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Everyone's got their panties in a bunch over James Cameron's Avatar, hastily predicting that this movie will be the movie to end our present movie mindset, ushering in splendiferous [and hot!] CGI casts and Ferngully worlds where our senses will be free to flourish and to dissolve in real movie going experiences. It will be like movies on acid! Movies on glowing, breathing, living, sparkling, extraterrestrial speed! In the sequel audiences will not only receive their polarized glasses, but a bow and arrow to boot, to help the Na’vi in their plight! And if you tell your cousins and aunts and Facebook pals and neighbors to go see it and Avatar does really well maybe Cameron will have an even bigger budget for the sequel and hire someone to help him, just a little, with the script. I’m so into it I could burst!

But, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to talk about photography. Let’s now please straighten out our panties and get serious. In my view, there isn’t too much going on in photography that’s breaking ground and ushering in new ideas. There’s the perpetually developing digital on the technical front and a persisting trend in boring photos on the idea front (“I like to find beauty in the everyday, boring things….”), and lots of photographers doing attractive, exciting, even interesting work in photography in general, but nothing particularly explosive. There’s no Avatar happening in still-life photography.

However, some attempts do come to mind. The first is a photographer named Sebastian Denz, who recently put out a book as well as exhibited his series Skateboarding.3D. He teamed up with the Carhartt skateboarding team (wha?) and traveled around Europe for three years shooting with a custom-built camera. The result is a book of 3D skateboarding photos, with two pairs of 3D glasses tucked inconspicuously into the back cover. Coupled with his impeccable location scouting, this definitely works. Check out the photo below, for example. But the exhibition prints, measuring in at about 4x8 feet, are more impressive. I only hope they make it to New York at some point in the near future.

Jonas Bendiksen, a Magnum photographer, is another shooter that’s trying to do innovative things with still photography. His project, The Places We Live, about slum dwellers the world over has an engaging website, a book, and a touring exhibition. The exhibit is organized thus: “Life-size images and audio segments in the exhibition help create the experience of a personal encounter with the slum dwellers. Each slum is represented by one room, where all four walls are built out of rear-projection canvas. Each room contains a cycle displaying five households. For each one, a sound recording containing statements from the inhabitants is showered down from the overhead speakers. Between each display of a household, images and soundscapes of the outside environment surround the visitor.” (from the website)

Finally, Outside magazine’s October issue experimented with a “living magazine” spread and cover, that had moving images busting out of the printed pages, a la Harry Potter. “Unlike in television or film, where people have signed up as viewers, with this media, the motion or images need to be engaging rather than noisy. And content using the principles of still photography achieves this. CBS Alive in the UK has done a good job of making Digital OOH a welcome part of the London commuter’s daily life. Many of their campaigns show still pictures, like the movie poster for Bride Wars, suddenly coming to life. What used to be flat still shots are now springing to life in a way unique from video,” writes Outside’s Alexx Henry. This harkens back to my previous post about the future of printing, as well, where technology could be used to refresh the printing industry instead of obliterate it. 

From these examples, innovation seems to be adding up to bigger = better and moving, talking, more engrossing presentation is the future. In many ways bigger has always equaled better; isn’t that how photography initially broke through and begrudgingly became considered an art form, when prints were able to be produced large enough to hang on walls and be appreciated? And it’s getting easier to make large format photos and to print them on exceedingly larger pieces of paper. While not always appropriate or necessary (again, I don’t really need to see “everyday, boring things” on 4x8 prints), bigger still works.

As for the other trends, are they simply inching more and more towards video, the already extant, obvious next step from still photography? Yes. Didn’t we already do that a while back, move along from still pictures to moving ones to great acclaim. Yeah. Why are we doing this yet again? Well, the two have existed side by side for some time now and each persists because each has different things to offer. Watching a walk through of a Nigerian slum on video and standing in a small room where still images of a family sitting in their home are projected on the four walls around you is different. The latter is packed, still [obviously], there to be examined at great length, there to be inspected and absorbed, there more permanently, in a sense. Innovation should feed on the qualities of still photography and work to accentuate them rather than to grow out of them somehow.

Considering the tools I use – a couple of bulky cameras from the late ‘60s, film, an oversized desktop PC, etc – I’m not exactly at the forefront of this innovation. I have a hard time imagining what the future may entail. Will movie going just become like a video game on a very large screen? Will movie theaters provide avatars to step into for the duration of the feature? Will photos of everyday life loom large as billboards at every step, jumping, feeding off passersby? Will content or technology reign supreme?      

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