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22 January 2014

Estimating the number of photos taken per year by the entire population of the globe is a bit like guessing how many thoughts everyone’s ever had (including this one): kind of pointless. Still, the answer is 400 billion, give or take, according to the always-reliable internet. But lately, that pleasingly immense figure seems to bear little relation to the popularity of the camera itself, sales of which dropped by a comparably wacky 30 per cent in the past 12 months.

We are, of course, talking about cameras that take pictures – only pictures – not ones that also send emails, play music, regram, snap, chat, Snapchat, “like” and the like. But the days of carrying a reassuringly chunky Sony, Nikon or Yashica at the bottom of your bag, ready to whip out for a satisfying click-and-whir, appear to be numbered. Smartphones dominate the mid-market and they’re better for phoning people with, too.

So everyone’s a photographer now, which is nice, but what does that mean for photography? It means the photographer’s identity – that creative, inquisitive documentarian of our times – is becoming less recognisable.

A 20th-century master such as US street photographer-turned-Vogue snapper and satirical provocateur, William Klein, defined himself by learning essential analogue darkroom skills, carrying bulky equipment into neighbourhoods unknown and generally causing a bit of a stir by doing things the “wrong” way at any opportunity. His photography – the very fact that it exists and he made the effort to create it when not everyone could – is as much an artistic statement about his own life as the images he’s captured. None of them happened by accident (apart from the accidents he liked) and today people still know exactly who Klein is as he points a camera in their direction: a photographer.

If that era is soon to be over, perhaps it’s simply a long overdue loosening of the means of production that through technology have also been freed up in other industries. Musicians can already summon Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound in a bedroom so why not recreate the cover of Abbey Road on a lunch break?

The traditional camera still has its place though. High-spec models remain essential for journalism and the luxury market steadily churns out beautiful boxes of aluminium-and-walnut-encased technological wonderment. This might be a slightly over-nostalgic ode, then, to a technology that far from disappearing is actually becoming ubiquitous in nearly every gadget available today. It’s just not clear (yet) why we need 400 billion images to prove it.

William Klein might actually have an answer, being a fan of the era in which anyone and everyone is ready to take a potshot. “What they do are the most avant-garde things that no professional cameraman would dare do,” he said recently. It’s just that these days both you and “they” probably won’t even know they’re doing it.

Tom Hall is a sub editor and writer for Monocle.


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