The Pros and Cons of Photographic Decadence

K Madhavan Pillai

K Madhavan Pillai

With all the choices in digital photography available today, and all the wonderful possibilities it opens up, I often wonder if we are living in an age of enlightenment or decadence. An unlimited number of options, be it in the number of frames that can be shot in a few hours, the high ISO possibilities that make night into day, or the unparalleled level of control over certain minutiae… all of these have let photographers move to another level of thinking. It used to take years for a photographer to learn to make a good exposure, which now can be spent on exploration and learning to make a better image. Just the fact that it is easier for a thoughtful photographer to produce good work, is indeed quite wonderful to behold. And yet, so many things have been lost in the rush of it all.

How many now remember the magical detail and quality of a large format contact printed image? Silver halide is considered unfriendly to the environment now. But what about the massive amounts of e-waste generated by a use-and-discard digital world. A camera would last two generations. Now we consider ourselves lucky if it lasts five years. Despite how delicate photographic gear has become, there is so little concern in maintaining equipment, using it right and being careful. And if a camera just happens to die in a few years… a certain disregard is almost fashionable these days. Newer, faster, more efficient cameras are always just around the corner.

And what about luck? A photograph was all about slowing down, romanticising the work as a form of art on its own, and enjoying the process. Now it is about speeding up and, perhaps, even getting lucky. And in the impersonal melee of getting a picture, a dialogue with the subject, and with oneself, and a critical sense of judgement is often lost. What seems to be badly lost is a sense of purpose. There was always a powerful reason to make a picture in the not so recent past. The greatest of legends were idealists with a mission. Now, there needs to be no greater purpose to the act of releasing the shutter because the costs associated with it is so little and means nothing. We need to look back, and reconnect with at least some of the sensibilities of the past to truly be better photographers.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, March 2015