LEICA

Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

Photography needs a revolution, again

Photography started as a tool for scientists to record the physical world without human intervention that introduced subjectivity in the final image. It was also a tool for artisans who needed a way to improve and increase the production of paintings. The tool was quickly adopted by artists and travelers to record scenes for later study and distribution. The wealthy came third and used photography as a hobby. Being a complicated technical process, photography had limited appeal and was used by the more adventurous persons, often women. At the end of the 19th century, Eastman simplified the process and in addition enabled the widespread use of cinematography. Barnack started the revolution by constructing a camera for easy snapshot use, paving the way for the ubiquitous snapshot camera that introduced the world to a new visual culture. The 1950s were undoubtedly the great years when the snapshot came of age and became an art form when the so called street photography or documentary photography was adopted by visual artists.
The introduction of the smartphone and the digital camera changed everything. Photography evolved into a commodity and integrated with consumer electronics into one wide-ranging image culture. A modern digital camera is a package of flexible circuits and integrated electronics, loaded with software to process the rain of photons recorded by the lens and the sensor.Several times during its history photography has stood at the crossroads, often artistically and often technologically.
Now for the first time photography is walking a dead-end path, artistically and technologically. Incremental technological improvements, the culture of the selfie and the visual notebook, a sales plateau for the species of the single lens reflex and a lack of real innovation in the species of the mirrorless camera are all indications that the industry as a whole lacks the kind of challenge that for instance the car industry is facing with the driverless car and the new ideas about mobility. A few niche companies, Leica among them, luckily, are flourishing by cultivating the turf they occupy. Perhaps Leica will be able to repeat the Barnack revolution, but 2020 is not 1920.
The new Pentax K-1 is an amazingly fine camera, but it does not sell at all, because it does not impress, notwithstanding the array of technological features.
Photography is now in a dangerous situation where users of the technology assume that more technology can compensate the lack of creativity. This is logical: the technological progress has created convergence to one common perspective. Despite the so-called flexibility of the tool, the truth is that the modern camera envelopes the user in a straitjacket. The original miniature snapshot camera had a lot less technological features built into the camera, but as a platform for creativity is was open for any visual innovation.