What Made Photography Valuable?

Helen Levitt and Walter Rosenblum made street photographs in New York in the 1930s through the 1950s. Vivian Maier made street photographs in the 1950s through the 1970s. What made them relevant, what made their work valuable?

It took a special person, a real photographic artist to go out in public and shoot film photographs of strangers living their lives. That cost money. Most people saved their film spending for vacations, weddings and posing by the new car. A street photographer perhaps had a bit more means to be able to afford to photograph strangers.

Walter Rosenblum’s photograph of children playing on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

What was different between then and now? Was it the cost of entry? Film was just pricey enough to limit most people shooting family photographs and keeping them off the street making documentary street photographs.

Now photography has become ubiquitous, even more so than after George Eastman invented his first Brownie camera. Has the barrier to entry become so low to make it so there is little value for photography? There are thousands of street photographers, nature photographers, people photographers. Who cares? Instagram is full of photographs. Some good, many not. So what? Is that the feeling we have today?

Pretty picture, who cares?

While a phone isn’t exactly free, it feels free to shoot. To hold the shutter down and fire off frames. The quantity of photographs made today is overwhelming. More have probably been made today than were made in any year in the 1980s.

What does that do to photography?

I have a photographer friend, a former photo editor who travels to the Rocky Mountains and other picturesque places and said he doesn’t bring a real camera anymore, he just shoots on his phone because his wife and daughter don’t even want to look at his photos. There are millions like them online. Who cares? So, he said he doesn’t even offer to show them anymore.

But he reminds me he has just five photographs of his parents, and of himself with them when he was a child–those are the photos he cherishes. Because there are just the few.

Scarcity creates value in photographs. Less is more.

What have we given up in today’s photographic world where everyone has a phone with a camera ready at hand? What is the value of photography?

Does photography lack the scarcity it would take to make it valuable to the culture again?

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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