The Death of the Straight Line
There was a time when wanting to accomplish something required that you knew a way — typically a single, straightforward way — to do it. In fact, most typically there was only one way to do something. For example, when we wanted to make a phone call we picked up the phone and dialed. Today, when I want to make a phone call I can choose between my landline, my cell phone, my Skype account, my Tango account, or my Unison account — let alone that I could also send a text message, an email, an instant message, a voicemail, a voice email, or even a video email. I suppose I could write a letter, too, but how quaint is that? (Can we still send telegrams? Nevermind.)
For something as simple as "reaching out" (when did this god-awful phrase infect the culture?), the first thing I have to do is not compose the content of my message, but rather decide which type of message delivery system best fits my needs of the moment. Startlingly, we are fast approaching that level of complexity in photography, too. It's like trying to find a straight-line path across a Chinese Checkers board. I may desperately want there to be one, but the number of possible paths to the other side are incalculable.
Film or digital? Large-format, medium format, or small format? Camera, tablet, phone, or camera-capable MP3 player? Square format, rectangular format, or panorama format? Black and white, color, or "effects"? Still photograph or video? Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, Lightroom, or Aperture? Worse, almost any of these answers can be cross-pollinated with any of the others — camera still, camera video, tablet video with effects + square format, camera with black-and-white video? Yikes. Part of me longs for the days when I had one camera, used only one film, was limited to three fixed focal length lenses. In those days, my biggest decision was which Zone to place the shadows at. Such thinking is now merely nostalgic piffle, fondly remembered by a few old codgers. For the rest of you youngsters, Zones are explained here. Better yet, youngsters, read this book. (Pssst, old guys, don't tell them. He-he-he.)
This illuminates, I think, another way in which artmaking in photography has changed so dramatically. It's not just that we use new equipment, but that in order to be reasonably competent we need to have competency in each of the variations. It's no longer sufficient to be skilled at one and only one method of image making. Said another way, faced with the creative challenge and the desire to most effectively present my vision in a finished image, I need to be able to foresee (or to use the old term, previsualize) the final result in ever so many production variants. I find more and more that artmaking has become an attempt to answer the simple question: In order to achieve my desired result, which technical path is best?
I fear we're at the very beginning of this multiplying myriad of choices. I see nothing on the horizon that would indicate we will have fewer choices five years from now than we have today. I'm not bemoaning this, but I am pragmatic in the realization that the implication is that our futures are all filled with a plethora of unavoidable learning curves. The only other option would be to restrict our options — a path that looks seductively more and more intelligent as the technologies multiply in ways at which even rabbits would be amazed.