Bonaparte ride down as he entered Germany. When Ernst made his little prints, or any prints, the room smelled of Dektol, or the Agfa equivalent, and when I made my 8 by 10 prints in Chicago, the ones of bikers and tough kids standing by stained city walls that later became so valuable to collectors, I smelled of Dektol too. I also used Agfa paper because at the time, the mid 1960’s, I thought it was the richest paper you could buy. Last week Eastman Kodak announced that it would immediately cease manufacturing silver gelatin printing paper. Agfa has also stopped making silver paper. Recently I did series of pictures in China, and have made all the prints on a paper in France. This month I heard that the factory that makes that paper has closed.

I am also a filmmaker. Recently I completed my eleventh film. I mean a 16mm film shot on B&W Kodak negative, Double-X and Plus –X, which at the time of this writing is still being manufactured. Most of the sound for these films was recorded on a Nagra 1/4 inch reel to reel tape recorder and then mixed and appears as an optical audio track on the edge of the final composite print of the film. When my last film was finally mixed and printed , I screened it with a professional timer. The timer is the person that looks at the print and the negative, shot by shot, and sometimes frame by frame, and adjusts the exposures to get the maximum result from the negative, not unlike the calculations a printer makes when he exposes paper in a darkroom . This particular timer used to work at another lab I had made films at in Manhattan, called TVC, that has been closed for years.
“When I was at TVC (in the 1970’s) we had 3,500 members of our union” the timer said to me.
“Now (in 2005) I am president of the Union, and we have fifty members.”

All over New York City, once the center of photography for America, and the major center for motion pictures, outside of Los Angeles, digital is replacing film, and everyone who made their living as printers, or worked with film, or sold paper and chemicals, are losing their jobs. Film and photography labs have been closing or falling by the wayside for years. Few remain. A world, the smell of Dektol, the sprocket driven technology that went back to Edison who invented it in New Jersey , the world of Gene Smith, of Frank, silver gelatin prints, mounting tissue, negatives, drying racks, and small black and white things of enormous beauty and power, that until now has had an unprecedented life of six generations and has altered how the world is seen and known for all time, is coming to an end. It is the end of the age of photography. It is an undeniable fact. Just look around.

The sign at the entrance to my gym locker room says “no cell phones please, cell phones are cameras.” They are not. A camera is a Nikon or a Leica or Rollieflex and when you strike someone with one,— that is take your camera and use it as a weapon, they know they have been hit with something substantial. When I was a civil rights photographer (two Nikon Reflexes), I recall a news camera man who had a 16mm (wind up) cast iron camera. When I admired it he said it was “good to hit people with”. That’s a camera. When my twenty-one year old daughter went, along with 25 other students to Athens, I sent her off with a small (black!) Nikon Reflex. When she phoned from Greece she said “Dad, I think I’m the only one here with a real camera.”

I have always admired real professional photographers, the journalists who sometimes on a daily basis go out into what we used to call ‘the real world” and photograph the mess around us. Years ago I argued with a colleague over the fact that she was shooting 35mm chromes, not B&W. “That’s what Time magazine wants,” she said. Now it is routine for most journalists to shoot their work with digital cameras and submit what they have done over the internet. When the actor-assassin that had murdered Lincoln was finally captured (Booth himself was murdered by a shot in the back in a burning barn by a trigger happy and out- of -control soldier), his body was transported back to Washington on a ship that also carried the great Scottish born photo-journalist Timothy O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan, who used a large view camera, made a picture of the assassin’s body. He made a glass plate negative. One. The military caught him, broke the negative and threw it over board. Whomever our next major assassin will be, their will be no negatives made of him.

Is this kicking out the ladder? Film and photography have for me always been a form of realism. That is the invention that shook the world six generations ago. What Neipce and Daguerre had done was to invent a way to replicate and to capture reality absolutely.

Once a year in Sandoval County New Mexico, Chuck Kelton, the B&W printer, and I teach the Willie Jaramillo Memorial Documentary Project Workshop. The students are all teenagers from the Jemez Pueblo, one of the oldest occupied villages in North America. The Jemez tribe predates the European invasion of North America by five centuries. Digital still cameras are prohibited at the workshop, and all the students are given either Nikons and Pentex Reflexes or Polaroid cameras. The darkroom work which Chuck teaches them is B&W printing from negatives. We are teaching these children a craft that is completely obsolete.

Cameras are machines, and almost all accomplishments in the field can be discussed in terms of the technology used in the work. The civil war photographs, can never be separated from the large plate process that was used by Gardner, Brady and O’Sullivan. Robert Frank’s use of a Leica and fast film cannot be separated from his, then, revolutionary social and visual aesthetic. Arbus used a medium format hand held, a Weegee-like camera and bounce flash and her pictures show it. Nan Golden’s use of color is part of her realism. Now comes before us the digital age. The three chip digital video camera, with which the camera-person records his own audio simultaneously with recording his “film”, is an absolute revolution in the process of filmmaking. In the past there have been many examples of filmmakers taking their own sound as they used a motion picture camera, and the process was always extremely challenging at best. The digital video camera is both a motion picture and audio recorder in the same instrument.

The internet and movement of pictures as electronic data similarly trumps the magazines, which have not been much good for the last thirty years anyway, as few important works have penetrated the archaic minds that have usually controlled them. While websites are not exactly on a level playing field, they do represent a revolutionary access for both contributors and viewers to a global audience.

The one survivor, for now at least, in this digital holocaust, are books. Scanning and the use of digital technology to reproduce photographs using printers ink in books has made quality reproduction more spectacular and more widely accessible for publishers than it has ever been. People no longer purchase picture books, they “collect” them. The very word implies that they know that we are on the edge of a vanishing world and that their own personal libraries might one day serve as museums. That is truly ominous, for as every street photographer knows, there is nothing as boring as a museum.

The Age of Realism…

One would like to think that the age of photography, ushered in something new, and good, and that it is something will continue, as long as cameras are used, no matter what medium that light passing through a lens falls on. I have always thought of it—that period that began with the invention of photography, as an age of realism. For from then going forward a person could operate a mechanical devise that permitted them to pick and choose from reality. The use of the camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often to get into trouble. The word history was first used by Herodotus, over two thousand five hundred years ago. It means “investigation”. Herodotus was a Greek from Asia Minor, who was not permitted to live in Athens, and spent his life in an Athenian colony in southern Italy. He created by himself the History of the Persian Wars, As the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski brilliantly points out, Herodotus traveled to as many as twenty countries, interviewed hundreds of people, then wrote his 600 page History, in a room lit by an oil lamp. He did all this without Microsoft Word, electricity or a bicycle.

Herodotus’s book of 600 pages is the single oldest volume, to survive in its entirety from Ancient History. One reason it survived is no doubt because it was a very popular read, and many copies were made. It remains a very exciting read today and predates all our so called fields of anthropology, sociology and oral history, and history itself, all of which he invented or practiced without Goggle.

The question confronting a young photographer today is not a technical question, but an ethical question. Man has made unlimited progress in science and no progress at all emotionally, socially, or ethically. That would help explain the fact that we sit here in the wealthiest society the world has ever known which simultaneously is a war society that, it is beginning to seem, is constantly at war, and conveniently these wars only occur on our soil via television. We don’t actually see or feel or smell the civilians that are blown apart, maimed, raped and burned as a result of our intelligent democratic decisions.

Further we are conveniently able to blame this unpleasant situation entirely on one man, who was elected, or his administration, which he appointed. America sits across a vast empire, like Athens, and later Rome, and wars and brutality are routinely used to try to retain that empire.

So this is the setting for the question of digital verses film.

The real question faced by a photographer or journalist today is not of course the type of film that is inside their camera, although that matters. The real question is what’s inside their head. That has always been the question and will always be the question.

Every project that I choose, either in publishing or film had an ethical and ideological motive that was built into the project, and that mind set continues for me to this day. I don’t have to tell you that this country is quickly going down the shit hole of history, and it is not possible to pick up a camera, or a pen, for that matter, without taking this into account.

Because my own choice made many years ago, was to enter what is now called “the media” I naturally blame the media for the disaster that this country has created for itself. I have never personally be able to understand how the people that directly contribute to bolstering up and supporting a criminal government and political positions that bring misery to other human beings, can live with themselves. The list of people in the media who “are the problem” as they used to say in the sixties, rather than being “part of the solution” is endless. The obvious answer to the question of why intelligent and educated people would sink so low, is of course money.

Money has corrupted virtually every field in this country. But in addition to money these people seek Fame, which ultimately amounts to the high esteem they are held in by the people around them, and even by people like us. Though we cannot do much to deminish the money they receive, we can make it clear, and must make it clear, that these are people we do not esteem.

I will give two examples, however strange they may seem. The first is from the sixties, a time when I was active or witness to many of the social and political movements that created this age. The first is Walter Cronkite – I always felt that Walter Cronkite was a war criminal. Because, when it mattered, in 1965 and 1966, he was perhaps the most visible figure rallying this country into a murderous and senseless war. He had lots of company by the way. Don’t believe the bullshit that contemporary news media bombard you with about how the media helped stopped the war. They helped create the war. Then when it was absolutely unavoidable, some of them, including Cronkite said “Gee, maybe isn’t such a great thing after all.”

My second victim is Ken Burns. What in the world does he think he is doing? This media darling has re-created a war that we actually won (without the Russians, who only had 20 million casualties), and has now managed to get a picture of a handsome young GI that we can adore and root for on the front page of USA today, and every other newspaper. In the midst of a real military and murderous social and economic disaster, Ken Burns has handed us 15 hours (Cronkite was only on for 15 mins), of All American Victory that will be piped into every home, not only for fifteen hours this fall, but probably for years to come.

So whatever you do with your digital cameras don’t model yourself on Ken Burns . . It is much better to wake up in the morning and not want to vomit when you look at yourself in the mirror. And if you survive and, and make silver prints and wash them a long time, if you then live long enough, you will have plenty of fans, and can sell your silver prints for much more than they are worth. This is a big country, or what the people like to call “a big market”. You are also much more likely to be listened to, gain respect and an audience doing something that you believe in, and not something you think people want to hear. The more unfundable the project is, the better.

I close with this story. Forty years ago inside a Texas prison cell I made an analogue recording on quarter inch tape of a man singing a song about facing the electric chair, which the inmate called My Last Mile. Billy McCune had been sentenced to Death in Fort Worth,Texas, in1952, but after many miserable years the sentence was reduced to Life. After many years in prison, I met him, and recorded him, Billy was set free, and for the final 30 years he lived his life alone, and in freedom, far from the torment of his Texas jailors. Then about three weeks ago, in Kansas City, Billy McCune, age 78, died. Three days later National Public Broadcasting played the recording of Billy singing his song. On October 6th at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, forty years after I recorded it they broadcast Billy McCune singing My Last Mile. Thirteen million people heard it.

Delivered at Stanford, Oct 20 2007


1 The first French edition of Les Americains, by Robert Delpire had a paragraph of text facing each picture. The subsequent first American edition, by Grove Press, which no doubt Frank preferred, and which has been re-issued many times, dropped the text, and used only Kerouac’s brief introduction.


The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. II)

4 Responses to “The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. I)”
  1. Biginabox says:

    ‘What Neipce and Daguerre had done was to invent a way to replicate and to capture reality absolutely.’

    Only if you have, in reality, absolutely redefined both reality and the absolute.
    Every picture does indeed tall a story, but the camera always lies.
    The print era was the enemy of free expression because the amount of capital required to produce and distribute content meant it was inevitably monopolised completely by giant corporations, who would no sooner promote radical change than turkeys would vote for Xmas. This meant that in practice, profit-driven print media censored out of existence far more than they authorised into print.
    Those days are now over.

  2. tim roth says:

    i am an ignorant man.
    i just found you and on the same day i found vivian maier..somehow though that feels like the right meal at the right table.
    i take pictures. Made a film once. watch it it’s called The War Zone.
    i have no witty anecdotes or wiseass bullshit comments to drag your eye to this writing.
    but if i could,i would,i know, raise a glass and shake your hand.
    thanks. and feel free to write.. feel free not to.
    but thanks.

  3. tim roth says:

    that was intended for danny lyon..
    hope it made it.

  4. tim roth says:

    if this is the wrong place then you seem like the right mob to pass the above on to him and i thank

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