NEW YORK, United States — First video killed the radio star, now digital video appears poised to kill off the still photographer.
Armed with HD digital video that's ever-higher in quality, photographers can now shoot moving images with the crispness and clarity of still photos. This raises an interesting dilemma for image-makers across art, fashion and advertising alike: why bother with photographs anymore?
Earlier this year, a video of Megan Fox in a bathing suit circulated online, followed by a cover story in Esquire magazine featuring images that were outtakes — screen grabs, essentially — from the video. Both were credited to celebrity portrait photographer Greg Williams, whose work has always referenced scenes from movies. But for Esquire, he wasn’t just making photographs that look like film stills – he took actual stills from a video that had already been widely distributed on the internet.
Magazines have long used online videos to support their editorial content, but the video featurettes were almost always supplementary. The printed photograph was still the prime focus of the piece and publishers and photographers were always careful to save the best material — the photographs themselves — for the print publication. That's all starting to change.
In fashion advertising, Calvin Klein used digital video to shoot their Spring 2009 campaign, blowing up stills from Steven Meisel’s television ads to make the images on the company’s iconic billboard on New York's Houston Street. But the spots, featuring models engaged in a ménage-a-trois, stoked so much controversy that they were banned from most television channels and instead ran exclusively on Calvin Klein's website. The result was intriguing. The still images essentially became teasers for a video campaign that unfolded online.
Still photography and moviemaking share a long and interwoven history. But today, thanks to a new wave of HD digital video cameras, the two are converging like never before. That's because new cameras like the RED – used by Steven Soderbergh on his last three projects and recently adopted by Peter Jackson for both District 9 and the upcoming The Lovely Bones – produce individual frames that look just as good as still photos.
While still prohibitively expensive for most photographers, the RED camera lets commercial clients produce a single piece of editorial or advertising content that can live across multiple media channels and platforms. That means the same photo shoot can produce both moving images and stills that can run as magazine ads, outdoor ads and web videos, a three-for-one deal with attractive cost-saving potential.
"It’s a general trend to create campaigns that are 360 and able to be in-store applications or online digital applications, in order to have a cohesive brand feel across different mediums," adds Doug Lloyd, who provided creative direction for the Spring 2009 Y-3 campaign.
Using video also drives greater consumer engagement, says Diana Hong, a creative director at digital agency CreateTheGroup who works with brands like Marc Jacobs and Burberry. "It’s really hard to convince people to buy [a campaign] and just provide images. Video is so big because you have a much more engaging product."
Indeed, the advertising industry has rushed to embrace new digital video technology. But how do the photographers feel about the shift?
"I’m just trying to think of someone who didn’t make that switch. I think it’s just normal for photographers to make films and go back and forth. I approach my photography like a director, so it’s easy to make that transition," said Ryan McGinley, who recently shot Tilda Swinton with the RED camera for luxury brand Pringle. "Digital is to film as colour was to black and white," continues Collier Schorr, referencing her recent fashion film for Tim Hamilton.
But it's important to remember that although many photographers are embracing digital video, the switch to making moving images isn't just a technical upgrade. It's a different art form. While photography is focused on composing a mise-en-scène, organising elements within a static frame, making moving images means creating a scene, a composition that reveals itself over time, while retaining dramatic interest throughout.
The difference is emotion, says photographer KT Auleta, who has recently been experimenting with digital shorts and fashion films. "Actors are there to communicate another level of human experience, whereas the emotions in still fashion photography are more of a tone." Indeed, there's a reason that movies have both a director and a director of photography, which carries risks for a photographer making the switch. Working on a moving image, "I am not directly on the camera," Auleta notes, "so there is a creative immediacy that is lost in my process."
Lloyd's recent campaigns for Y-3 involve images of frozen movements that would be difficult, if not impossible, to choreograph for a still camera. But he also has misgivings about working with a larger crew: "Photography used to be more of a collaborative effort between a photographer and an art director, and it's now become much more of an open democratic conversation with all the people on set, because now there is a visual on a monitor that’s kind of constantly being critiqued and scrutinized."
Which is not to say that a still from a video shoot is any less of a creative product than a photograph. It’s just not the same creative product. "I just shot a short film with Patrik Ervell for his Spring collection, and we pulled a still for an ad," Auleta says. "Originally my credit said 'photo' and Patrik called me to see if it should read 'film still.' We agreed that is, in fact, what it was."
In other words, take a picture of photography right now, because in a flash, it could change completely.
Ken Miller is an editor, writer, and curator for print and digital media.