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Is Photography Dead?
Posted Jan 2,2008

That’s the pessimistic headline of Peter Plagens's recent Newsweek article on the fate of photography. He contends that the digitalization of photography is leading to its demise as an art form.

"Film photography's artistic cachet was always that no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera. A digital photograph, on the other hand, can be a Photoshop fairy tale, containing only a tiny trace of a small fragment of reality."

Digital photography has leveled the playing field such that a commoner with computer can create art, so if the masses can create faux photographs, then photography must no longer be considered art. Or is photography merely in an awkward adolescence, thrown off balance by a few pixel-grabbing headlines of photo manipulators who tarnish the credibility of reality in front of the lens? 

Perhaps photographers should adapt the brilliant precedent writers set by segregating themselves from the digital masses—cleave off the untrained commoners sitting at home pecking words on a laptop, their grammar and spelling checked only by digital word processing software, daring to publish commentary to the world—by labeling them not writers but bloggers. So that no one is goaded to ask: Is writing dead?    

Ken Geiger

Posted by Ken Geiger | Comments (50)
Filed Under: digital imaging, Digital Photography, photography


Phillip A Jones
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Hi Ken,
You are 100% write and I agree, I have been taking Photos for about 38 years the Classic way, Never computer aided in any way. I feel the same as you. I have gotten a lot of nasty critiques because of my opinion of what is real Photography. I posted in my blog how true Photography can not exist with out having zone "A" and zone "B" which digital photography lacks. If The Great Ansel Adams were alive today he would have a cardiac from the digital art that is being produced with computers. You can not reinvent the wheel. In my blog I have ruffled a lot feathers by saying the same and I have become the punching bag for the digital artist that refuse to acknowledge the facts that you have stated in your article. My blog, http://my.opera.com/Phillip%20A%20Jones/blog/. Please don't let the critics with their computer soft ware mislead the public due to the lack of ease of capturing real images on a good OLD FASHION roll of film.

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Here goes another nostalgic view - I googled (which u might not approve of too) to find out that photography in its modern form started sometime in the 1820s - so, if someone from before that time felt that its crazy to capture an image in some medium, what do u(originally you) have to say to that - I've heard it being said "Change is the only thing that doesn't change" - I guess its high time people come out of their nostalgia - be patient, u might start liking it (dig. photography) and might feel bad that u even wrote what u wrote!!



Mark A. Dodge Medlin
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

As a photographer who shoots only digital, I'm confused by the previous two comments. They seem to believe that you, Ken, have said that digital photography is somehow inferior to the film variety.

I don't see that. I see you wondering about the state of photography in the digital age. Here's my answer: The notion that photography is dead is ridiculous. The field has changed, certainly, but mostly for the good.

Because of digital photography and the Web, I see thousands of crummy photos that never would have seen the light of day before. But that's OK, because the same technology brings me scores of brilliant images that inspire me to improve my own photography.

Computers make it easier for people to produce photos, but they don't give anyone the eye it takes to make a great photograph. (That's why nobody, shooting digital or film, has surpassed Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange or Henri Cartier-Bresson.) The digital age simply gives exposure to more deserving artists.

The idea that a real photograph requires the subject-to-film and film-to-print "zones" is incredibly narrow-minded. You don't get to make up a definition of photography just to suit your wishful thinking. I'm delighted to see that, judging from a couple of Google searches, no one else seems to feel that way.

Oh, and Ken, I'm pretty sure your comment about separating writers from bloggers was meant in jest, but in case it wasn't, check out dooce.com and straymatter.com, a couple of blogs that feature excellent writing (along with some fine photos).

Ken Geiger
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Mark, I really appreciate your comments and the clarity you’ve brought to my post.

No, I don’t think photography is dead, I think photography is an extremely young art form. I also look at the history of photography and see that many of its milestones have been based on the technology of the time. Why should history view the rise of digital photography any differently than the introduction of the 35mm camera?

I also see many parallels between architecture and photography. Technology and materials have drastically affected both of these art forms.

I would not characterize my shot at writers as jest; it was more of a cheap shot. Though given the number of people who have misunderstood my post, it seems I’ve cemented my place in history as a mere blogger.

Arun Subramaniyan
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #


I wanted to clarify that my post was directed towards Phillip's comments. If I sounded otherwise, I'm sorry.


Sue Bunce
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I agree with what is being said about a lot of "digital artists" cheaping the photograghy world. I have been doing classic photograghy for almost 15 years while just working in the 35mm realm, it still takes a talent to see and capture a memorable image. What now frustrates me beyond speech is that I too may have sold out and purchased a digital camera. Although I Don't manipulate my images I have transferred my film images to digital files for space issues. The biggest problem I have run into with galleries and clients is that it has dramatically drop the value of any of my film work becuase people are now assuming all my work is digital. in response to the comment about Ansel Adams turning in his grave Elliot and Dorthea are probaly right along with him

J. Rigs
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I wonder if the great art masters of the past, VanGogh, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, Picasso and the like, turned in their graves as people started capturing light on film and called it art. I believe they, as well as Adams, Lange and other true artists, realize that the birth of a new art form does not diminish the power and impact of other, possibly older forms of art. It would be arguable that the reason photographers choose to take pictures with cameras (film or digital) is because they lack the artistic talent to put brush to canvas and capture the image in such a manner. Whether this is true or not, does it diminish the impact that the photographic masterpieces of the past?

I have done photography for the last 20 years (film and more recently digital) and feel we are entering into a new and exciting new style of art which we have only begun to scratch the surface of. I am not willing or ready to totally give up film media for digital but I am excited about the future of digital photography as its own artform.

Bob S
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

You took the words right off my fingertips. J. Rigs

I agree with you. I too use both Film and Digital, but mostly Digital because of cost to develop the Film. I usually don’t manipulate my images unless the customer wants me to; then Photoshop is my friend.

I have used Photoshop to make some very interesting photos that some would call art.

What would you call art?

The making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings.

Human ability to make things; creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature
Creative work or its principles; a making or doing of things that display form, beauty, and unusual perception: art includes painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, drama, the dance, Photographs, etc.
The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Photography will always be a form of art. Even when it changes, and evolves, it is still art.
In this digital age, many people manipulate the picture. Some just to alter it, others to create what they might have envisioned when they took the picture, thereby creating the 'art' they saw originally in their head.
Personally I don't manipulate my pictures very often, but it is nice to correct the imperfections, when I need to (i.e. red eye, color temperature).
Art, in any form(photography, paint, poetry, etc.), has strict guidelines, if it did, it would no longer truly be an expression of the artist.
We should never ignore the tools available to us to create art. We have a right to use them, or to not use them.
So Photography while different than 50 years ago, is still art, and always will be.
I often wonder what we will think tomorrow about the pictures of today.

Jamie Ruggles
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

What's National Geographic Magazine editors say about digital acceptance in NG's world? When a staff or contract photographer is sent out in the field today to do a shoot for the magazine, do they still send hoards of film or a laptop full of memory space and a digital camera? I'm still a "film" photographer and have always used Nat Geo as a benchmark to strive for and my goal of excellence to reach. Unless the "best" in the business fully accept the technology I see no reason to change at the present time.

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Dear Ken,

I am passionate about photography and love the art form. Aren't digital "reality images" one form of art and digital "art images" another form? I create both and can distinguish between the two in my mind. And I'm certainly not going to throw out my film camera.

Live music and produced music are also two art forms. Recording to an LP or to a CD did not make the music less of an art. What about electronic instruments like pianos and guitars? Did that also kill the art of music?

I believe that by giving more people an accessible art form we all benefit. Just think of all the expression that has yet to come from our children and our children's children. I can't wait to see what they do with this awesome opportunity to create with film, digital and yes photoshop.

God Bless, Diana

Ken Geiger
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Jamie, we consider the camera a tool that should be selected by the photographer, as long as that tool meets the reproduction standards of the magazine. We don’t dictate whether a photographer shoots digital or film, though most of the photographers shooting for the magazine have switched to digital.

Currently about 85% of the stories shot for National Geographic magazine are completed with digital cameras. All digital images are shot and delivered to us as RAW to maximize quality and maintain the veracity of the images.

Sam Gordon
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

The digital camera has opened up a whole new world for me and allowed me to start on the road of becoming an artist. I am too immature to hold off on gratifying my need to see what I have created to use film. (Besides, I don't like chemistry in the first place - it smells) I got rid of my film camera years ago but a trip to Easter Island and a good store brought me back into the fold. From what I have read, folks manipulated images in the dark room as well. I don't have a copy of Photoshop and never will because I am committed to getting it right in camera. Come on people, art is created by creative men and women; the media doesn't matter.

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I just have to add my bit, mostly relating to the first comment on this page from Phillip A Jones. I agree with Phillip in some ways. The line is being blured. The problem however is not digital photography, its when people alter their image in photoshop and try to pass it off as being truly captured that way. If you alter it, admit it, its no crime, its a new art.
I agree with most of the people on this page that digital photography is a fantastic tool that expands the range of possible products that photographic artists can produce. As said before, digital photography can't give someone the eye for what makes a good shot. It does however let the user takes lots more photos in an attempt to get the right shot. This could be done with film but the time and money expense would be massive by comparison. So in effect its just made it cheaper.
Digital photography is giving a wider range of people the chance to play with the idea of capturing a moment in time. How can that be bad? Maybe the people complaining about it aren't that good with a camera and are getting a bit jealous of the competition. ;)

And Phillip, as for re-inventing the wheel, its not re-inventing its improving. And frankly if the wheel was never improved it would not matter how good our air-con is, our road trips would be mighty uncomfortable.

Marc Elvy
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

There are some elements in photography that may be under threat. I have seen a trend toward punched up contrast, over saturated color and over use of sharpening filters to create that vivid shocking image that yells at you to notice me.

The crime is these photographers have an excellent eye for composition, catching the moment of maximum action and capturing telling expressions; however since there photos no longer have the deep and long lasting trait of subtlety that builds in the minds eye over time the photos yell at you then disappear.

For me, it's subtlety that is fading away...

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

B/W, color film are art forms in their own right. So is digital and photo-shop. You may not like or approve of new ways of using media but if someone wants to say something in any of these forms, then it is OK for them to say it. Any good image should give pleasure or provoke comment, how many times have you said, 'I don't like that but it is good.' Or how often has an image in any media changed your view of the world. That is art in any form. My plea is that we are honest in stating the media, even if we have to admit to 'heavily photo-shopped'.

Guy Dube
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I am doing photography like a hobby since 4 years. I own only 35mm cameras. I agree with Mark about photography. Photography today is more alive then never. Digital or "argentique (film) do not make a good photographer only the experience of the guy behing the camera. Photography before was only pratice by an elite, now with the digital cameras, photography is accessible to every body. The criteres for a good picture are higher but what the hic! Some people discover a new passion with digital photography. Digital photography has a lot of avantages to compare to 35nmm. But I don't think the 35mm film will die. It was the same story with photography and painting in the 1900'. Every body said that time painting is dead. But it is not true. And a lot of passionnates do terrific pictures sometimes better then the professionals. If Robert Doisneau was still alive, I think he will have a digital camera and taking thousands of good pictures!

Paul Mullin
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #


The digital camera brought me back to photography.Enough that I went out and bought an "old" 35mm camera and I use both.I also try to "Get the picture" and not edit it later.
An artist I will probably never be. A great photographer is probably not within reach either but thanks to both mediums I have decide to reach again, so in MY world photography is long from dead.

Paul Mullin

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

As an avid amatuer photographer for a couple of decades, I see this as a really simple issue.

Photography is nothing more than the technical act of recording reflected light. Plate, film, sensor... it doesn't matter.

Everything after the click is post-capture processing. Digital or not. The concept is as old as photo#1.

I think of it like a painted sculpture. Is it a sculpture or is it a painting? It's both.

Is a photoshopped digital capture a photograph or digital art? It's both.

Photography isn't dying. It's so alive that it's evolving!

MS Mayilvahnan
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

It is as simple as that.

I fully agree with MicaJon.

Photography is going to grow as we talk of its change.

Change and evolution is inavitable.

And it is for good.

Wade Egan
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I believe that the issue here is two-fold. Art, and technology. Art is viewed as the result of a process which is often influenced by technology. However, the use of technology often influences the creative process of the art. Whether an artist uses a camera made in 1930 or 2008, the end result to the viewer is still art.
As a photographer and a graphic artist, I feel it is important to be honest with oneself as an artist and classify resulting work as 'photography' or 'digital art.' Thus distinguishing the process as mixed media or traditional photography.
The underlying truth is still whether the viewer is moved by the piece or not. Not whether it was shot in digital or film, manipulated or not. The importance of the piece is a result of the artist's vision and the emotional response of the viewer, not the materials used in the process.
If Hemmingway had used a laptop to write, would that have changed the impact of his writings? If Picasso had used a Mac instead of a palette and brush would that have changed the reaction to his vision?
The real issue here is whether society at large is still capable of appreciating art as a form of expression and not diminishing the value of artistic vision due to the overflow of available media.

Leonte Stefan
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

"I wonder if the great art masters of the past, VanGogh, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, Picasso and the like, turned in their graves as people started capturing light on film and called it art."

Photography wasn't exactly born . It has evolved quite natural (for example the early kind of photos were quite close to Realism ->Pictorialism ) . As any other 2d image a photograph yields to the same compositional rules . I know that some painters saw the first camera as an industrial product but the reaction was far more "brutal" then this digital vs analog misunderstanding .

Here is how I see it :

1.Digital is a very good tool for creating commercial products (advertising .. boxes , stickers) , wedding photos, vacation photos taken by amateurs and for some newspaper work . These aren't art forms .

2.When you have a personal project film is what I think is suited. It gives that ORGANIC feel of the darkroom , the chemicals , the red light , the smell ... You won't get your hands dirty when sitting in front of a computer .
and ...Nothing in classic photography is as accurate as digital manipulation. You can get good at it but altering the aspect of pictures is limited and quite difficult.

3.Anybody (artist or no artist )can learn Adobe Photoshop ... it's a matter of time .

4.Anybody who has the will to create can learn photography and good photos can come after some practice (digital or analog) .

5. Nothing is perfect .Photography is not perfect ... with the aid of digital or without it you cannot create something perfect.

Mark Dennis
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

I have read all of your posts, and you make me think.

I learned how to take photographs with my late father. He would sit me down with his 35mm Minolta and show me how to load the film, adjust settings and compose shots. I loved it!! Now, thirty-three years later I do the same thing with my nine year old daughter but with a Canon (digital). Photography for me is not the debate of film versus digital. The joy for me is learning from Gordon Parks, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange as well as Moose Peterson, David Honl and Vincent Laforet. Those photographers I have named are film and digital master artists.

No, a lot of people will not know what it feels like to spend peaceful hours under a red light in a darkroom. In turn, digital photography allows new artists who may not have that space to show their art.

Film and digital photographers continue to do what makes your love your art. Challenge yourself everyday, but, remember to share yourself and art with others. Then photography (film or digital) will continue to grow and flourish.

Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

Hmmm, bored on Friday morning, checked email, received the latest bulletin from NGM, which I love, that led me to this response thread.
After reading all the above, felt compelled to respond to some bits and pieces as follows:

I had a lot of interesting experiences at University, left me with profound appreciation of Art and Art History and was credentialed and certified to teach Art through junior college level. Also left several photographs and ceramic pieces on permanent display at the University library gallery.

"Art" is never more than an image in the mind of the artist. Once "Art" is created, others are able to see the artists image, unless they are blind. Tools that mankind creates allow his artistic expression to take many forms.

There is no inherent difference between a blank piece of paper, a canvas, a block of marble, or an empty piece of real estate; in that these things can become a line drawing, a painting, a political poster, a statue, a tombstone, or a beautiful building or bridge. The artist completes the image using something to express the image they have in their minds.

Lithographs, tintypes, holographs, film, and digital memory is no different. They were all blank until some "artist" used them to create an image. Once again, no inherent difference between the caveman drawings in France or the film/digital photographs of those cave drawings.

Is the underpaid illustrator working in the graphics room at the "Campbell Soup Company" creating soup can labels, any less of an artist than Andy Warhol, who simply deified the label by making
it part of another image 10 feet tall.

Mankind creates, and the baskets, clothing, flower gardens, food, airplanes, homes, and don't forget the drawings-paintings-sculptures-
photographs-etc, are all forms of
"Art" in whatever medium chosen.

Gerard J. van den Broek
Jan 2, 2008 11AM #

"Is photography an art form?' is an age-old discussion; since its invention phtography was either considered as something inferior to painting, or as something much more advanced.
I am convinced that the tools don't make the artist. Someone who paints is not an artist per se; someone who takes photgraphs is no photographer or artist yet.
It goes without saying that much of the mystique of photography has vanished because of the introduction of digital photography because it has become an example of consumarism - everybody has become a photographer. But don't forget, the introduction of the portable camera had a comparable effect, as photography had been restricted to people who took the serious trouble of preparing their own glass negatives and carrying huge cameras and tripods on their photographic missions. Hence, photography was restricted to a very limited number of people.
I was raised in a family where photography was practiced near-professionally, and I developed my own B&W films since 1964, and I still do. Apart from my traditional Leicas, I do use a digital camera. I am convinced that all means of expressing oneself (quasi-)artistically will exist one beside the other. like photography has not expelled drawing, painting, or etching, and so many other ways to depict both nature, ideas and inspiration. It's the person using the tools that makes it either art or just a nice snap shot.

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