Painting and Film Photography for Illustration Are Both Dead. What's Next?

I think we all knew the writing on the wall was there for traditional photography when eight megapixels packaged with an SLR camera body with interchangeable lenses became available at reasonable prices. And I don't think for a moment that the changes we're going to see in digital photography are even slowing down. It won't be long now until everything, even the buttons in our clothing have high-quality cameras in them.

But, illustration by hand - whatever medium, pastels, oils, pencil - is now also dead. How do we know? We know because National Geographic went digital in its latest issue about sea monsters. That's right, the gold standard in print publishing is now digital for illustration. If you've seen the latest National Geo issue, you know what I mean.

My origins in publishing were in print publishing. And from the beginning of the parts of my career that are in that area, I always considered National Geographic to be the quality act. One of my early goals, actually it's still a goal but seems to be one that is receding rather than being reached, was to publish in print something, anything, that used that superb varnish effect that National Geographic uses to make its images appear deeper and three-dimensional. Sigh.

I guess it shows you how much information is coming at us each day when I admit that I didn't notice any explanation about the new images when I read the article in my print version. I did notice that the illustrations were excellent, and the one aerial view of several large creatures swimming in a pod together still sticks in my mind as quite realistic.

I found out on line, in this USA Today article. In that article, the magazine's art director, Chris Sloan, says that "Our goal had to be to create artwork made to look as if nature photographers had been sent back to the age of dinosaurs." And, boy, did they. This particular article originated in 1999, and the magazine invested a lot in retraining its artists to use this medium. Without even knowing they'd gone fully digital, I do recall thinking to myself when I read the print version, how much the illustrations looked as though someone had gone back and taken high-resolution images in person.

Also from the USA Today article, "'The artwork is fantastic,'" says paleontologist Mike Everhart, author of Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. "Marine reptiles were large and dangerous, so that is how they looked. It reminds you that, sometimes, extinction is a good thing. I'm not real sure we would want to share the oceans with these guys today."

I am quitesure that I would not want to. The many times I was underwater during my Navy stint were quite exciting enough with sharks, barracuda, and moray eels in abundance. I'm quite content that fellows like the one you'll see here are no longer around. The coolest thing about the image of Dakosaurus that you see at that link is that it really d'es look like an image captured by a camera, not something produced by hand or digitally. The water currents, bubbles, bits of flesh and connective tissue, all combine to create what truly looks as though someone traveled back in time with a really good camera.

Except for purists and as a niche art form, film photography is gone. (My 17-year-old daughter is taking a black and white photography class and she's angry with me for writing these words, but they're true.) Now, so is hand illustration. What's next?

Acting and actors are next. The use of avatars in online simulations, their availability as acting-out images for websites, and now the wonderful work done with and by the actor Andy Serkis who was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now is Kong in the new King Kong movie, surely is pointing the way to the demise of 'real' actors. We're probably not far from the time when teams of technicians and artists replace actors who are actually seen on the screen. After all, the nation's film critic Roger Ebert says that the new King Kong:

[I]s a magnificent entertainment. It is like the flowering of all the possibilities in the original classic film. Computers are used not merely to create special effects, but also to create style and beauty, to find a look for the film that fits its story. And the characters are not cardboard her'es or villains seen in stark outline, but quirky individuals with personalities.

That probably d'esn't mean that no one will make 'films' with real people, after all there are lots of 'real' people in King Kong. But in the near future, movies with actual people in them may not be where the money is. And you know what's important in Western Culture: money. So, yes, film photography is becoming a niche art; and movies with real people in them may become that, too, but not disappear. After all, opera is still around.

Some people feel that art or entertainment loses something when it uses new technologies. Some people always feel that way everything changes. Part of that, I think, is an inability (by some, I surely am able to see it) to see that even when a team of people create an image together, the human touch is still there. To them I say, as Mike Everhart is quoted as saying, above, "sometimes, extinction is good."

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