There is a direct correlation between technology and grammar – that is a direct relationship between the way something is made, and the way it looks.
This is particularly true in the world of visual arts.
Photography in the 1860s required big cameras, dragging chemicals around in the field and shooting on chemically coated glass plates. The photo above is Matthew Brady’s set up to photograph the American Civil War. It was not easy, but he got some stunning images. The Civil War, in fact, is the first war that is actually photographed. Brady is the forerunner of the ’embedded journalists’ in Iraq today.
Brady’s cameras were big, heavy affairs. The ‘film’ plates were not so light sensitive and so exposure times were long. The cameras were placed atop tripods and the subjects were instructed to sit rigidly to have their photos taken.
Thus the technology of the time dictated the grammer, or the way the photographs looked.
Everyone sat bolt upright, stiff as a board; or the photographs were set up (in its infancy photography had yet to establish rules of staging – that would come later. The photographers of the Crimean War began serious staging as the actual battles were not place for big photo wagons!)
In the 1930s, two technological advances radically altered the grammar of photographer: The Leica company invented a small, hand held, high quality camera, and Agfa, the German film comany, replaced sheet film with a plastic 35mm roll film. One can only imagine the professionals who until then had used large filed cameras and produced massive negatives with no grain complaining about the ‘toy cameras’ and the small 35mm negatives!
The result, however, was a shift in the grammar of photo journalism. The formerly stiff, posed portraiture of Matthew Brady was supplanted by the ‘reality’ of the new photography. Photographers like Cartier Bresson or Capa embraced the new technology to create a new visual grammar.
Until very recently, video cameras were also big, heavy things. Professional photographers often went to work with vans, instead of wagons, to carry all the necessary gear.
The result was that the ‘grammar’ of video was all too similar to the grammar of early photography. Big, heavy and complex cameras militate toward stiff figures sitting upright in front of the camera. It is almost unavoidable:
The great opportunity before us, as the medium gravitates toward these small, hand held cameras, is not to use them to ape what has already been a well established grammar in video with large cameras; but rather to embrace them to create a new grammar for video; one that has not been seen before.
I believe we can now do for television what Leicas did for photojournalism – that is, to turn it from a craft to an art form – to a far more compelling and intimate medium.
We are now just at the beginning of this moment. We can not know what this will become, and more than Matthew Brady might have contemplated what the work of Sebastao Salgado would have looked like. But we can try.
And as still photographers, particularly at newspapers, begin to pick up video cameras, there will be a tendency to imitate what television looks like now. That would be a mistake – and a unique opportunity lost.
As photojournalists, follow your own instincts as you wander into video – and help create a new grammar at the same time.