I first saw a photograph of the Northern Lights back in the mid-1970s in a battered copy of National Geographic. I was browsing through the magazine while sitting in the waiting room at the dentists and was immediately taken with the otherworldly lightshow that had been captured by the photographer at some exotic location within the arctic circle. So taken in fact, that I ripped that page out of the magazine and put it on my wall next to my Knight Rider poster. Fast forward 40 years and, sitting on the toilet, I enjoy some ‘down time’ by flicking my way through my Instagram feed like the photo-zombie I am. Oh look, it’s a photograph of the Northern Lights. I don’t even double-tap to like it. An upward swipe and it’s gone. There are so many photographs of this phenomena in my Instagram feed that all novelty, all interest, all excitement has been completely obliterated from them. Is it just me or is anyone else suffering from this photo fatigue?
It’s not just photographs of the Aurora Borealis that leave me weirdly indifferent these days. Close-up with a shark in a kelp forest? Seen it. The Wanaka Tree in New Zealand at sunrise? About the 15th today, thanks. An above-and-below of a tropical beach with a sea turtle? Old news, mate. Bomb shot taken by drone over a beach with crystal clear waves lapping at the shoreline as a bikini-clad buxom babe gazes skywards? Swiped away. Okay, maybe a brief pause for that one.
How the fuck did the amazing become so commonplace so quickly? Why am I no longer excited by the incredible sight of the Northern Lights? When did photography turn into a never-ending competition for spectacle? When did it all become so fucking boring?
It was all so much simpler in the past. Once upon a time a skilled band of photographers visited exotic locations and took amazing photographs for amazing magazines such as National Geographic, Time and Life. Other skilled photographers took photographs of mind-bogglingly exotic women wearing haute couture frocks and they appeared in calendars sponsored by tyre companies. Thrilling news stories about acts of heroism, war, terrorism or celebrity sightings were skilfully captured by news photographers. That was the way it used to be. But the old way of doing things was swept away by a tsunami of digital camera technology. The explosion of interest in photography (thanks to digital sensors, the rise and rise of Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook and, of course, the birth of the ‘influencer’ travelling the globe photographing once-exotic locations) has made the amazing commonplace. Where once a single photographer would travel to the arctic circle and photograph the Aurora Borealis, now it’s just another right of passage for every wannabe Instagram influencer with a couple of thousand followers. Yes, photography has been democratised, but in the process it has also become increasingly banal.
And yes, I’m just as guilty of being on this merry-go-round as everyone else. My photographs tap into the same identical themes as everyone else. If anything, I’m worse – I’m a dreaded sunrise/sunset photographer, surely the lowest of the low in the landscape photography hierarchy! How fucking cliched can you get? Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any great desire to photograph double-rainbows arching over volcanoes spewing rivers of molten lava cascading into crystal clear water as a killer whale emerges from a perfectly tubular wave being ridden by Kelly Slater wearing a clown suit, or something equally edgy. I’m quite happy taking my sunrise and sunset photos. But equally I can fully understand why someone would swipe straight past my photos in their Instagram feed. They’re mainly ordinary, occasionally vaguely memorable – just like pretty much everything else on Instagram.
Could the globetrotting influencers be to blame? Off they go – Torres del Paine in Patagonia this week (god not again), Gulfoss Waterfall in Iceland tomorrow (not that old chestnut), Plitvice lakes for the weekend (Zzzzz). By following their Instagram feeds in our hundreds of thousands and thereby attracting sponsors eager to tap into that audience, we have created a photographic production line that renders the extraordinary ordinary by virtue of endless repetition. I don’t look at their photos and think that I should go there I simply wonder why these guys are all so majestically unimaginative.
And it’s not just the locations that have become so commonplace – it’s photographic styles and photographic techniques too. There have been numerous waves of photographic styles popularised over the years, from the retina-scorching HDR to the crush-the-blacks trendy urban look. You know the writing’s on the wall for a particular style when it turns up as a ready-made filter in Snapseed. Photographic techniques become similarly commonplace. Oh sure, Clark Little was (arguably) the first guy to popularise the inside-a-shorebreak wave in the Instagram era, but he’s got about a thousand wannabes biting at his heels, Aquatech housings in place, dome ports ready. And how about drones? Governments might be clamping down on drone use, but so many photographers (yes, myself included) have jumped on the bandwagon that aerial shots are becoming as cliched as the arms-aloft sunset selfie. I feel a sense of self-loathing every time I hover my Phantom 4 over a the azure waters of our local coastline.
So what does the future hold? What’s the next photographic technique that will shake up everything up for six months before becoming old news? Will these globe-trotting influencers keep on photographing the same flagship locations endlessly? Is the whole concept of originality in photography a dead-end? Am I the only one suffering from Instafatigue?