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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fauxtographer and the Daguerreotypist

In the mid nineteenth century there was a revolution in portraiture. The Daguerreotype become widely available, and popular. Everyone, it seemed, had their portrait made on a funny little grey plate by the funny little fellow down the street. The people selling this service were often hacks, hustlers, and charlatans. The Daguerreotypist was likely selling patent medicines last year, and would be operating a hypnotism show the next. The results, naturally, were a bit variable.

The painters were enraged. The work was awful, by their standards. The image was tiny, albeit detailed. It was not even colored! That marvelous detail captured the subjects flaws just as thoroughly as their good points. It had all manner of weird artifacts due to the long exposure. The people making this things had no skills, particularly, there was no craft to this process. Why, a man could learn to make a Daguerreotype in only a few days! The work was, basically, crap. People loved them, ignored the painters, and bought them by the millions.

The Daguerreotype was not a painting, and did not pretend to be. It was something the customer could not do for himself. It was quick. Something that was good enough to suit the need or desire of the customer at the time. It was also cheap and widely available. The result is, among other things, a fantastically deep and interesting record of socioeconomic classes that had never been given a visual record before.

Of course, in the long run, photography won. Those hustlers and crooks shooting tiny, bad, portraits helped to birth this new form. They helped to set new standards, they contributed to the new aesthetic of visual art and of portraiture which we see today. The painters had their say, our modern notion of photography takes ideas from paintings as well as from the hustling Daguerreotypist who had no idea about any aesthetic. It's all in the mix. But almost nobody has their portrait painted these days.

Today we do not really have the Daguerreotype. We have instead the consumer grade DSLR with a lousy, but cheap, kit lens. This camera has an Automatic mode that is fairly decent. Why, a woman can learn to take photographs in a couple of days! We now see the rise of down-market part-time photographers, styled "fauxtographers" or "mom with a camera" by the some. These are people who have failed to master the difficult art of professional photography. They are hacks selling a cheap service and providing results that simply are not very good. The results are often very bad, by contemporary standards. Standards set, largely, by the professional photographers.

Why look, she's not even using off camera flash! The white balance is awful! The megapixels, there are so few! The composition is.. I don't even know what that is!

All the criticisms are perfectly correct. The painters correctly observed, albeit at excessive length, that the Daguerreotype is not a painting. The irritated professional observes today that the Mom With A Camera is not making professional-looking baby pictures. This is, the attentive reader will know by now, true but irrelevant.

What the down-market photographer does provide is a service the customer cannot provide themselves, at a cheap price. The service is good enough to meet needs of the customer. Every crime and fault that is laid at the feet of the "fauxtographer" was laid, 150 years ago, at the feet of the roving Daguerreotypist. If the same arc occurs over the next 10 or 20 years, and I see no reason to imagine otherwise, a new standard for professional photography will arise. People will look at your carefully posed photograph, with big softbox at 45 degrees camera left and a reflector at 50 degrees camera right, the eyes lovingly sharpened ever so slightly in post and the skin smoothed to perfection, and they will say "That looks OLD, dude. What IS that?" and they will be right.

I don't know what a new aesthetic of event photography will look like, but I bet it will draw ideas from the current professional looks, as well as from the on-camera-flash, spray-and-pray spontaneous look. It will be a melding of Facebook snap with professionally smoothed skin, and a bunch of things we can't predict.

If you're a pro at the end of your career, don't worry about it. If you're just coming up, stay sharp. Those damned MWACs are going to win, in some sense, and you better be ready for it.

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