Grandpa, what did it mean to "take a picture"?

Among the most convincing “What will 2009 be remembered for?” ideas I’ve seen is Jason Kottke’s notion that this is the year we heard the death knell of traditional still photography. Esquire magazine broke new ground in May by capturing a high-definition cover image of Megan Fox without using a still camera at all: instead of having her cavort en maillot while a photographer activated a motor drive a couple thousand times, they shot the whole sequence with a high-definition video camera and selected the most appealing compositions from the resulting footage. When you imagine the editing process, you realize that there’s no clear qualitative distinction between taking two frames a second and taking 24. We’ve stepped forward into a world where “video” is capable of image quality as good as “still photography” was just a few years ago—allowing photographers to capture the crucial moment at leisure, after the shoot, instead of with their fingers in real time.

Of course, saying it “allows” them to do things a certain way doesn’t mean they’ll like it, because it “allows” everyone else to do it that way too. Ask a newspaper columnist how he much has enjoyed having his medium demoticized; it drives down the price something awful. The new “moving photography”, as it becomes available to the consumer, will be seen to de-privilege the mystical gift of perfect timing that was once perceived to distinguish a Cartier-Bresson or a Winogrand from the herd. (Though that argument becomes hard to sustain when you find out just how many exposures Winogrand, for one, took–more than he had time to scrutinize editorially, and maybe more than anyone ever will have time for. It seems likely that he regarded the shutter of his Leica as a mechanical impediment he would have been happy to see superseded.)

In short, cheap hi-def video seems poised to make editorial judgment (and being in the right place at the right time) scarce relative to content-generation, which is exactly what the web did to nonfiction writers. On the other hand, cameras aren’t totally Moorean. The price of chips and memory will continue to approach zero; glass, not so much.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.