Historical Impact Of The Internet On Night Photography

I recognise that night photography is a specialist subject, even so I think its worth recording how the emergence of computer imaging technology and the internet made it easier for night photographers to find an audience for their work. I can only do this on the basis of my own specific experience. To me it almost feels that the last twenty years or so have seen a century's worth of change. My own life as a night photographer has certainly improved out of all recognition because of the internet, but diminishing returns have set in I fear.

1980s - Isolation

I stumbled across the possibility of night photography because of my interest in astronomy.   I photographed the night sky, and noticed that if I accidentally included some landscape in my shots the results could be interesting.   I had read no night photography textbooks (as far as I am aware none were available) and I was totally ignorant of the work of earlier masters of night photography such as Brassai or the contributors to "Camera Work". My isolation meant that I invented my own style, a mixture of predilection and experiment.

It was an exciting time for me, but I cannot overstate the creative isolation of the pre-internet era, at least for night photography in England.   It seemed to me that there was very little you could do with your night photography then, publishing a book seemed a massively unlikely task. There was apparently little opportunity for exhibiting prints (at least outside the dreadfully stultifying British camera club scene with its obsession with the "law" of thirds, "correct" print mounting, and a "points out of ten" mentality which mistook accountancy for art).

At school I had a chance to exhibit which was hugely encouraging. However I left school in 1983 which meant this opportunity was closed to me. I kept on making night images, and to honest with you I don't know why exactly, more than a decade of total obscurity should have finished me off! At that point my work just lived in a drawer, with no aim in mind. I never thought my images would ever be seen. I just made them because I loved them.

1990s - Windows 95 and the Internet

I was very ignorant about computers but I was open minded. In 1994 I read an architectural photography textbook which mentioned something called "Photoshop" which appeared exciting in principle but practically speaking seemed very remote. I had no real idea what computer software was, or how it could help my photography, but I did want to find out. One day in 1995 I visited my local camera shop (London Camera Exchange, Guildford) and saw a demonstration of how to use a PC and Photoshop to remove processing marks from film images. That was it, the same day I ordered a computer and Nikon film scanner.

Learning to scan and digitally edit my film images was a revelation, and caused me to totally abandon my plans to build a traditional film darkroom. I can remember thinking how clean and streamlined digital processing was, astonishing! My digital photographic work meant that I had to learn an operating system and to manage peripheral devices, and as a result my practical interest in computers was born.  Its hard to appreciate now, but a lot of us were encouraged to take up computing by the release of Windows 95.  It was an exciting time, computing no longer seemed to require a degree in computer science to do meaningful work.  It really was "personal" computing for anyone who was interested.  And once the basics of using a computer were sorted out, the internet was our reward, an idealistic and incredibly inclusive world opened up.  Geography was no longer any kind of limitation.

I was very quick to appreciate how the net could give my photography its missing context.  I was using Demon Internet's dial up internet service at that time and certainly as early as 1996 I was hosting my night photographs on the internet under their domain. This was existentially a life changing event for me, my work was available for anyone with an interest to see, at any time anywhere in the world.   I am intensely grateful to the early internet for giving me this truly amazing opportunity.  I was catapulted overnight from total isolation to worldwide availability.

Now it probably seems hard to understand my excitement, today access to the internet is second nature, unremarkable.  Back then I don't know how many visitors browsed my pages, probably not a huge amount. But because of the internet I did now have people viewing my work, and contacting me about it.   My isolation had gone at last, I had kept faith with my own photography during the unrewarding pre-internet years and was now compensated for my perseverance.  Miracle of miracles I heard from other night photographers.   The first to contact me as I recall was Lance Keimig who pointed me towards The Nocturnes community website.   I was now totally amazed to learn that there was a whole network of night photographers out there.

Even after all these years I can still remember how relieved and pleased I was by this discovery.   I've read somewhere that the creation of the internet will prove as culturally important as the invention of the printing press.   Certainly from my own small perspective of night photography the internet easily had the power to convert a lonely specialist photographic sub-genre into a mainstream and internationally flourishing discipline.  Today there is a wealth of great night photography on the net, and legions of photographers giving each other guidance and support.

(Reflecting my views of 15th January 2013)

Four years on and the Night Photography garden isn't so rosy

Regrettably the nature of night photography on the web has changed enormously over the last four years or so.   I've recently checked my links page, checking that the personal websites of other night photographers I link to are still working.   Very many long standing and valued link partners just seem to have closed down. This has prompted me to search the web looking for the personal websites of good night photographers to form new partnerships, and the results have depressed me.

Back in the good old days of the 1990s the pioneer culture of the web was based on mutual linkage, you set up a personal website, and linked to other sites that you felt able to recommend to your visitors. These sites would in turn link back to you ensuring both a community of night photographers, and an easy way for visitors to see as much good work as possible,  jumping from personal website to personal website. This ethos has been slowly disappearing, and I didn't notice.

From the perspective of 2017 I am really surprised by:

(i) The number of photographers who no longer want the control and distinction of hosting their own sites. Instead they post on one of the many characterless commercial photo hosting sites which in my view promotes a uniformity of imagery and mindset which is bad for photographic originality. Creatively, we are being platformed to death.

(ii)   Many of those few who do still bother to set up their own domains no longer offer links pages at all, but plenty have shopping carts instead - I suppose the competition of getting that sale just kills the desire to recommend other kindred photographers.   The comparative death of the links page, and its replacement by the shopping cart represents a serious degradation of the night photography "community" of yore. I don't believe for a minute, by the way, that many photographers are making that much money through selling via their website.

(iii)   Forgive me for saying it but a great deal of night photography at the moment has become homogenious, repetitive.   So many photographers appear to limit their work to perfecting and reproducing the exact same shot - the iconic (no, cliched) "Arch Of The Milky Way" photo.   Night photography used to appeal to non-conformist photographers.   Now I see conformity everywhere.   I hope the next generation will move on from this, and instead develop their own distinctive/quirky visions.

(Reflecting my views of 7th July 2017)