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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Death of Photography Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

The Fourth of July celebration this year was very different for Americans who use social media. Last year, as the fireworks burst in the air, people pulled out their smartphones and snapped still pictures. This year, they had a new tool in their life-documenting arsenal: video.

Over the last several months, a number of short video services have moved into the mainstream, including Vine, which allows people to record six-second videos, and Instagram, which introduced 15-second videos last month.

People are clearly using these services. Anyone who visited a social network stream on Thursday night would have seen endless videos of pops and sparkles in the air.

For years, photographers have been bracing for this moment, warned that the last rites will be read for photography when video technology becomes good enough for anyone to record. But as this Fourth of July showed me, I think the reports of the death of photography have been greatly exaggerated.

There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, there is the creation side, where taking a pretty still image - especially with a fancy filter â€" is a lot easier than creating a stunning video. Ask videographers, and they will tell you that shooting beautiful videos is really, really hard.

But the real reason photos aren’t going to be eclipsed by video is because of the way the human mind works.

“One of the things we love about the still image is the way in which it can stimulate the imagination to create a fiction around an image,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard. “The fact that we can commit a single image to memory in a way that we cannot with video is a big reason photography is still used so much today.”

Video is difficult to commit to memory. We tend to remember snapshots of a moving sequence of images, rather than the entire sequence.

Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, describes the way people remember things as “flashbulb memories.” He argues that “the brain’s memory system works something like a pen and notebook.”

Think about a profound moment in history: Sept. 11, 2001. The Hindenburg disaster. Barack Obama becoming the first African-American president of the United States. If you remember these events, there is a likely chance that you will recall a photo of the point, not the moving image, or video, of the moment.

Mr. Kelsey said the perfect example of this can be seen with the photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal, a photographer for The Associated Press. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not remember that iconic image, even today.

“There was film taken of the same scene at Iwo Jima that doesn’t bear any consideration,” Mr. Kelsey said. “Part of what makes that photo so extraordinary is all the contingent circumstances: It was the perfect moment. When you see all the moments on one side or the other, or moving, it looks banal, it drains away the magic of the moment.”

When I sat down on the couch last night at the end of the day to see what wonders people had documented on their smartphones and then posted online, I saw a lot of ephemeral videos of fireworks that I watched once and then continued on my way. But I did see one image that was being shared repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter that wasn’t a video on Vine, Instagram or YouTube.

Instead, it was a black and white photo taken by a Daily News photographer on July 4, 1986, of fireworks illuminating the Statue of Liberty during her 100th birthday celebration.

Something tells me that 100 years from now, we’ll still be sharing that photo on the Fourth of July, or one like it, not a futuristic video of the day.